A Cure for Our Deflated Sense of The Future

Progressland 1964 World's Fair

There’s a condition I’ve noted among former hard-core science-fiction fans that for want of a better word I’ll call future-deflation. The condition consists of an air of disappointment and detachment with the present that emerges on account of the fact that the future one dreamed of in one’s youth has failed to materialize. It was a dream of what the 21st century would entail that was fostered by science-fiction novels, films and television shows, a dream that has not arrived, and will seemingly never arrive- at least within our lifetimes. I think I have a cure for it, or at least a strong preventative.

The strange thing, perhaps, is that anyone would be disappointed in the fact that a fictional world has failed to become real in the first place. No one, I hope, feels like the present is constricted and dull because there aren’t any flying dragons in it to slay. The problem, then, might lie in the way science-fiction is understood in the minds of some avid fans- not as fiction, but as plausible future history, or even a sort of “preview” and promise of all the cool things that await.

Future- deflation is a kind of dulling hang-over from a prior bout of future-inflation when expectations got way out ahead of themselves. If, mostly boys, now become men, feel let down by inflated expectations driven by what proved to be the Venetian sunset, rather than the beginning, of the space race regarding orbital cities, bases on the moon and Mars, and a hundred other things, their experience is a little like girls, fed on a diet of romance, who have as adults tasted the bitter reality of love. Following the rule I suppose I’d call it romance-deflation- cue the Viagra jokes.

Okay, so that’s the condition, how might it be cured? The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem and identifying its source. Perhaps the main culprit behind future-deflation is the crack cocaine of CGI- (and I really do mean CGI as in computer generated graphics which I’ve written about before). Whereas late 20th century novels,  movies, and television shows served as gateway drugs to our addiction to digital versions of the future, CGI and the technologies that will follow is the true rush, allowing us to experience versions of the future that just might be more real than reality itself.

There’s a phenomenon discovered by social psychologists studying motivation that says that it’s a mistake to visualize your idealized outcomes too clearly for to do so actually diminishes your motivation to achieve them. You get many of the same emotional rewards without any of the costs, and on that account never get down to doing the real thing. Our ability to create not just compelling but mind blowing visualizations of technologies that are nowhere on the horizon has become so good, and will only get better, that it may be exacerbating disappointment with the present state of technology and the pace of technological change- increasing the sense of “where’s my jet pack”.

There’s a theory that I’ve heard discussed by Brian Eno that the reason we haven’t been visited by any space aliens is that civilizations at a certain point fall into a state of masturbatory self-satisfaction. They stop actually doing stuff because the imagination of doing things becomes so much better and easier than the difficult and much less satisfying achievements experienced in reality.

The cure for future deflation is really just adulthood. We need to realize that the things we would like to do and see done are hard and expensive and take long commitments over time- often far past our own lifetimes- to achieve. We need to get off our Oculus Rift weighed down assess and actually do stuff. Elon Musk with his SpaceX seems to realize this, but with a ticket to Mars to cost 500 thousand dollars one can legitimately wonder whether he’ll end up creating an escape hatch from earth for the very rich that the rest of us will be stuck gawking at on our big-screen TVs.

And therein lies the heart of the problem, for it’s actually less important for the majority of us what technologies are available in the future than the largely non-technological question of how such a future is politically and economically organized which will translate into how many of us have access to these technologies.  

The question we should be asking when thinking about things we should be doing now to shape the future is a simple and very human one – “what kind of world do I hope my grandchildren live in?” A part of the answer to this question is going to involve technology and scientific advancement, but not as much of it as we might think. Other types of questions dealing with issues such as the level of equality, peace and security, a livable environment, and amount of freedom and purpose, are both more important and more capable of being influenced by the average person.  These are things we can pursue even if we have no connection to the communities of science and technology. We could even achieve many of these things should technological progress completely stall with the technological kit we already have.

In a way because it emerged in tandem with the technological progress started with the scientific and industrial revolutions science-fiction seemed to own the future, and those who practiced the art largely did well by us in giving it shape- at least in our minds. But in reality the future was just on loan, and it might do us best to take back a large portion of it and encourage everyone who wants to have more say in defining it. Or better, here’s my advice: for those techno-progressives not involved directly in the development of science and technology focus more of your efforts on the progressive side of the scale. That way, if even part of the promised future arrives you won’t be confined to just watching it while wearing your Oculus Rift or stuck in your seat at the IMAX.

The Falling Sky: A Different Sort of Science Fiction

Magellanic Clouds from the Souther Hemisphere

Rebecca Rosen over at the Atlantic has a fascinating recent article about how the MIT Media Lab is using science-fiction to help technologists think through the process of design. Not merely to think up new gadgets, but to think iteratively and consciously about the technologies they are creating to try and prevent negative implications from occurring before a technology is up and running. A fascinating idea that get us beyond the endless dichotomy of those who call for relinquishment and those urging, risks be damned, full-steam ahead.

For how little respect it gets in literary circles, science-fiction, is a genre that takes the big questions seriously and remains the best tool we have for thinking through the social and ethical questions brought about by technology and for reflecting upon what it means to be human given the decline, at least among many educated persons, of the kinds intellectual and emotional buttresses once provided by religion and the adoption of a materialist worldview that has been built largely out of the discoveries of modern science.

It was in the sense of reflecting upon what it means to be human and what all those experiences that surround every human life such as time, birth and death, love and loss, from a standpoint that is essentially agnostic or atheistic that I found the recent first novel called The Falling Sky  by the one time astronomer, Pippa Goldschmidt, such an amazing work of art. It is as if Goldschmitt has invented a brand new form of science-fiction though perhaps she doesn’t think of her work as any sort of science-fiction at all.

I first learned of Goldschmidt from a piece she had written for the New York Times. She wrote of her experience as an astronomer, working, as astronomers needing to escape the constant glare of our city lights need to do, in one of the remotest of places, in this case the Atacama Desert, in Chile. North of the observatory at which she worked lay a place with a horrible history, Chacabuco, a former concentration camp from the 1970’s set up by the regime of Augusto Pinochet. Goldschmidt wrote of the disjunction between the astronomical work she was engaged in and the horrors of Chacabuco:

Our telescopes had the power to detect candle flames many miles away, not to mention galaxies billions of light years away. And yet they never turned toward the camp. They weren’t built to do that sort of observation.”

And I thought; how pregnant with reflection on the nature and role of science, with the need to confront historical memory, with the demand that we keep our eyes open to the truths of the human and not just the natural world , is that! When I saw that Goldschmitt had just published The Falling Sky I felt compelled to buy it, and although the specific juxtaposition of astronomers working in the Atacama with the harsh world of Chacabuco played only a small part in the novel, it did not disappoint. What I found instead in The Falling Sky was a deep reflection on science and consilience, memory and truth, certainty and uncertainty, life and death.

