I’ve seen the future, brother; it is murder.—Leonard Cohen, 1992
During a summer in the late 1960s I discovered an easy and certain method of predicting the future. Not my own future, the next turn of the card, or market conditions next month or next year, but the future of the world lying far ahead. It was quite simple. All that was needed was to take the reigning assumptions about what the future was likely to hold, and reverse them. Not modify, negate, or question, but reverse. It was self-evident that this was the right method, because so many of the guesses that the past had made about its then future—that is, my own present—had turned out to be not only wrong but the opposite of what came to be instead, the more so the further ahead they had been projected.
You could, of course, riffle through the old predictions and now and then find some tool or technique, some usage or notion, some general idea of how things would get gradually better or suddenly worse, that seemed eerily to foreshadow the actual; but that was really a game, where you took some aspect of the present and tried to match it with what the past had once thought up. Captain Nemo’s submarine is driven by a heatless inexhaustible power source—Jules Verne predicted the nuclear sub! What was almost never predicted correctly was what the present world would be like: like to be in and to experience. There is a wonderful moment in Edward Bellamy’s influential futurist utopian tract Looking Backward (1888) where a character, having fallen asleep in the 1880s and awakened in the year 2000, rushes out of the house to see the new world—after fortunately finding among the hats on the hatrack by the door a hat that fits him. In the future we, at least we proper folk, will still not go “bareheaded” or “hatless” into the street, for fear of being thought mad or distracted.
So it seemed clear to me that if you simply reversed what the past had imagined, you got something close to the real existing present. The same principle would therefore work for the future, and I went about applying it to the limning of the world that would exist in, say, five hundred years’ time. (I had nothing to do that summer; I had lost my job and was squatting in an unoccupied building as a sort of watchman. It was the time and the moment to think up things never before thought up.)
What predictions could I reverse? One general assumption at the time I set to work was that overpopulation would soon create a future of scarcity and desperate struggles for resources everywhere, including the rich First World, all earth filling with humans as with lemmings. So reverse that: perhaps as an unintended result of attempts to limit growth, numbers will cease to rise and start downward, and in the far future populations will be not large but small, maybe vanishingly small. Pollution, smog, river fires, acid rain spoiling the natural environment and making the built environment uninhabitable? No; smokestack industry, even all industry, will in time cease to grow, tumorlike and poisonous, and instead shrink away. The near-certain chance that eventually, by accident or on purpose, thermonuclear weapons would destroy even the possibility of civilization? No, no nuclear war—somehow it will be obviated. But if vastation by the bomb were escaped, it looked certain that the peoples and nations would be knit ever more closely together by interlocking technologies, skiving off human differences and reducing us to robot cogs in a single ever-growing world machine; or, conversely, that technology would vastly increase wealth and scope for the fortunate in a groomed and gratifying One World with an opening to the stars. No, neither of those: no technology in the future, no space travel, even our current technology forgotten or voluntarily given up, becoming a wonderful dream of long ago, as we dream of knights in armor. So then, brutish neoprimitives squatting in the remains of a self-destroyed technoworld? No, no, that’s what you’d guess, and it will therefore be different from that. Self-conscious minicivilizations, I thought, highly cultivated yet without reading or writing, unknown to one another, with concerns we can’t imagine, walking humbly on a wounded but living earth.
Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, by Albrecht Dürer, 1498. National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
This vision was enthralling to me, convincing because so unforeseen: its roots in the present firm and deep yet so occult that they will only be able to be perceived after centuries. Above all it seemed to me to be a future that had no lesson for the present, gave no warning or hope, made no particular sense of history or the passage of time. Its unknowable origins lifted from the present the burden of needing to do the right thing now in order not to be punished in the time to come. There was no right thing that could be done; we would just have to do our best. The future would be strange, but all right.
Though I had not conceived it so, this pleasant obsession eventually generated a book, a novel, a science fiction, in which all the eons-to-come details impossible to know were given form, though of course not the form they would or will really have. And when read now, forty years from when I first began to write it, what is immediately evident about my future is that it could have been thought up at no time except the time in which I did think it up, and has gone away as that time has gone. No matter its contents, no matter how it is imagined, any future lies not ahead in the stream of time but at an angle to it, a right angle probably. When we have moved on down the stream, that future stays anchored to where it was produced, spinning out infinitely and perpendicularly from there. The process I engaged in is still viable, maybe, or as viable as it was then, but it must forever be redone. The future, as always, is now.
