Utopias, dystopias, and other traps

As a dork, I’m a huge fan of science fiction. But, over time, I’ve switched from reading books to watching movies. That’s because, for me, it’s a little easier to suspend disbelief in a movie theater.

With books, there’s too much opportunity for me to have — imaginary — arguments with the author about their vision of the future. And the older I’ve gotten, and the more time I’ve spent covering business, politics, and military conflicts, the less patience I have for writers who don’t do their research.

Specifically, too many people fall into either the dystopia-utopia trap, or the nothing-ever-changes trap.

Dystopias and utopias

Many people, when they imagine the future, naturally tend towards one of two extremes. Either everything will be perfect and everyone happy all the time, or everything is going to be totally horrible.

And since happiness is boring to write about, fictional utopias usually turn out to be dystopias in disguise.

We’ll all get wiped out by disease, by aliens, by zombies, by climate change, by lack of food, or by our own laziness and stupidity.

Invariably, of course, someone survives to rebuild because a planet devoid of life is as boring to write about as one where everyone is perfectly happy.

Predictions of coming cataclysms have always been with us. And I’m not opposed to them in principle — by warning us of potential threats, such as overpopulation, nuclear war, or the Y2K Bug, they spur effort and allow us to deal with them.

1983's The Day After, released at a time when nuclear war seemed all but inevitable.
1983’s The Day After, released at a time when nuclear war seemed all but inevitable.

A potentially cataclysmic threat, like nuclear war, mass starvation, or global warming requires massive concerted action. I understand that.

In practice, however, few of us are going to dedicate our entire lives to preventing one of these cataclysms from happening. At most, most of us will just donate some money, or cast a ballot.

And, chances are, the cataclysm isn’t going to come after all.

Unfortunately, the common attitude of “everything is getting worse, and in the future things are going to be really, really bad” means that we’re not preparing for the future that is going to come.

In fact, when we’re not panicking, we’re probably assuming that the future is going to be just like today.

A future where nothing changes

In our regular lives, things are constantly changing. Things change globally, with country after country moving up the economic ladder.

And technologically, with new transformative technologies appearing every couple of years.

So why is it that in so many visions of the future, things don’t change?

Take, for example, a common scenario: life-extending drugs are invented, but are only available for the rich. Society becomes stratified, and there’s no hope for the lower class. So… the drugs never go-off patent? Cheap generics never become available? Competitors don’t come out immediately with products that are even better and cheaper?

Matt Damon in 2013's Elysium.
Matt Damon in 2013’s Elysium.

It’s a natural human tendency to use linear projections when thinking about the future. Stocks are going up, and will always be going up. The number of unfilled programming jobs is growing, and will continue to grow.  Violence is increasing and will always continue to increase.

(That last one, by the way, is completely false. Check out The Better Angels of Our Natures: Why Violence has Declined, the best book I read last year.)

Either of these two ways of looking at the future — that it will end in disaster or that it will go on just like today — aren’t particularly useful when it comes to long-term planning. With the former outlook, we might as well just throw up our hands and give up. with the latter, we just need to do more of what we’re doing right now.

The result is that we miss opportunities and fail to prepare for the changes that are actually coming.

Up Next: How to expect the unexpected

Maria Korolov