What will the future look like? Imagine it for a second.
Maybe you see a gleaming city cleaner than anything has a right to be. Personal flying machines zip overhead, like insects pollinating megatowers in a skyline designed to make Dubai blush. Technology for the win. We humans have figured it all out.
Or maybe it’s grimy.
The Disney future was more popular before weapons of mass destruction, financial panic, and the internet made us “wise” and cynical about the direction of humanity. The new view is all about inequality, squalor, and robots run amok—99% of us turned away at Disney’s gates. (Pick your book, movie, or headline.)
These are obviously extreme (and cliché) scenarios, and yet they’re persistent in pop culture. It’s the utopians against the dystopians; the Pollyanas versus the Cassandras.
So, which worldview wins the future?
According to Kevin Kelly, senior maverick at Wired and fabulous author of the future, none of the above. Along with the release of his new book The Inevitable, Kelly's been out on the interview circuit talking about how he looks ahead into the future and what he thinks about the tension between pessimism and optimism.
“Despite the headlines and general pessimistic view, the world is getting better and has been getting better for hundreds if not thousands of years," Kelly recently told the Observer. "Technology gives people more choices.”
Kelly is an optimist, but he isn't a supporter of the Disney vision. The future doesn’t replace the present, he says, it builds on it, layer by layer. To him, the most plausible science fiction worlds are the "worn" ones.
Today, for example, there are more old technologies than new—more of wood, stone, and steel than silicon. Similarly, the world of tomorrow will be gritty and sparkling, high tech and low tech, humans living in a dizzying range of technological niches. Technology will solve old problems and create new ones, but the net result will be favorable.
You might call this view the skeptical optimist.
My commentary: "Better than today" is the right answer.
To any newcomers, here's the rule of thumb:
- Utopia: Things are perfect, or at least they're perfect for you. This would resemble all our dreams, bending reality backwards to bring peace and prosperity to all.
- Eutopia: Things range from "damn-near perfect" all the way to "better than dystopian". Right now, we're "better than dystopian" mixed with elements of a dystopia. A "damn-near perfect" world would be one where most countries resemble the best aspects of the USA, Scandinavia, and Japan.
- Dystopia: Run away, buy cyanide pills, resist, do anything but try to live here. The whole world resembles North Korea mixed with Syria mixed with Eritrea mixed with the worst aspects of the USA and China, and that's just the welcoming mat to our problems.