Two weeks ago it was “Back to the Future Day”. More specifically, Doc and Marty McFly reached the future at exactly October 21st, 2015 in the second movie in the series. Me being a futurist, I was invited to several television and radio talk shows to discuss the shape of things to come, which is pretty ridiculous, considering that the future is always about to come, and we should talk about it every day, and not just in a day arbitrarily chosen by the scriptwriters of a popular movie.
All the same, I’ll admit I had an uplifting feeling. On October 21st, everybody was talking about the future. That made me realize something about science fiction: we really need it. Not just for the technological ideas that it gives us (like cellular phones and Tricorders from Star Trek), but also for the expanded view of the future that it provides us with.
Sci-fi movies and book take root in our culture, and establish a longing and an expectation to a well-defined future. In that way, sci-fi creations provide us with a valuable social tool: a radically prolonged Cycle-time, which is the length of time an individual in society tends to look forward to and plan for in advance.
Cycle-times in the Past
As human beings, and as living organisms in general, mother evolution has shaped us into fulfilling one main goal: transferring our genes to our descendants. We are, in a paraphrase of Richard Dawkins’ quote, trucks that carry the load of our genes into the future, as far as possible from our current starting point. It is curious realize that in order to preserve our genes into the future, we must be almost totally aware of the present. A prehistorical person who was not always on the alert for encroaching wolves, lions and tigers, would not have survived very long. Millions of years of evolution have designed living organisms so that they focus almost entirely on the present.
And so, for the first few tens of thousands years of human existence, we ran away from the tigers and chased after the deer, with a very short cycle-time, probably lasting less than a day.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to know when exactly we managed to strike a bargain with Grandfather Time. Such a bargain provided the early humans great power, and all they needed to do in return was to measure and document the passing of hours and days. I believe that we’ve started measuring time quite early in human history, since time measurement brought power, and power ensured survivability and the passing of genes and time measurement methodologies to the next generation.
The first cycle-time was probably quite short, lasting less than a full day. Early humans could roughly calculate how long it will take the sun to set according to its position in the sky, and so they could know when to start or end a hunt before darkness fell. Their cycle-time was a single day. The woman who wanted to know her upcoming menstruation period – which could lead to drawing predators and making it more difficult for her to hunt – could do that by looking at the moon, and by making a mark on a stick every night. Her cycle-time was a full month.
The great leap forward occurred in agricultural civilizations, which were based on an understanding of the cyclical nature of time: a farmer must know the cyclical order of the seasons of the year, and realize their significance for his field and crops. Without looking ahead a full year into the future, agricultural civilizations could not reach their full height. And so, ten thousand years ago, the first agricultural civilizations set a cycle-time of a whole year.
And that is pretty much the way it remained ever since that time.
Religions initially had the potential to provide longer cycle-times. The clergies have often documented history and made an attempt to forecast the future – usually by creating or establishing complex mythologies. Judaism has prolonged the agricultural cycle-time, for example, by setting a seven year cycle of tending one’s field: six years of growing corps, and a seventh year (Shmita, in Hebrew) in which the fields are allowed to rest.
“For six years you are to sow your fields and harvest the crops, but during the seventh year let the land lie unplowed and unused.” – Exodus, 23, 10-11.
Most of the religious promises for the future, however, were usually vague, useless or even harmful. In his book, The Clock of the Long Now, Stewart Brand repeats an old joke that caricaturizes with more than a shred of truth the difficulties of the Abrahamic religions (i.e. Judaism, Christianity and Islam) in dealing with the future and creating useful cycle-times in the minds of their followers. “Judaism,” writes Brand, “says [that] the Messiah is going to come, and that’s the end of history. Christianity says [that] the Messiah is going to come back, and that’s the end of history. Islam says [that] the Messiah came, and history is irrelevant.” [the quote has been slightly modified for brevity]
While this is obviously a joke, it reflects a deeper truth: that religions (and cultures) tend to focus on a single momentous future, and ignore anything else that comes along. Worse, the vision of the future they give us is largely unhelpful since its veracity cannot be verified, and nobody is willing to set an actual date for the coming of the Messiah. Thus, followers of the Abrahamic religions continue their journey into the future, with their eyes covered with opaque glasses that have only one tiny hole to let the light in – and that hole is in the shape of the Messiah.
