Sorry, but we can’t fantasize our way out of this mess
Lee Vinsel is an Assistant Professor of Science, Technology, and Society at Virginia Tech.
Recently, I’ve heard several people suggest that a lack-of-positive-futures, or optimistic visions of tomorrow, have hampered advances in science and technology and society. This idea builds on well-known gripes about supposed deficits in recent technological progress. As billionaire vampire Peter Thiel put it, “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”
The concept—call it the lack-of-positive-futures hypothesis—suggests that one reason technology hasn’t improved is that we have become too pessimistic, that we have been watching too much apocalyptic zombies-slash-climate-change-destroy-the-world porno, that we are strapped for optimistic scenarios, which we could use to build a better world.
Problems with the lack-of-positive-futures hypothesis became clear to me when I heard someone describe the founding of the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University (ASU). The story went like this: One day, science fiction author Neal Stephenson gave a talk at a conference called Future Tense. Stephenson was complaining about how?–?when compared to things like the Apollo Program of the 1960s and 1970s?–?we have become a people who fail, in his words, to “Get Big Stuff Done.” Another speaker, ASU president Michael Crow told Stephenson, “You’re the ones who’ve been slacking off!”
In other words, the bottleneck in technological progress is science fiction writers.
And, thus, in 2011, began the Center for Science and the Imagination (CSI). The CSI includes Stephenson’s project Hieroglyph, which seeks to provide “creative inspiration” through science fiction and which led to a 2014 book, Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future. The CSI describes itself as “a cultural engine for thoughtful optimism,” a place that offers “technically grounded visions of the future that are imaginative, inclusive, and inspiring.” Its homepage features a revolving image with the phrase “[X] a Better Future,” in which X is replaced by these nice feeling words: Imagine, Dream, Share, Make.
I think the person recounting the CSI’s founding myth meant it to be inspiring, or at least appealing, but my first reaction was, “Hold on, is that true? If we think about the history of science, technology, and capitalism and the progress made and not made since the 1970s, is the lack-of-positive-futures seriously a significant causal factor?”
I’d argue that advocates for the lack-of-positive-futures hypothesis have not taken the time to support the idea . . . like, at all! As I see it, the hypothesis faces two notable hurdles: First, there are likely many more fundamental and concrete causes of the lack of technological change since the 1970s, and the theory that a lack-of-positive-futures is one of them has little evidence. Second, we have always had positive visions of future technologies (some would argue too many!). In this way, the lack-of-positive-futures hypothesis is an unsubstantiated absence argument—that is, it claims that something isn’t happening when it is, that there is a gap where there is in fact substance. There are good reasons to think self-interest may be motivating this absence argument, and that, ultimately, the CSI may fit a corporate—or neoliberal—vision of higher education.
Forget these other things, bring on the writers!
With a few exceptions, the United States has experienced an extended period of low economic growth, stagnant productivity, increasing inequality, and sluggish, even decreasing, wages since the 1970s. An enormous literature trying to explain this trajectory has arisen out of economics, history, and other fields at least since the 1980s.
On the political left, Robert Brenner argues that global overproduction has led to depressed wages and a decline in the real economy. On the right, Tyler Cowen asserts that the United States has exhausted all of the “low-hanging fruit,” including in educational attainment and research, a situation that necessarily leads to increased inequality?—?which isn’t necessarily bad in Cowen’s view. (For a helpful, clear, and highly-readable synthesis of available explanations for the post-1970s shift, check out Marc Levinson’s An Extraordinary Time: The End of the Postwar Boom and the Return of the Ordinary Economy.)
Technological change is a frequent theme in these theories, some of which make technology the central factor. Most prominently, in his monumental tome, The Rise and Fall of American Growth, Robert Gordon contends that most recent discussions of “innovation” focus on digital technologies and the internet, much of which is centered on entertainment. While some of these current technological shifts are deep and important, Gordon argues that they do not hold a candle to technological changes that took place between 1870 and 1970, such as electricity; urban sanitation, including clean water and sewerage; pharmaceuticals and chemicals, including plastics; increased use of modern construction materials, like concrete and steel; transportation, including automobiles and aviation; and computers, electronics, and modern communication systems. Some even argue that the “tech world” today is just playing out technologies created before the 1970s rather than creating fundamentally new ones.
But the failure to make further radical progress in many technological arenas is not for lack of trying.
Economists quibble about Gordon’s argument, but at the very least it suggests that there are deeper causes and structures at play than Stephenson’s worry that “we’ve fallen into a habitual state of being depressed and pessimistic about the future” or that a “belief in ineluctable certainty is the true innovation-killer of our age.”
To Gordon’s account, we can add many other causes that people have suggested might be contributing to our present technological stagnation: research efficiencies that have been declining for decades; shareholder value and other corporate rules that encourage short-term thinking and lack of long-term investment; lackluster federal research funding; a failing education system; the presence of regulations that hinder innovation; the absence of regulations that could spur on innovation; and so on.
Even assuming that our present situation is overdetermined and that lots of things have brought us here, where does the lack-of-positive-futures fit in this potent mix? And where is the evidence that it has made even one iota of impact?
The paucity of argument or evidence doesn’t seem to be holding up proponents of the lack-of-positive-futures hypothesis, though. Stephenson paraphrases Crow in this way: “The scientists and engineers, he seems to be saying, are ready and looking for things to do. Time for the [science fiction] writers to start pulling their weight and supplying big visions that make sense.”
