In 1988 Captain Jean-Luc Picard set a course through space for the unknown.
His “continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life, new civilizations… to boldly go where no one has gone before.” Star Trek: The Next Generation painted a utopian picture of a peaceful human race living in a future of unlimited material resources. The men and women of the starship Enterprise, freed from the constraints of compulsory work to live, dedicated their lives to the pursuit of knowledge, to exploration, and to creation. This was the technology of the original Star Trek, but in world without war. For a certain kind of young person, with telescope in tiny hand and big eyes on worlds that waited for their visiting, the captain’s words became a moral compass in a world where the material impact of Gene Roddenberry was increasingly without question.
The tricorder, touch screens, natural language programming, the holodeck, replication via 3D printing, and the perennial “we’ve almost solved it!” in a reactionless thrust — or, ‘warp drive’ — all appeared on the Enterprise, under Kirk or Picard, decades before their manifestation in our physical reality. Simon Lake, one of the greatest inventors in history, said of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, “Jules Verne was in a sense the director-general of my life,” and this year at Oculus’ Connect Developer Conference every attendee was given a signed copy of Ready Player One. When a journalist asked an executive about the gift, he was told it was required reading at the company, and the story wasn’t just inspiration for what they might be doing, it was in many ways directly informing the development of the product. Because the stories we consume shape the world.
But by the early 1990s, Picard’s was not the only voice guiding young America’s self-conception. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, dystopian fears about the future no longer centered primarily on acts of God — natural disasters, or, among the more religiously inclined, some literal, supernatural obliteration. For the first time in history, people were themselves capable of ending the entire world.
For the first time in history, people were themselves capable of ending the entire world.
From the extraterrestrial threats of The Day the Earth Stood Still to the dread laugh of Dr. Strangelove, the fear was reflected in and exacerbated by the stories we told ourselves for decades. But our atomic self-immolation was only patient zero for a new kind of story. Could each of our technologies be turned against us? Punishment for the legendary hubris of Daedalus would no longer fall on one child who flew too close to the sun, but would envelop in sunfire every child on earth. Imagine computers come to life, now, and what could be more dangerous than intelligent machines at war? Imagine the dawning ease of biological design, and plague hand-crafted by psychopaths in their basements. From radiated nations and armies of robots turned against their makers to single-button counters to the existence of mankind, there would never be a shortage of dark potential stories told again.
Dystopian fiction proliferated into the 2000s, and has since spiked to unprecedented levels of publication and production. Today, it remains one of the few genres wildly popular among both critics and the broader public. In recent years 28 Day Later, the Road, Hunger Games, Moon, The Walking Dead, the Matrix, Ex Machina, Mad Max: Fury Road, both of the most recent Planet of the Apes remakes, District 9, Chappie, and Snowpiercer have all been well received for bravery of message, for thoughtful conception, and for originality of vision. But predicting the end of the world is the easiest work there is.
We are psychologically predisposed to the notion the world must eventually end, so we are quick to ascribe some general truth to any declaration of ‘this could end the world!’ Our general sense is, well, sure, that could be true. And no one ever told a person who warned us of apocalypse to “prove it.” Doomsayers are granted a defacto stamp of thoughtfulness, even while the stories they tell are overly simple, and basically the same. One thing goes wrong — one bomb is dropped, one virus is unleashed, one computer becomes too smart — and a chain reaction results in the end of everything humans hold dear. Single technologies developed many years in our future — widespread nuclear fission, or fusion, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence — are reimagined as their most ghastly possibilities, as if through the funhouse mirror, and in the context of no further developments, be they technological or social. One would find difficult the naming of a single ‘mad scientist’ bent on global destruction in real-world history, yet the list of evil geniuses in fiction capable of and motivated to end it all with one, terrifying machine is endless.
Utopia is harder to imagine. From the biblical tradition, humanity was given and then stripped of Eden, and here we were storied well in the idea that greatness could be lost; in Thomas Moore’s Utopia (1516), Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627), and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), the western world began to dream of better worlds a world away, in greatness discovered; and it was in America, a new world found, where finally took root a kind of fiction that dared to dream, for the first time, of humanity’s potential. In Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series (1951 – 1953), in Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars (1956), and in Robert Heinlein’s tales of Lazarus Long (1941 – 1987), the notion was born a utopia would not be given, or found, but designed — and built — by us. Questions follow: how will utopia be built, what technologies will work in tandem to produce it, and what changes will affect still further changes to our way of life, to our reality? What will our threats be? How will we overcome them? Is there a greater purpose for us, or destiny, and how will we reconcile this with the hopes and dreams, often in conflict, of many billions of individuals?
Where ideas precede action, the world of story is the field of battle for the arc of human destiny, and where one accepts humanity’s ultimate goal must be nothing short of utopia — a perfect world and then the stars beyond — we must reclaim the story that can take us there.
In Anatomy of Next we’re going to explore five technologies most popularly feared in dystopia: nuclear science, synthetic biology, robotic automation, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality.
We’re going to bring in experts from our community to discuss the real dangers concerning each of the technologies, and to troubleshoot strategies around them. Then we’re going to tell a different kind of story. Because imagine a world of unlimited energy. Because imagine a world of biological self-determination, of perfect health, and of the end of aging. Because imagine a world where the bounds of our reality are limited only by the extent of our imagination.
We know what happens if everything goes wrong. It’s time to talk about our plan forward, and what our world can be when everything goes right.