Monday, April 02, 2012

Siddartha Mukherjee and the Past of the Future

There had to be a time when there was no people, right? 
Well where did all these people come from, huh? 
I'll tell you where. The future.
--Miller, in Repo Man

I've been reading Siddartha Mukherjee's justly praised Emperor of All Maladies--that is, reading about the various campaigns to tame, conquer or just understand cancer.  I'm reflecting, inter alia on that time not so many years ago when we were hot on the trail of a "cure for" this peculiarly dreadful disease. We went about it with all the optimism and conviction that a sophisticated, well-financed and energetic research machine could promote.  And of course we can cure some cancers, sort of, and we have made some impressive headway at cancer prevention in, e.g., reducing the presence of tobacco.  But cancer is still with us and as a whole, we have a more chastened view of our possibilities than we did, say, along about the beginning of the Nixon administration.

Mukherjee's book follows hard on Michael Graetz' End of Energy, where there is a similar theme.  After the crude, rude "first oil shock" in 1973 we spit on our hands and tackled the job of developing magic bullets among alternative energy sources.  Once again, we've made some progress sideways: CAFE standards have a remarkably good track record and we've done by way of improving energy efficiency. But wind and solar seem almost as elusive as ever and ethanol has turned into a bad joke.  Carter made any number of bold forays; then Reagan supplanted him and said "whatever" and there it pretty much lay at least until a year or two ago.

Meanwhile I've also lately listened to an intriguing interview with John Crowley about what he calls "The Next Future"--as the interviewer puts it, “the ways in which writers have imagined the future and how today the future is disappearing from people's imaginations only to be replaced by the past."   Think steampunk, or Harry Turtledove.  Recognize that hardly anybody in any genre--except dystopia--spends much time worrying about what might like ahead

There's a segue here, not so?  We look to the past because our future is just not as dazzling as we thought it was going to be. We more or less know we aren't likely to "cure" cancer; we'll count ourselves lucky if we can just hold it at by.  With energy, we know in our heart of hearts that we're just kicking the (empty oil?) can  down the road and we entertain the pious hope of a miracle because we know that not much else will save us,.   The future, in short, lies mostly in the rear-view mirror.  The Jetsons have left the building, and not in a flying car.  


Jeffrey Dutky said...

I think that this is entirely too despondent a view of both what our futures might potentially be, and why we have, as a culture, stopped predicting the future in the same bold strokes and loving detail that we did during the previous century.

First, to say that the struggle to cure cancer has left us chastened as to our own abilities utterly ignores the incredible advances that we have made in medical science over the past 50 years. If anything, the struggle to cure cancer has proven that our abilities are astounding: the difficulty is that the problems we are now trying to tackle (e.g. curing cancer) are more complex than we had once imagined them to be. Just because the problem is harder than we expected doesn't mean that our abilities have been diminished in any way (other than by comparison).

Second, the reason that we don't spend as much time and effort imagining the future is not, I think, because we have become disinterested in it, but because the future has receded beyond the horizon of our present imagination. Almost every technological wonder that was imagined, and that could be achieved, has been brought to fruition. We have more than enough possibilities to deal with in the hear and now, and we are only starting to come to grips with them. When the implications of the internet, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and other amazing advances of the 21st century have been digested, then we can get back to thinking about futures: there's plenty to do today (and this month, or this year, or even this decade) without obsessing about distant tomorrows.

Third, most "futurists" of the past century relied far more on the past than they did on actual prediction. Most visions of the future, as seen in books, movies, television, and the occasional futurist columns assorted glossy magazines, were either historical milieu dressed up in sliver spandex, or just the present day with fancier set pieces. We only are aware of it now because even the fancy props of science fiction are nearly indistinguishable from what we carry around with us every day.

The future that we predicted has arrived; We are living in it. Yes, it was supposed to be cooler than this, but that's just because it was all fiction: meant more to entertain than to elucidate.

Buce said...

Most interesting comment, thanks.