At the 1939 New York Futurama World Fair, the earthlings of the ‘Greatest Generation’ buried a time capsule containing, among other things, a note from Einstein scheduled to be opened in 5,000 years. It’s fair to say, John Higgs begins, the view from 2019 is considerably less optimistic. ‘At some point in the 1980s we gave up on the future,’ – and cultural consensus ceased to uphold the idea that our society is progressing, and/or that life will just continue to get better, as it had done for the last approximately 500 years.
This happened fast. Where, on the release of Mad Max 2 in 1981, ‘it was felt necessary to explain to the audience why civilisation had collapsed’, now apocalyptic landscapes, zombies and mass sterility go unexplained in mass-market culture: a ‘narrative shorthand because dystopia, we understand, is what our future is going to be.’ The Star Trek franchise, once the epitome of clean-cut hopefulness, these days has Quentin Tarantino on its writing roster.
To explain why we now think like this, Higgs looks at our present and near-future state via a handful of recognisable quotidian concerns, and social, technological and environmental concepts: the supposed takeover of AI; big data; post-Millennial pieties; our lust for interplanetary travel; virtual reality; the ‘psychological pollution’ of social media; rewilding; a universal basic income.
But, as his title suggests, The Future Starts Here isn’t another ‘where’s my jetpack?’ jeremiad from a generation that feels that it’s been robbed of all that shiny promise. What if, he asks, this isn’t – yet – a tragedy? What if the flaws in our system do not prove fatal? What if things could work out just fine in the end?
‘The idea that our civilisation is doomed is not established fact. It is the latest in a very long line of stories.’ And stories – certainly ones this size: what Higgs calls a ‘circumambient mythos’ – have power.
‘From a rational point of view,’ of course, ‘there is no better time to be alive.’ So, can we not imagine a future because ‘we genuinely don’t have one, as climate science and rampant inequality suggest?’ Or is this just a failure of our collective imagination? Either way, ‘if it is true that we must imagine the future before we can build it, then this is deeply worrying.’
But Higgs also thinks that largely we are asking the wrong questions. ‘Our challenge is life on Earth, not a “plan B” of life in space.’ Elon Musk’s electric cars alone have done more for future generations in terms of climate change than any other individual (or even entire governments); but the colonisation of Mars remains a pipe dream. If overpopulation is the problem, then the prosaic solution is ‘promoting female education and access to contraception in poorer countries.’
Meanwhile, there is some cause for optimism. The number of trees in England is growing; the amount of stuff we use is dropping rapidly; and humankind is moving in an interesting direction: unlike the ever-more-individualistic generations since the Second World War, he is very enamoured of the ‘sincerity’ of the ‘empathetic, networked, metamodern kids’ of Generation Z (among whom he has two children).
Higgs writes with an upbeat, pop-science tone, peppered with references from The Breakfast Club to EO Wilson, and has an open-minded, ranging attitude to the issue of what to do about our species in the face of all our existential terror. That said, if he’s holding out for a 21st century Greatest Generation he puts a lot of faith in kids who are currently ‘too socially anxious’ to use a manned checkout for fear of human interaction. And while he argues pointedly against ‘blind optimism’, he’s still extremely upbeat about us, the human race. A world view in which ‘the resources of primary importance are meaning, enthusiasm and relationships,’ might be considered at least a bit utopian.
Lastly, The Future Starts Here makes no claim to being a philosophical or scientific textbook; but not all readers will endorse the quite marked impact of Higgs’ long residence in Brighton (‘the most hipster city in the world’), nor his decision – for reasons that he justifies quite cogently – to conduct his research by ‘only talking to people who I could meet within a short walk from my house.’
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