I can’t seem to remember the last time I read a novel or saw a movie which portrayed the future in a positive light. The further out you go, the worse things seem to get. Our authors, directors, and audiences seem obsessed with the idea that we are quickly spiraling into a robotic post-apocalyptic nightmare. The future therefore seems analogous to Icarus, we fly too close to the sun…we play God, and we pay the consequences. Orwell’s 1984, i-robot, The Matrix, Terminator, The Book of Eli, Ghost in the Shell, Minority Report, the list goes on and on… not even Pixar could envision a positive future!
There are two main issues with this consistent perception, the most obvious one of which is the simple observation that history tells a very different story. The more important issue, however, is that these ideas of the future are not simply the subject of entertainment, they have real tangible consequences in the way our society embraces and therefore achieves progress.
First let’s first look at what human history has to say about this association of technology with dehumanization and disaster. It almost goes without saying that technology has made our lives better, that much is obvious. From modern medicine to improved nutrition, from air travel to air conditioning, our lives today are better than anyone’s has ever been because of technology and the scientific process. But the benefits extend far beyond the comforts of everyday life. Think about the lives that have been extended from an organ donor transplant, but not in terms of numbers, do so in terms of stories. How many fathers have seen their daughters walk down the aisle or grandparents seen a baby’s first steps. How many lovers embraced each other long after one of them “should” have died. How much individual misery and suffering has been spared, or how much beauty added, through the combined research and knowledge of our species? Here is One of my favorite videos of a deaf woman hearing for the first time, using precisely the machine-human technology our movies frown upon.
But its not just a matter of personal benefit, its more than that… our species, our societies….we have become better. We are more caring, empathetic, and self-less than we have ever been. No we are not perfect and to anyone who spends five minutes reading the news my description of humans as self-less and empathetic is downright laughable. But it is an indisputable fact that we are the best there has ever been, and by all account the trend seems to continue! It was not so long ago that slavery was common practice across the globe, a virtually abolished institution today. While Texas and New York argue about the death penalty don’t ignore the fact that only a “humane” death is in dispute. It wasn’t so long ago that friends and families would gather at the town square to cheer on as some poor criminal was brutally beaten, tortured, and executed. Our understanding of suffering has grown so much that we have begun to extend our efforts in support of our fellow living creatures outside our species. There are so many practices we take for granted, like the simple fact that tens of thousands of people each day get voluntarily pierced with a needle to donate blood, for complete strangers they will never meet!
If all these novels and movies are just entertainment though, what’s the harm? In theory there is none, but in practice the balance has been broken. There is nothing wrong with a movie making the bad guy Chinese, Black, or Hindu…but imagine if almost every piece of fiction in our society portrayed the Hindu as the bad guys. Whether they were taking hostages, planting bombs, stealing girlfriends, or backstabbing friends, don’t you think that over time your brain would associate real people with these qualities? This is exactly what has happened with the dystopian view, our social conscious has categorized and stereotyped technology as dangerous, evil, and dehumanizing, even though it has consistently proven to be the exact opposite.
Almost invariably when I present some amazing advancement like 3D printed organs to someone the response I receive is “hmm….I don’t know how I feel about that…” You don’t know how you feel about the fact that a recent invention will save millions if not billions of lives for years to come, organ transplant waiting lists may be eliminated, and quality of life may skyrocket? Let me give you a hint about how you should feel, ecstatic, grateful, and humbled. Yet there is that nagging fear of the future, not based on history or science but subconsciously built in by our science fiction…. “if the robots become too smart they’ll take over,” “if my organs are synthetic I wont be human,” “if we teach too much science we will become godless.”
In an age of public funding, crowd sourcing, and divisive political ideas, opinion and perception matter more than ever. We are the luckiest beings on the history of this planet, and the only thing more beautiful than that is that our children will be better than us, more empathetic, less hateful, more rational…more human. Do not be fooled by pieces of fiction into resisting humanity’s greatest gifts, the waves of science, technology, and change. Place your trust in the generations that follow as our ancestors did with us. Let them learn from our mistakes, but give them better tools. They will go much further, and do so with much more wisdom than we could ever dream.