Why archaeologist make better futurists than science-fiction writers

Astrolabe vs iPhone

Human beings seem to have an innate need to predict the future. We’ve read the entrails of animals, thrown bones, tried to use the regularity or lack of it in the night sky as a projection of the future and omen of things to come, along with a thousand others kinds of divination few of us have ever heard of. This need to predict the future makes perfect sense for a creature whose knowledge bias is towards the present and the past. Survival means seeing enough ahead to avoid dangers, so that an animal that could successfully predict what was around the next corner could avoid being eaten or suffering famine.

It’s weird how many of the ancient techniques of divination have a probabilistic element to them, as if the best tool for discerning the future was a magic 8 ball, though perhaps it makes a great deal of sense. Probability and chance come into play wherever our knowledge comes up against limits, and these limits can consists merely of knowledge we are not privy to like the game of “He loves me, he loves me not” little girls play with flower petals. As Henri Poincaré said; “Chance is only the measure of our ignorance”.

Poincaré was coming at the question with the assumption that the future is already determined, the idea of many physicists who think our knowledge bias towards the present and past is in fact like a game of “he loves me not”, and all in our heads, that the future already exists in the same sense the past and present, the future is just facts we can only dimly see.  It shouldn’t surprise us that they say this, physics being our own most advanced form divination, and it’s just one among many modern forms from meteorology to finance to genomics. Our methods of predicting the future are more sophisticated and effective than those of the past, but they still only barely see through the fog in front of us, which doesn’t stop us from being overconfident in our predictive prowess. We even have an entire profession, futurists, who claim like old-school fortune tellers- to have a knowledge of the future no one can truly possess.

There’s another group that makes a claim of the ability to divine at least some rough features of the future- science-fiction writers. The idea of writing about a future that was substantially different from the past really didn’t emerge until the 19th century when technology began not only making the present substantially different from the past, but promised to do so out into an infinite future. Geniuses like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells were able to look at the industrial revolution changing the world around  them and project it forward in time with sometimes extraordinary prescience.

There is a good case to be made, and I’ve tried to make it before, that science-fiction is no longer very good at this prescience. The shape of the future is now occluded, and we’ve known the reasons for this for quite some time. Karl Popper had pointed out as far back as the 1930’s that the future is essentially unknowable and part of this unknowability was that the course of scientific and technological advancement can not be known in advance.  A  too tight fit with wacky predictions of the future of science and technology is the characteristic of the worst and most campy of science-fiction.

Another good argument can be made that technologically dependent science-fiction isn’t so much predicting the future as inspiring it. That the children raised on Star Trek’s communicator end up inventing the cell phone. Yet technological horizons can just as much be atrophied as energized by science-fiction. This is the point Robinson Meyer makes in his blog post “Google Wants to Make ‘Science Fiction’ a Reality—and That’s Limiting Their Imagination” .

Meyer looks at the infamous Google X a supposedly risky research arm of Google one of whose criteria for embarking on a project is that it must utilize a radical solution that has at least a component that resembles science fiction.”

The problem Meyer finds with this is:

 ….“science fiction” provides but a tiny porthole onto the vast strangeness of the future. When we imagine a “science fiction”-like future, I think we tend to picture completed worlds, flying cars, the shiny, floating towers of midcentury dreams.

We tend, in other words, to imagine future technological systems as readymade, holistic products that people will choose to adopt, rather than as the assembled work of countless different actors, which they’ve always really been.

Meyer’s mentions a recent talk by a futurist I hadn’t heard of before Scott Smith who calls the kinds of clean futuristic visions of total convenience, antiseptic worlds surrounded by smart glass where all the world’s knowledge is our fingertips and everyone is productive and happy, “flat-pack futures” the world of tomorrow ready to be brought home and assembled like a piece of furniture from the IKEA store.

I’ve always had trouble with these kinds of simplistic futures, which are really just corporate advertising devices not real visions of a complex future which will inevitably have much ugliness in it, including the ugliness that emerges from the very technology that is supposed to make our lives a paradise. The major technological players are not even offering alternative versions of the future, just the same bland future with different corporate labels as seen, here, here, and here.

It’s not that these visions of the future are always totally wrong, or even just unattractive, as the fact that people the present- meaning us–  have no real agency over what elements of these visions they want and which they don’t with the exception of exercising consumer choice, the very thing these flat-pack visions of the future are trying to get us to buy.

