No More Shiny Tomorrows: Futurism Needs to Get Real


75 points | by areoform 98 days ago


  • existencebox 98 days ago

    I hit quite a wall of cognitive dissonence when I read their enumeration of a "middle future."

    Transparent? Human-time-focused? maintainable? Those properties aren't true of the present, nor have they been true for any large swath of human history that I'm aware of.

    What's odd about this is that I agree with the crux of their statement, most futurism is focused on the extremes, and the sheer mundanity of how the "current future" has panned out often isn't well captured. However, I don't find their alternative persuasively different, and it seems to fall prey to exactly what they're criticizing ala utopianism.

    I think fundamentally my issue is that a human centric view of the future seems as utopian as anything else they describe, vs a more realistic view to my eyes (and why dystopias resonate with me), driven by the same incentives that have, do, and will for the forseeable future continue to motivate us: Increased growth, rate of return, and efficiency, focused in the areas that most benefit those with incumbent power.

    So rather than just saying "they're wrong let's all be pessimists" let me transition this into an open question. How do we realign incentives such that the article's aspirations are more reflective of where we see corps investing their effort? (This probably is a total rathole for even one of their enumerations, ala transportation, but it's where my head is at when I read this.)

    • wwweston 98 days ago

      > Transparent? Human-time-focused? maintainable? Those properties aren't true of the present, nor have they been true for any large swath of human history that I'm aware of.

      Of course, neither are jet packs, autonomous vehicles, and AI assistants.

      We're trying to bring those technologies into existence. But that may not be enough to make for a brighter future. We may also have to bring institutions organized around better values into existence.

      • sacomo 98 days ago

        The status quo understands that the `utopia` of the future (the shiny versions) will not be achieved under the current economic / political paradigms. They are afraid of losing their centers of power and for them it is easier to discourage systemic change. That is all this boils down to. Eventually we will all need to come to grips with the systemic changes required to move forward. I just hope it happens before they get their Elysium.

      • jraines 98 days ago

        I’d say bleak and dystopian futures are overrepresented in sci-fi, even when they’re “clean” looking as opposed to grungy cyberpunk.

        I’m commenting on visual, narrative, sci-fi despite that being slightly off the author’s topic, because I don’t know what the “futurism industry” is. Is there such a thing? I know there’s a bunch of people famous for techno-prognostication, and a smaller bunch for whom it’s their full time gig, but is it an industry?

        • Barrin92 98 days ago

          > because I don’t know what the “futurism industry” is. Is there such a thing?

          Yep there is. I found this post from last year to be worth a read:

          • jaimebuelta 98 days ago

            We sort of lost the ability to imagine a better world, at least in fiction stories. It’s very difficult to find some sort of invented technology that is mindblowingly good in sci-fi these days (like Star Trek replicator, for instance). They are all terrible and oppressive, even if they look good (like amazing VR), it will be played for bad (now everything in the VR is scary!)

            I think this is actually not great. Sure, sci-fi should talk about the dangers of technology, but it should also talk about great ideas and fictional inventions that inspire scientists and engineers. There’s not much of that these days...

            • paulryanrogers 95 days ago

              This may be a reflection of the pessimism of the younger generations. Their parents and grandparents witnessed great progress with few, relatively manageable side effects--or so they thought. It was natural and easy to be optimistic

              Now with micro-plastic pollution, mercury accumulation, CO2 filling the skies, and the prospect of ever fewer raw resources I can imagine why younger folks can relate to darker stories.

            • darkpuma 98 days ago

              In my social circle the idea that we're already living in a cyberpunk dystopia is becoming increasingly popular.

              • m463 98 days ago

                > I’d say bleak and dystopian futures are overrepresented in sci-fi

                When I was young, I read scifi because it was fun or adventurous and stimulated your imagination. (say for example, Rendezvous with Rama)

                I've been wondering if the balance shifted to dystopian over the years, or did I just tap out all the good scifi?

                (Or possibly was I unaware of the dystopian nature of things when younger?)

                • chmod775 98 days ago

                  I don't know how old you are now, but Neuromancer was published in 1984, Blade Runner hit the cinemas 1982, and later the GITS movie in 1995 (manga published 1989), which inspired the Matrix movies and so on. Don't forget about Akira.