My wife recently said to me, The past is the new future. She is given to remarks of that kind, full of vatic force yet requiring mental application on my part to make them useful. The sense I make of it is that instead of growing clearer as we probe it, the future has grown dimmer, less solid, almost hard to believe in, but the past has continued to expand rather than shrink with distance: the actual things we did do have gained rather than lost complexity and interest, and the past seems rich, its lessons not simple or singular, a big landscape of human possibility, generative, inexhaustible.
As a guide to present action and long-term planning, the future is anyway relatively new. The shape of things to come was not a constant concern of most people for most of the past. The Romans could imagine future wars and the founding of new cities and dynasties, but these would resemble in most ways the old ones. Christians foresaw an absolute end to time and history located (depending on specific creed and perceived signs of the times) at varying distances from the present, but between now and then it was all to be much the same, only worse. The Founding Fathers announced a New Order of the Ages, but it was a new order explicitly modeled on the classical republics that had existed in Rome or Athens. The idea of a future that will not at all resemble the past really only comes when advancing technology changes the conditions of life and work within a single generation. To that generation it is apparent that, just as the past differs radically from the present, so will the future.
At that point (it’s not really a locatable point, and not a universal one, but it can be thought of as somewhere in the first half of the nineteenth century, earlier in some places, later in others) a change can also be discerned in the efforts of planners and projectors to determine the future shape of the coming world—“determine” both in the sense of finding out what it would be and in the sense of controlling it. Early utopias from
Plato through Thomas More (inventor of the term) and on to Charles Fourier were all about proper social organization, good laws, societies that fit human nature better than the state or society the utopian lived in. After this point utopias are almost all set not on remote islands or mountaintops but in the future, and all must take into account the force of accelerating technology on everything from wealth creation to population expansion to world peace.
So also must all the dark warnings of decline, disaster, waste, and failure that are the left hand of the predicting impulse.
And both of these impulses, hope and fear, are swept up in, and give power to, the characteristic fictions of mass change and of futures that entirely replace pasts: books such as the one that my imaginings led me inevitably toward.
Science fiction shares methods and modes with other genres—boy’s adventure, gothic tale, fable, satirical allegory, philosophical romance—but from the beginning it gained extraliterary power from its prediction of actual marvels that were sure to come sooner or later. No other fiction, not even the tales of Darkest Africa or polar exploration, had that. The more often the future was imagined, however, and the more detailed the guesses, the more they proved unequal to the strange meanderings of real time. As the noted SF writer and poet Tom Disch made clear in his 1999 book The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World, the tropes developed in science fiction since 1900—alien invasions, telepathy, time travel, people-shaped robot helpers, travel to other planets, nuclear mutants, flying cars, immortality—are now universal in the culture without actually having come much closer in actuality, or even appearing at all. Meanwhile SF kept missing the things that in fact would happen. Disch’s own best novel, 334, published in 1974 and predicting the world of 2025, entirely missed the digital age just then dawning—not computers, which everyone knew would rule the world, but the universal accessibility of them, our ever-present freedoms and enchainments. But then almost every writer did. By the time William Gibson set his cyberpunk novels in a digital future, it had already come to be.
Today most serious science fiction—that is, the stories that put the genre to the most interesting and thoughtful uses—rarely presents itself as the bearer of news from the future, or seeks to acquire power from the act of prediction. (There are writers working in that realm which only genre writers call “mainstream” who are putting well-worn futures to use—Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy, Jim Crace—while denying they have committed science fiction.) New work labeled SF is more likely to be set in an alternative present, a world wholly unlike this one and not having evolved from our past at all, the possibility of which is sometimes described as grounded in quantum mechanics and cosmology, or sometimes simply posited (China Mieville’s The City and The City posits two different cities, essentially two different presents, that somehow occupy the same space, linked by occult passageways). Or it is transferred to a remade past, where now-obsolete technologies are presented as having been capable of weird developments that never happened: “steampunk” is the name for this variant, first applied to William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine (a vast steam-powered computer rules the Victorian age). Or it becomes inseparable from fantasy, with vampires and gods and sorceries given the merest lick of pretend science or none at all. If it does dwell in possible futures, these are likely to be pervaded by a necessary irony, even parody: SF writers are well aware of the history of the future, and risk bathos if they are not.
“Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past,” George Orwell said in a well-known futurist novel. He didn’t claim that who controls the past controls the present, but if we like to believe that strenuous efforts today will make a difference to the future that we, collectively, must one day suffer, then why not strive to imagine a past that would alter the present we live in? Why should the future be privileged as a realm of speculation? Thus the mode of modern storytelling called “alternative history” or “the counterfactual,” a mode that Philip Roth (who reads no fiction these days) seems to feel he invented in The Plot Against America. It’s actually of course common, not to say ubiquitous: the idea that with only a tiny drift of events in one direction or another the present would not be as we see it; the butterfly effect of chaos theory, the law of unintended consequences, makes the present seem as unlikely, even marvelous, as any future. Charles Darwin couldn’t help but see evolution as a mode of one-way progress, no matter how he cautioned himself and us against it, but the more we study the earth’s past the clearer it is that our present resulted from a continuous branching of long-past possibilities, a process describable neither as chance nor as necessity, going on forever, a process we perforce inhabit, facing both ways. It could have been different, and somehow still seems it might. The past is the new future.
