When Does Futurism = Arrogance?
I am in the midst of reading Charles Stross’s Accelerando, which is a book dealing with the development of the Singularity. This is my second attempt at a Stross novel, the first being Halting State which was written in second person, which is an immediate deal-breaker for me. I’m having a bit of trouble with this one, too, and I’m trying to put my finger on why.
Part of it is that the main character (in this part of the book, anyway), Manfred Macx, is a sort of techno-bohemian philanthropist who has cast off the ‘shackles’ of capitalist society and lives by coming up with random patent ideas, patenting them, and then giving them away to start-ups who can use them in exchange for permanent favors. So, while he has no money, he has everything he needs. Skipping past the implausibility of this scheme or, at least, it being completely implausible for anyone who isn’t as brilliant as Macx, I get the sense in this book that I’m being sold something. I’m supposed to buy into Macx philosophy and think he’s really cool; furthermore, I’m supposed to get excited or accept the inevitability of the Singularity.
I do not do either of those things.
There is a pretty robust argument out there (one I ascribe to, incidentally) that suggests the Singularity will never actually happen. I don’t especially want to get into the debate here; a cursory read of the wikipediea entry on the singularity can give you the basic overview – draw your own conclusions. The thing I want to discuss here is the attitude that comes along with certain futurists that proclaim the Good News of this or that technological innovation. They often are as evangelical as any given Bible-thumping born-again, proclaiming the inevitability of their particular technological hobby-horse’s supremacy with all the zeal of a cult follower. Those who disagree are fools, or anti-science, or hopelessly misled (the poor things).
But then, you know, Utopia doesn’t actually happen. We go halfway. We find a hiccup in plan, a hole in the road. The bridge is out on this track to fairy land, folks. You’ll have to go around.
This is what happened with Steam Power, and with electricity after that, and with nuclear power after that, and with psychology, and communism, and fascism, and pretty much everything else the human race has ever come up with to solve all the world’s problems. This is not to say that they were Bad Ideas or that we ought not hope to fashion utopia out of our innovative spirit – keep trying, by all means – I just don’t particularly enjoy having something sold to me before it’s been proven to work. I’m not going to upload my brain into a computer until I see what happens to all those guys who go first. Call me a coward, if you will, but I prefer to call myself a skeptic. I need more than just a schematic, guys, or a fancy sales pitch – show me your track record.
Now, I don’t know whether Stross is trying to sell me on the wonders of the Singularity, yet – I’m not far enough through Accelerando to tell. Right now, in this first part, he’s being pretty didactic, though. Maybe that’s the character; maybe Macx is in for some heavy-duty reality alignment. I kinda hope so, honestly, because I don’t easily buy utopian (or dystopian) tales.
“But,” I hear you ask, “How can you read science fiction if you don’t want somebody selling you their version of the future?”
There’s a difference between ‘exploring’ and ‘selling,’ though. In the former case, you are positing a theory and exploring it while paying attention to the audience’s suspension of disbelief and managing their expectations without overtly endorsing the future you create. In the latter case, you are attempting to show the effect of technology on society as inevitable in this, our real world, and, furthermore, putting forth your work as prognostic or prescient. That strikes me as arrogant, because we can’t tell the future. We never can. Science Fiction isn’t the exploration of what will be, it’s the exploration of what might be. We must be careful not to buy our own theories, lest we think of ourselves as prophets; we aren’t. We are storytellers, and that’s quite enough.
Just how long can you go getting everything you want?
The simpleton answer is ‘forever’, but you need to think a bit harder than that. Consider how human beings use their time at the moment. In the so-called Third World, much time is spent surviving – getting food, getting water, maintaining shelter, etc., etc.. Proportionally less time can be spent enjoying oneself thanks to the insecurity of their situation. Move up to the so-called First World, and ‘survival’, as such, is generally easier. We spend a lot of our time working to make money, yes, but we have more opportunity to entertain ourselves and much greater ability to acquire whatever it is we want, though that is limited by income. Still, when compared to the huge number of people in the world who make less than a dollar a day, your ~$700 a week job is pretty sweet.
Still, we in the First World aren’t satisfied – we want more money, more property, better vehicles, better skin, bigger muscles, smaller waists. We want the train to show up at the exact moment we step onto the platform, we want our iPhones to function while miles above or beneath the surface of the Earth, we want our fridge to re-fill itself with ice cream all by itself, and for that ice cream to be somehow healthy for us. These are, in common parlance, “First World Problems”.
Okay, so say we solve all those problems. Eternal youth and health. Unlimited fun and games. No work at all. No danger.
Cancer cured, traffic eliminated, energy for free, and all the healthy ice cream you can eat forever and ever and ever and ever. Then what?
In Utopia, we probably start complaining about even smaller things. We want to re-arrange the freckles on our face into a pattern more aesthetically pleasing. We want our dogs to talk to us in Scottish accents that are more realistic than the ones we genetically engineered them to talk in now. We think it’s really inconvenient having to hold our breath underwater, so we push for federal legislation mandating all children be able to breathe water.
So, eventually, say we get all that. Then what?
If you take away all the challenge, all the struggle, all the potential for failure…what do you have left? Iain M Banks explores this (somewhat) in his Culture series, and Arthur C Clarke goes through Utopian ennui in Childhood’s End. Others have covered it, as well. Even Idiocracy, to some extent, wonders what a society of near-perfect comfort would do to us. To my mind, it isn’t positive. It would have negative social effects we have difficulty imagining.
I write this, now, just as Johns Hopkins is discovering a way to regenerate adult blood cells into embryonic stem cells. It’s still unclear what this might mean for humanity, of course, but it has great potential to make the comfortable even more comfortable. I think about that a lot – and talk about it often on this blog. How much comfort do we really need, anyway? When did living into your seventies/eighties and dying equal ‘dying too young?’
What I hope for these technologies is that they aren’t simply used to make the wealthy and the powerful (in which I include most residents of the First World) immortal – they really, really don’t need to be. What I’d rather see is these technologies deployed so that all of us – all humanity – can live in the state of relative comfort that we First Worlders do now. I think this because, ultimately, First World Problems are good problems to have – not too terrible, but not so easy that we forget what it means to be alive, to struggle, and to achieve.