Utopia and its discontents

I’m a huge fan of Neal Stephenson, and also of his newest project Hieroglyph, which aims to inspire future scientific breakthroughs with optimistic near-future science fiction. But I found two critiques of the approach quite compelling this week.

First, Virginia Postrel (whose writing on design I’ve enjoyed in the past), writes that “Peter Thiel Is Wrong About the Future” (I’m reading his book as well), and mentions Hieroglyph as similarly misled:

The dystopian science fiction Stephenson’s Project Hieroglyph aims to counter isn’t the cause of our cultural malaise. It’s a symptom. The obstacle to more technological ambitions isn’t our idea of the future. It’s how we think about the present and the past…

The reason mid-20th-century Americans were optimistic about the future wasn’t that science-fiction writers told cool stories about space travel…People believed the future would be better than the present because they believed the present was better than the past. They constantly heard stories — not speculative, futuristic stories but news stories, fashion stories, real-estate stories, medical stories — that reinforced this belief.

It’s the same ambivalence toward today’s progress that Louis CK rails about, and that many science fiction writers and futurists recognize. We do live in amazing times, yet the dominant cultural reaction is frustration and dissatisfaction. We don’t often celebrate the incredible progress we’ve achieved. As David Brooks once wrote, “Americans have always been united less by a shared past than by the shared dream of a better future.”

The Guardian also confronts the Hieroglyph collection, calling the stories “built on willful ignorance”:

But there is also a deliberate naivety to Project Hieroglyph. Stories such as Cory Doctorow’s The Man Who Sold the Moon are a veritable hymn to the culture of Silicon Valley and tech start-ups, but deftly wave away the part these cultures play in today’s corporate capitalism and all the inequalities that come with it.

I agree with their assessment of the best stories:

The best contributions to Hieroglyph are the least optimistic, and the best attuned to the human reality that technology so often obscures. Entanglement by Vandana Singh and Madeline Ashby’s By the Time We Get to Arizona both look at the impact of new technologies in developing nations and among the world’s poorest people. They also tackle the obvious problem of technological innovation, the looming menace of climate change, environmental degradation and resource depletion that go hand in hand with new technologies.

I still believe there is a role for optimistic science fiction in changing the world. However it’s always good to be mindful of the present and past when thinking about the future, and to include messy and uncomfortable situations in even the most polished vision. The real future will be both based in today’s world and include a lot of today’s problems, and people are wise enough to recognize when those aspects are missing from stories about the future.