[In this column we take a look at the world of today and how our ideas of the future influence the one we are creating. Also, we take a hint from Neil DeGrasse Tyson and the connection between science, technology and societies writ large.]
The World is a dank and dark place, states are falling apart or already have and the highest authorities are run by corporations. Independent agents battle for information in digital spaces only to sell them to the highest bidder while climate change has severely damaged vast landscapes and made wastelands of others. Social and racial tensions are running higher.
The world just described is that of the pen and paper role play game Shadowrun (1st ed.: 1989), a dark future/cyber punk imagining of today’s world, taking place in the year 2076 where the races of fantastic lore have re-emerged through human mutation, leading to Czech elves, Philippine orcs, Mexican dwarves and the such. In that world, one of the highest global authorities is the Corporate Court that was set up by corporations for corporations and is situated in Earth orbit. The Mars and Lunar colonies seem to do well.
If we are honest, aside from the fantastic element, that world doesn’t seem too far-fetched, does it?
The world seems indeed to be spinning a bit faster now than it did some years ago, borders look a lot less fixed than before, national courts are becoming corrective policy makers by preventing the antics of overambitious governments all over the globe (see: the EU, Turkey, the Philippines) and, well: Russia.
Still, in a way it feels like we are looking at our own two feet more often than not, inspiration is usually derived by what needs doing over what might be possible. As much as I am a fan of Realpolitik, saving the world while trying to make the numbers work and being realistic about expectations, a big picture sense of direction would be nice once in a while.
There is a famous little video in the internet in which astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson explains the interconnectedness between technological and societal progress and the importance of provision for funding for space programs (the more romantic among us might add this video featuring CASSINI lead Carolyn Porco).
When we observe what is happening today in terms of technologies, societies and the mainly philosophical bigger picture, it seems impossible not to think in alternatives, not to think back, forward or parallel. We are as much living in tomorrow’s past as much as we are in yesterday’s tomorrow and both of them are connected to what Neil deGrasse Tyson talked about in his short speech: the ability to dream.
In the quarrels and quandaries of everyday life, trying to save the world inch by an inch, we sometimes forget that that inch is actually becoming quite a lot over time and the longer we inch forward, the further we go ahead. More realistically it is two steps forward and one step back, if at all, but whatever happens will only become clear after the fact. There is good cause to be sceptic about the future, if you want we could say that Orwell’s 1984 is finally here (if a bit late) and Aldeous Huxley’s brave new world seems near enough. When activist and science fiction author Cory Doctorow proclaimed in 2011 that “We have to win the copyright war to keep the internet […] free and open.”, his prediction seemed rather grim and Skynet right around the corner.
While it is true that those with interests in obtaining information pushed towards getting the legal tools to get them whenever they could, it is similarly true that the awareness towards the importance of politics and policies in the digital sphere has not gone unnoticed. Politics is a contest of opinions and other than what we may have thought in 2011, it is an active contest; be it the Philippine Constitutional Court protecting free speech in the internet, reason-less data-retention being prevented in the EU or the Turkish Constitutional Court declaring the censorship of Youtube and Twitter by the Turkish government illegal, whatever horrible things we see in the future, they do not go unopposed. (Erdogan didn’t care about the court’s decision, but that is the topic for a whole different article.)
In the light of all this, science fiction and (to a slightly lesser degree) fantasy can not only provide us with much deserved escapism and metaphors to what is happening today, but also in doing so show us alternatives to what is and what might be. It is not by accident, that inventions originating in science fiction come back to us as ‘reality’ sooner than we might have thought possible. Please find a number of exhibits here and here.
From a point of view of politics, space was always connected to potential military uses, the space race driven by the cold war and even the neatly practical GPS has military uses. Honestly though: What hasn’t? Any new technology is a tool that can be used for whatever use we can come up with; the internet can be used to organize revolutions, love-lives and the surveillance of both, wheels can get food to those in need or work on a tank and printing presses can bring you hate-speech, wise words or solace. Who are we to judge which of these are the important ones?
The difference between dystopia and utopia is many a time only one based in the interpretation of what is now and that makes it all the more important what we dream of. We can only create what we can think possible and our imagination is fuelled by what surrounds us. The images of Felix Baumgartners’ parachute jump from the edge of space were powerful, but mind you, that was the cosmic equivalent of jumping from your doorstep back inside. Surely, the first man on the moon cannot be repeated, but it seems more than over-due to freshen up on our dreams of the future and actually go back out there – and be it just to dream together with our neighbours watching it.
You never know what it is good for and that’s exactly the point: Go dream and see what happens!
Here is that video featuring Neil deGrasse Tyson: