Optimism is hard.
For most of us, thinking good thoughts about the future doesn’t come naturally. Even trying to be optimistic about the next few months feels like running uphill (and I hate running).
These days, optimism in one particular subject—the effect of technology on our collective future—can feel downright impossible. There’s a good reason you don’t see happy movies about the future. Off the top of my head, the only one I can recall is The Fifth Element, and that’s more fantasy than sci-fi. Even the new Star Trek (from what I’ve read) has traded cerebral hope about the good of humanity for explosions and mirror universes and dark moral choices.
It’s easy to be afraid of the unknown, and the future is 100% concentrated unknown. The Past = safe (if you were safe). The Future = oh no, what if I’m not safe?? This fear is probably hard-wired into our DNA.
I’m definitely not a natural optimist when it comes to technology, as anyone who reads my posts here knows. But I’m not a doom and gloom pessimist either. When it comes to technology, I put myself more in the Stoic camp—whatever happens, happens, and there’s nothing I can do about it. Worrying is pointless; better just to fantasize and make some jokes along the way.
Black Mirror is the big kid on the block when it comes to technology-pessimism-prognostication in popular culture. I mostly don’t watch it—too depressing for me, even when brilliant—but its influence is undeniable, as is its reflection of our common fears about where technology is taking us. That’s why I was excited to see this Slate article about how a bunch of Reddit users tried to imagine an alternative to Black Mirror, calling for suggestions about how technology might improve our lives.
The results were predictably mixed. Even crowdsourcing optimism about the future of technology turns out to be damn difficult. Many of the responses were jokes (it’s Reddit), and a few people responded with attempts at short stories. Some ideas were more like little droplets of hope couched in dystopian futures, like one in which good robot dogs helped people survive the apocalypse.
The article is right to point out that conflict is inherently human, so there’s every reason to expect technology to enhance what we’re already so good at instead of alleviating it. It’s also why popular storytelling so often goes to a dark place—conflict is the essential component of good drama.
I do believe that broadly speaking, the coming advancements in robotics, modification of the human body, AI, and virtual reality will be a net negative for us in the medium term. But a net negative doesn’t mean all negative, and since the Reddit users gave optimism a shot, so must I. The following is me trying really hard to think good thoughts.
Medical advancements: Every time I post some scary news story about humans on their way to being not-so-human, I make a point to acknowledge the expected healing power of the new technology. Yes, maybe we will soon have artificial eyes with corporate or governmental influence over our vision, BUT… on the way to that future, the blind will see again. That’s no small thing. Maybe hacking the human brain will lose us some autonomy over our own thoughts, but it may heal a whole host of neurological disabilities in the process. It’s entirely possible, even likely, that the rapid advancement of human-machine interfaces and DNA hacking will heal just about every disease and disability know to our species.
Environment: Although efforts to reduce emissions, energy use, and pollution are noble and needed, I’m well past the point of believing the human race will voluntarily turn things around in time. Restraint, sadly, is not our thing. That means we need some serious technological advancement in the fields of robotics and even AI to lend a hand. Give me a little enhanced human learning and superintelligent machines to save the hedgehogs, and I’m all on board.
VR: I’ve always wanted to walk through ancient Rome. Alexandria, Athens, Babylon, etc. I’m an ancient history nut. Historians won’t be able to recreate those places with total accurately, of course, but I expect them to try (taps foot, waiting…). When they’re done, I’m going for a stroll through the Forum.
Self-Driving Cars: I like reading. I hate driving. Car drives itself, I read in the back. The future = more reading (I hope.)
Social Connection for the Immobile: Basically this: People who can’t move around on their own have the world come to them. One of the Reddit users suggested something similar, with a bedridden grandmother virtually attending her grandchild’s birthday party. Like the other “benefits”, this one is chock full of dystopian implications (increasing technological escapes from the present moment), but hey, silver linings for everything! Remember, I’m running uphill here.
That’s all I have for now, my futurenauts. Futureographers? I supposed the Reddit thread might still be going if you are so inclined to check it out, but I’m also interested if you have any ideas. Are you like me, generally pessimistic about future technology but emotionally detached from the potential outcomes? Do you find it hard being optimistic, but if you really squeeze your brain, something positive drips out of your ear?
Almost forgot my best of the best idea: coffee-dispensing robots always roaming the future landscape. It’s the most realistic one, too. If the future has coffee, it can’t be all bad.