The dearth of optimistic visions of the future, at least in the United States, is central to the psychic atmosphere of this bleak era. Pessimism is everywhere: in opinion polls, in rising suicide rates and falling birthrates, and in the downwardly mobile trajectory of millennials. It’s political and it’s cultural: at some point in the last few years, a feeling has set in that the future is being foreclosed. When the Sex Pistols sang, “There is no future” in the 1970s there was at least a confrontational relish to it. Now there’s just dread.There is certainly nothing new about imagining grim futures; I grew up with nuclear winter and the population bomb. I am not that scared of climate change, which I think we could reverse if we had to. (Think nuclear winter.) Yet I also have a sense that in our time the future has lost its gleam. What is there to be excited about? Walking on Mars, I guess, but that seems to be getting farther away rather than closer. Some people are enthused by self-driving cars, but I mainly see that as a job killer and anyway I would rather have good public transit. Twenty years ago the internet seemed like a transformative wonderland, but now the undeniable wonder is degraded by the cancerous spread of spyware, clickbait, cyberbullying, dark pornography, and conspiracy theories, not to mention vanished bookstores and shuttered record shops.
The right and the left share a sense of creeping doom, though for different reasons. For people on the right, it’s sparked by horror at changing demographics and gender roles. For those on the left, a primary source of foreboding is climate change, which makes speculation about what the world will look like decades hence so terrifying that it’s often easier not to think about it at all.
But it’s not just climate change. In his forthcoming book, The Decadent Society, my colleague Ross Douthat mourns the death of the “technological sublime,” writing that our era “for all its digital wonders has lost the experience of awe-inspiring technological progress that prior modern generations came to take for granted.” This is true, but doesn’t go nearly far enough. Our problem is not just that new technologies regularly fail to thrill. It’s that, from artificial intelligence to genetic engineering to mass surveillance, they are frequently sources of horror.
Meanwhile, threats loom up everywhere. Many of the smartest people in the country are working on how to keep superhuman AI from killing us all. People are turning against democracy just when surveillance technology may make any dictatorships we do set up impossible to overthrow. Ethnic and religious strife gnaw constantly at all attempts to create peace, and our weapons keep getting more deadly as the institutions we set up to bring humanity together crumble. Looking around the world I get a sense that we may simply not be capable of living the free, peaceful future the Enlightenment imagined; too many of us need hate or turmoil to survive.
I am not an especially gloomy person. I think often that I may have been born in humanity's happiest time, with astonishing wealth and the receding threat of world war. But even I have trouble finding reasons to be thrilled about the future. I would be interested in suggestions for things to look forward to, if anyone has ideas.