The Future Passed?

By CiH

People always like to know what is around the corner, and they love to hear all about "what we will be doing/wearing/eating in the year 2020" The futurologists are more than happy to fulfil that need, predicting anything from a nuclear powered technocratic golden age, through to complete disaster, if you believe the earlier 20th Century popular science type publications, and Paul Erlich respectively.

Both of these extremes aren't really fully realised, the truth being somewhere in the middle of course.

Furthermore, it might be useful to consider those aspects of contemporary life, which the futurologists of the past failed to pick up at all! A quick rummage in my feeble brain managed to pick up a few straight away.

My gold award nomination for the social phenomenon which everybody missed until it happened, goes to Ebay. We had William Gibson sort of predict the internet, but nobody managed to pick up on the triviality factor and the more mundane uses to which it would be put to. Ebay is simply a giant ongoing jumble-sale in cyberspace, but something which people have embraced. I might go a bit further to consider the generally poor record for predicting how any kind of informal economic activity would work out.

Classic futurologists have been too far up their rectal passages in predicting a future where the profit motive is unimportant. They have assumed something like a technocrat or full communist utopia where all material needs are met without limitation of supply, or we've all grown out of this childish wanting for new stuff, or a hippy or post industrial version, where you just all chill out man!

In second place comes the ever enjoyable world of computer games and entertainment. The future has lots of computers in it. Most of them are doing very important things. Some of them are even intelligent, with HAL 9000 from '2001, a Space Odyssey' being 57.5% brighter than the average Hugi contributor!

But apart from the famous noughts and crosses game, who managed to predict the rise the whole shooting and grabbing at stuff onscreen for idle amusement thing? Not anyone as far as I can tell? Apart from the evolution of computer games, you have to look at our beloved demo scene, a perfect form of electronic artistic entertainment sliding under the predictive radar as well!

And who would have predicted that most of the growth in computing power took place at the home level, and it is being dictated by the electronic entertainment needs of the public, rather than the supercomputing needs of dull but learned people in white lab coats.

HAL 9000 quote - "Graphics card Dave, what graphics card?!"

Thirdly, a lot of the scarier futurology took its lead from George Orwell's '1984', a novel of Stalinist control. "Big Brother" was always watching you, and he was rightly feared by freedom-loving people. But nobody anticipated a time when people would LIKE to be watched. Big Brother is with us, and we are a day away from the UK version of the 2005 tele series, at time of writing!

It seems that a lot of people are exhibitionist in tendency, and when allied with trivia and entertainment, there aren't any barriers anymore.

At a more serious level, I'm living in one of the most heavily CCTV covered cities in the country, with the highest concentration of these cameras in the world. This is the United Kingdom. The city where I live has embraced this even over normal levels, including quite a lot of stuff that doesn't look like it is part of the CCTV system, but is! But the strange thing is, that people don't mind. Rather than feeling their freedom is abused, the public ignore them, and if pushed, would consider CCTV as making things more secure.

I guess in this case, it is not so much the technology, but rather how it is used, and the degree of social control which a government wishes to impose on its citizens which is important. If people were really stopped from doing stuff they wanted, then there would be rioting in the streets. Government is still done with some consent, or at least by paying due care to the 'bread and circuses' principle. Being overly repressive for its own sake is hard work!

CCTV is still a relatively benign instrument. It might be interesting to see what other potentially scary stuff had dire predictions made about it, is now out there, but hasn't been used or abused in the way it was expected?

Now we turn to the role of ideas. In the normal course of events, ideas are important. In some societies, specific ideas provide the driving force. And in a lot of futures past it was entertaining to speculate "what if?" some ideas were taken to the extremes.

Now what about a future with NO ideas or intellectual motivation, what about the ever increasing role of trivia in society?! At the level of popular culture, it is almost as if there is a concerted effort to stop people thinking. If I was writing a future tale, it would have to include futuristic versions of soap opera's, minor celebrities, tabloid news, catch-phrases from advertising, and generally create a convincing popular culture. The original 'Robocop' movie, did a nice near-future satire of consumerism, seen from a 1980's perspective, and felt more 'real' for that.

Linked to a relentlessly trivial future, we've got to consider that people have an ever shorter attention span. I think that Andy Warhol may have been overgenerous with his 'fifteen minutes of fame'?

Now we turn to the role of government in all this. More conventional predictions tend to ignore the democratic expression of the people, assuming something more authoritarian, at different levels of benevolence, or not. Or else if there is still a vote in the future, then they assume that this is a supremely calm and rational process of adult decision making.

What nobody guessed, was government swayed and bending to opinion polls, focus groups, and moral panic generated at the popular media level. They managed to overlook that collection of public opinion data has got more sophisticated and extensive, also with the use and abuse of this data. A lot of SF novels take a look at how a new piece of technology could bend a society out of shape if used to extremes. It might be interesting to write about the future consequences of a law which was hastily raised from a media panic, badly thought out and applied unfairly to unpopular social groups, oh, damn, we're living in something like that right now! ;-)

Confounding the utopian or socialist hopes of a lot of futurologists, there was the huge growth of the middle classes in western society. With the monolith of the bourgeoisie, you have a rise of professional groups with heavily vested interests running well-paid non-jobs. Imagine a planet of corporate lawyers or social workers abnormally keen to test out the latest theories on child abuse. Not to mention other interest groups with salaries paid for by identifying and trying to cure various "isms". I'd imagine the dynamic and youthful self-image that western society has for itself taking a knock-back, and going to a state like the excessively regulated medieval Chinese empire.

The real wild card to upset confident predictions of the future, was the return of religious fundamentalism as a reaction to modernity. This is a classic topic that is both hard to spot in advance, but obvious once it has happened. It seems that some old ideas don't give up so easily.

And now, my brain has run dry, but there are quite a few things to think about. In a futile attempt to start a debate, do you think there is anything that I have missed out? Feel free to write for the next issue, or just start a thread on called "Random abuse for misc topics in Hugi 31.."

Whatever the future holds, it won't involve a hover car, or an office job on the moon!

CiH, for Hugi #31, May '05