Lately I’ve been thinking about the future. I do this a lot, because much of the fiction I enjoy is Sci-Fi, or, to give it more specific labels, near-fi and space opera. These aren’t new fascinations, though I’ve now betrayed this entire blog, which will be discounted as yet more rantings of a whilte male sci-fi-loving web-based writer.
Science fiction has, for much of my life, pointed the way towards a future. Not the future, but some possible vision. As someone who is fascinated by people, by their variety and by the conditions which they thrive in, visions of a future are intruguing. Answers to the question of “how could people live” are almost as interesting as answers to “how do people live?” As my writing on inhab.it attests, I’ve been fascinated by and gravitated towards cities for most of my life, because they provide a look at more people, in more different situations, than small towns and villages.
I begin with this because I want to explain the origin of this curiousity, in a fashion that won’t get subsumed by the specifics of the following.
I’ve been thinking about the future a lot lately. In some way, this piece clarified my thinking, in a way supported by the latest Gibson book. Having stated that he is no longer as interested in far future, Gibson has moved towards illuminating the undiscovered in the present day. These recent books are very entertaining, but, as Adam Greenfield says best, “read as yarns told about people we (quite literally) already know.” In some sense, the awe is gone.
Stein postulates that he might simply be getting old, and that the nerd culture may have passed him by, that there may still be college kids developing things that beat whatever is popular today. While he is speaking specifically of consumer hardware, the idea holds to the grander scale of a future, and of the newly-arrived fragility of any specific view of it that Greenfield mourns. Cyberpunk once seemed convincing, but now seems mundane, says Greenfield. And nothing so viscerally true seems to have emerged.
As for Stein and the idea of aging out of the future? He is most certainly right about aging, new things will inevitably be built by those younger and closer to the edge. Facebook is an immediate proof, built by youth and adopted by everyone. But he is also not wrong about hardware, in that there is no obvious target for a vision of those new things. Part of this is the specific choice of hardware. Where will hardware be in a decade? The evolution used to seem so hard to predict, at any distance. When the idea of everyone having a computer seemed fantastic, there was room to imagine what such a device might look like. When there was no global network there was room for writers or engineers to imagine a fully interactive version.
The future, in those specific terms, has been built, and, like always, it was built on the backs of what came before it, on the phone lines and the telegraph wires, much like the non-oil based transit industry is being built on the model of the combustion engine, on the public road system and the personal automobile. It is not alluring in the way cyberspace was , or sketches of maglev trains strung out across the skies of cities are. In fact the future-become-present seems boring, and even possible to ignore.
But I think that is unwise. In this way I think Gibson is right. The current world is more fascinating, because the variety of the possible is so large, and the ability to learn about it so much greater. No longer do I have to dream about what it would be like to jump off of buildings in France. I can see it done, and done well, better than I would be able to were I there.
That’s not the future, but it’s fun.
Where then is that view of a future we so enjoyed? I think the future, like everything, is in people. The fascination with tools has lasted mankind a long time, from the first knife, probably, and there is no reason to believe it has stopped. Phones, computers, cars, and the internet may no longer be advancing at the pace they once were, or towards the destinations they once seemed to be, but that simply means new things can be built on top of them as they become stable, evenly distributed. Will we personally adopt what comes next, will we still be at the leading edge? Probably not, because we will grow old, we will settle for using what we know rather than building something new, and eventually rather than learning something new.
But the future will still be out there. Or rather, a future will be. The only question is who will imagine it, write it down, and share it with the children most of us will be raising.