Pluralistic: 1900s futurism (07 Mar 2024)

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1900s futurism (permalink)

I'm profoundly skeptical of the idea that the future can be predicted, and doubly skeptical that sf writers are any kind of prophets. The former is grotesque fatalism (if the future can be predicted, then what we do doesn't matter); the latter is tragicomic hubris.

That said, few people have been more consistently useful in understanding and anticipating (and yes, building) the future than my friend and colleague Karl Schroeder, whom I've known since I was 16 years old. Karl was the first person I heard say the word "internet." Also: "fractal," "World Wide Web," "ftp," and numerous other touchstones of the future just over the horizon.

Karl is, in fact, a futurist ("foresight consultant") who approaches the work with the same shrewd insight, wild imagination and humility that he brings to his fiction. In a new essay written with both his futurist and sf writer hats on, he nails down the toxic shadow cast by the 20th century sf, or, as he calls it, "The Science Fiction of the 1900s":

Karl starts by describing the odd "double vision" of the future of the 1900s. On the one hand, many of us (myself included) were convinced that nuclear armageddon was inevitable. Unlike the unhinged architects of the nuclear arms-race, realists understood that a nuclear war would effectively end the future. As Einstein put it, "I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones."

But the flipside of that certainty that the future would end with the first nuclear strike was the belief that if we could just somehow walk the tightrope over the chasm of nuclear holocaust, we'd emerge in a future worth looking forward to: "a new era of peace and prosperity for all."

Contrast that with the existential dread of today's polycrisis: environmental collapse and political decay up to and including fascism. These aren't the 1900s' binary proposition of nuclear annihilation vs Utopia – rather, they're a continuum of worse-and-better outcomes of every description. As Karl writes: "It’s not that simple. Our future now is an exhausting spectrum of scenarios, each with its own promise, and its own problems."

For Karl, we have entered a new epoch, but we've dragged in the long-expired way of imagining (and hence creating and navigating) the future with us. What makes this a new epoch? For Karl, it's the kind of future on our horizon. He cites Charles C Mann’s 1491, a superb history of the Americas before Columbus:

1491 radically reframes "the patchwork of propaganda and inference" that makes up the received narrative of the so-called "New World." It describes a land of flourishing cities, art, science and culture "in the Americas while Rome was just getting its act together." Contact with colonizing Europeans was a disaster for First Nations people, who call this period "The Invasion." It was an epochal break.

Futurism is an inextricably historical discipline. The willingness of some settler-colonialists states to consider this epochal break forces us to reframe our literal place in history, the story of the land under our feet. At its best, this futuro-historical work can begin the long work of reconciliation, as with the Canadian government's promise of $23b in reparations for the First Nations people who were kidnapped as children and sent to murderous "residential schools" before, during and after the Sixties Scoop.

The sf of the 1900s is no longer fit for purpose, if it ever was. It's a literature that was steered by open fascists like John W Campbell, who explicitly saw the literature as a means of inculcating a societal narrative of the triumph of white, corporate technocracy over all other forms of government:

Karl isn't the first sf writer to try to overturn this orthodoxy – indeed, it was continuously challenged by radicals within the field, as with the New Wave, personified by the likes of Samuel Delany and Judith Merril (who both mentored and introduced Karl and me):

The cyberpunks took a good hard run at it, too. For plenty of writers (including me), Bruce Sterling and William Gibson's 1981 story "The Gernsback Continuum" was a wake-up call:

Not for nothing, William Gibson has long insisted that his 1984 classic Neuromancer should be read as utopian: after all, it depicts a future in which the inevitable nuclear war only reduces a few cities to radioactive ash, sparing the rest of the planet.

Bruce Sterling once paid me the supreme compliment of describing a 2003 story I wrote about the ways that algorithms will enshittify self-driving cars as "making everybody else in the business look like they live in a dark basement growing on the mulch from old STAR TREK scripts":

Schroeder – along with today's new radical sf writer cohort – wants to fashion a fictional futurism that is fit for this world and its crisis: "in our modern technological society, science fiction tells us what to spend our time and money on." The fact that our mediocre billionaires are mired in the sf of the 1900s means that we're getting some decidedly old-fashioned futures.

For Karl, Musk is a poster-child for this profoundly conservative, backwards-looking vision: "He’s fighting the intellectual battles of the last century, a 1900s hero dropped into the 2000s with an unlimited budget to reshape the future to fit the era he’s from." Musk's obsessions – "Space flight. Settling Mars. Cyberpunk-style brain-computer interfaces. Artificial Intelligence. Self-driving electric cars. Humanoid robots." – are 1900s science fiction.

Ironically, much of this fiction labels itself "hard sf," despite the fact that interstellar travel is utter fantasy – as is mass-scale, near-term interplanetary civilization:

Karl wants "a future for the 2000s." He points to some efforts to make this happen, like Neal Stephenson's Hieroglyph anthology, edited by Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer:

The "Hieroglyph" is Stephenson's shorthand for a recognizable, tangible, meme-able gizmo or other touchstone for a 2000s-era vision of the future – a replacement for jetpacks and flying cars. Karl's story for the anthology, "Degrees of Freedom," focuses on an abstraction (governance: "the single most important thing humanity can focus its creative energies on right now"), and by Karl's own admission, it's not quite the hieroglyph Stephenson was looking for.

But Karl did come up with a hieroglyph in a later work, the "deodands" of 2019's Stealing Worlds – a software agent "that believes it is some natural system, such as a river or forest, and acts in its own self-interest, that being the preservation and thriving of that natural system":

(My own contribution to Hieroglyph was very gadget heavy – "The Man Who Sold the Moon," about autonomous lunar 3D printers. It won the Sturgeon Award):

I've been impressed with Karl since the day I met him in 1987. There's no one whose thoughts on the future I'm more interested in hearing. I don't think that's a coincidence, either: Karl is an autodidact who was raised by a Mennonite TV repairman – the first TV repair shop in the Canadian prairies. If you want to understand the future, try being raised by someone who takes that kind of deliberate approach to which technology to adopt, and how.


Hey look at this (permalink)

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This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago Mel Gibson: violent, cynical Jew-baiter?*/

#15yrsago Excellent public speaking advice

#15yrsago Detroit and the future of America

#10yrsago Netflix disables Chrome’s developer console

#10yrsago What happens when you opt your kids out of standardized tests

#10yrsago First clinical LSD trial in 40 years shows positive results in easing anxiety of dying patients

#5yrsago Ajit Pai has been touting new broadband investment after he murdered Net Neutrality, but he’s been relying on impossible data from a company called Barrierfree

#5yrsago Firefox is getting more browser fingerprinting protection courtesy of Tor Browser’s “letterboxing” technique

#5yrsago It’s on: House Democrats introduce their promised Net Neutrality legislation

#5yrsago The “Tragedy of the Commons” was invented by a white supremacist based on a false history, and it’s toxic bullshit

#5yrsago The EU hired a company that had been lobbying for the Copyright Directive to make a (completely batshit) video to sell the Copyright Directive

#5yrsago Zuckerberg announces a comprehensive plan for a new, privacy-focused Facebook, but fails to mention data sharing and ad targeting

#1yrago End to End

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Upcoming books (permalink)

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