“[C]yberpunk sci-fi of the 1980s and early 1990s accurately predicted a lot about our current world. Our modern society is totally wired and connected, but also totally unequal,” writes Noah Smith (What we didn’t get, Noahpinion). “We are, roughly, living in the world the cyberpunks envisioned.”
I don’t find that surprising. Cyberpunk writers were looking at ongoing trends and extrapolating about the near future. We are living in that near future.
Considering inequality in the US began growing several decades ago when cyberpunk became a genre, it wasn’t hard to imagine that such inequality would continue to grow and play out within technology itself. And the foundations for present technology were developed in the decades before cyberpunk. The broad outlines of the world we now live in could be seen earlier last century.
That isn’t to downplay the predictions made and envisioned. But it puts it into context.
Smith then asks, “What happened? Why did mid-20th-century sci fi whiff so badly? Why didn’t we get the Star Trek future, or the Jetsons future, or the Asimov future?” His answer is that, “Two things happened. First, we ran out of theoretical physics. Second, we ran out of energy.”
That question and answer is premature. We haven’t yet fully entered the Star Trek future. One of the first major events from its future history are the Bell Riots, which happen seven years from now this month, but conditions are supposed to worsen over the years preceding it (i.e., the present). Like the cyberpunk writers, Star Trek predicted an age of growing inequality, poverty, and homelessness. And that is to be followed by international conflict, global nuclear war, and massive decimation of civilization.
World War III will end in 2053. The death toll will be 600 million. Scientific research continues, but it will take decades for civilization to recover. It’s not until the 22nd century that serious space exploration begins. And it’s not until later in that century that the Federation is formed. The Star Trek visionaries weren’t starry-eyed optimists offering much hope to living generations. They made clear that the immediate future was going to be as dark or darker than most cyberpunk fiction.
The utopian world that I watched in the 1990s was from The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. Those two shows portray the world 250 years from now. That is why I would argue it’s premature to say that no further major advancements in science will be made over that time period.
Scientific discoveries and technological developments tend to happen in spurts. We can be guaranteed that, assuming we survive, future science will seem like magic to us — based as it would be on knowledge we don’t yet comprehend. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were those who predicted that nothing significant was left for humans to learn and discover. I laugh at anyone who makes the same naive prediction here at the beginning of the 21st century.
To be fair, Smith doesn’t end there. He asks, “These haven’t happened yet, but it’s only been a couple of decades since this sort of futurism became popular. Will we eventually get these things?” And he adds that, “we also don’t really have any idea how to start making these things.”
Well, no one could answer what the world will be like a century from now any more than anyone a century ago was able to predict the world we now live in. Nothing happens yet, until it happens. And no one really has any idea how to start making anything, until someone figures out how to do so. History is an endless parade of the supposedly impossible becoming possible, the unforeseen becoming commonplace.
Smith goes on to conjecture that, “maybe it’s the authors at the very beginning of a tech boom, before progress in a particular area really kicks into high gear, who are able to see more clearly where the boom will take us.” Sure. But no one can be certain one is or is not at the beginning of a tech boom. That can only be seen clearly in retrospect.
If the Star Trek future is more or less correct, the coming half century will be the beginning of a new tech boom that leads to the development of warp drive in 2063 (or something akin to it). And so following it will be an era of distant space travel and colonization. That would be the equivalent of my grandparents generation growing up with the first commercially sold cars and by adulthood, a half century later, experiencing the first manned space flight — there being no way to predict the latter from the former.
As a concluding thought, Smith states that, “We’ll never know.” I’m sure many in my grandparents generation said the same thing. Yet they did come to know, as the future came faster than most expected. When that next stage of technological development is in full force, according to Star Trek’s future historians, those born right now will be hitting middle age and those reaching young adulthood now will be in their sixties. Plenty in the present living generations will be around to know what the future holds.
Maybe the world of Snow Crash we seem to be entering into will be the trigger that sends us hurtling toward Star Trek’s World War III and all that comes after. Maybe what seems like an endpoint is just another beginning.