November 27, 2010

Using time travel narratives to measure the rate of change in our way of life

When a population is more or less in a state of equilibrium, forecasting into the future doesn't yield any dazzling new picture of the world -- being stuck, we'll be living just like we are today. There could be cycles up and down around this equilibrium, like the rise and fall of empires, or the spinning of the wheel of fortune in our personal lives, but there won't be some fundamentally different direction that we head off in.

Thus, why waste time imagining what the future will be like, and why bother listening to such stories, if it'll be so similar to our own world?

There have been two major changes in the human way of life, however, that do seem to have sparked our interest in just how far the changes would go. The first was the switch from a nomadic hunter-gatherer way of life to a sedentary farmer way of life. For quality of life, all measures show that this was a disaster -- people lived shorter and sicker lives, had a more limited and vegan-like diet, although they did have more stuff to accumulate. This is when folklore, legends, mythology, etc., start to explore "fall from grace" and apocalyptic themes. These project just how bad things will get if their present rate of change -- downward -- continues.

Herder mythologies and religion are like those of farmers in this respect at least, as they feel like they're hold-outs for a more free and nomadic way of life, yet under pressure to settle down and join the increasing ranks of farmers. The descendants of Proto-Indo-European mythology, not to mention Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all were born from nomadic pastoralists.

Then sometime during the 19th C. in the industrializing countries, it became clear that this wasn't just another upward phase in a cycle that would inevitably return to a lower level, but was a sustained move toward a different way of life. It's during this time that writers start to show a profound interest in just how far the technological and social changes will go in the next 50 or 100 or 500 years if their present rate of change continues.

But somewhere around 1990 that century-old fascination will the future comes to a grinding halt. The last major cultural works that show a sincere attempt to project the present rate of change into the future and see what life would look like are Back to the Future II and Total Recall (maybe a couple of less popular others). The original Back to the Future movie looked at how much the way of life had changed from 1985 back to 1955, and it was clear enough even to those who weren't even alive in the 1970s, let alone the '50s.

The sequel sent time travellers the same amount of time in the opposite direction, from 1985 to 2015. There are clothes that blow dry themselves when wet, shoes that fit themselves to the wearer's feet, and of course hoverboards, a skateboard the glides on the air without need for wheels.

Total Recall shows what life looks like once we colonize Mars. There will even be tourist trips to Mars.

Then after Total Recall, released in 1990, there are scarcely any of these stories that were as successful. 12 Monkeys doesn't count because time travel forwards is not used as a way to imagine what life will be like if the current rate of change keeps on going. It's more of declinist or apocalyptic narrative that would have been popular during the transition to agriculture, as an epidemic disease wipes out most of humanity and nature reclaims spaces from ruined civilizations.

In fact, if anyone tried to make a movie like Back to the Future II today, the audiences would laugh them out of the theaters. "Yeah right, we don't even have hoverboards and commuting a la The Jetsons, yet we're supposed to believe that in the near future we're going to have whatever you're showing us? How naive."

Everyone has sensed that the rate of dazzling change that began with the shift from farming to industrial capitalism is more or less completed. They observe this in their personal lives, they hear it from their friends of friends of friends, and they see it in the media, who can show them what life is like outside of the social networks they're a part of. I mean, Jesus, even the Japanese don't have hoverboards! I thought they were supposed to be like 50 years ahead of us in technology.

Hardcore gadget worshippers are desperate to see mind-blowing change everywhere, but normal people recognize that there is little change in going from a world with cordless phones everywhere to iPhones everywhere, at least compared to the no-phone to phone change. Ditto with iPods -- hardly more dazzling than a Walkman, especially compared to the no-portable-music to Walkman change.

The internet has made daily life a little different, but not much. If you took someone from 1990 and showed them what you use the internet for at any time since then, would they be as spellbound as someone who lived in a pre-computer time transported to a world with personal computers (a pre-1990 shift)? Not at all. It's a bit different, but nothing on the scale of "we're moving off into uncharted territory," like the no-electricity to electricity shift.

Social network sites like Facebook don't really connect you to anyone who wasn't already in your real-life social network, or any more strongly to those who were in your real-life network. If there is no radical change to project forward, it's no surprise that there are no cultural hits that forecast what life will be like when the whole world is in your friends list -- it'll be just like now.

Returning for a moment to cell phones, nobody except me remembers how easy it was to communicate in a post-Bell but pre-cell world. We had phones in our houses, and by the '80s we could even walk around the house with them -- outside too! If we were away from home, we would never need one in the car since we were busy paying attention to driving. If at work, they had phones there, and there were always offices or homes that you might pass by and ask to use theirs. If you didn't want to trouble someone else, they even had these things called pay phones that you'd drop a quarter (or earlier a dime) into, and call whoever you wanted. The major difference in the post-cell world is that it's a lot easier for others to bother you on the go -- before it was just easier for you to bother them.

In any case, the closing off of this part of the popular imagination shows that most people have decided that their way of life has not fundamentally changed much in the past 20 years. If there had been a radical change, they would've noticed and dreamt about how far it would go within the next 30 or 50 or 100 years. Therefore, things have stayed the same over this time. Again, gadget-worshipping geeks will desperately try to give examples of big changes in the past 20 years, but we don't care about that -- we're talking about real life as it's lived. If people don't see what the big deal is about the gadget-worshippers' favorite new toy, then this doohickey doesn't make any difference in people's daily lives.

For me it's a bummer that the tumultuous and topsy-turvy future has turned out to be static, but I'm grateful for at least getting to live through part of that industrial transition period. Millennials only have memories from after the equilibrium was reached, although given how playing-it-safe they are, they must find it pleasant to not feel the ground shifting beneath your feet.

Still, even if we've already hit the future, we'll always have the past to travel back to, and I've always found those stories more fascinating anyway.


  1. It is just the west that is declining and static. China and Singapore are still progressing. We don't realize it yet, because the difference is not that great.

    Technology has not run out of puff. We have run out of puff.

  2. It could be the demographic dystopia that we are certain to face also. I mean who wants to project into a Latin American future?


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