The Falling Sky tells the story of the Smith family and their struggle to recover from the death of the oldest daughter, Kate, in a mysterious drowning accident. The three remaining Smiths, Jenette, the protagonist, her mother and her father each respond to Kate’s death in radically different ways all of which share the feature of being ways to reorient themselves in time. What each of the Smiths attempt to recover is the world of the past- the world where Kate was still vibrant and alive though the ways in which these attempts at recovery are made are radically different.

It is in part Kate’s death and even more her parent’s reaction to it, that draws Jeanette to the stars. The vast interstellar distances mean that looking at the night sky is also looking into the past and becomes a sort of comfort for Jeanette. It is partially in the search for a framework of meaning that would make sense of Kate’s death that Jeanette will turn her passion for astronomy into a successful career. The novel is also, then, a book about the internal politics of science, its very human vanity and careerism, the role of women in science and how psychological need and inclinations influence the process of scientific discovery itself.

Jeannette’s astronomical explorations in Chile result in what might amount to a monumental discovery: two galaxies linked together in such a way that the Big Bang theory of the origin of the Universe seems challenged. Precisely the idea that had drawn Jeannette to astronomy while a child as a way to understand Kate’s death. Up until the time of this discovery science has offered Jeanette a clear line of causation that serves as an alternative to the contingency not just of Kate’s death but her birth.

Kate was born 13.7 billion years ago in the Big Bang…

Indeed, for Jeannette astronomy itself is almost a religious practice:

Those journeys up the mountain into air stretched out thin feel as if they take place in another life. Perhaps they’re the scientific equivalent of going to a monastery. Perhaps the only way to understand the universe is to retreat from normal life.

The light now seen from those stars has been emitted by them before Kate died. She has the power to see into the past into a world that is innocent of Kate’s death.

The only way to escape is to travel into atoms and stars….. To uncover the ages of the Universe, like geologic layers, and see how the constant expansion of the Universe makes time happen.”

Jeanette can contrast the solidity of cosmic evolution from Big Bang to the formation of galaxies and stars to the emergence of life which gave rise to her lost sister Kate to “the other version” of her sister being born, the human version, with Kate and Jeannette’s parents meeting on a train platform by sharing a handkerchief. The human story is too contingent, accidental, “ too uncertain, there are too many unknowns”. It also a version subject to the inconstancy of human memory- each parent with a slightly different version of how they met the other- who gave the handkerchief to whom?

If Jeannette’s answer to the death of her sister is to turn her gaze away from the present and peer into deep time, her parent’s engage in their own attempts to keep to reach into the past and hold onto the time before their daughter’s death no matter how much such efforts end up distorting the present and robbing them of the future.

For Jeanette’s mother the goal becomes to freeze time to kept the stream of entropy damned at the time of Kate’s death. The mother does this by creating a kind of museum room for Kate in the family’s new house, a house Kate herself never lived in. The room

… is like an event horizon showing the last bit of ordinary life clinging to Kate.

Jeanette’s mother also takes on a new career and becomes a de-clutterer helping people to purge themselves of their accumulated things.

Jeanette can’t stop thinking of all the things taken away, like some surgical procedure performed by her mother. People amputated from their favorite belongings.

In a way you might see the actions of Jeanette’s mother as a sort of stand against the forces of entropy, the source of the Universe’s arrow of time, the fact that things pile up transform, grow chaotic, inevitably change. Jeanette’s mother wants a world frozen in amber at the time of her daughter’s death and has in the process turned her family’s home into “a desert devoid of time.”

The response of Jeannette father to Kate’s death is also one of trying to anchor himself to the past though at first he is confronted by the garden grown with his own hands and its display of the ability of nature to seemingly escape death through it’s capacity to begin again.

But as her dad tended to the garden and watched it grow, he must have realized how blind all this activity is. There’s no intent, no purpose to this new grass. It simply is. And Kate simply isn’t. It must have taunted him with its ability to revive and renew.

The initial response of Jeannette father, however, is to set his garden ablaze and in the process burn himself. His response, thereafter, is not only to tend to his vegetable garden and flowers, the only type of resurrection he can control, but to try to anchor himself to the past in a way that is similar to that of his wife and Jeannette. Shortly before Kate’s death he had been flirting with a woman and he now throws himself into extramarital affairs which also serve as an escape from the suffocation of his home.

Yet, if The Falling Sky gives us a whole world of reflection on the subject of time and death, it is a novel of much else besides, such as giving us a new and what I found to be a deeper version of what E.O Wilson called “consilience”- the coming together of science and the humanities.

In contrast to the way the digitization of the tools of astronomy have cut astronomers off from the sky they see with their eyes, which is what Jeannette experiences during her research in Chile, her early love of astronomy grew not only from an urge to escape but from the desire to partake of a kind of unveiling where the true nature of the Universe could be seen. In developing an exposure of Rigel one of the many double stars of Orion:

This is what she can do. Make the unseen, seen. Find things and know them. These things are real to her, even though she can’t reach them.

Later in her life, Jeannette’s lover Paula who is an artist engages in a similar sort of unveiling. Her portrait of Jeannette dealing not with her surface but uncovering what might only be called her essence. In the same way that Jeannette photographs of her first, and unrequited love while she was a teenager, Alice, were an attempt to unveil the girl’s “soul”. In a way the failure of this love when Alice flees at the confession of Jeannette’s feelings sets the stage for her obsessive focus on astronomy. Viewed from a sufficient distance the Universe will not crush you and yet still offers itself up to be unveiled.

Sex too is presented as the same sort of unveiling, the discovery of a body and the depth of the person behind it. Jeannette understands this in the language of science:

Since they became lovers, Paula exists in several dimensions in a way no one else does…. they don’t overwhelm her with information and memories in the way that Paula does. She can’t look at Paula’s arms without being reminded of the first time she stroked them, and felt the texture of the skin. Only Paula fully inhabits space and time.”

Goldschmitt is offering here a version of consilience that is much different than the kinds of hierarchy of knowledge seen in the works of E.O. Wilson. Rather than science being the perspective from which all fields of knowledge derive their ultimate sanction, science is just one among many different not so much types but practices of seeing and unveiling to see. Astronomy reveals one type of truth about the Universe, but so does painting and even love. Yet, this kind of unveiling demands a kind of openness to what one will find once one attempts to really know something or someone, and such openness can best be understood as a willingness to accept uncertainty. Perhaps, The Falling Sky might best be understood as a primer on accepting uncertainty as the price of deep knowledge and this is as much the case for science as it is for art and even more so when it comes to romantic love.

In the scenes where Jeannette is interviewed by the BBC, Goldschmitt not merely manages to display the way in which science is distorted by modern media and those vested in some particular outcome when it comes to scientific discovery but the centrality of uncertainty for the practice of science itself.

Jeannette discovery undermining the support for the Big Bang becomes fodder for religiously inspired intelligent- design “loons” who see in her touching galaxies a cosmic scale version of Michelangelo’s “God and Man”. But traditional religion appears much less pernicious than the peddlers of pseudo-science who run far ahead of Jeannette potentially paradigm shifting discovery.