Part of the reason that Scott sees a mismatch between these anodyne versions of the future, which we’ve had since at least the early 20th century, and what actually happens in the future is that these corporate versions of the future lack diversity and context,  not to mention conflict, which shouldn’t really surprise us, they are advertisements after all, and geared to high end consumers- not actual predictions of what the future will in fact look like for poor people or outcasts or non-conformists of one sort or another. One shouldn’t expect advertisers to show the bad that might happen should a technology fail or be hacked or used for dark purposes.

If you watch enough of them, their more disturbing assumption is that by throwing a net of information over everything we will finally have control and all the world will finally fall under the warm blanket of our comfort and convenience. Or as Alexis Madrigal put it in a thought provoking recent piece also at The Atlantic:

We’re creating a world that seamlessly, effortlessly shapes itself to human desire. It’s no longer cutting through a mountain to prove we dominate nature; now, it’s satisfying each impulse in the physical world with the ease and speed of digital tools. The shortest way to explain what Uber means: hit a button and something happens in the world (that makes life easier for you).

To return to Meyer, his point was that by looking to science-fiction almost exclusively to see what the future “should” look like designers, technologists, and by implication some futurists, had reduced themselves to a very limited palette. How might this palette be expanded? I would throw my bet behind turning to archaeologists, anthropologists, and certain kinds of historians.

As Steve Jobs understood, in some ways the design of a technology is as important as the technology itself. But Jobs sought almost formlessness, the clean, antiseptic modernist zen you feel when you walk into an Apple Store, as someone once said whose attribution I can’t place – an Apple Store is designed like a temple. But it’s a temple that is representative of only one very particular form of religion.

All the flat-pack versions of the future I linked to earlier have one prominent feature in common they are obsessed with glass. Everything in the world it seems will be a see through touchscreen bubbling with the most relevant information for the individual at that moment, the weather, traffic alerts, box scores, your child’s homework assignment. I have a suspicion that this glass fetish is a sort of Freudian slip on the part of tech companies, for the thing about glass is that you can see both ways through it, and what these companies most want is the transparency of you, to be able to peer into the minutiae of your life, so as to be able to sell you stuff.

Technology designers have largely swallowed the modernist glass covered kool-aid, but one way to purge might be to turn to archeology. For example, I’ve never found a tool more beautiful than the astrolabe, though it might be difficult to carry a smartphone in the form of one in your pocket. Instead of all that glass why not a Japanese paper house where all our supposedly important information is to constantly appear? Whiteboards are better for writing anyway. Ransacking the past for the forms in which we could embed our technologies might be one way to escape the current design conformity.

There are reasons to hope that technology itself will help us breakout of our futuristic design conformity. Ubiquitous 3D printing may allow us to design and create our own household art, tools, and customized technology devices. A website my girls and I often look to for artistic inspiration and projects such as the Met’s 82nd & Fifth as the images get better, eventually becoming 3D and even providing CAD specifications make allow us access to a great deal of the world’s objects from the past providing design templates for ways to embed our technology that reflect our distinct and personal and cultural values that might have nothing to do with those whipped up by Silicon Valley.

Of course, we’ve been ransacking the past for ideas about how to live in the present and future since modernity began. Augustus Pugin’s 1836 book Contasts with its beautiful, if slightly dishonest, drawings put the 19th century’s bland, utilitarian architecture up against the exquisite beauty of buildings from the 15th century. How cool would it be to have a book contrasting technology today with that of the past like Pugin’s?

The problem with Pugin’s and other’s efforts in such regards was that they didn’t merely look to the past for inspiration or forms but sought to replace the present and its assumptions with the revival of whole eras, assuming that a kind of impossible cultural and historical rewind button or time machine was possible when in reality the past was forever gone.

Looking to the past, as opposed to trying to raise it from the dead, has other advantages when it comes to our ability to peer into and shape the future.  It gives us different ways of seeing how our technology might be used as means towards the things that have always mattered most to human beings – our relationships, art, spirituality, curiosity. Take, for instance, the way social media such as SKYPE and FaceBook is changing how we relate to death. On the one hand social media seems to breakdown the way in which we have traditionally dealt with death – as a community sharing a common space, while on the other, it seems to revive a kind of analog to practices regarding death that have long past from the scene, practices that archeologists and social historians know well, where the dead are brought into the home and tended to for an extended period of time. Now though, instead of actual bodies, we see the online legacy of the dead, websites, FaceBook pages and the like, being preserved and attended to by loved ones.  A good question to ask oneself when thinking about how future technology will be used might not be what new thing will it make possible, but what old thing no longer done might it be used to revive?

