Why we should fear the future

Written by on July 1, 2008 | Out Of Character

The Speculist stuck up an interesting essay recently saying that “pessimism is the new racism”, noting that “we must recognize that the memeplexes that have built up around our fear of the future — pessimism, cynicism, fatalism, misanthropy — are both factually and morally wrong”.

I found this interesting, since I consider myself to be quite pessimistic about certain things. The majority of science fiction I enjoy tends to be dystopian, as does my own personal writing. I have optimism about other things, but that’s rather beside the point.

While an obsession with a fear of the future is probably unhealthy, I probably take the completely opposite point of view: we’re not pessimistic enough. I don’t think we ask enough questions about new technologies, new laws, new wars. We’re too quick to brand people as Luddites, doom-sayers or non-patriots. We don’t spend enough time trying to forecast unintended consequences and don’t pay any attention to our future, and are instead fixated on short-term self-gratification.

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Out Of Character
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OOC: On the Hovering Helicopter, and Writing Future Fiction

Written by on June 1, 2007 | Out Of Character

The future is now, my friend Matt once told me. I’ve always held that to my heart whenever writing science fiction (or future fiction as I prefer), but I hadn’t said it in such a catchy way. If you want an idea of what tomorrow will bring, have a look at the near present, instead. Reading history books is also extremely educational, too (when people say history repeats, it’s not just a cliche).

I’ve found inspiration from the strangest places. For example, the character in Wasting Art, Wasting I was inspired by an article I read about an artist, Sebastian Horsley, who had himself crucified at a festival in the Philippines because he asked, “How can you paint the crucifixion without being crucified?” Naturally, I started asking questions about what an artist in the future would do. A few months before reading the piece, I’d attended a talk by Bruce Sterling where he spoke about artists being vital in exploring new technologies like RFID, so I started thinking about that angle, and …

And so on.

Of course, these are just two random influences of a hundred other inspirations for the piece (McLuhan, who is featured during the dialogue, was another source of inspiration with the book Understanding Media, which I was reading at the time), but the point is that knowledge of the world past and present is probably more essential to a writer than just making stuff up in your head.

Future fiction is this great paradox where you’re trying to see into the future by gazing backwards. It’s a bit like trying to read a map: you get your bearings, figure out where you are and how you got there, and then try and project where you want to go. The only difference is that the roads are often invisible, and you never know when the next rest stop is.

You may wonder why I prefer calling it future fiction. It’s simple really, and no, I’m not trying to be smart or clever: I’m just not really a scientist. Oh, I read about science (and psychology, sociology, politics, philosophy, and a host of other subjects), but I don’t consider myself a scientist by any stretch of the imagination. I’m simply interested in how people and societies will behave in these futures; for me, cool gadgets, science and technology are secondary to what’s really important, which is what we’ll do with it, how society will change (or not), and how people will live in this future world that’s squirming in my head.

Another source of inspiration for writing has been, well, life. The things I observe while walking around, overhear at the pub, something that happens at work … everything. Philip K. Dick was a great believer in writing about what he knew, and that was the secret to his success as far as I’m concerned (well, that and the fact that his mind probably lived a few inches outside his head). An example here is the lead character from Random Inaccessible Memory who was based partially on me, and partially on a friend of mine.

If you’re sitting saying, “That’s bloody obvious!”, then sit down and write a few short stories, because that’s what you should be doing if you’re going to be that smug about it.

So where does the “hovering helicopter” fit in to all this? Well, it was the inspiration for writing this (I wanted to shine a light on my creative influences), and for firing up my imagination for a possible short story. For about fifteen minutes a black and yellow helicopter decided to hover around our neighbourhood conducting surveillance. I suspect it was a police helicopter (I couldn’t make out the markings properly), but I could see the video camera bubble at the bottom of the aircraft. It flew and hovered above about half a dozen houses, about a minute at a time, before it eventually roared off into the darkening night sky.

When things like that happen to a writer, it’s like giving a Molotov cocktail and a lighter to some revolutionary fighting an anti-water privatization war.

What, or who, was it looking for? The obvious answer would be to say a criminal, but just who are the criminals in tomorrow’s world? Perhaps they’re political dissidents, immigrants, or unregistered net users.

How would such surveillance be conducted in the future? Recent news in the UK reported about Merseyside police beginning to use pilotless police drones to conduct surveillance, another symptom of the militarization of urban police forces in the world. The obvious answer would be to replace the helicopter with a drone, but perhaps they’ve miniaturized even further and now have tiny swarms of flying hornet-type spies in the sky.

I think I need to take a cold shower before my brain overheats. There’s a story in there somewhere, and I’m off to find it. Feel free to let me know what you would come up with if it had happened to you.

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