Here is how Goldschmitt describes one such peddler, David Grant, being interviewed with Jennette on the BBC about the implications of her discovery:

Grant: “Oh, there are all sorts of possibilities. The plasma universe is one. In this model everything is connected by twisted magnetic fields…’  He’s off. Not even the interviewer can stop him spouting an incontinent stream of alternative theories… It’s all words. He’s not making any attempt to explain these madcap ideas they’re just spilling out all over the studio, most likely confirming the interviewer’s prejudice that science is long words and jargon, designed to exclude ordinary people.”

Jeannette directly confronts the interviewers notion that science exists to give us clear and unambiguous answers:

That’s exactly what science isn’t about…. it’s about quantifying uncertainty.

Yet, the extent to which Jeannette has been dependent on the control over uncertainty she has gained through astronomy is shown when the Orion probe, which is the only means by which her touching galaxies and their implications for the Big Bang can be definitively established, blows up at launch. At that she suffers mental breakdown unable to reconcile a long lasting uncertainty, which she herself has caused, regarding the very theory upon which she has centered her personality.

‘What else would be normal if we didn’t have a Big Bang?’ ‘It would just be- chaos. No structure at all.’  And she realizes, maybe for the first time, that most people don’t have this structure to their lives. This cosmic scaffolding to cling onto. Perhaps that’s why they go for religion.

By choosing a course that seemed to grant her financial certainty, as in tenure and grants through the notoriety of her findings, Jeannette has put at risk and ultimately lost the kind of cosmic solidity that she has embraced in light of her sister’s death.

What Goldschmitt is exploring here is a relationship between the accepting uncertainty and our orientation towards both the world around us and the people we place our trust in within it. Any open exploration in science, in art, in love means we may discover something we do not like or might not want to know. It is a form of risk taking where risk consists of losing the very identity, and our affection for and connection to the very object, that pulled us towards it in the first place.

Many human endeavors exist in this space besides art, science, and love. Plato in his Symposium describes philosophy as a form of love that works in this way. Religion, not when it is the source of “answers”, but in its mystical manifestations which are born of the search for God and end in an acceptance of the ineffable nature of the divine is like this as well.

Goldschmitt is also exploring the relationship of uncertainty and our orientation towards the future. Jeannette’s family is restored only when the uncertain nature of Kate’s drowning death is laid out for all to see and confront. In accepting this other risks and their uncertain outcomes can now be embraced- Jennette can be open with her family about her sexuality as can her father with his infidelities. Jeannette can walk away from renewing her relationship with Paula in a spirit of openness to what the future might bring.

Jeannette ultimately comes to see Kate’s death in a way similar to how her father experienced his garden but was initially unable to accept:

But even in nothing there is always something. Nothingness never actually exists. Nothing plus the uncertainty principle will always make something, particles of energy that pop into being and out again. The higher their energies the shorter their lives. That’ll do for her. She can play with that.

In writing The Falling Sky Goldschmitt has provided an alternative to the common literary tropes that are so often found when scientists are found in a work of fiction. There is the Promethean trope of the scientist struggling against the odds and against the forces of ignorance to arrive at the truth whose mirror image is the equally as common myth of Dr Frankenstein, the mad scientist whose hubris leads to destruction. The Falling Sky might be thought of as a version of realist science-fiction. The scientists in Goldschmidt’s novel, including Jeanette herself, are driven as much if not more by petty careerist aspirations and their own unmet psychological needs as by any heroic desire for the truth. At the same time, the scientist in The Falling Sky are no Dr Frankensteins either. Perhaps Jeannette’s ultimate goal is to understand the world as it really is and as best as she can and manifest a deep kind of inner courage in being willing to submit beliefs that for her have such deep psychological meaning to the challenge of scientific verification.

Goldschmidt’s leap over these two tropes of science-fiction is a perfect compliment to the much different use of science-fiction as a guide to ethical pre-design being experimented with at the MIT Media Lab whose premise is that both blind faith in science and technology and outright rejection is too simplistic. Let’s take warnings about the potential ill effects of a technology seriously and see if we can design around them before the technology is actually deployed.

Although we should not expect to always to have easy answers. Indeed, sometimes we see something more clearly even if no definitive answers have been provided at all. Above all, for me, that was what I gained by reading this wonderful little novel. In a way few works have done for me, after putting the book down I felt I knew more about time, and memory, and death, about what it means to live itself, and yet I was no nearer to any answers and felt even these revelations were beyond my power to articulate.

Welcome to Our Future: 2312

2312

Part of the problem each of us has when it comes to realistically imagining the future is that we ultimately bring our own cognitive biases, our optimism or pessimism, to the question at hand. From the perspective of the types of small societies we evolved out of these kinds of sunny vs gloomy dispositions were no doubt a very good thing. A discovery of a rich patch of good game land followed by feasts necessitated curmudgeons who would remind the tribe that the days of full stomachs would not last. Thankfully, these complainers would not have the final word, and the group would set off again over the next hill assured by the sunnysiders that more of the riches of the world remained on the other side.

Our modern media world, however, tends to undermine this diversity of cognitive biases sorting us into more sharply distinguished optimist and pessimist camps. In our digital echo chambers the future is all good or all bad, utopia or dystopia as the title of my blog says. Lately though, a number of thinkers have been trying to shake us out of our tendency to see the glass as half empty or half full reminding us that the world is more complicated than the illusionist in our heads.

Here I would put the work of Ramez Naam who in his The Infinite Resource faces head on both the enormous problems in front of us- climate change, global food shortages, growing energy needs, and fresh water scarcity while at the same time offering up realistic solutions to these problems without the need for a Deus ex Machina solution such as “our coming super-intelligent AIs will solve these problems for us”. I’d throw Kim Stanley Robinson into this realist camp as well. His most recent novel 2312 gives us a portrait of the next few centuries that is something very far from Shangri-la but isn’t a post-apocalyptic horror story either.

The source of Robinson’s pessimism is the state and probable future of the global environment, especially in terms of the likely impact of climate change. As energy innovator Hal Harvey recently pointed out in this scary, yet even then, not hopeless speech on the climate situation at the Aspen Ideas Festival we only have a brief window in which we can prevent potentially catastrophic climate change from occurring and that window is rapidly closing. 2312 in a sense gives us a sketch of what our world might look like if we do indeed allow Harvey’s window to slam shut.

In the world of 2312 the earth’s temperature has risen by 5 K.  As a consequence there has been extensive sea level rise- Manhattan is now like Venice and mass deaths of people on all continents and mass extinctions have occurred. Had the novel focused on this period it would have been apocalyptic, but instead it sets its sight on the post-apocalyptic world that follows our failure to have addressed our environmental challenges in time.