Given all this, it’s unlikely that many writers would now be tempted to employ seriously the heuristic I developed and believed (probably wrongly) was original with me. But suppose that we—well, I—were to succumb to the temptation to apply it, see what might be descried in the dark forward and abysm of time. Science fiction may have ceded the future, but the imagineers are still busily working out what’s certain to come, giving us fresh projections that might be reversed.
There is what the technophile and inventor Ray Kurzweil calls the Singularity, rapidly oncoming, in which human minds become powerfully knitted together as the wetware of the human person is integrated with the software and hardware of digital systems, thereafter evolving as one being to who knows what heights or breadths. It’s possible to point to current work wherein a wired person is able to move a cursor on a computer screen, just a little, by thought alone; it will get lots better than that, and at an accelerating pace.
“Flying Fireman,” color lithograph from the series Visions of the Year 2000, by Jean-Marc Côté, 1899.
But no, that’s not happening. Will the mind be integrated with the machine? Yes it will, and already is, just as a hammer is integrated with a hand and able to do things neither is capable of by itself; but just as a hammer is not a hand, a machine is not a mind. Will we all exist together in a humming matrix of common culture and language, communicating so thoroughly and constantly that we will form a Hive Mind of undifferentiated permeable consciousness? No, or rather yes, just as in limited ways we are that now: there is no such thing as individual human consciousness existing without culture, without the minds and symbolic activities of others living and dead, and there never was or can be; but even so we are still, and will be still, individuals with consciousness. Increased digital capability will not in itself change our nature, no more (though perhaps no less) than did agriculture, steam, the telegraph, or printing; we will still recognize our old selves way back in nowadays, just as today we recognize ourselves in the Romans and the Six Nations. The idea that “social media” will wipe out a sense of history and submerge everyone in a froth of presentness is illusory. Even today anyone with a passing interest in the history of anything can learn far more than was wanted with a mouse click or two, and scholars face data mountains that can take years to climb; I can’t believe there will be less information to be found when mouse clicks are as redolent of a simpler time as fountain pens are now.
The most unconscionable reversal of prophecy that a new future must assert is the reversal of climate change, or at least a dramatic reduction such that it leaves humankind about where it was, mutatis mutandis. I suppose that like many of our public persons I could just assert that climate change isn’t real, but that’s cheating. I have no idea how we will survive it, but we will. (It’s an oddity of futurist projects that most of them are actually backward-looking: a lot of their pages, and the author’s efforts, are spent in accounting for how the imagined new state of things arose out of the one the reader is in. But I’m not writing a book.)
Another convincing future—I mean to those who have not adopted my method—posits a general spread of liberal freedoms and open markets and moderate democracies, what Francis Fukuyama named (he has since modified the vision) the End of History. Recent events have been calling this pleasant future into question, however, strongly suggesting instead a continuation of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind that Edward Gibbon described as history’s record. Authoritarianism, scarcity, and I’m-all-right-Jackism. Only the strong survive. Gated communities, unfree markets dominated by looters, politics by thugs and toadies. All this may obtain in the near future, though even that can be doubted, and the reverse of it will certainly develop (like a photograph from a negative) if we project far enough.
The one scenario not conceived of as remotely likely by any faction of futurians—the reverse really of all their competing auguries—is the possibility, and then the final achievement, of a generous and benevolent One World government, solving humankind’s problems and adjudicating its disputes through the consent of the governed. The end of capitalism and its plutocrats and bought politicians. An antique among futures, that one, and impossible to envision on any grounds: political, economic, sociological, or simply the ground of basic human nature.
So that will be it. The future will consist of a new kind of universal anarcho-totalitarian system which is, on the whole, pretty successful at fostering human happiness and diversity as well as ensuring social justice and welfare. From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs: Karl Marx’s formulation has always applied very well to individual families—it’s how the best-run families function—but in the future it will define the Family of Man. Immanuel Kant’s distinction between public and private, which is exactly opposite to the one in common use today, will then be universal: the private is the particular ethnic, religious, political, clan, or company loyalties we own; when we are public we engage the world and one another with the tools of a plain reasoning that belongs to us all and commands the assent of all.
