EDITORIAL | The Perils and Importance of Futurism and Science-Fictional Speculation Image

When you make predictions about the future, there is a good chance that you’ll be wrong. People have a tendency to grow attached to certain visions of the future and become so jaded by its failure to materialize that they are blind to the technological wonders that actually are materializing around them. Some even take this attitude to an extreme that resembles making the perfect the enemy of the good.”  They become so obsessed with their ideal vision of the future that they lose all other perspective; they look back and can evaluate what they already have only in light of this perfect vision, compared to which everything else is shit: worthless and unenjoyable. They can’t be happy with what they have now.

A recent xkcd comic illustrates these points well:

The flying car and the personal jetpack were popular dreamed-of products in the last century. I remember That 70’s Show episodes in which the father, Red Foreman, complained about lacking the flying cars that his generation had been promised and daydreamed about having a robot servant and a personal jetpack. There’s even a band called We Were Promised Jetpacks. Gizmodo has a list of 10 technologies we were promised and never got. As if to underscore my point and the xkcd comic, the title of the post is 100 Years of Failure.

Comic strips like the one above and this clip of Louis C.K.’s “Everything is Amazing and Nobody’s Happy” routine help to put things into perspective for us:

The technological wonders human beings have thus far created are amazing. And while we still don’t have flying cars, personal jetpacks, robot servants, and most of the things Gizmodo mentions, human beings have made amazing technological progress in other areas. Moreover, merely a couple of years after Gizmodo’s post, video phones finally are starting to become mainstream and Google is making progress on self-driving cars. And we’re closer to getting the robot servants. Already it is possible to buy robot vacuum cleaners and lawnmowers, albeit of limited functionality and for hefty sums.

On the other hand, to take Louis C.K.’s position overly seriously, or too literally, would be to fall into another kind of self-delusion and complacency. If everything is already amazing, why bother to act to improve things at all?

Comedic license aside, it is not really the case that everything is amazing. One area in which Louis C.K.’s comedic social criticism falls flat is his discussion of air travel. To some degree, he has a point. It’s amazing that we can make trips in a matter of hours that used to take years, while flying through the air. But the complainers that he criticizes have a point as well. There are myriad ways in which nanny state and police state regulations and interventions make air travel not only an inferior experience to what it could be in a free market but oftentimes a downright miserable experience. And I fear governments, particularly the United States government, will do the same to space travel.

But even the things that already are amazing can be still more amazing. Amazing does not mean perfection. We can generally still find reasons to act to improve our situations, to exchange a less satisfactory state of affairs for a more satisfactory state of affairs. Android phones are amazing, but they get better with each new OS version release and every new product cycle.

Futurism and science-fictional speculation employ our imaginations to extrapolate from our present circumstances and knowledge in order to create visions of the future. Sometimes these visions are of the “if this goes on” type: dystopian warnings about dangerous present-day trends. Others are optimistic and hopeful, depicting the values — material and spiritual — that we wish to see realized. And still others fall between these two extremes, perhaps merely curious and speculative.

In any case, futurism and science-fictional speculation provide us with visions of the future that can motivate us to act to avoid or realize them. In this sense, they are specialized practices of activities we engage in every day as a matter of course. Without the ability to imagine better states of affairs, we would not act. And I, for one, also happen to enjoy futurist predictions and science fiction, despite their perils.

Avoiding the perils of futurism and science-fictional speculation requires a bit of wisdom, the wisdom to keep things in proper context, which entails the flexibility to shift perspectives when it is called for. It requires dialectical thinking.

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About the Author

Geoffrey Allan Plauché Executive Editor

Geoffrey is an Aristotelian-Liberal political philosopher, an adjunct instructor for Buena Vista University, the founder and executive editor of Prometheus Unbound, and the webmaster of The Libertarian Standard. His work has appeared in Libertarian Papers, the Journal of Libertarian Studies, the Journal of Value Inquiry, and Transformers and Philosophy. He lives in Edgewood, KY with his wife and two children.

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Matthew Alexander March 4, 2011 @ 8:57 am | Link

    “And I, for one, also happen to enjoy futurist predictions and science fiction, despite their perils.”

    I always liked Ray Bradbury’s line: I don’t write to predict the future; I write to prevent it.

    Good article.

    Reply

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