Sunday, May 16, 2010

Doublethinking About the Future

I've recently begun writing a new science fiction story, set mostly in 1980. As something set before I was born, it's actually a rather comforting departure from the more distant bits of the twenty-first century. It's not just that I don't have to do any worldbuilding for 1980 - though the peppering of hints that the story is not set in the twenty-first century is reminiscent - but I know how things turned out. I do not have to worry about the prospects or possibilities of a global thermonuclear war in 1995, but an author sitting in 1980 and writing about the twenty-first century would be forced to confront that before moving on.

I can still remember when the twenty-first century was supposed to be a golden time of wealth and opportunity. The role-playing game Transhuman Space, set at the threshold of the twenty-second century, strikes me as an embodiment of that expectation and, as such, strikes me as more and more dated with each passing year. The last ten years have taught us that the twenty-first century will not be a golden age. It will just be an age, and if we're lucky and skillful we'll come out of it better than when we went in.

One great problem for forecasting and envisioning the shape of the future world is not only the flux of events, but their apparent solidity until the tide comes rushing in to destroy all our sandcastles. Take Toronto's Transit City light rail project, one of the city's biggest nods to the future in recent years. It was announced back in 2007, a network of six lines extendng rails throughout the city and simplifying transit for tens of thousands of people, with funding commitments made and repeated by the provincial government again and again. The whole project was supposed to be completed in 2018.

Three years later, it'll barely be started in 2018. The economic crunch and Ontario's debt load have given the province all the excuse it needs to cut the project to the bone - the half of it, that is, that still has funding commitments as I write this. Three years ago we budgeted for plenty. Now we're all in penury, or at least our governments are, and things that need to be done are falling by the wayside.

It's easy to forget that the future is expensive. Whether they're new transit lines or space stations or a truly green economy, so many of the things we habitually associate with the future remain so today because their cost couldn't be justified to politicians in days gone by. It's not inferior technology that prevents us from living in cities in the moon today but the astronomical cost of building and maintaining those cities. Though these things are always assumed to be part of the future, I worry that they'll remain that way explicitly because no one has the will to bring them out of the future into today. The Toronto subway is another example of that; it's an excellent transit system for a city of 600,000 in 1980. The only problem is that's not what it's serving anymore.

The concept of doublethink was popularized by George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four, and it consists of holding "simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them." Thinking about the future feels like doublethink to me sometimes. On one hand, we're dealing with a great many threats - social, environmental, technological, economic - that all need to be dealt with while we have only limited resources to deal with them, and on the other hand I have to believe - for the purposes of my stories - that Earth of 2078 was able to solve them all, one way or another.

I'm not saying it's impossible to solve these problems. But it nevertheless seems a bit incoherent to say that we'll have people working in space stations and spacing off to Mars when right now we don't even have the stones to build a few kilometers of light rail.

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