Future Fatigue

Essential Reading: William Gibson’s Book Expo American Luncheon Talk.

An excerpt:

Say it’s midway through the final year of the first decade of the 21st Century. Say that, last week, two things happened: scientists in China announced successful quantum teleportation over a distance of ten miles, while other scientists, in Maryland, announced the creation of an artificial, self-replicating genome. In this particular version of the 21st Century, which happens to be the one you’re living in, neither of these stories attracted a very great deal of attention.

In quantum teleportation, no matter is transferred, but information may be conveyed across a distance, without resorting to a signal in any traditional sense. Still, it’s the word “teleportation”, used seriously, in a headline. My “no kidding” module was activated: “No kidding,” I said to myself, “teleportation.” A slight amazement.

The synthetic genome, arguably artificial life, was somehow less amazing. The sort of thing one feels might already have been achieved, somehow. Triggering the “Oh, yeah” module. “Artificial life? Oh, yeah.”

Though these scientists also inserted a line of James Joyce’s prose into their genome. That triggers a sense of the surreal, in me at least. They did it to incorporate a yardstick for the ongoing measurement of mutation. So James Joyce’s prose is now being very slowly pummelled into incoherence by cosmic rays.

Noting these two pieces of more or less simultaneous news, I also noted that my imagination, which grew up on countless popular imaginings of exactly this sort of thing, could produce nothing better in response than a tabloid headline: SYNTHETIC BACTERIA IN QUANTUM FREE-SPACE TELEPORTATION SHOCKER.

Alvin Toffler warned us about Future Shock, but is this Future Fatigue? For the past decade or so, the only critics of science fiction I pay any attention to, all three of them, have been slyly declaring that the Future is over. I wouldn’t blame anyone for assuming that this is akin to the declaration that history was over, and just as silly. But really I think they’re talking about the capital-F Future, which in my lifetime has been a cult, if not a religion. People my age are products of the culture of the capital-F Future. The younger you are, the less you are a product of that. If you’re fifteen or so, today, I suspect that you inhabit a sort of endless digital Now, a state of atemporality enabled by our increasingly efficient communal prosthetic memory. I also suspect that you don’t know it, because, as anthropologists tell us, one cannot know one’s own culture.

The Future, capital-F, be it crystalline city on the hill or radioactive post-nuclear wasteland, is gone. Ahead of us, there is merely…more stuff. Events. Some tending to the crystalline, some to the wasteland-y. Stuff: the mixed bag of the quotidian.

See Also:

  • Science (the future is now).
  • Plastic antibody works in first tests in living animals.