Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Who Owns the Future?

There were two big dates in classic post-war science fiction, 1984 and 2001. When 1984 rolled around, I would tell people, “We’re living in the future, enjoy it while it lasts. When 2001 is over, the future will be in the past, so we’ll have to go back to living in the present.”

Sept. 11 “changed everything” as so many people have said. It looked to me like the mass fear that came afterward sent many people on a desperate search for a suitable past to retreat into. That left the future up for grabs.

The 19th century saw the rise of something big, but there is a lot of debate as to what it was. Some say it was “capitalism” and some say it was “the corporation.” Some say it was “colonialism” or “imperialism.” The “industrial revolution” was also in there as well, as was its twin, “Modern Science.”

Whatever you call it, the indisputable fact is that it involved transportation and communication and the large organizations that support those enabling technologies. The Lewis and Clarke expedition took approximately three years to cross the continent and return. One hundred years later, a rail crossing took less than a week.

It’s simply not possible to talk about the “accelerating pace of technological change,” in the face of such a statistic. That was a two order of magnitude reduction in transit time. A similar proportionate change would mean a cross-country trip in an hour; most people can’t even get to the airport in that time. And even if you could get from New York to San Francisco in an hour, so what? You’ve still only saved a week off the 1900 trip.

Transcontinental communications were even more dramatic. A message in 1800 went as fast as a messenger could carry it. In 1900, it went at the speed of light.

But the penetration of new technology did become far more widespread in the 20th Century. A 19th century farmer in the mid-west still trucked his goods by horse to the nearest railhead; then it went as far as Europe. But the farmer still had an outhouse on his farm, and, if he could read, he read by candlelight. Now he has a satellite dish, telephone, DVD player, and besides, his grandfather moved to the city long ago, and he works in an office anyway. Besides, the country (and the world) has so many more people in it now.

All these things require large organizations to support and political arguments tend to boil down to a) what sort of laws and regulations the large organizations should obey and b) what to call those large organizations. Oddly enough, b) seems to be the one that holds the most power. “Socialists” or “communists” were entirely willing to have huge, monopolistic organizations, so long as those organizations were part of “government,” while others, let’s call them “corporate capitalists” or even “corporate libertarians” accept any number of things from “private corporations” that they would never accept from “government.” In the 1930s, it looked to many people like Marx was right and American-style capitalism had failed. The big fight was between those who believed the state should own the means of production (socialists and communists) and those who believed the owners of the means of production should control the state (fascists and national socialists). The U.S. was groping perhaps for another way, but actually, an awful lot of “the American Way,” was either socialism or corporate capitalism run by Americans.

Nevertheless, American views of the future were different. Where European future visions seemed to be mired in architecture (endless vistas of The City of the Future), Americans liked gadgets, gimmicks, and new ways of living in new places to live. And, for a time, science fiction presented a shared view of the future, with alternate views nevertheless using the common vision as a springboard.

The common future of the 40’s and 50’s, typified in Campbell’s Astounding, but echoed everywhere, went like this. The future would see the colonization of first the Moon and the other planets in our solar system, then later the beginnings of a Galactic Empire. There would be telepaths and other psi-powered humans, intelligent machines and robots. There would be fantastic adventures available to anyone who cared to join in. The power for all this would be nuclear, and, while there might be a nuclear war on Earth, the despoliation of the planet would only serve as a further spur toward the conquest of space. Besides which, our extremely long lives (maybe even immortal ones) would create such population pressures that space colonization would be both inevitable and necessary.

Ultimately, each and every one of these things turned out to be more difficult and less inevitable than we thought (can’t say as I was looking forward to the nuclear war part). Then during the decades of increasing disappointment, from the fallowing of the space program to the realization that Rhine’s ESP experiments were bogus, science fiction and fantasy took over the mass imagination. The shared dream of the future became the basic story trope for movies, television, literature. As such, it embeds itself into every person who connects to mass entertainment, which is to say, everyone.

The 60s saw the expansion of the shared future to include sex and drugs. They’d been there before, of course, but the baby boomers were pretty clear on what we liked. So “Life Style Science Fiction” grew, and it’s maybe not a coincidence that a lot of women entered SF during that time. Cyberpunk was the next addition that really made an impact, and that particular male adolescent fantasy went from story to screen like Lewis and Clarke in a private railroad car.

I can’t think of any big shifts in the commons since cyberpunk; I might just be overlooking something. Maybe the real characteristic of the future is that it is the time when Everything Happens at Once. I hope so. I have a planetary colonization novel I’d like to sell. It would make a great movie.

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