The concept of the future is one of the most imaginative things people have ever dreamt of. It has inspired great works of fiction, political theory, film, art, theatre and the social reality we find ourselves in the present.
A historian of the future appears oxymoronic, but within past visions of the future, a time period’s fears, hopes, politics and social reality is revealed. Visions of the future are often informed by projecting trends that exist or are perceived to exist in the present that the vision is formed in, our present is in part framed by past visions of the future.
The science fiction genre is one of the best sources of insight to discover the history of the future. Science fiction writers, as a group, are typically more politically, technologically and economically attuned than other groups of writers. Science fiction is a favourite genre of literature among political animals for this very reason.
The 1960s is a watermark for a change in attitude towards the future in science fiction and in existing reality. The 1950s produced sci-fi that paralleled the ‘golden age of capitalism’ of the time, the increasing wealth and consumerism of the west, the beginning of the space age. The vision of the future in the 1950s was hopeful and aspirational, both capitalist and communist visions of the future were bold and largely optimistic. This is born out in the science fiction of the time and reflected in the political treatise produced by both sides of the political spectrum, not quite undeterred by the growing threat of nuclear annihilation or the revelation that much of the world did not have it so good.
Then the 1960s happened. Colour television began to broadcast the rest of the world directly into people’s homes, bringing many people closer to the realities existing outside of their economically improving societies. A counter-culture began to flourish; radical critiques of western capitalism began to inspire the minds of young people to see beyond their own increasing comfort and view another vision of the present that existed elsewhere.
Neo-Malthusian fear about population, resource depletion and later environmental degradation, is perhaps the most influential vision of the future in the 1960s that many today subscribe to in some form or another.
Harry Harrison’s book ‘Make room! Make room!’ later the source material for the film ‘Soylent Green’ and John Brunner’s novel ‘Stand on Zanzibar’ are two novels that attempt to explore this fear. Projecting a plausible-although later debunked-vision of the future where the political and economic systems cannot serve an ‘over-populated’ planet. These works of fiction were written in the background of a booming population around the world and increasing visibility and mobility of these newly minted people.
The butterfly expert and ecologist Paul Ehrlich raised the alarm to the mainstream in his 1968 book ‘The Population Bomb’; forecasting that much of the world was going to starve, many thoughtful people took the idea seriously and so too did policy makers.
India’s forced sterilisation programme in the late 1960s and early 1970s intensified, causing pain, loss of freedom and suffering to millions, and sometimes death. Former U.S. Defence Secretary, Robert McNamara, then in 1968 serving as President of the World Bank declared that population growth was a threat on the same level as nuclear war and helped shaped the misallocation of aid resources and focus towards population control than real health and economic problems. The real cures to poverty and population growth; development, economic progress and wealth creation were overlooked and the wrong diagnosis provided the wrong medicine.
Yet the world’s population did increase, the population increase rate in India began to fall, the green revolution brought an abundance of food, and famines that later occurred were driven by human actions of war and improper functioning economic systems and logistics than by the ‘natural’ Malthusian trap. The Neo-Malthusian vision of the future did not happen; although the policy prescriptions and attitudes associated with it did the best it could to become self-fulfilling.
Therefore the 1960s were a turning point from optimism to pessimism about the future in the West, the grim attitudes and creaking economy of the 1970s owes itself to the change of attitude about the future. Only until the 1980s was there a counter-revolution back towards optimism.
As a counter-balance to a pessimistic vision of the future failing and causing grave harm can be found in the exhilarating possibilities of a new world, a new man and a new age: the communist revolution of 1917.
Long dreamt by socialist or proto-socialist radicals in political treatise, science fiction provided also provided a vision of this future. William Morris’s 1890 novel ‘News from Nowhere’ and Alex Bogdanov’s 1908 ‘Red Star’ both provide plausible visions (excusing the setting of Mars in the case of Red Star) of how a communist society would function. They portray a radical new type of society that could and should be created by humankind in the here and now. These were fundamentally optimistic books and dreamed of a new age for human society.
The October revolution of 1917 was one of the most incredible moments in history; people took up arms to overthrow the Tsar and ruling class and won, all the while dreaming of a future of freedom, peace and prosperity. This year marks 100 years since that fateful event and it is hard not to find the visions and hopes of that revolution as inspiring and appealing, but this is dampened by the knowledge of history.
The events and causation of the descent of the USSR into tyranny and economic mismanagement are varied and still debated to this day, but few deny the degradation and suffering that was a consequence of that vision of the future.
The bold promises and ambitions of the revolution and the communist idea convinced people to continue to support and implement communist policies, in the hope that it would deliver the vision, but this only prolonged the suffering.
The communist vision of the future and its actualization has so far failed to liberate humanity from oppression, want or the drudgery of work and instead doubled down in restricting freedom, shortages and dreary work wherever it has been conceived in reality.
The October revolution did begin the ball rolling that new political systems and forms such as communism, socialism and fascism could replace the tired models of quasi-feudalism and liberal colonialist capitalism. Despite the catalogue of horrors and failures we now know through our study of history for those alternative political models, we should not forget that they all were conceived as an optimistic solution to the perceived and real shortcomings of the status quo. The period of time from 1917 until the Second World War had a radical view of the future, both left and right believed in a change of paradigm, only as time went on did the fever for those radical ideas subside.
Today many visions of the future focus on the possibilities of information technology, its great potential and its grave threats; many thought leaders talk of a coming ‘technological singularity’ and revolution, many sceptical writers forecast domination by machines or coming political upheaval through automated unemployment.
There appears not much of a sceptical middle ground, with silicon valley techno-optimists proclaiming the dawning of a new age from humanity and techno-pessimists forecasting that humanity will shackle itself to a future of tyranny that has been warned about by science fiction authors of the past. Political visions of the future are less certain and coherent than previous ages, capitalism offers no vision of the future, just more of the same just perhaps a faster version, there is no great architect of a new-capitalism, and the left talk of a vague concept of post-capitalism without ever providing a blueprint. This might change, but we have to steer those discussions to a more fruitful destination.
What will future historians make of our present visions of the future? How we conceive of the near to medium term future will mark our present for the rest of history and will undoubtedly inspire the visions of those of us who will deliver the future before us. In the eyes of the historian of the future, our conceptualization of the future is a reflection of our own times. The probability of forecasting the future correctly beyond one year to eighteen months is low; it is unlikely that anyone will be exonerated by history as a clairvoyant.
However, our dreams make us who we are and our visions of the future will lead us down one path and not another. It is paramount we conceive of what may come wisely, both overconfidence and overly-pessimistic visions bring costs, as evidenced by past failures of future visions. I do not know the future, but I know that humans create it influenced by their belief in what the future would and should look like.
The future has a history and it is us, now.