A friend recently asked me what I thought of all the dystopian views of our future often portrayed in movies and television shows—and predicted by certain people sure that election of the “other” candidate is going to lead to doom and destruction. Here is my answer to him:
Ah, dystopian futures, we certainly do love to picture them! ‘T was ever thus. Apparently people have some psychological need to believe in a Golden Age that is past—the Garden of Eden, Camelot, the Satya Yuga or Blessed Age of Hinduism; a Golden Age that we have somehow fallen away from but could, if we are “good,” get back to or restore. These mythologies include the logical conclusion that if we’ve fallen away and are continuing to fall away from the Garden, then things will continue to get worse, leading to Armageddon or the Kali Yuga, The Age of the Demon. After which, in some of the myths, the evil are punished and the good rewarded; in other myths the universe resets itself back to the Blessed Age and history starts all over again.
Many of us today, rational children of the Enlightenment that we are, are no different. We’ve replaced faith in a sacred text with faith in science, yet still the message is that we need to get “back” to a better, earlier time. For some that means returning to the values of the 1960s; for others, the values of the 1940s/1950s; some want us all to step back a century and become farmers again, living simply on the earth.
Then there are the social scientists who look at the past to find repeating cycles of events and behavior, so they can tell us not only where we are now but what will happen next, in an unchanging round of socioeconomic yugas.
My own take is that human life has always been hard. There never was a Blessed Age. People weren’t uniformly noble and self-sacrificing in the 1940s or all full of love and peace in the 1960s. But we are, in fact, evolving. Steven Pinker makes an effective case for this idea in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, in which he points out that not so very long ago, the average man’s chance of dying by violence was 60 percent. In the United States in 2012, a young man’s chance of dying through violence was, as one article in The Economist put it, “a staggering 28 per 100,000 population.” In other words, 0.028 percent—a considerable improvement over 60,000 per 100,000 population!
Pinker argues that the reason why we find such a relatively tiny rate of violent death “staggering” now is that we have become far more compassionate and easily shocked than we used to be a century or so ago, when people flocked to hangings and beheadings as a form of public entertainment. This despite the fact that the Internet, television, and movies bring us violent images every day. The recent outpouring of grief and rage over shootings of blacks and police officers indicates to me that the people who warn us that such exposure desensitizes us are missing something.
I don’t watch the dystopian shows in which everyone has become a zombie or aliens have destroyed Terran cultures, leaving a few desperadoes engaged in guerrilla warfare and usually turning on each other half the time. I prefer the visionaries—also known as science fiction writers—who conceive of a positive future in which we have built upon the knowledge gained by experience and become better people: the world of Star Trek, for example.
Archetypal psychologist James Hillman said that “the way we imagine our lives is the way we will go on living our lives.” Science fiction has always stepped ahead of what we know into the realm of what-could-be and usually, at the time of writing, seems impossible—and yet many of those works turn out to be prophetic. Jules Verne imagined submarines, spaceships flying to the moon, and skywriting. Isaac Asimov predicted the Mars Rover and coffeemakers. Other science fiction writers envisioned the Internet, debit and credit cards, video chatting and instant messaging, geostationary satellite communications, digital books, 3D printers, antidepressant medications, tanning beds—and, of course, robots. That’s just a partial list.
Science fiction also imagines different social realities. For example, Star Trek taught us in the 1960s that there could be a future in which a black woman was an officer on a spaceship. A young black girl named Mae Jemison watched that show and thought, “maybe I could be an astronaut!”—and became one.
So no, I don’t buy into the dystopian stuff. I’ve seen a lot of wondrous stuff come to pass in my lifetime, starting with standing in the street as a very small child and looking up to see the very first man-made satellite pass overhead, and I expect to see a lot more before I boldly go beyond this life.