In Robinson’s future- historical scheme only after we are faced with apocalyptic crisis do we marshall a response commensurate to the situation at hand. Humanity tries to set things straight by geoengineering the earth’s climate, a project that ultimately fails spectacularly in the “Little Ice Age”. In a period that becomes known as the Accelerando,a real push is made to settle the solar system. Much of it is terraformed and settled  including asteroids which are hollowed out to become biomes holding within them the precious cargo of the flora and fauna that once graced the earth.  AIs including quantum computers surgically implanted in human beings know as “qubes” become widespread. Human longevity is increased to the extent that a person is now fit and active into her hundreds.

The kinds of terraforming that are used to transform much of the solar system into areas that are hospitable to human life prove inapplicable to geoengineering the earth back to its pre- industrial state because the blunt force methods of terraforming- slamming comets into planets and the like- are simply unworkable on a planet that already has billions of human beings not to mention other lifeforms most of which are hanging on to life by a thread.

The scale and coordination of the response to the environmental crisis the Accelerando represents does not last, however, and the pendulum swings again humanity falling into two dark periods- The Ritard and Balkanization during which the trends of the Accelerando slow and the solar system becomes divided into competing factions. It is in this world where the earth continues to suffer extreme environmental and economic crises, and the new worlds of the solar system have turned against one another that the plot of 2312 takes place.

Robinson is by his own declaration not a transhumanist. And yet his protagonist, Swan Er Hong can certainly be described in this way. Swan has a qube implanted in her brain named Pauline which makes her a kind of cyborg. She has the genes of songbirds in her that allows her to “whistle” like a bird. She is transgendered with both a vagina and a working penis- a product of the fact that a good deal of the increased lifespan of human beings seen in 2312 has been gained by human beings taking on transgendered features. Something that makes sex scenes in 2312 just a little complicated. Treating the body, and even the mind, as something essentially plastic in this way comes naturally to Swan, for she is an artists and her body itself is one of her works of art she being a practitioner of what Robinson calls in honor of performance artist Marina Abramović “abramovics”.

The plot of 2312 centers around a series of terrorists attacks in the inner solar system and the efforts of Swan the mercurian, the man who will become her lover, Wahram from Saturn, (Robinson is having some fun with astrological stereotypes), and an exiled Martian, Inspector Gennette, along with others try to solve these incidents. Along the way they spark a political movement of sorts setting off the forced return of the earth’s lost animals to the planet as a way to spark the earthling’s desire to address the planet’s continuing ecological problems.

I must admit that I had some difficulty with the novel’s plot. There were numerous points where I had to engage my “willing suspension of disbelief” not because the technological or social situations seemed so “out there” as the experiences of the quite empathetic and rounded characters were squished into predetermined unfolding of the overarching story of the novel.

There are three ways it seems to me one can make the experiences of characters realistic in the context of a grand future-historical novel such as 2312.  The least interesting is to tell the story from the perspective of the people at the top- the most historically important characters whose decisions therefore have the biggest effect on how such narrative unfolds. The second way is to give witness to the fact that small characters can unleash the forces of history in the way an otherwise very insignificant man like Gavrilo Princip set off World War I with his assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The third and probably the best way is to take historically insignificant characters and see how the grand narratives unleashed elsewhere affect them. The best moral judgement of the decisions of elites or the injustice of a system is how it impacts the lives of people who have to live closest to those impacts.

When one tries to see in the lives of historically marginal characters, which is really what Swan should be considered, experiences that reflect decisions of world-historical significance one is left with the impression that the character is suffering from paranoia. This at least is what I thought when Swan encounters an extremely proficient “lawn bowler” whose style of play mimics the terrorist “pebble attacks” and who does indeed end up a central character in the plot.

That said, 2312 did something few other books are able to do so easily, it changed the way I looked at the world. Robinson is a superb travel writer and made our solar system, a place I had long thought of as quaint or “dead” come alive as a wondrous imaginative palette upon which our future is yet to be written.

Yet, amazingly enough, Robinson most affected my view of living on earth. It’s hard to remember that we live on a very special world that is so much different, so much more a home, than any other place we know. While reading the novel I started to pay attention to Luna in the sky and the glories of the setting summer sun. I had the urge to take more walks and one night saw a doe grazing in a field watching me curiously and had the urge to chase or run with it, like Swan.

What Robinson is trying to do is find that sweet spot in the future that is at the outer reaches of our understanding and therefore our agency. This is much better than something like my Far Future’s Project which I am wrapping up this week, or Stewart Brand’s Long Now because we really do have some degree of agency over, and therefore some responsibility for, what happens a century or two in the future. If writing about the future is really just turning up the volume on the present then we can only be confident in these sorts of limited time frames that we will be playing anything like the same score.

It is when thinking in terms of this near term and intermediate future that our tendencies for optimism or pessimism need to be set aside and the search for realism engaged. One can be a long term optimist or a long term pessimist when it comes to the the human future but both are mere waking fantasies, whether exhilarating or frightening. At the end of the day we can never actually know.

Neither long term optimism nor pessimism frees us from our responsibility to act so as to positively shape the future right now. There are all kinds of ways we need to do this as political, economic and socially beings in response to the future society we are likely to live in or the decisions and sacrifices taken today that we bequeath to our future self.

We can also decide to make investments in the future to a world we are unlikely to live in. Here we have everything from our response to climate change and environmental issues to social legacies. The question of what can we and what we should leave for our great or even great-great grandchildren in light of the nearly endless possibilities of what the world they will be living in will actually look like is one that we should be asking because it may serve as a better way to frame the question of what kind of future is it exactly that we hope for and should be working towards in the first place.

Still, if Robinson gives us a realizable version of the future with much of the transhuman in it, he is, as was mentioned, decidedly not a transhumanist.  Part of this stems from his fear that transhumanism might come to represent escapism. There are also his views of what  transhumanism means in light of a document few of us have probably heard of and even fewer actually given a second thought- the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Essentially, Robinson thinks transhumanists are getting ahead of themselves. We are nowhere near achieving the kind of worldwide realization of the promise of conditions supporting self-actualization for all promised by the Declaration and transhumanists have already moved the bar.

Robinson is not alone in seeing our current failure to realize the promises of the Declaration as a challenge to the transhumanist project. The social epistemologist Steve Fuller believes positions on the Declaration will be a major area of friction between transhumanists and others, especially those on the left. It is, therefore, an important issue but for a latter time.

The kind of realistic science-fiction offered to us by Robinson where greater than light speed and settlement of “the stars” remains what it is today- a mere fantasy- nevertheless expands our and deepens our canvas to embrace our second home in the solar system. It is a canvass certainly large enough for the human story to play itself out.

The claim idea that our filling in of this canvass through the settlement of the solar system and terraforming its bodies constitutes the “arrogance of humanism” as Ernest J. Yanarella did in Strange Horizons has things ass-backwards. The arrogance of humanism lies in assuming that on a cosmic scale our endeavors are much more than one of Swan’s performance pieces such as her “painting” of a field with a rainbow of fallen autumn leaves. Like Swan, all we can do at our best is create beautiful objects that live a short moment only to be undone by the wind.

