In late February of 2016, professional futurist Ian Pearson made the claim that, by 2050, Homo sapiens will be outmoded by the terribly-impressive sounding Homo Optimus: a cybernetic creature with modular cloud-based cognition and replaceable physical parts.
Ugly? Stupid? Bad at making friends and influencing people? Never fear! “With optimised genomes and bodies enhanced by links to external technology,” Pearson claims, “people could be more beautiful, more intelligent, more emotionally sophisticated, more physically able, more socially connected, generally healthier and happier all round.” Whew, what a relief! Where do I sign up?
Of course, the whole thing sounds more than a bit like science fiction. Perhaps it reminds you of something out of an old Harlan Ellison novel you found in your parents’ garage, from back when your dad had hair and played guitar. Or maybe it evokes the poorly-bound and slightly off-colour superhero comics you would buy from the newsagent, all wrapped up in their cellophane condoms. Maybe it’s Star Trek of which it reminds you, or William Gibson, or Bladerunner.
Whatever it is, some people are excited. It’s hard to blame them; no one wants the future to be worse than the present, after all. And they certainly wouldn’t be the first, not by a long shot. Cockaigne, Arcadia, Hy-Brasil, Big Rock Candy Mountain, the Garden of Eden; for as long as we’ve been telling stories, we have been making up ideal places where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts.
During the Enlightenment, these fantasies were particularly common. In an intellectual climate that assured that all true answers are both timeless and mutually compatible, the idea of crafting a society perfect for all people seemed not desirable, but also possible. In perhaps the most famous of these models, early French socialist, Charles Fourier endorsed a society built around phalanstères, or large communal hotels, in which the ends of man could be best achieved.
we’ve all seen The Jetsons. Robot servants; talking dogs; automated labour; open-plan apartments in teetering Googie needles miles above the clouds
All over the world, communities of the credulous founded towns based upon Fourier’s ideas, motivated by his declaration that the founding of a true socialist society would cause the seas to turn into lemonade. Unfortunately, these people ended up bitterly disappointed by the unchanging flavour of the ocean, and these experiments were soon abandoned; they found that the “good place” (eutopia) is actually a “no place” (outopia).
Closer to the present, people who visited Norman Bel Geddes’ Futurama exhibit at the New York World’s Fair in 1939, after an intoxicating 18 minutes wherein participants were flown over a city of the future replete with tree-lined boulevards and enormous, sweeping freeways, were awarded a souvenir pin upon leaving the complex: “I have seen the future”.
it was correctly predicted in the 1940s that home appliances would lighten the labour of housewives, futurists of the period almost entirely failed to realise that this would enable millions of women to join the workforce
Hilarious. After all, we’ve all seen The Jetsons. Robot servants; talking dogs; automated labour; open-plan apartments in teetering Googie needles miles above the clouds. And all by the year 2062, no less! Other predictions were even more ambitious. Lost in Space, for instance, was set in 1999. Nineteen-ninety-nine. For anyone born in the 1920s to the 1940s, the present must be an enormous disappointment.
Those of us not lucky enough to be part of either the Greatest Generation or the Silent Generation (that is, those born between 1900 and 1945) consider what our ancestors left us with a kind of patronising indulgence; how, after all, were they to know better? Fascinated by the combination of wide-eyed optimism and bullish hubris, we consume their utopias rudely and indiscriminately, like loud-mouthed, loud-shirted tourists in an exotic and foreign land.
Sometimes, of course, the predictions were actually right. Although we might be a little short on food pills, other things came true: telecommuting, sending data through phone lines, the drudgery of household tasks outsourced to machines. Weirdly, though, the cascading effects of those developments were themselves unanticipated.
For instance: whilst it was correctly predicted in the 1940s that home appliances would lighten the labour of housewives, futurists of the period almost entirely failed to realise that this would enable millions of women to join the workforce. This, of course, had two profound effects on Western economies: first, the price of labour collapsed, due to the surplus of bodies capable of performing work; and second, systemic sociopolitical bias against women was brought to public attention, thus paving the way for the women’s lib movement.
You might reasonably think that our litany of errors would make us more cautious about bold predictions of mankind’s future. Unfortunately though, that doesn’t quite appear to be the case. Indeed, in the triumph of hope over experience, our present dissatisfaction with the tawdry realities of Western liberal democracy seem to have left us more vulnerable to these flights of fancy than ever before.
It’s all a bit silly, really. Predicting the future is a mug’s game. So let’s just cool our jets, shall we?