Inventing futures we want, and some we don’t

Image: Popular Mechanics – the ciy of the future (1928)

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it,” said Alan Kay, the pioneering computer scientist.

In this context “invent” here means to build not just to imagine or to conjure a vision. Futures are built things, technology and humans made into new shapes and structures. Imagining the future is a way of thinking about possible ways things might evolve – often these days as a way of satirising the present, rather than a serious effort to imagine how things could be – with a fair wind, and some lucky politics – you know, better than they are today. We are well served with literary and cinematic dystopias, but there are apparently few creative efforts to imagine a brighter tomorrow.

A lovely post from Futurism surveys how people a century ago imagined the future. There are delightful near misses – “correspondence cinema” is almost Netflix – and amusingly accurate forecasts. The times 100 years ago were not unlike ours – as we teeter on the edge of an AI, automated, bio-engineered century:

People in the early 20th century were hopeful about the future innovation might bring.The technology that came out of World War I, and the growing potential brought by electricity (half of all U.S. homes had electric power by 1925) had many looking ahead to the coming century. Futurists of the early 1900s predicted an incredible boom in technology that would transform human lives for the better.

Much of this came to pass – along with world wars, genocide and new fangled ways to to suffer and die, which we’re still working on all the time. And then again – there are billions more humans alive today than in 1917, with proportionately fewer afflicted by child mortality, living longer, less likely to be hungry or poor.

At the moment, reading Fire and Fury about our recent, implausible global political past and reading the ongoing news about our even less convincing present, I wonder if we are too confused by the contemporary to see anything but collapse and catastrophe in our future. It could be a fertile fictional world to explore though, a better one. Could be worth a try.


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