In other words, the design of technology is the reflection of a worldview, but this is only a very limited worldview competing with an innumerable number of others. Without fail, for good and ill, technology will be hacked and used as a means by people whose worldviews that have little if any relationship to that of technologists. What would be best is if the design itself, not the electronic innards, but the shell and organization for use was controlled by non-technologists in the first place.

The best of science-fiction actually understands this. It’s not the gadgets that are compelling, but the alternative world, how it fits together, where it is going, and what it says about our own world. That’s what books like Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy did, or  Frank Herbert’s Dune. Both weren’t predictions of the future so much as fictional archeologies and histories. It’s not the humans who are interesting in a series like Star Trek, but the non-humans who each live in their own very distinct versions of a life-world.

For those science-fiction writers not interested in creating alternative world’s or taking a completely imaginary shot in the dark to imagine what life might be like many hundreds of years beyond our own they might benefit from reflection on what they are doing and why they should lean heavily on knowledge of the past.

To the extent that science-fiction tells us anything about the future it is through a process of focused extrapolation. As, quoting myself, the sci-fi author Paolo Bacigalupi has said the role of science-fiction is to take some set of elements of the present and extrapolate them to see where they lead. Or, as William Gibson said “The future is already here it’s just not evenly distributed.” In his novel The Windup Girl Bacigalupi extrapolated cut throat corporate competition, the use of mercenaries, genetic engineering, and the way biotechnology and agribusiness seem to be trying to take ownership over food, along with our continued failure to tackle carbon emissions and came up with a chilling dystopian world. Amazingly, Bacigalupi, an American, managed to embed this story in a Buddhist cultural and Thai historical context.

Although I have not had the opportunity to read the book yet, which is now at the top of my end of summer reading list, former neuroscientist and founder of the gaming company Six to Start, Adrian Hon’s book The History of the Future in 100 Objects seems to grasp precisely this. As Hon explained in an excellent talk over at the Long Now Foundation (I believe I’ve listed to it in its entirety 3 times!) he was inspired by Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Object (also on my reading list). What Hon realized was that the near future at least would have many of the things we are familiar with things like religion or fashion, and so what he did was extrapolate his understanding of technology trends gained from both his neuroscience and gaming backgrounds onto those things.

Science-fiction writers and their kissing-cousins the futurists, need to remind themselves when writing about the next few centuries hence that, as long as there are human beings, (and otherwise what are they writing about) there will still be much about us that we’ve had since time immemorial. Little doubt, there will still be death, but also religion. And not just any religion, but the ones we have now: Christianity and Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism etc. (Can anyone think of a science-fiction story where they still celebrate Christmas?) There will still be poverty, crime, and war. There will also be birth and laughter and love. Culture will still matter, and sub-culture just as much, as will geography. For at least the next few centuries, let us hope, we will still be human, so perhaps I shouldn’t have used archeologist in my title, but anthropologists or even psychologist, for those who can best understand the near future best understand the mind and heart of mankind rather than the current, and inevitably unpredictable, trajectory of our science and technology.



4 comments on “Why archaeologist make better futurists than science-fiction writers

  1. […] dug by Thoreau’s townsman, will have turned vibrant cultural and historical environments into corporate “flat-pack” versions of tomorrowland, and most frighteningly of all turned the potential democratic agora of the city into a massive […]

  2. […] us a graspable and easily understood view of how the future might hang together. Science fiction, for all its flaws, is perhaps alone in doing that. The writer and game developer Adrian Hon may have discovered a […]

  3. […] ולכיסופים. – לידיה פיין על נאנדרתאלים במדע הבדיוני. – למה ארכאולוגים הם עתידנים טובים יותר מסופרי מדע בדיוני? – מדריך למילים המוזרות ולעולמות המוזרים של צ'יינה […]

  4. […] the past is that we seem to be looking to it for whole social structures rather than as either a source of design and aesthetics or as object lesson in the eternal human capacity for both folly and […]

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