A command economy, of course: that idea failed in the past because of lack of timely information and a disregard of personal desires, but the Internet 4.0, born out of the primitive workings of Google and Amazon, will fix that, and what you want—within reason—you can get. It seems impossible to us that, absent the Invisible Hand, entrepreneurial innovation can flourish, wants be met, and well-being increase—so it’s clear that’s what is to come.
The future, like everything else, is no longer quite what it used to be.—Paul Valéry, 1931
This may sound like the commonest hopes (and doubts) we have had for technology, particularly information technology, for a century and more. But such hopes and doubts always foresee plenty as a consequence of the right worldwide deployment of powerful means, rapidity and noise as a function of interconnectedness, manipulation of fickle desires and dreads by Hidden Persuaders. No. The future will show simplicity, asceticism (possibly as a result of scarcity: there may be enough for all, but not a lot more) and taking care, maybe too much care. Use it up, wear it out, make it do, do without. Certainly a democracy with as many parties as there are citizens, a parliament of all persons governing through a sort of fractal consensus which I cannot specify in detail, will spend a lot of time pondering. In fact it will be amazing (only to us imagining it now) how quiet a world it will be. A woman awakes in her house in Sitka, Alaska, to make tea, wake her family, and walk the beach (it runs differently from where it runs today). After meditation she enters into communication with the other syndics of a worldwide revolving presidium, awake early or up late in city communes or new desert oases. Nightlong the avatars have clustered, the informations have been threshed: the continuous town meeting of the global village. There is much to do.
Any prediction about what is in fact to come, when cast as fiction, runs the risk not just of being wrong but of being not about the future at all. The two most famous futurist fictions of the twentieth century—1984 (which took place a mere thirty-odd years in the future) and Brave New World (set six hundred years on)—are of course best seen not as prediction but as critical allegories of the present. (They are like temporal versions of Gulliver’s Travels, which could be called a geographical allegory.) That’s why they still hold interest while more earnestly meant divinings don’t. Both novels, which resemble each other closely while seeming to be opposites, are based on the if-this-goes-on premise—but this never does go on. Something else does. Both Orwell (if he had lived) and Huxley might have been tempted to congratulate themselves when the future seemed to trend away ever more sharply from their visions: their warnings had been heeded. Had they?
A third and less well-known novel—We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, 1921—certainly influenced Orwell, who claimed that it must certainly have influenced Huxley. Zamyatin invented a couple of the standard features of the future which would haunt science fiction from then on, including people with numbers rather than names, and the possibly nonexistent but still omnipotent and omnipresent Leader. Its central trope is transparency: the whole numbered society, marching in unison, living in houses of glass, is bent on the creation of an enormous rocket ship, also made entirely of glass, aimed at the moon. Like Orwell’s and Huxley’s, it’s a futurist novel that’s not about the future. It differs from them in being not an allegory or an object lesson or warning of any kind but a transcendent personal vision, an impossibility rather than a possibility. Where Orwell’s imagined world is shabby and cheap and nasty, and Huxley’s brightly colored and silly, Zamyatin’s is filled with an unsettling radiant joy, right through to its terrible ending. It has what Milan Kundera perceived in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot: “the comical absence of the comical.” Instead of perspicacity and authority, which in the predicting of the future are fatuous, there is beauty and strangeness, the qualities of art, which sees clearly and predicts nothing, at least on purpose. These are the qualities of all the greatest fictional representations of the future, books that, after the initial shock they carry has faded, can reappear not as tales about our shared future nor salutary warnings for the present they were written in but simply as works of disinterested passion, no more (and no less) a realistic rendering of this world or any world now or to come than is The Tempest or The Four Zoas.
Time, W.H. Auden said, is intolerant and forgetful, but “worships language and forgives / Everyone by whom it lives.” Time will leave my new and no doubt baselessly optimistic Totalitopia behind; it was being left behind even as I wrote it down. As a prediction it might bewilder or bore, but as a work of art in language—if it were as easy to turn it into a work of art as it was to think it up—it might survive its vicissitudes in the turbulence of time and emerge sometime downstream as a valuable inheritance from the past, all its inadequate dreams and fears washed away. Meanwhile the real world then, no matter what, will be as racked with pain and insufficiency as any human world at any time. It just won’t be racked by the same old pains and insufficiencies; it will be strange. It is forever unknowably strange, its strangeness not the strangeness of fiction or of any art or any guess but absolute. That’s its nature. Of course holding the mirror up to nature is what Hamlet insisted all playing, or pretending, must do; but—as Lewis Carroll knew—the image in a mirror, however scary or amusing or enlightening, is always reversed.