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.
I'm cautious and somewhat gloomy by nature, at least intellectually, and I have to say, I'm more terrified by projections that "we could reverse climate change if we had to" than I am by climate change itself. When I hear "oh, we could fill the Pacific with carbon dioxide-eating bacteria" or whatever, I think, with dread, "what could go wrong?"
I would be interested in suggestions for things to look forward to, if anyone has ideas.
Assuming we make it through the climate change crisis, there's massive potential for great and wonderful things.
We're slowly slaughtering the Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse, for one thing.
We're routinely eradicating Diseases that only generations ago crippled us, both literally and figuratively. War is in marked decline, as evidenced by the phenomenon of the so-called Long Peace. Famine is likewise in retreat, under assault from the advances of modern agriculture and supplylines, augmented by an emergent global philosophy of sustainability. And even Death is losing ground, as we live longer and healthier lives, reduce accidents, and are working toward replacement synthetic tissues.
We're developing automation that will greatly reduce the toil and drudgework necessary for society to function. We're gaining leisure time, as well as greater and freer access to enriching ways to spend that time. Young people are vastly more tolerant than before, and get into less trouble. People are getting freer and society is becoming more just over time. Communication and education have more potential than they have ever had before.
One of America's big problems right now is a lack of perspective.
All four of my grandparents were the children of peasant farmers and poor sailors. They all immigrated to America while still minors, some of them as children, some doing so alone, with little more than the clothes on their backs. They were all illiterate before arriving, even in their own native languages. They all lived through both World Wars. They all lost immediate family members to disease and violence. They all faced lifelong abuse from racists and anti-immigrant conservatives. They all struggled to get by and to build a better future for their children. And they all lived to see the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Only two generations later, we live in a world that would have seemed like a fairy tale to them as children. We have so little to complain about compared to them.
And yet, they would want us to do better - to work for a better world for our children, they way they did for their children.
And we CAN do better. We MUST do better. And that starts with hope and appreciation. It starts with looking around us and being thankful for all the good things we have, while still also being critical of all the bad things, and constantly thinking how we can make those things better.
And that's why conservativism has to lose its grip on people. The problem with conservatism is that it fundamentally says, "We can't do better! Our prime is behind us! Everything new is bad! We have to turn back the clock!"
But we can't go back to "the way things were". In most cases, things were never really the way we imagine they were to begin with. And in the rare cases where the imagined past isn't mythic and untrue, it still isn't feasible to try to somehow return to it. We can't uninvent the atomic bomb, or modern agriculture and industry, or the ideals of Democracy and Republicanism, or anything else. People have tried to return to "simpler times" over and over again in history, and they always fail. Pandora can't just close her box, no matter how much she might want or try.
We have to move forward. And we have to remember how far we've come already, and appreciate that progress is being made, even when it doesn't seem like it.
I don't think I'm thrilled about the future, as I´m not for the past like some. The past also has some pretty awful features, though we had more time, travelling was a fulfilling adventure, no chemicals and pesticides in food, etc - you had to be really lucky to be born in a civilized and somehow wealthy family.
Things to look forward to:
Flying and sailing 'cars'
Exploring the planets
Deep seas accessible
Some Art Renaissance, hopefully
Quite new, unexpected architecture for our homes
Eyes transplant, ending blindness forever
Robot evolution in order to free us of daily boring tasks and efforts.
To look forward NOT:
General posession of weapons (guns)
Enormous crime rates
Food decreasing in quality
I do NOT care for the climate, so. Nature sometimes wins, sometimes we win over Nature, but in the end we are part of Nature, and go along with its laws and evolution.
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