GO AHEAD, DREAM
ABOUT THE FUTURE
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?
Overview from TED
"You don't predict the future - you imagine the future," says sci-fi writer Charlie Jane Anders.
In a talk that's part dream, part research-based extrapolation, she takes us on a wild, speculative tour of the delights and challenges the future may hold - and shows how dreaming up weird, futuristic possibilities empowers us to construct a better tomorrow.
"Don't be afraid to think about the future, to dream about the future, to write about the future. I've found it really liberating and fun to do that."
Charlie Jane Anders
Charlie Jane Anders writes novels and stories about building community, discovering our truest selves and coping with radical change.
Charlie Jane Anders TED Talk – Go Ahead, Dream About the Future – represents a departure from my usual watch list, but I was intrigued by the title.
In recent months, I have whiled away many an evening catching up on the latest innovations in technology. Yes, it’s beneficial for my day job, but I also find these topics endlessly fascinating – not least because they are anchored in the “real world”. They present an opportunity to observe little acorns of ideas flourish into mighty oaks that change lives for the better – artificial intelligence, smart devices, medical breakthroughs… what could be more exciting than that?
Inquisitive by nature, I gravitate toward data; cold hard facts and figures that stand up under scrutiny. And whilst I enjoy the escapism of fiction, I’m not one to spend hours daydreaming about what the future could look like. But Anders is. And this talk made me realise just how fundamental a part imagination plays in the shaping of tomorrow’s world.
BACK TO THE FUTURE, AGAIN!
Early in the talk, Anders makes an important distinction: you don’t predict the future, you imagine the future. Whilst the soothsayers in the audience may have a thing or two to say about that, the logic is sound. We can picture what the future might look like - based on our knowledge of the past and understanding of the present – but you only need look at the optimistic “2020 is going to be MY year” posts on social media to see how easy it is to get things wrong.
It’s also easy to catastrophise. Not least when a deadly global pandemic brings our world to a halt – closing borders and businesses, and killing hundreds of thousands of people in the process.
Our world is changing so fast, and there's a kind of accelerating feedback loop where technological change and social change feed on each other. When I was a kid in the 1980s, we knew what the future was going to look like. It was going to be some version of "Judge Dredd" or "Blade Runner." It was going to be neon megacities and flying vehicles. But now, nobody knows what the world is going to look like even in just a couple years, and there are so many scary apparitions lurking on the horizon. From climate catastrophe to authoritarianism, everybody is obsessed with apocalypses, even though the world ends all the time, and we keep going.
Her answer? To imagine it anyway…
Don't be afraid to think about the future, to dream about the future, to write about the future. I've found it really liberating and fun to do that. It's a way of vaccinating yourself against the worst possible case of future shock. It's also a source of empowerment, because you cannot prepare for something that you haven't already visualised.
In a previous blog, I looked at examples of “moonshot thinking” – ending cancer, adding 50 years to every human life, reducing the cost of health care by a factor of a million… What hadn’t occurred to me before today, though, is that these “moonshots” are essentially fiction. They are the product of imagination; a “what-if-we-could-do-this-awesome-thing” list conceived by a bunch of entrepreneurs and organisations, that may or may not be achievable in time. And whilst they are grounded in reality (cancer exists, for example), that doesn’t make them real – yet, anyway.
From a science fiction perspective, Anders advocates for a mixture of active dreaming, awareness of cutting-edge trends in science and technology, and insight into human history. Or, in her own words: “my imagination is two pieces of bread in a research sandwich.” She continues:
I think a lot about what I know of human nature and the way that people have responded in the past to huge changes and upheavals and transformations. And I pair that with an attention to detail, because the details are where we live. We tell the story of our world through the tools we create and the spaces that we live in.
This makes sense. You only need watch Back to the Future Part II to recognise how it’s the little details that make a big difference. Jaws 19 – showing at the Holomax Theater in Hill Valley - only appeared on screen for a fleeting moment, but it resonated with audiences. At the time of Back to the Future Part II’s release in 1989, there had already been four Jaws movies in the franchise. Adding a further 15 films to the tally – and a holographic shark to boot – was an ingenious way of connecting audiences of the “present” with the fictional Hill Valley of the “future”. That it still feels futuristic now is a testament to the writers.
FUTURE HISTORY AND SECOND-ORDER EFFECTS
Whilst “Future History” may sound like a Justin Timberlake album from the mid-00’s, it’s actually a term used frequently by science fiction writers to describe the chronology of things that haven’t happened yet.
A second-order effect, on the other hand, focuses more on consequences: what happens after a new technology or huge change takes effect. Anders points to a saying oft-attributed to Frederick Pohl to explain: “A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam.”
It is this quote in particular that piqued my interest. The sentiment behind it is not exclusive to science fiction writers. With any medical advancement, for instance, comes an evaluation of side effects: the impact x has on y.
If cancer was eradicated, would new diseases evolve in its place? Would more people take up smoking and drinking if cancer can’t kill you? What impact would this have on society?
Similarly, it’s not hard to conceive of a world full of self-driving cars by the year 2040, but what would the consequences be – good or bad? Who ultimately controls the cars? What if their systems were hacked? Would public transport become defunct because everyone can travel in relative luxury without a licence? What would happen to the abandoned underground stations in London?
Questioning the impact of things that haven’t happened yet may feel like overkill, but it is only through this process – with the aid of imagination - that we can be equipped for the future in any way, shape or form.
Anders' conclusion provides further food for thought:
There's a kind of logical fallacy that we all have where we expect the future to be an extension of the present. Like, people in the 1980s thought that the Soviet Union would still be around today. But the future is going to be much weirder than we could possibly dream of. But we can try. And I know that there are going to be scary, scary things, but there's also going to be wonders and saving graces. And the first step to finding your way forward is to let your imagination run free.
I’ll give it a go. If nothing else, I’m curious to know the plot for Jaws 20… They’re gonna need a bigger spaceship!