L’avenir est comme le reste: il n’est plus ce qu’il était. - Paul Valéry
What did the future used to look like? We have primary sources who can describe the past to us, but we still have missing pieces to fill in later: the things people took for granted, and expected never to change. People don't bother to mention what they assume will remain a fixture of society, into perpetuity. History is full of holes. We know from Xenophon all about the Constitution of the Spartans, but Xenophon was a guest in Sparta, granted special permissions by one of the Spartan Kings. We have little in the way of firsthand accounts by actual Spartans, much less the Helots they oppressed as an intrinsic feature of their society.
History is moth-eaten by the perceptions of those who live it. How much worse, then, are the effects of those perceptions on the future? Not the literal future, although that is certainly its own topic of deep study, and the manner in which we ourselves have come to live in this version of the present. No, how much or little do we know about what people used to expect of the future?
We have plenty of flawlessly-preserved primary sources about this topic, thankfully. Cicero and both Catos spent no brief time discussing what they interpreted as the degeneracy of society, and how they anticipated future generations would be still more corrupt than their own fellows in the Roman Senate. Once science fiction developed as a genre in the first place, Jules Verne predicted rockets visiting the moon, and H. G. Wells published his 1933 work, The Shape of Things to Come, predicting World War II and the political unification of Europe. Countless major military engagements can be reverse-engineered in our modern analysis, to demonstrate what national decision-makers believed, at the time, to be the greatest threats and highest military priorities. Myriad inventions and patents have been developed, in anticipation of later demand for just those sorts of products and devices.
In recent memory, we can consult sci-fi television and film staples of the 1970s and '80s, like Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, Back to the Future, The Jetsons, TRON, and Star Trek. We learn much from what they correctly predicted, but their incorrect or nearly correct predictions are especially fascinating. We see ubiquitous use of complicated user interfaces on computing devices, while modern devices strive to simplify UI as much as possible, to reduce the number of moving parts in a device. We watch beloved spacefaring characters use devices not unlike modern cellular phones, except that they are far bulkier (and frankly byzantine in shape and button configuration!) than anything used today. Robots (and androids and cyborgs) are ubiquitous, as are "energy weapons" like blasters, lightsabers, and phasers.
What does the future look like now? People live longer, thanks to advances in medical technology, but more and more of the population now consequently lives long enough to die of dementia, geriatric cancers and those caused by smoking, and the kind of multiple organ failure that can be survived for months through dialysis and tracheal intubation, that would have killed in days, just one generation earlier. Infant and early childhood mortality is the lowest it's been throughout human history, as is maternal mortality; vaccines are common practice. People wear their seatbelts, and side curtain airbags are standard in family vehicles, so while automobiles are still the most dangerous method of travel, collisions are less and less deadly over time. The Internet is accessible to 40% of Earth's population, and that number rises steadily as developing nations gain infrastructural assistance. Hunger and war take fewer lives now than they have at any point in history, despite our global population being vastly greater than at any point in history; competition over territory and resources is no longer as desperate a struggle as it used to be, for the average person. We've been to space. We've been to the moon several times. We've turned Mars into the only celestial body populated completely by robots from Earth. We've measured the age of the universe and the limits of our scope to gaze into its depths.
Our achievements are not what our ancestors anticipated. Neither are our present concerns. Nobody during the Industrial Revolution would have considered fossil fuels a substance prone to scarcity, and modern environmental and climate issues had their beginnings in that same surge of technology and productivity. Nobody who survived a World War would have expected unmanned aircraft to be the dominant offensive force in later wars... and they certainly wouldn't have expected Holocaust deniers to regain significant political leverage within the next lifetime. Neither would they have anticipated the incredible advancement of reconstructive surgery, prosthetics, and mental health treatments now offered for those who have walked out of Hell on Earth in more than one piece. Survivors of the Great Depression would find the Great Recession and modern income inequality baffling, not because they've happened, but because Internet access, cell phone data plans, and refrigerators are no longer considered luxury items, but de facto necessities for every household, the lack of which can make it impossible to gain employment. Parents who lost children and grandchildren to preventable diseases would find it outrageous that anti-vaxxers even exist.
None of this is a mark of generational degeneracy. Goalposts shift when buried issues become widespread. Suppressed dangers ascend our list of priorities until we check them off with new solutions, cures, and preventative measures, one by one. Science fiction represents something different to us, these days: escapism, rather than prophecy. Hope, rather than expectation. Nuanced cultural fears conveyed through six degrees of abstraction, rather than blatant statements for or against a specific philosophical position. Our stories are full of wishful thinking, cautionary tales, and the sort of ephemeral, time-dilated (or time-agnostic) quality found in classic fairy tales.
The future looks different than it used to look, and now we're the primary sources, our thoughts and concerns immortalized in a surplus of pessimistic data. We're living in an amazing, rapidly-changing time. For the sake of whomever has to live in it after us, let's remember to write this shit down. They might need it.
Iron Noder 2017, 19/30