We’ve always thought about the future: Where’s the next meal coming from? How do we prepare for the festival? Will the harvest be good this year? What’ll I leave the grand kids? I have something different in mind. When did we start thinking about the future as a time and place when things would be different from they are now, when they would be better, and made so by effort we can undertake now? When did the future become that (kind of) place?
So I put the question to the Twitterverse:
Paul Alkon argued: late 18th century, run-up to the French Revolution (which was of its nature an exercise in futurity)— Adam Roberts (@arrroberts) July 28, 2021
Yeeaah, sorta, depending on how you read late 18c industrialization. In England the circle around Godwin overlapped with industrial entrepreneurs; in France I'm not as sure, but the Revolution did quickly lead to the first engineering schools. There's a shared class basis.— Ted Underwood (@Ted_Underwood) July 28, 2021
I'm thinking of the current Progress Studies movement, which seems to be huffing the fumes of Disney style techno-utopianism, amplifying them with the latest tech, and cutting with libertarianism and managerialism. As for perfecting humankind, that's AI.— Bill Benzon, aka The Danish Space Laser (@bbenzon) July 28, 2021
That’s interesting. Very.
I’ve been pushing the Disney line for awhile now, maybe two years. He had boundless enthusiasm for the capacity of technology and industry to create a new an better world. But as far as I can tell he’d pretty much decided that the human world was fixed in its arrangements. Of course, when I talk of Walt Disney I don’t mean merely or only Walt Disney. I’m using him as a proxy for mid-20th century America. That’s the world he spoke to and spoke for.
And that world had begun falling apart by the time Disney died in 1966: the Civil Rights movement, the anti-war movement, feminism, the counter culture (“turn on, tune in, and drop out”), the OPEC oil embargo, it just gets worse and worse. And the future, what’s that? The future is “when are we going to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan, what’s Elon up to, more wild fires?”
I note that while a lot of science fiction is set in the future, not all of it is. Star Trek is, Star Wars is not. Sometimes science fiction is set in a world that’s just another fantasy space, like Narnia or Hogwarts, but sometimes it’s set in a world that’s (supposed to be) continuous with our world, like Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2150, or The Ministry of the Future. Take H. G. Wells. Is War of the Worlds set in another fantasy space, that happens to look a lot like the contemporary world, or is it in a world that’s continuous with, a potential extension of, the contemporary world? And The Time Machine? I’m not sure how to answer those questions.
I do know, however, that the Progress Studies movement seems to be much more interested in the question of “What happened to flying cars?” than in “What happened to the 15-hour workweek?” Why? I suppose the movement for Basic Universal Income is a bit like a push for the 15-hour workweek, but the emphasis is different.
Believing in the perfectibility of the race, that there are no innate principles, and therefore no original propensity to evil, he considered that “our virtues and our vices may be traced to the incidents which make the history of our lives, and if these incidents could be divested of every improper tendency, vice would be extirpated from the world.” All control of man by man was more or less intolerable, and the day would come when each man, doing what seems right in his own eyes, would also be doing what is in fact best for the community, because all will be guided by principles of pure reason.
Such optimism was combined with a strong empiricism to support Godwin’s belief that the evil actions of men are solely reliant on the corrupting influence of social conditions, and that changing these conditions could remove the evil in man. This is similar to the ideas of his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, concerning the shortcomings of women as due to discouragement during their upbringing.
I don’t think the Progress Studies folks have a clue about that sort of thing. The tech-way to human perfection is obviously through technology: the Internet, virtual reality, augmented reality, something called the Metaverse, and above all, artificial intelligence. We’re to become one with our machines, if they’ll let us. Otherwise, they'll replace us. The horror! The horror!
But does anyone else have a vision of human perfectibility?
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Let’s look at some passages from Keynes’s famous “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren” (1930).
Yet there is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread. For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy. It is a fearful problem for the ordinary person, with no special talents, to occupy himself, especially if he no longer has roots in the soil or in custom or in the beloved conventions of a traditional society. To judge from the behaviour and the achievements of the wealthy classes today in any quarter of the world, the outlook is very depressing! For these are, so to speak, our advance guard-those who are spying out the promised land for the rest of us and pitching their camp there. For they have most of them failed disastrously, so it seems to me-those who have an independent income but no associations or duties or ties-to solve the problem which has been set them.
I feel sure that with a little more experience we shall use the new-found bounty of nature quite differently from the way in which the rich use it today, and will map out for ourselves a plan of life quite otherwise than theirs.
Is anyone proposing to “map out for ourselves a plan of life quite otherwise than theirs”? I don’t think so. Whenever I think about that my thoughts immediately lock on to the 60s & 70s counter-culture with its vague dreams of a coming Age of Aquarius (“let the sunshine in”). What happened to that? Gweneth Paltrow and Goop, that’s what happened, and of course Oprah Winfrey.
Keynes goes on:
There are changes in other spheres too which we must expect to come. When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals. We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value. The love of money as a possession – as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life – will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semicriminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease. All kinds of social customs and economic practices, affecting the distribution of wealth and of economic rewards and penalties, which we now maintain at all costs, however distasteful and unjust they may be in themselves, because they are tremendously useful in promoting the accumulation of capital, we shall then be free, at last, to discard.
Where are we now? Billionaires in space, that’s where. “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” that’s where.
But who knows, maybe there’s hope of progress lurking beneath the surface. For inequality is an issue that’s been festering in the civic sphere ever since Occupy Wall Street went live in September of 2011, proclaiming “We are the 99%.” Meanwhile, who’s going to help us figure out how to “use the new-found bounty of nature” that will come our way when we finally come to our senses? Who’s thinking about that? For without that there can be no progress.