Science Fiction and the occulted canvass of time

Leonardo Davinci's Inventions

In a recent interview the ever insightful and expansive Vernor Vinge laid out his thoughts on possibility and the future. Vinge, of course, is the man who helped invent the idea of the Singularity, the concept that we are in an era of ever accelerating change, whose future, beyond a certain point,- we cannot see. For me, the interesting thing in the Vinge interview is just how important a role he thinks imagination plays in pulling us forward into new technological and social possibilities. For Vinge, our very ability to imagine some new technological or social reality signals our ability to create it in the near future. Imagination and capability are tied at the hip.

One of his own examples should be sufficient to explain. It was a lack of imagination, not so much technological as social, which prevented the ancients from seeing Hero’s steam engine as something better than an amusing toy.  “For what,” an ancient anchored to the past of what had seemingly always been “ could be a more productive and efficient a system than slavery?”

The ancients were tied to the short chain of the past, we have a very different orientation to time- our gaze is forward not backward. In part, the accelerating rate of technological change today emerges out of this change in our imaginative orientation away from the past and towards the future. Many of us are both thinking about the future seriously, and have a broadened perspective on what is possible because we have learned how to dream. We are, in Vinge’s words “grabbing the fabric of reality and pulling it towards us” a great change in the attitude towards the future than could be found a mere 500 years ago.

Vinge is right about this, the idea of imagining the future as something fundamentally different from the past is a relatively recent human habit of mind. If the future was a painting one might say that for most of human history the painting remained monotonously the same with the new only added very slowly to it. To continue with this analogy, what one started to see beginning around the late 1200s was the appearance of blank space on an expanded canvas to which the new could be added, something that would eventually happen at an accelerating pace.

And it has been the kinds of imagination we associate with Vinge’s craft -science-fiction- that has played a large role in producing despite Ecclesiastes “new things under the sun”.  Science-fiction, its progenitors and its derivatives were one of the main vectors by which the new could be imagined. We merely had to await the improvement in our technical skill, our ability to “paint” them- to bring them into being. Here is one of the first and maybe the most powerful example. Way back in the late 1200s Roger Bacon in his Epistola de Secretis Operibus Artis et Naturae Magiae predicted the future with an accuracy that would make Nostradamus blush. Predicting:

Machines for navigation can be made without rowers so that the largest ships on rivers or seas will be moved by a single man in charge with greater velocity than if it were full of men. Also cars can be made so that without animals they will move with unbelievable rapidity… Also flying machines can be constructed so that a man sits in the midst of a machine revolving some engine by which artificial wings are made to flap like a bird… Also a machine can easily be made for walking in the seas and rivers, even to the bottom without danger.” (Aladdin’s Lamp  417-418)

Now, Roger Bacon seems to disprove part of Vinge’s ideas regarding imagination and the future, namely; the idea that if we can dream of something we are likely to make it happen right away, for it would take another seven centuries for us to be driving in cars or flying in airplanes. Yet this gap would disappear, in fact it would be measured in decades rather than centuries, for almost all of the history of science-fiction, up until recently that is. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Leonardo Da Vinci also still belongs to the age when the ability to imagine ran far out in front of our capacity to create in the real world. Da Vinci in  imagining flying machines or submarines or tanks- such as the speculative inventions pictured above- might be said to be practicing an early type of science- fiction, expanding the realm of what was imaginable and therefore potentially possible, but like the possibilities sketched out in Bacon they would take a long time in coming.

Related to this expansion in imaginative possibilities that began in early modern Europe that same region also experienced an expansion of the world itself.  During the Age of Exploration Europeans came face-to-face with the true size of the world, but it would be sometime before they knew the details about the human societies that inhabited it. This was a recipe for the imagination to run wild and provided an arena of fantasy in which European anxieties and hopes could be played out. One got all sorts of frightening stories about “cannibals”, but one also had Utopian lands presented as ideal cities rediscovered. These stories allowed Europeans to imagine alternatives to their own societies. After the discovery in the same period that the moon and planets were also “earth-like” worlds you get the birth of that staple of science-fiction- intelligent life on other planets- with works such as Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle’s Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds that allowed brave writers to explore alternative versions of their societies in yet another landscape.

By the 1800s the gap between what we dreamed and what we could do was closing incredibly fast. Not only was the world being transformed by industrialization it was also clear that technology was steadily improving and thus revolutionizing and expanding the prospects for human societies in the future – we now call this progress. Our canvas was being filled in, but was also being even further stretched out to allow for yet more possibilities. Science-fiction writers were to play a large role in driving  this expansion both of what we could do and what, because it was imaginable was deemed possible.

To name just a few of these visionaries: even if predicting the future of technology wasn’t his intention, Jules Verne expanded our technological horizon by dreaming up trips to the moon and undersea voyages. Then there was the cultural sensation of Edward Bellamy and the incomparable H.G. Wells.

Bellamy, in his futuristic Looking Backward 2000-1887 was just one of many who thought the new landscape of human flourishing would be found through the proper organization of the enormous powers of industrialization. Bellamy got a number of things right about the future, from department stores and credits cards to a version of the radio and the telephone that lay less than a century into the future.

H.G. Wells was even better, his trope of a time machine in lieu of a Rip-Van Winkle type sleep to get one of his protagonists into the future notwithstanding, he got some pretty important, though sadly dark, things from atomic bombs to aerial warfare essentially correct. Less than half a century after Wells had imagined his nightmare technologies they were actually killing people.

For a time the solar system itself, not because it contained living worlds resembling the earth as Fontenelle had imagined, but because it was at last reachable seemed to hold the hope of yet another canvas upon which different versions of the future could be drawn. The absolute master in presenting the sheer enormity of this canvas was Olaf Stapledon who in works like Last and First Men and Star Maker placed humanity’s emigration into space within the context of the history of life on earth and even the universe itself giving such a quest what can only be called a religious dimension.

Stapledon was thinking in terms of billions of years, but the technologies to take us into space spurred forward by the Second World War- Nazi V rockets, and then the Cold War “space race” seemed to be bringing his dreams into reality almost overnight.

This was the perfect atmosphere not only for pulp science-fiction and comics based around the exploration and settlement of space, but for much deeper fare such as that of Stapledon’s great heir, Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote his own religious versions of the meaning of the space race.

Yet,  it was our future in space where the narrowing gap between what we can dream and what we could do began to not only stop narrowing but actually to widen.  Clarke was eerily on the money when it came to the development of telecommunications and the personal computer, but wide off the mark when it came to our immediate future in space. His 1968 novel and movie 2001: A Space Odyssey has us taking manned missions to Jupiter in that millennial year which, sadly, has come and gone without even having men return to the moon.  Despite his hopes, his beautiful fiction did not inspire the creation of actual space ships twirling space stations and missions, but a whole series of big budget films and television series based in outer space. More on that in a minute.

