The Future Ain’t What It Used to Be

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Images of tomorrow, of course, are all about the attitudes of today. Take a look at any comic, TV show or movie set in the future and you’ll see what its creators thought about the prospects of the human race. Will we manage to create a largely peaceful society, harnessing technology and using it for the betterment of ourselves and our neighbors, resorting to laser pistols and death rays only when faced with an intractable foe from the Horsehead Nebula or a rampaging, pillaging, planet-eating monster? Or will we bring about some sort of Armageddon as we battle the technological horrors we have unleashed upon ourselves in a final, devastating act of hubris?

TV shows and movies set in the future are often telling re: our attitudes toward technology. Consider, for example, these two very different portrayals of domestic robots: from The Jetsons (1962-1963), produced in the early days of the space age, and from the Will Smith version of I, Robot (2004).

Consider the classic Star Trek television series, set in the 23rd century. Even with the social upheaval of the late 1960s – when the show originally aired – Star Trek offered a sunny, nearly Utopian vision of the future. Not only have the people of Earth set aside any differences they might once have had, most of the civilized galaxy has joined together under a single banner. Hunger, want and the need for possessions have been eradicated. And by the time of Star Trek: The Next Generation – produced in the late 1980s and early 1990s and set roughly 100 years after the original series – sexism is pretty much a thing of the past as well.

In more recent decades, however, science fiction has taken a decidedly dark turn. Anymore, it seems, movies and TV shows set in the future depict either an apocalyptic wasteland or an almost Orwellian kind of dystopia. And technology – which has always been viewed with some degree of ambivalence in science fiction – has emerged as a central concern. From the cyberpunk movies of the 1990s to the Matrix series and beyond, we have seen a growing sense of anxiety about the influence of technology. And for those who prefer straight-up man vs. machine – luddites and assorted other technophobes, I guess – Hollywood has given us movies like Terminator Salvation and the Will Smith version of I, Robot.

What’s fascinating here is the apparent disconnect between our attitudes toward technology in real life and those reflected in depictions of the future. In real life, we enjoy the benefits of image-guided surgery, ATM touch screens and cars that can park themselves; we can’t go anywhere without our Blackberrys and iPods; and we seem not the least bit of concerned about how much we’ve come to rely on it all. If science fiction is any kind of barometer of our collective fears, though, we do in fact find it unsettling – if not actually terrifying. Here’s hoping that, this time anyway, we’ve got it wrong.

I got to thinking about this topic after reading editor Lynn Savage’s highly entertaining history of the laser in science fiction. Check it out here

Published: August 2010
CyberpunkDeath RaysDifferent WavelengthsGary BoasGary Boas BlogJetsonsLaser pistolsLynn SavageResearch & TechnologyrobotRosie the RobotScience FictionStar TrekStar Trek: The Next GenerationTerminator SalvationThe JetsonsThe MatrixWill SmithLasers

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