Thursday, August 04, 2005

Remembering the Future

"Do you remember the future?" asks the subversive clone, addressing Dr. Memory, the central memory core of the Future Fair, in Firesign Theatre's comedy recording, "'>I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus."

"Yessssss," says Dr. Memory.

"Forget it!"

The future has drifted in and out of societal consciousness over the years. At the moment it seems to be largely forgotten. "Today we live entirely in the present," wrote political economist Robert Skidelsky at this century began. "For most people the past has little meaning; there is no future on the horizon except more of the present, apart from the ambiguous promises offered by science."

This apathy is often accompanied by fatalism. A survey of Americans in 1999 showed that half believed a manmade disaster would destroy civilization in the 21st century. The events of 9-11-01 and afterwards have simply darkened that mood. A poll just this year shows that while one third of residents of Japan expected World War III in their lifetimes, two-thirds of Americans did.

This blindness to the future extends to the arts. "We dwellers in the empire do not seem to want art with visionary power now---art that looks to the future," wrote Mark Edmundson.

But this wasn't always true---especially when Star Trek was being born.

A Brief History of the Future

The future has been an important concept in western civilization since at least the Old Testament era. But there are two points in history particularly important to Star Trek and its envisioning of the future.

The first is the 1890s, when the industrial revolution was maturing, an accelerating barrage of new technologies were changing daily life in Europe and America, and the philosophical ideas of progress and evolution developed from the 18th century were meeting new scientific findings in geology, astronomy, physics and biology (particularly Darwinian evolution)---culminating in newly emerging pictures of the past and present.

The center of all this activity was London, where new centers of education were created to extract and train new technical talent from the lower middle class, to serve industrial progress. But one such science student became a writer, who created a synthesis of the forces and ideas of his age, and gave them voice.

But in the process, H.G. Wells did not just invent modern science fiction. He also invented the modern approach to thinking about the future.

At the start of the twentieth century, H.G. Wells gave a lecture to the Royal Institution that was later published as The Discovery of the Future. There are two kinds of thinking applied to the future, he said. The first sees the future "as a sort of black non-existence upon which the advancing present will presently write events." This kind of mind thinks in terms of the past. The second kind of thinking "sees the world as one great workshop, and the present is no more than material for the future, for the thing that is yet destined to be." This kind of mind anticipates, and looks to the future creatively and constructively.

Wells maintained that "a systematic exploration of the future", composed of a comprehensive evaluation of insights and information from all relevant fields, can yield a "working knowledge of things in the future." Wells asserted that if this new science could ascertain the "biological, intellectual, economic consequences" of new technology and the ramifications of actions in the present, then humanity could use it to create a desirable future. In fact the existence of this knowledge itself could be a persuasive argument that humanity should think creatively and take charge of its own future.

When Wells was speaking, the automobile was still a few years in the future, but to illustrate his point, he not only predicted it but more impressively, forecast much of what happened in the subsequent half century because of it. He foresaw a future of big fast cars, long-distance buses and fat trucks on wide superhighways, and prefabricated suburban communities of middle class homes filled with labor-saving appliances. He saw these suburbs expanding while cities shrink, and the sprawl in the U.S. spreading unbounded from Boston to Washington, D.C.

He predicted electric ranges and dishwashing detergent, the replacement of printed books with something like disks or video cassettes, and the presence in every home of an electrically connected box that would present the news-though in carefully censored versions. He was wrong about what these boxes would be called, but perhaps more accurate. He called them "Babble Machines."

He made even more impressive predictions later on, and also had some major misses. '>Anticipations became Wells' first best seller (it was more popular at first than any of his now famous science fiction novels), but having essentially created the modern future studies field, he almost immediately backed away from it. A few years later he decided that there could be no exact science of anticipating the future, and we will return to reasons when they become relevant in a later episode. (There's more on parallels and legacies linking Wells and Roddenberry, elsewhere on this blog.)

But by the turn of the century the future had been discovered, though Wells' insights would largely lie fallow for more than fifty years. The spectre of atomic warfare made a science of forecasting the future seem more crucial, but this area of inquiry quickly expanded to an interest not just in specific prediction but in the entire idea of the future.

This was the second important point in history: the 1960s.

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