The Shape of Things to Come (09.13.11)

My title this week is taken from H.G. Wells’ 1933 novel, which purported to be a chronicle of world history from 1933 to 2106. Wells got some things right, notably submarine-based ballistic missiles and the World Encyclopedia, but missed the shape and outcome of World War II, the continued strength of religion (he suggested that religion would be stamped out and replaced with rationalist scientific materialism), and the triumph of corporate capitalism over socialism. He said nothing about resource depletion, climate chaos, human population growth, and the fact that the World Encyclopedia would be called the Internet. These days, people read the book to see what he got wrong rather than what he got right. If they want to see what he got right, they read The Time Machine – all of which suggests that if you want to be a prophet, you should write as many books about the future as possible. One of them may be right, and when the time comes, you can throw the rest in the bushes.

That said, predicting specific events is risky. My work-in-progress these days is a small book tentatively called 100 Little Pieces About the End of the World. It consists of ten ten-item essays. I’m working on item number 65 right now, and most of what I’ve been writing has been about how history doesn’t offer us much help when we try to figure out what’s coming next. Futurists make this point when they talk about the singularity – the point where computers will become so advanced that scientific progress will accelerate beyond the human.

They’re late to the party, which is what sin looks like for futurists. I think the singularity came in 1915, when industrial warfare destroyed conventional notions of what human beings were and how they should behave.

In 1915, men became machine-men. In subsequent years, civilian populations became both hostages and enemy combatants. Notions of honor and justice and nobility faded before technological might, which gained its own moral advocates. Capitalism proved to be uniquely suited to eternal war, and triumphed as a system when the War on Drugs and the War on Terrorism became permanent features of our consciousness. Security, if you were a human being sharing a world with chemical or biological or nuclear weapons, became something that might have existed once, in a past made irrelevant by new machines and new ways of communicating, and by a world culture that wiped out local cultures and histories.

In trying to imagine the world of 2015, I’ve been focusing on human population, resource depletion, the difficulties capitalism has when confronted with limits to economic growth. I’m looking at climate change as a byproduct of human activity, figuring that when you dump a bunch of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere of a planet that has a history of climate oscillation, you’re going to set the climate oscillating. I’m focusing on the breakdown of old cultural stories, and on the failure of new stories to do the job the old ones did. I’m looking at biological class warfare, starting with the anti-vaccination memes now circulating among the scientifically illiterate, and the de facto denial of medical services to the poor. I’m trying to imagine my neighbors without access to internal combustion engines or television or the Internet. I’m trying to understand how a population raised on consumption as a patriotic activity will react to a world where food and energy are scarce. I worry in print that ethics and altruism will not prevail over narcissism and hunger.

I haven’t written about a rogue planet coming in from the Oort Cloud to cause earthquakes and tsunamis, or the Yellowstone Supervolcano going off next July 4, or lizard-like aliens imposing a world government, because I think humans breeding like bunnies will be adequate to end the world as we know it. I don’t worry about the JFK assassination or 9/11 being a false-flag operation or the Bilderberger Conspiracy, because the official accounts of such matters are just as depressing and just as full of deadly implications for the future.

It may sound as if I’m a pessimist, but I’m not. I’m a person with very little power and influence who has nonetheless had a good life and continues to wake each day in a beautiful world—one that for all its faults and frailties, continues to provide love and joy in appreciable quantities. I hope it lasts for another 30 years, and, of course, I hope I do too. Even thought I have other reasons for wanting to live that long, I’d still like to find out if I’m any better at prophecy than H.G. Wells was.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Sandra Ramos O'Briant September 14, 2011 at 11:59 am

Excellent piece. I look forward to reading the book. Read some Wells’ short stories, but for prediction I much prefer Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, or Oryx and Crake. Military, pharmaceutical, and religious industries play into both tales, but it’s the role of women in bringing about the futures she describes that I find most fascinating. The General’s wife in the Handmaid’s Tale reminds me a great deal of a current political candidate.

Kate Robinson October 8, 2011 at 2:17 pm

Sandra, you said it all!

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