                  Dystopian futures aren't really anything new.

                  • jraines 98 days ago

                    I agree with both this & the parent comment. I think the tone & aesthetic of those have been more dominant -- at lot from those in particular setting the tone -- in that span.

                    There are some more uplifting things like The Martian (great) or Interstellar (admirable ambition but falls short) . . . but I think space movies have to be slightly discounted as cultural products because they're something of a subgenre that leans more towards escapism (by definition) than futurism. (Less so with books since there's a lot more room to build out the world vs. squeezing a standard plot (problem-solving drama, Frankenstein story, everyman vs. even-more-powerful-and-evil elite) amongst cool FX shots)

                    • dredmorbius 97 days ago

                      Also: 1984, Stand on Zanzibar, A Clockwork Orange, On the Beach, Earth Abides, Brave New World, The Time Machine, Frankenstein's Monster....

                      David Brin keeps trying to claim dystopia is some new trend. It absolutely is not.

                    • mikestew 97 days ago

                      One of the earliest science fiction movies dealt with the question of, "if aliens were to land, how might we greet them?" Answer: "we'd shoot first, ask questions later." (The Day the Earth Stood Still) Sunny outlook on that one, eh?

                    • davidivadavid 98 days ago

                      Right, that was my original reaction to the headline.

                      Hell no. Try typing "sci fi" or "utopia" in Netflix and look at the results. It's all dark and grimy dystopias. If anything, people thinking about the future need to come up with things that are far LESS "real" if we want people to keep a modicum of hope.

                      The article itself seems to boil down to: "technology should be sustainable", which is certainly an important goal, but the point could have been made more concisely.

                      • narag 98 days ago

                        I’d say bleak and dystopian futures are overrepresented in sci-fi...

                        That's a common trait in literature since forever. In greek tragedies even the prompter died. Or look at news headlines. Fear sells.

                      • aperrien 98 days ago

                        I find that their version of a middle future has two oddly lacking points:

                        * How does this technology service people in rural areas?

                        * How does this technology help people in poverty escape it?

                        Given the way everything else was discussed, it really seems strange that those topics are lacking. It's even more apparent when they discuss light rail as a means of replacing existing transportation, as much as I love the concept of light rail.

                        • TomMckenny 98 days ago

                          It maybe that philosophy behind "middle futurism" is applicable to rural areas but the author couldn't think up examples.

                          But I image rural areas would be particularly rich in modestly functional older technology that could be tweaked.

                          Technology to help people escape poverty would be extraordinarily nice. Difficult in our economic system but maybe there are some things around maintainability over disposability that could help.

                          Perhaps particulars are left as an exercise for the reader and another article.

                        • Hextinium 98 days ago

                          If anyone wants to learn more about "non shiny futures" then I highly recommend Issac Author. He explains al of the crazy scifi stuff in very available language and really demonstrates this kind of thinking.

                          His YouTube channel:

                          • Balero 98 days ago

                            *Issac Arthur

                            I also quite enjoyed a number of his videos, but mainly the earlier ones, I think he runs low on good topics, mainly after covering them all.

                            • stronglikedan 98 days ago

                              While I love the content, language and pacing, I think he should get a narrator. That whole Elmer Fudd thing is kind of off putting. I'm not trying to slight him in any way. I'm just a realist.

                              • GuiA 98 days ago

                                In case it has never been said to you, the respectful way of saying "that whole Elmer Fudd thing" is "speech impediment".

                                • stronglikedan 98 days ago

                                  Toe-may-toe, toe-mah-toe. Both are just as respectful. Elmer Fudd is just more specific with regard to the type of impediment. Although, as jameskegel pointed out, Rhotacism is most specific.

                                  • jameskegel 98 days ago

                                    The exact word you’re looking for is Rhotacism

                              • harimau777 98 days ago

                                As I understand it, the job of futurism isn't so much to literally predict the future as it is to provide inspiration for it. The author may have a point that the current futurism inspiring Silicon Valley isn't useful; however, it doesn't seem to understand that any alternative must still be inspiring.