Right around the time American astronauts were setting foot on the moon science-fiction  was taking some other and ultimately introspective turns more aligned with the spirit of the times. In the words of the man Fredric Jameson in his Archaeologies of the Future called the “Shakespeare of science-fiction”, Philip K. Dick:

Our flight must be not only to the stars but into the nature of our own beings. Because it is not merely where we go, to Alpha Centaurus or Betelgeuse, but what we are as we make our pilgrimages there. Our natures will be going there, too. “Ad astra” — but “per hominem.” And we must never lose sight of that. (The Android and The Human)

It would be a while until we’d make it to Alpha Centaurus or Betelgeuse, for humanity’s rabbit leap movement into the solar system sputtered to a turtle-like crawl with the end of the Apollo missions in 1972. Like the picture of our big blue marble from space seemed to tell us, we, serious science-fiction writers included, were going to have to concentrate on the earth and ourselves for a while, and no question here was as important perhaps than that implied by Dick of what exactly was our relationship with the technological world we had built and how to react in light of this world changing into something new with both promise and danger?

Even if the 70s and 80s were a period of retreat from the actual human settlement and exploration of space they were a heyday of dreaming about it. I was a kid then, and I loved it! There was Star Wars and Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica and a new Buck Rogers.  Special effects, even if they seem primitive by today’s standards had gotten so good that one felt, at least if you were 10, like you were really there. And yet, we were nowhere near the things that could be dreamed stuck instead in low-earth orbit like David Bowie’s Major Tom.

This very ability to produce such vivid dreams of what could be was itself driven by technological changes that actually were happening a fact that became even more the case with the development of computers that were fast enough and cheap enough to make realistic computer animation possible- CGI- possible. Our waking dreams will become even more lifelike given the resurrection and inevitable improvement of 3D.

This new gap between our dreams and reality has resulted in a weird sort of anxiety in the generation, and no doubt mostly men of that generation, who grew up with the idea “the year 2000” would be some magical technological era of cites in space and the next stage of our interstellar adventure. No one, perhaps, has been more vocal in expressing this mindset than the technologists and billionaire, Peter Thiel who in a 2011 interview in the New Yorker stated the case this way:

One way you can describe the collapse of the idea of the future is the collapse of science fiction,” Thiel said. “Now it’s either about technology that doesn’t work or about technology that’s used in bad ways. The anthology of the top twenty-five sci-fi stories in 1970 was, like, ‘Me and my friend the robot went for a walk on the moon,’ and in 2008 it was, like, ‘The galaxy is run by a fundamentalist Islamic confederacy, and there are people who are hunting planets and killing them for fun.’

Doubtless, Theil downplays the importance of the revolution in computers and telecommunications that occurred in this period- a revolution he himself helped push forward. While states provide incapable or unwilling or both of pursuing Arthur C. Clarke’s vision of our future in space, a generation of bohemians and tech geeks succeeded in making his dreams about personal computers and a global communications network which had rendered location irrelevant come true. Here is Bill Gates in his Spock- like hyper-rational yet refreshingly commonsensical way on Peter Thiel’s slogan for technological pessimism:

We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.

I feel sorry for Peter Thiel. Did he really want flying cars? Flying cars are not a very efficient way to move things from one point to another. On the other hand, 20 years ago we had the idea that information could become available at your fingertips. We got that done. Now everyone takes it for granted that you can look up movie reviews, track locations, and order stuff online. I wish there was a way we could take it away from people for a day so they could remember what it was like without it.

Yet, Thiel and the cohort around him are not ones for technological resignation or perhaps even realism. Instead, they are out to make something like the sci-fi space fantasies they were raised on as kids in the 70s and 80s come true. Such is the logic behind what, so far at least, has been the first successful foray of a private company into space exploration- Elon Musk’s Space X. Believe it or not, two companies plan to send missions to Mars in the very near future: Inspiration Mars which hopes to launch a manned orbital probe and the even more ambitious Mars One which hopes to send a human crew to Mars that will not return- permanent settlers- in 2023 with an unmanned mission sending supplies to be sent only three years from now.

In a twist that I am not sure is a dystopian space version of The Truman Show or a real world version of Kim Stanley Robinson’s thought provoking Mars Trilogy the whole experience of the deliberately marooned Mars colonists of Mars One is to be broadcast to us earthlings safe on our couches. If this ends up like the Truman Show what we’ll have is the reduction of Stapledon’s or Clarke’s vision of space as a canvas upon which human destiny is to be written to a banal and way too expensive version of interstellar product placement that would be farcical if it wasn’t ultimately also a suicide mission. Though, instead of virgins in heaven the Martian marooned will see their families made rich by advertising royalties with the only price that they will never see them in person and given the distance will never be able to speak with them in real time again. Yet there are reasons to be optimistic as well.

Perhaps the Mars One mission, if it is successful, will result in something  Robinson’s Mars Trilogy as described in Archeologies of the Future. According to Jameson, Robinson has provided us with a tableau in the form of human colonies on Mars upon which different definitions of what it means to be human and what the ideal society and what we should most value are played off against one another in a way that can never be finally and satisfactorily resolved. Mars One and missions of its type might give us a version of real-world science-fiction, where, as Philip K. Dick suggested it should be, the question is not where we are and what we can do but what we should be? Such adventures might help restore the canvass of the future, both by luring us away from our enticing versions of it which are too far from our grasp, and by allowing us to find some fate other than falling into the black pit of Vinge’s Singularity where our own still human future has been rendered irrelevant.

Then there is the future of science-fiction itself. As David Brin recently pointed out, his fellow science-fiction writer, Neal Stephenson, has launched a fascinating endeavor, Project Hieroglyph that encourages collaboration between science-fiction authors, artists and engineers in creating positive visions of the near human future.

Yet, there is another, even more important role I believe science-fiction can play.

Part of the reality of science and technology today is that it can be used to build radically different forms of society. As Douglas Rushkoff pointed out in this brilliant impromptu speech many of us thought the spread of the Internet was going to rise to one form of society- a society of free time and digital democracy, but instead the Internet has been used as a tool for the disappearance of the distinction between life and work, the application of ubiquitous surveillance by corporations and the government. In a time such as ours when the same technology can be used to pursue very different ends and used to support very different sorts of societies perhaps the primary role of science-fiction is to give us the intellectual and emotional skills necessary to negotiate our technological world- both as individuals and as a society. In this sense science-fiction, which seems to many just “kids’ stuff” is the most serious form of fiction we have, a tried and true road to the future.

Nightfall

Van Gough Starry Night

When I was fourteen, or thereabouts, one of the very first novels I read was the Foundation Trilogy of Isaac Asimov. Foundation is for anyone so presumptuous, as I was and still am, to have an interest in “big history”- the rise and fall of civilizations, the place of civilization within the history earth and the universe, the wonder at where we will be millenia hence, a spellbinding tale.

The Foundation Trilogy tells the story of the social mathematician, Hari Seldon, who invents the field of psychohistory which allows him to be able to predict the fall of the Galactic Empire in which he lives. The fall of the galaxy spanning empire will lead to a dark age that will last 35,000 years. Seldon comes up with a plan to shorten this period of darkness to only a millennium by establishing foundations that will preserve and foster learning at opposite ends of the galaxy.

