"No Flying Cars, But the Future is Bright" is an article that neatly sums up a few things I've been thinking about this week. Virginia Postrel wrote the article to talk about how the small incremental changes over the past few decades do add up to a big deal. The article itself was written in reaction to this piece, "Why We Can't Solve Big Problems," by Jason Pontin, in the MIT Technology Review. I'm not going to do a full summation of the two articles, you can choose to do that on your own, or not, but here are the bumper stickers:
- Pontin claims that the reason the future seems to be been deferred, the reason that we have Twitter instead of Transcontinental Supersonic flights, is that we have lost our will to progress. For a variety of political, and cultural reasons, we have lost the will to think big. NASA has plans that could take us to Mars by 2030 if we only had the political will that existed in the '60s. Global Warming might not be so catastrophic if we could just move past the political grid-lock of the present.
- On the other hand, Postrel claims that the future is doing just fine, thank you. Yeah, 2001 the movie from the 1960s looked a lot different than 2001 in reality. On many levels. But the improvement in efficiency, information exchange and medical technology do represent progress. A time traveler from the middle of last century would be impressed with the world he or she discovered.
I think the note of congratulation in Postrel's piece is probably not unwarranted. We live in a country with tremendous problems, problems thrown into harsh contrast this past weekend. However, we are still a country moving in the right direction. We reelected a progressive president from an ethnic group subjected to segregation and casual explicit racism in this country last century. It appears more and more certain that the outcome of the budget fights will be one favorable to social justice. While frustratingly ubiquitous, technology has allowed all of us to become part of something quite a bit larger than a town, city, state or even, arguably, a country. The change is one of scale and efficiency but it is still a change.
But Pontin's article is still compelling. I wonder if the value of such statements: "The future was supposed to be so much better!"is not so much their relative accuracy but simply that they keep moving us forward. Damnit, I've said it before, but we should be on Mars already. We should be doing more to protect this planet. And, the idea of violence as the primary solution to problems should be more and more unthinkable, unimaginable.
Maybe that's the value of speculative fiction in general, not so much a prediction, but a sign post pointing towards some other, weirder, better future.