                                This is something that I find frustrating about modern critics of tech and society even though I agree with them that certain things need to be fixed. At best they are able to muster up a saccharine, Demolition Man style utopia and at worst a spartan society where ambition must be abandoned in the name of environmentalism/egalitarianism/etc.

                                Does anyone know of any alternate visions of the future that are still inspiring?

                                • morgancmartin 98 days ago

                                  I highly recommend Ramez Naam's Nexus Trilogy.[1]

                                  I think Naam's take on the genre hits a lot of the bullet points others in the thread have cited as desirable characteristics in their ideal sci-fi.

                                  It takes what is in my opinion the most reasonable approach to the shiny vs non-shiny duality and simply includes both. From the devastating effects advanced technology could wreak against a group of tech abstaining monks to the spiritual enlightenment that might be obtained if humans could communicate mind-to-mind, I think the series does a great job of illustrating the best and worst of what the near future could conceivably have to offer us.

                                  It's possible you'll find it to be too inline with SV's idealistic picture of a future where truly outlandish things like truly conscious artificial intelligences or indefinite life extension are actually within the realm of possibility -- but despite Naam's choice to feature these same kinds of "tech miracles", I think it still manages to stay remarkably down to earth. Despite the grandiosity of some of the possibilities described it all had so much detail so as to still feel plausible and even familiar at points.

                                  IIRC Naam took a fair bit of care in basing most of the tech and predictions in the book on actual scientific opinion of what might be possible given humanity's current scientific understanding and rate of progress.

                                  Despite having to suspend my disbelief at a few points, I enjoyed the hell out of it and count it as one of my favorite sci-fi universes up there with Stross' Accelerando and Banks' Culture series. Here's hoping you do as well!


                                  • pdimitar 98 days ago

                                    The "Ghost in the Shell" universe, maybe? People are able to replace parts of their bodies with prosthetics, including organs. It's not free though, and society and world there aren't changed much compared to now.

                                    I still find GITS to be one of the more slightly pessimistic but overall realistic predictions of the future. A lot better technology but same problems as we have now.

                                    • livueta 98 days ago

                                      If we're talking anime, I'd also nominate Dennou Coil - near-future, quite plausible examination of pervasive AR tech. Instead of the usual "prop for generic authoritarian hellscape" dynamic, you get a fairly balanced look at the effects of the tech on a recognizably similar society.

                                      I think I found the concept/world particularly compelling because the bulk of the story ends up being about where and how that tech breaks: for instance, you've got an underground economy where the primary currency is essentially zero-days and plot points that (implicitly) center on concepts like cache coherency and eventually-consistent distributed systems.

                                      Most of the other examples of sci-fi futures I wouldn't hate living in are far-future, the Culture being the obvious one. The grandparent seems to be on to something: there aren't a lot of hopeful (or at least ambivalently complex) recent works that focus on near futures instead of post-scarcity spacemen.

                                      • pdimitar 98 days ago

                                        Thank you for the recommendation. I'll definitely watch it.

                                        • Filligree 98 days ago

                                          It's a great story.

                                          It's also seen entirely from the perspective of children, none of whom fully understand what's going on. There's an acceptable backstory to everything -- yes, even the ending -- but the show itself doesn't explain anything. That's all in secondary materials, little of which was translated.

                                          (Well, it's based on a novel series. Does that count as 'secondary'?)

                                          If you assume a rational universe, you can probably figure out most of it. Or if you're interested, poke me sometime and we can chat about it. It is, admittedly, one of my very favorite stories.

                                  • wuliwong 98 days ago

                                    >We need to stop looking at what looks cool and focus on what works. And what works often looks boring.

                                    I feel like the author is addressing a whole industry that I didn't even know was a thing?

                                    • winchling 98 days ago

                                      >Sound [...] a single, subtle element of the human experience

                                      A desirable feature of sci-fi futures such as Hitchhikers or Star Trek is that computers and handheld devices respond instantaneously and with a perfectly synchronised accompaniment of bings/beeps/chirps.

                                      • sacomo 98 days ago

                                        Then use your imagination and write some new novels. People are free to write whatever they want.