My understanding of the origins of the  Foundation Trilogy was that it was one of the greatest examples ever of a writer breaking free from the vice -grip of writer’s block. In 1942 Asimov was at a complete loss as to what he should write. Scanning his bookshelf he saw a copy of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and started to read, and soon had the plot of all plots, an idea that would see him through not just the Foundation Trilogy,  but a series of works- fourteen in all.

I found it strange, then, when I picked up a book that represented our 21st century version of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall , a book by Ian Morris entitled Why the West Rules- For Now: The Patterns of History and What They Reveal About the Future,
that Morris made reference not to Foundation,  but to a short story by Asimov that was written prior, which I had never heard of called Nightfall.  *

Next time I want to do a full review of Morris’  fascinating book. For those so inclined, please do not be put off by the title. Morris is something much different from Eurocentrists who usually write books with such titles, and if he has the courage to write a meta-history in an age when respectable scholars are supposed to be more humble in the face of their ignorance and deliberately narrow in their purported expertise, his is a self-conscious meta-narrative that fully acknowledges the limits of our knowledge and of its author.  Morris is also prone to creative leaps, and he borrows and redefines for his purposes two concepts of the human future. The first is one often talked about on this blog, The Singularity, and the second an idea from Asimov- the idea of social collapse found in Asimov’s  aforementioned,  Nightfall.

Like Foundation, Nightfall is also a tale of a civilization’s end, but it is not the gradual corrosion and decay found in Gibbon or Asimov’s other stories but of swift and total collapse. (The reason, no doubt, Morris chose it as his version of a negative future Again, more on that next time).

Nightfall, too, has a story around its origins. Asimov was discussing a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson with the editor of Astounding Stories, John W. Campbell, that:

If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown!

Campbell thought instead that people would very likely go mad.

Nightfall takes place on the imaginary world of Lagash. The planet is located in a star systems with six suns to the effect that it is always daytime on Lagash. The plot centers around a group of scientists at Saro University who discover that their civilization is headed towards a collapse that has been cyclically repeated (every 2049 years) many many times.

The most unbelievable  element of Nightfall isn’t this cyclical collapse, which looks a lot like the “Maya Apocalypse” that a host of poor souls got sucked up into just last month, but the collaboration between scientists from different fields within the university, indeed, bordering on what E.O. Wilson has called “consilience”. You have a psychologist studying the psychological effects of darkness on Lagashians, an archeologist who has found evidence of repeated civilizational collapse, an astronomer who has discovered irregularities in the orbit of Lagash, and a physicist, and one of the main characters, Aton, who puts the whole thing together, and realizes that all of this fits with an invisible (because of the light) body orbiting Lagash that causes an eclipse and a brief night every two millennia that results in the destruction of civilization.

The other main character, Theremon, is a journalist who has written on a religious group, “The Cult” who have a distinct set of beliefs about the end of days handed down in their “Book of Revelation” (ugh). The belief entails the destruction of the world by a darkness in which flames in the sky rain down fire upon the earth and the souls of the living flow out into the heavens. The presentation of Theremon as a hardscrapple reporter, rather than, say, a scholar of religion, is the only thing that dates Nightfall as a story written in the early 20th century. One has no idea that as Asimov is writing civilization around him was in fact in a state of collapse as world war raged.

Why does nightfall bring the collapse of civilization on Lagash? For one, people become psychologically unhinged by darkness. Lagashians,  evolved for eternal day, feel they are being suffocated when darkness falls. Without darkness, they have had no need to invent artificial light. When darkness falls, it is not fire from the heavens that destroys their own civilization, but the fact that they inadvertently  burn their cities to the ground, lighting everything they can find on fire to escape the night.

In some ways, I think, Asimov was playing with all sorts of ideas about technology, science, and religion with Nightfall. After all, it was the taming of fire that stands as the legendary gift of Prometheus, the technology that gave rise to human civilization destroys the civilization of Lagash. The faculty of Saro, like we humans, undergo their own version of a Copernican Revolution. Just as our relative position in the space blinded us for so long to the heliocentric nature of the solar system, and just as our inability to see with the naked eye past Jupiter, let alone out past the Milky Way, blinded us to the scale of the cosmos, Lagashians are blinded by their own position of being surrounded by six suns that hide the night sky. The astronomer, Beenay, speculates in Nightfall that perhaps what the “Cultist” saw with the fall of darkness were other suns more distant than the six that surround Lagash as many as “a dozen or two, maybe”.  Theremon responds:

Two dozen suns in a universe eight light years across. Wow! That would shrink our world into insignificance.

Indeed.


Asimov is also playing with the tendency of all of us, even scientists, to get imaginatively stuck in the world which they know. Beenay can imagine a world like our own with only one sun, but he thinks life on such a strange world would be impossible, because the sun would only shine on such a planet for half of the day, and constant sunlight, as the Lagashians know, is necessary for life.

Whereas Asimov localizes the myopia that comes from seeing the universe from a particular point in space and time the physicist, Lawrence Krauss, in a recent talk for the Singularity University, places such myopia from our place within the overall history of the universe. Before 1910, with Edwin Hubble and his telescopes, people thought they lived in a static universe with only one galaxy- our own. Today we know we live in an expanding universe with many billions of galaxies. Krauss points out that in the far future of a universe such as our own which is expanding, and in which local regions of galaxies are converging, future astronomers will not be able to see past their own galaxy even as we now do into the past of the universe including telltale signs of the beginning of the universe such as the cosmic background radiation. What they will see, the only thing they will be able to see, is the galaxy in which they live surrounded by seemingly infinite darkness- exactly the kind of universe astronomers thought we lived in in 1910.

Asimov’s, Nightfall, and Krauss’s future universe should not, however, encourage the hubris that we are uniquely placed to know the truth about the universe. Rather, it cautions us that we may be missing something very important by the myopia inherent in seeing the universe from a very particular point in space and time.

If all that weren’t enough, Asimov’s, Nightfall,  is playing with the conflict between science and religion. The work of the scientist at Saro threatens to undercut the sacred meaning of nightfall for the Cultists. Indeed, the Cultist appear to hold beliefs that are part “Maya apocalypse” part pre-Copernican Christian cosmology regarding the abode of God and the angels being in the “heavenly spheres”. Whereas the scientists at Saro have set up a kind of mass fall out shelter in which a number of Lagashians can survive nightfall, and intend to photograph what happens as a sort of message in a bottle for the next civilization on Lagash to witness the darkness, the Cultists try to sabotage the recording of night and to destroy the observatory in which the scientists at Saro have retreated. Their own religious convictions being more important than the survival of civilization and scientific truth.

Ian Morris thought the 70 year old short-story Nightfall had something very important to say to us of the early 21st century, and I very much agree. Why exactly Morris, who is, after all, a historian and archaeologist interested in very long cycles of history would see this strange story of immediate collapse as a warning we should heed will be my subject of my next post…

*In 1990, the story was adapted into a novel with Robert Silverberg.

