How the Future Gives Shape to Our Present

For a slightly different version, see Jim Throgmorton. 2009. “How the future gives shape to our present.” Iowa City Press-Citizen (June 10): 19A.

Early in the new Star Trek film a young James T. Kirk (of Riverside fame) rides his vintage motorcycle through the cornfields of eastern Iowa to a Star Fleet base. He stops. Before him a technological marvel magically arises from the sea of corn. This juxtaposition of cornfields and starships provides a powerful image of one possible future for Iowa: a technological utopia in which at least one Iowan can boldly go where no on has gone before.

But Star Trek’s is only one of several possible futures circulating in contemporary culture. Many of the others are not quite so uplifting. All of them have implications for where we should boldly go in the present.

Consider The Singularity is Near, a 2005 book by Raymond Kurzweil. It predicts a “technological post-humanist” world in which computers become so powerful, numerous, and cheap that by 2029 at least one of them will display a level of intelligence, self-awareness, and emotional richness indistinguishable from a human’s. Inevitably the line between humans and machines will blur, and AIs will become far smarter and more powerful than ordinary (natural) humans. Once the human/machine race of AIs has converted all the matter in the universe into a giant, sentient supercomputer, it will have created a supremely powerful and intelligent being. One might call it god.

If Kurzweil’s vision can be characterized as utopian, Terminator Salvation surely can be called dystopian. Set only nine years from now, this 2009 film imagines a world in which a globally-interconnected computer system called Skynet perceives humans to be a threat to its own existence and decides to eradicate it in an event known as Judgment Day. The fourth in the Terminator series of films, it portrays John Connor’s efforts to save humanity from the machines. But (much like the Eighties film, Bladerunner) it also questions where the line between humans and machines should be drawn.

If Kurzweil and Terminator Salvation imagine a world in which technological advances have empowered computerized machines, other recent works of fiction imagine that the technological system will collapse before computers can become “human.”

Set 18 years from now in the city of London, Alfonso Cuaron’s 2006 film Children of Men, portrays the collapse of society following a devastating flu pandemic. No children have been born since 2008, most governments have collapsed, technological innovation has ceased, there might have been a nuclear attack on Washington, and millions of illegal immigrant refugees have flooded into the United Kingdom seeking asylum. In fearful response, the U.K. has been transformed into a militarized police state, which terrorists resist. The lead character undertakes a heroic journey that leads him and the film’s viewers from despair to hope.

In Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Road, a father and his young son travel for a period of several months across a landscape blasted by an unnamed cataclysm. Civilization has been destroyed, the sun obscured by dark clouds, and the climate radically altered. Plants no longer grow, and most species have become extinct. Humanity consists largely of bands of cannibals and refugee-travelers who scavenge for food. Relentlessly bleak but beautifully written, The Road ends with a hint of hope.

In his 2008 novel A World Made by Hand, James Howard Kunstler forsakes the road for Union Grove, a small village in upstate New York. There he takes the reader into the smells, tastes, textures, sounds, and emotions of a small cluster of people trying to live good lives in a post-petroleum world devoid of electricity, media, and sophisticated technology. The technological and political system has collapsed as a result of nuclear strikes on Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., a global pandemic, and global warming. All the amenities we take for granted have disappeared, but life goes on and the natural world makes a strong comeback.

These fictive worlds have no direct bearing on short term development decisions around here. But they do, at a minimum, influence us subconsciously and thereby affect our expectations, hopes, fears, and choices about how to invest our time, energy, and resources in the here and now.

So I ask myself, what kind of world do I want to leave to my sons and (hopefully) their children? Do I want my grandchildren to become part of a human/machine race of AIs? Do I want them to be walking a post-apocalyptic road, refugees from the death of life? Or do I want them to walk down lively streets, greet friends with a warm embrace, and hear the call of Great Horned Owls in the distant night? If I prefer the Owl’s call, what must I do now?

How about you?

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