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◌  We live in the future

27 April 2009

If this is the future, where’s my flying car?

I’m going to argue that we live in the future and everyone’s going to reach for the flying cars trope. Luckily, that’s my point. We have flying cars. We also have a solid grasp of just how expensive, dangerous, and impractical they are. Our problems here in the future (energy and carbon, notably) are not the problems that they were trying to solve (how to commute from your work castle to your suburb). Flying cars and jet packs and domes over cities are overvalued in the popular consciousness because they’re simple extrapolations and they’re easy to illustrate. What’s happened – what’s put us in the future – is less visually arresting but actually matters.

For a longer example, take the inhabited land closest to my antipodes, Madagascar. I have fresh news about the civil instability, the vanilla crop, and the difficulty of collecting news there. I can pull up an account of a bloggers’ meetup there yesterday, and someone else’s photos of it. Of course it’s all over Twitter. Here’s scènes de la vie quotidienne à Antananarivo from a week ago. For a more general view, MODIS Terra gives us the vegetation and weather patterns there, a few hours old as I type this:


What are those weird colors in the north? Well, let’s read up on the dry deciduous forests (AT0202). The fat-tailed dwarf lemur, Cheirogaleus medius, is the only tropical primate known to hibernate, when it subsists off fat stored in its tail for seven months, even when it’s hot. Huh.

The evidence is overwhelming that we are living after the political, material, and noetic changes that were only supposed to happen in the future. The only serious argument I can think of that we don’t live in the future is that the future by definition is never here – that it’s a direction, not a place. I’m sympathetically embarrassed to point out the vast hole in this: that many directions are places too. I live in the West, for example, and people in the Andes live up high, even though there’s no West or Up Pole. And in art history, for example, it’s accepted to say that the modern period was something like 1850–1950; analogously, it’s reasonable to call 2007 the future.

New thinking

Traditionally, when you talk about how things are new, you try to call forth a really grand, bottom-up project to reform human nature and create an intellectual master race to administer the new world. I think that’s dumb. I don’t see that there is or ought to be any kind of sharp discontinuity in the world or how we think about it. I only think we’d be a little bit better and happier if we kept in mind that we’re looking at the future’s problems and the future’s rewards.

Three systems that could help address our present future come to mind.

Earth through Saturn’s rings

(Earth (upper inner left). From Cassini PIA 08329.)

First is the response to global warming. With associated problems like famine and pandemics (I’m writing this during a flu scare), it’s exactly the kind of problem that we have governments to solve, and they’re starting to feel the pressure. With the Great Recession, it’s the big force for focus and coördination among treaty organizations and so on.

The publicity around global warming has managed to bring some of the mainstream in the first world up to date with environmental thinking c. 1968. Somehow this is what it took to get people seeing the planet as an extremely interconnected system, and to start having the kind of agonizing navelgaving sessions about what sustainability, like, actually means that filthy hippies have been having since long before I was born.

a bit of the Long Now clock

(A monument more lasting than bronze: grade 304 stainless steel. From page 305 of the Clock Drawings, with some but not all rendering errors corrected.)

The second is The Long Now. I have a lot of respect for it, partly because I think they’ve managed to defer my respect from the organization to its idea. It has a chance of surviving even serious and long-term perversions. It could be politicized or forgotten for a hundred years and still pop up again under another name to spread its memes.

kid carrying torches

The third is science fiction. We have a whole genre of literature devoted to hashing out how people will deal with the future. It was reading and rereading some classic sf, and remembering how much it had told me when I was very young and wanted to know the basics of how the world was put together, and realizing how underrated it was in the mainstream, that made me want to come here and point out that we’re in the future.

Read more science fiction. Learn how to be in the world today. Use common sense: if you see something in a foreign language, like that Antananarivo clip, instead of reaching for a protocol droid, use Google. You’re in the future.