Why We Need Longer Cycle-times
When civilizations fail to consider the future in long cycle-times, they head towards inevitable failure and catastrophe. Jared Diamond illustrates this point time and time again in his masterpiece Collapse, in which he reviews several extinct civilizations, and the various ways in which they failed to adapt to their environment or plan ahead.
Diamond describes how the Easter Island folks did not think in cycle-times of trees and earth and soil, but instead thought in human shorter cycle-times. They greedily cut down too many of the trees in the island, and over several decades they squandered the island’s natural resources. Similarly, the settlers in Greenland could not think in a cycle-time long enough to contain the grasslands and the changing climate, and were forced to evacuate the island or freeze to death, after their goats and cattle damaged Greenland’s delicate ecology.
The agricultural civilizations, as I wrote earlier, tend to think by nature in cycle-times no longer than several years, and find it difficult to adjust their thinking into longer cycle-times: ones that apply to trees, earth and evolution of animal (and human) evolution. As a result, agricultural civilizations damage all of the above, disrupt their environment, and eventually disintegrate and collapse when their surroundings can’t support them anymore.
If we wish to keep humanity in existence overtime, we must switch to thinking in longer cycle-times that span decades and centuries. This is not to say that we should plan too far ahead – it’s always dangerous to forecast into the long-term – but we should constantly attempt to consider the consequences of our doings in the far-away future. We should always think of our children and grandchildren as we make steps that could determine their fate several decades away from now.
But how can we implement such long-term cycle-times into human culture?
If you still remember where I began this article, you probably realize the answer by now. In order to create cycle-times that last decades and centuries, we need to visit the future again and again in our imagination. We need to compare our achievements in the present to our expectations and visions of the future. This is, in effect, the end-result of science fiction movies and books: the best and most popular of them create new cycle-times that become entwined in human culture, and make us examine ourselves in the present, in the light of the future.
Science fiction movies and stories have an impressive capability to influence social consciousness. Karel Capek’s theater play R.U.R. from 1920, for example, had not only added the word “Robot” to the English lexicon, but has also infected western society with the fear that robots will take over mankind – just as they did in Capek’s play. Another influential movie, The Terminator, was released in 1984 and has solidified and consolidated that fear.
Science fictions does not have to make us fear the future, though. In Japanese culture, the cartoon robot Astro-Boy has become a national symbol in 1952, and ever since that time the Japanese are much more open and accepting towards robots.
The most influential science fiction creations are those that include dates, which in effect are forecasts for certain futures. These forecasts provide us with cycle-times that we can use to anchor our thinking whenever we contemplate the future. When the year 1984 has come, journalists all over the world tried to analyze society and see whether George Orwell’s dark and dystopian dream had actually come true. When October 21st 2015 was reached barely two weeks ago, I was interviewed almost all day long about the technological and societal forecasts made in Back to the Future. And when the year 2029 will finally come – the year in which Skynet is supposed to be controlling humanity according to The Terminator – I confidently forecast that numerous robotics experts will find themselves invited to talk shows and other media events.
As a result of the above science fiction creations, and many others, humanity is beginning to enjoy new and ambitious cycle-times: we look forward in our mind’s eye towards well-designated future dates, and examine whether our apocalyptic or utopian visions for them have actually come true. And what a journey into the future that is! The most humble cycle-times in science fiction span several decades ahead. The more grandiose ones leap forward to the year 2364 (Star Trek), 2800 (Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos) or even to the end of the universe and back again (in Isaac Asimov’s short story The Last Question).
The longest cycle-times of science fiction – those dealing with thousands or even millions of years ahead – may not be particularly relevant for us. The shorter cycle-times of decades and centuries, however, receive immediate attention from society, and thus have an influence on the way we conduct ourselves in the present.
Humanity has great need of new cycle-times that will be far longer than any that were established in its history. While policy makers attempt to take into account forecasts that span decades ahead, the public is generally not exposed or influenced by such reports. Instead, the cycle-times of many citizens are calibrated according to popular science fiction creations.
Hopefully, those longer cycle-times would allow humanity to prepare in advance to existential longer-term challenges, such as ecological catastrophes or social collapse. At the very same time, longer cycle-times can also encourage and push forward innovation in certain areas, as entrepreneurs and innovators struggle to fulfill the prophecies that were made for certain technological developments in the future (just think of all the clunky hoverboards that were invented towards 2015 as proof).
In short, if you want to save the future, just write science fiction!