News & Politics

Images of the Future

Every generation dreams they'll be the first to cheat death. But too many of our other dreams are likely to spell the end of humanity.
The future is a crowded graveyard, full of dead possibilities. Each headstone marks a timeline that never happened, and there's something genuinely mournful about them. I get misty-eyed looking at century-old drawings of the zeppelin-crammed skyline over "tomorrow's cities." It reminds me that the realities we think are just around the corner may die before they're born.

A few weeks ago I was trolling YouTube and stumbled across a now-hilarious documentary from 1972, Future Shock, based on the 1970 futurist book of the same name by Alvin Toffler. The documentary focused on a few themes from the book and tarted them up by throwing in a lot of trippy effects and sticking in Orson Welles as a narrator.

As Welles intones ponderously about how fast the future is arriving, we learn that "someday soon" everybody will be linked via computers. Essentially, it was an extremely accurate prediction about Internet culture. Score one for old Toffler.

Things go tragically incorrect when the documentary turns to biology. Very soon, Welles assures his audience, people will have complete control over the genome and drugs will cure everything from anxiety to aging. Through the wonders of pharmaceuticals, we'll become a race of immortal super-humans. It sounds almost exactly like the kinds of crap that futurists say now, 37 years later. Singularity peddlers like futurist Ray Kurzweil and genomics robber baron Craig Venter are always crowing about how we're just about to seize control over our genomes and live forever. So far we haven't. But every generation dreams about it, hoping they'll be the first humans to cheat death.

Some dreams of the future, however, shouldn't outlast the generation that first conceived them. Suburbia is one of those dreams. In the fat post-war years of the 1940s and '50s, it seemed like a great idea to build low-density housing to blanket the harsh desert landscapes of the Southwest. But now the green lawns of Southern California have become an environmental nightmare of water-sucking parasitism. Just think of the atrocious carbon footprint left behind when you lay pavement, wires, and pipes over a vast area so that nuclear families can each have huge yards and swimming pools instead of living intelligently in high-density green skyscrapers surrounded by organic farms.

Oh wait -- I just gave away my own crazy futurist dreams, inspired by urban environmentalism. Today, many of us imagine that the future will be like the green city of Dongtan, an ecofriendly community being built outside Shanghai using recycled water, green building materials, and urban gardens that will allow no cars within its limits. The hope is that Dongtan will have a teeny tiny carbon footprint and be a model of urban life for the future. Of course, that's what suburbia was supposed to be too -- a model of a good future life. No future is ever perfect.

Perhaps the saddest dead futures, though, are the ones whose end may mean the end of humanity. I suppose one could argue that the death of an environmentally conscious future is in that category. But what I'm talking about are past predictions that humans would colonize the moon and outer space. As the dream of a Mars colony withers and the idea of colonizing the moons of Saturn and Jupiter becomes more of a fantasy than ever before, I feel real despair.

Maybe my desperate hopes for space colonization are my version of Kurzweil's prediction that one day we'll take drugs that will make us immortal. Somehow, I think, if we could just have diverted the global war machine into a space-colony machine sometime back in the 1930s, then everything would be all right. Today the planet wouldn't be suffering from overpopulation, plague, and starvation. We'd all be spread out across the solar system, tending our terraforming machines and growing weird crops in the sands of Mars.

Of course, we might just be polluting every planet we touch and bringing our stupid dreams of conquering the genome to a bunch of poor nonhuman creatures with no defenses. But I still miss that future of outer-space colonies. I can't help but think it would be better than the future we've got.
Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd whose Martian colony has a better space elevator than yours.
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