The Janus Face of Metropolis

Last week my post consisted of a Voice Thread presentation on the 1927 science-fiction silent-film by Fritz Lang, Metropolis. My thanks to John  for participating, and to everyone who gave me positive comments and feedback. One of the drawbacks of Voice Thread is that you have to sign up to participate, and though relatively painless, I can understand why someone wouldn’t sign up for yet another web application- I know I wouldn’t if I didn’t have to, or if it didn’t obviously add something helpful to my life.  Feedback was good enough, however, that I think I will try such presentations again, where they fit with the subject, but for this week I am back to my usual fare.

You can get the background for the post that follows below from that presentation. Click on the image above to access.  Be forewarned you’ll have live through my nasally voice and might want to have a cup of coffee at the ready. There are reasons I don’t work in Hollywood.

In any case, what struck me about the film Metropolis was how the film could be so forward looking and so backward at the same time. As I mentioned in the presentation Lang supposedly got his inspiration for the film from a few years before ‘27 when he first set eyes on the skyline of New York.  Now that the modernism of urban landscapes has moved elsewhere, the cityscape of the film put me as much in mind of hypermodern Shanghai,  Abu Dhabi, or Tokyo than my near and familiar New York.

Lang’s idea of air-travel was just a little off, after all, we don’t really have biplanes anymore, except for hobbyist, let alone biplanes as a means of traveling between skyscrapers, but for a certain strata of the elite you do have helicopters, which do just about the same. If memory serves me, in cities where the automobile traffic is horrendous, such as Mexico city, helicopter travel is the preferred way for elites to get from place to place, and avoid all the “undesirable” neighborhoods. I guess they haven’t caught on to Lang’s idea of hiding the poor underground.

Lang also has a pretty good grasp of just how dominant the automobile is going to be as a form of transportation. At this time the German autobahn was just an idea floating in some German engineers’ heads, and the ever present freeways of Metropolis were merely a dream, a prediction which Lang got roughly right, even if our expressways don’t, as his do, stretch into the heavens between the skyscrapers.

Yet if Lang, and let’s not forget his wife, Thea Von Harbou, who co-wrote the film, get these technological details right, they get the social,  historic, and economic forces propelling the world toward the uncertain and dangerous future both foresaw horribly wrong.

Think about the year the film was released- 1927.  What’s going on in 1927? This is ten years after the Russian Revolution, Vladimir Lenin had died three years earlier and been replaced by Joseph Stalin who would prove to be one of the most murderous rulers in human history. Five years before Metropolis had been released Mussolini had brought fascism to the world with his new form of dictatorship in Italy. In 1923, inspired by Mussolini’s “March on Rome” a little known nationalist maniac in Lang’s own Germany  attempted to duplicate Mussolini’s revolution with something that became known as “The Beer Hall Putsch”. The revolution would fail, and the maniac would be thrown in prison, but Adolf Hitler would be back. Within two years of Metropolis’ release the entire capitalist-industrial world Lang’s Metropolis portrays had collapsed, although, I suppose, he can not be blamed for having not seen that.

Lang’s answer to this is “Christian Brotherhood”. He is saying to the elites in effect: “the workers are your brothers in Christ, do not mistreat them”. Lang can perhaps be forgiven for not having read his Nietzsche who declared God to be dead and for there to thus be great storms on the horizon. Or, for having not read or understood the Christian message of Dostoevsky who predicted that the godlessness of European society made inevitable savage inhumanity the likes of which had never been seen. Still, Lang and his wife can be blamed for not reading the newspapers, not seeing how the concept of Christian charity was a thin and already broken reed on which to place the solutions to the enormous pressures society was undergoing.

Indeed, the Catholic Church, whose imagery we find throughout Metropolis would fall into the same moral vortex that swept up every other element of European society, and would fail to mount any real defence to save the Jews of Europe who found themselves in the center of the storm.

Metropolis demonstrates the enormous flexibility of the story of the Book of Revelation which can be used as a way to give meaning to almost any dystopian predicament and in a bewildering diversity of historical circumstances. The problem with being overly reliant on this or any other myth or sets of myths, such as that of the Tower of Babel, or the legend of Golem, which Lang also taps into to give meaning to events, is that as often as not they blind you to the actual historical situation you are facing.

The world of the 1920s-30s was facing enormous challenges: the dysfunction of industrial-capitalism, the utter incompetence of parliamentary democracy, the spread of nihilism throughout Western society, both on account of the savagery of the First World War, and the moral vacuum opened up as the traditional religious worldview gave to a scientific and secular one. And, of course, there was the specter of a workers’ revolution inspired by the example or machinations of the Soviet Union. Fascism was one “answer” to this, and Lang’s wife Thea Von Harbou herself became a Nazi, a decision that caused the two to split. Fascism offered social protection to the workers in exchange for the disavowal of revolution, indeed in exchange for rabid nationalism and anti-communism.

After the Second World War, the democracies, especially in Europe, but to a lesser extent even in the United States, found that they could short-circuit communism and its by offering this same social protection to its workers. But, instead of those protections coming attached to a militaristic, expansionist regime in the form of fascism theses protections, again I am speaking primarily about Europe, were attached to the softer nationalism of the democratic nation-state. Elites took care of the poor as fellow members of the nation, and as a historical result of the contest between fascism and communism for the loyalty of the people.

But now we face a dilemma. The worker protections and social welfare programs that were created in the middle of the 20th century were inspired by the fear of elites  communism- that is fear of revolution. In Europe this system is premised on the nation-state. Europe is now a supranational entity, but it is difficult to imagine how its version of social democracy can survive unless Europeans treat one another like a common people- that is rich individuals provide some support for poorer countries and individuals.

In the US the much thinner system of social support has proven much easier to erode, and the social gospel has been supplanted by the “prosperity gospel”.

All signs point to the fact that the old system is giving way, but there appears to be nothing in the offing at the ready to take its place. We are back, in a sense, in the world Metropolis has shown us and faced with the question Lang failed to answer.  What bond is there between elites and non-elites, between the rich and the poor, that will limit exploitation and make society liveable, or in Lang’s lame phrase, what unites the head and the hands in a world without heart?


Metropolis, please share your voice

This week I wanted to try something new. I deeply appreciate all of you who take the time to read this blog and especially those who share their own thoughts in the comments. One of the down sides of blogging, or any other writing for that matter,  is that you never get to listen to your readers. It would be wonderful to actually hear your voices.

With that in mind, this week I created a presentation on the 1927 science-fiction classic Metropolis. I did this using a program called Voice Thread. What is cool about Voice Thread is that not only does it allow you to create presentations that can include the presenter’s own audio comments; you can also open the presentation up to others so they can make audio comments as well.

So, if you’d like check out my presentation at:

https://voicethread.com/#q.b3223281.i0.k0

Hope to hear from you. And this time I mean it literally.

Rick Searle