These claims are absolutely true. On my long walks, I often find scientists and engineers from my university sitting on tree stumps in the forests near campus, full of inconsolable sorrow, crying into their pocket protectors, lamenting, “If only I had a science fiction author to give me a positive vision of the future, I could finally do something with my life.” Some of us in the humanities and social sciences across the country have suggested starting a mutual aid society for our technically-minded brothers and sisters who lack work because of the recent dearth of optimistic prognostication.
But this satire brings us to the second point?—?we’ve never lacked for positive visions.
Why we can’t have space elevators
While it’s certainly true that dystopian science fiction has become popular in the last few decades, it doesn’t follow that no one has been putting forward more optimistic pictures of tomorrow. Just because Stephenson and others embraced the dark images of cyberpunk, environmental doom, and whatnot doesn’t mean everyone did. From the 1980s to the early 2010s, the late author Iain Banks (who I have nominated for canonization) spun fantastic visions of a post-scarcity society he dubbed The Culture, which was full of artificially-intelligent robots and ships, giant space colonies, individuals who lived almost forever and regularly swapped genders, and seemingly endless, endless wonder. Similarly, Star Trek went off television from 2005 to 2017, but its vision of post-scarcity goodwill and polite liberalism?—?what a friend described as the Enlightenment-on-speed?—?continued all the while on the big screen.
Moreover, as Patrick McCray has examined in his book, The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future, figures like Gerard O’Neil and Eric Drexler put forward radical visions of technological progress precisely in response to 1970s-era concerns about technological and environmental limits. Similarly, Elon Musk regularly takes time away from important activities, like failing to meet production quotas that Ford Motor Company was nailing in 1910, to bless the masses with glorious visions of new technologies (which later turn out to be things that have existed for a long time, like subways).
Recent emerging technologies are regularly tied to fantastic visions of tomorrow: genetic medicine and biotech have fed the dope-laden dreams of transhumanists; artificial intelligence, the manic reveries of singularity types; blockchain, the radical libertarian fantasies of bored teenagers. We’ve poured billions (trillions?) of dollars into nanotech, artificial intelligence, robotics, biotech, genetic medicine, synthetic biology, and blockchain, but?–?as yet?–?they have failed to deliver on the marvelous futures envisioned by their proponents and spelled out by their hypemongers.
To Peter Thiel’s point about flying cars vs. Twitter, anyone who followed publications like Popular Mechanics and Scientific American as a kid can tell you that flying cars have been a consistent topic among technophiles for decades. Indeed, new companies trying to sell flying cars pop up every few years. What has kept us from having flying cars parked in our rooftop garages isn’t a lack of visions or even a lack of people trying to make it happen but much more mundane hurdles?—?for instance, because energy costs money.
An additional irony surrounds one of the technologies regularly put forward as the next crazy, big thing humanity should do: space elevators. The idea of space elevators, which would allow individuals to travel from a planet’s surface to outer space, can apparently be traced at least back to a 1895 proposal by the Russian rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. Yet, a search on Google Ngram suggests that current conversation about space elevators began in the late 1970s, and you can find it mentioned in books from the 1980s to the present. In other words, it’s a fairly new discourse that’s been going on precisely when Crow, Stephenson, and others claim we lack such ideas.
Unremarkably, when Stephenson founded Project Hieroglyph, one of his first undertakings with a structural engineer was something he called, “The Tall Tower,” which began from the question “How tall can we build something?” In an age of space elevator jabber, this idea is as normcore and unimaginative as a “visionary” project could possibly get. So much for scifi having novel insights.
All kinds of things have kept space elevators from becoming reality. First, they may be impossible with current technology. But, second and more important, it is awfully hard to justify spending billions or trillions of dollars on a space elevator when both Democrats and Republicans are?—?rightly or wrongly?—?worried about national debt. (A recent essay on Aeon argues that space elevators may, in fact, be technically possible, but note that the authors fail to give any estimate for what it would cost.)
Moreover, it’s awfully hard to justify expenditures on space elevators or trips to Mars when American infrastructure is in such bad shape and, even worse, when inspectors from the United Nations liken areas of the United States?—?such as Alabama’s Black Belt?—?to developing countries. As Andy Russell and I have argued about Elon Musk’s Mars ejaculations, these kinds of projects cannot take priority given today’s pressing, this-world needs. Yet, even if you think everything I just said about human suffering, class, and technological priorities is wrong headed (and, for instance, you want to make a case based on “spillover” or whatever), you simply cannot argue that the problem has been lack of visions.
All of this suggests that the lack-of-positive-futures hypothesis faces a significant uphill battle. My sense is that you will go for the hypothesis precisely to the degree that you are ignorant of the history, economics, and sociology of technology and capitalism. As it stands, the lack-of-positive-futures hypothesis is bereft of intellectual seriousness. More troubling, it enables advocates to avoid the truly difficult work of thinking through the gritty, rusting realities of science and technology policy and ignore the politics of race and class and corporate power that are causing the deepest harms today. Morover, positive visions are everywhere if you care to look. And if someone has not cared or bothered to look, we should ask, “Why?”
So far, lack-of-positive-futures chatter has been conducted with little concern for facts, evidence, or truth; rather, it’s focused on persuading and moving listeners. In this way?–?at the risk of offending my ASU colleagues?—?the hypothesis strictly fits Harry G. Frankfurt’s definition of bullshit. For sure, this is a put-down, but proponents of lack-of-positive-futures will redeem the view from being bullshit by putting meaningful theoretical and empirical flesh on the bones of their rhetoric. My guess, however, is that they just will not be able to do so.
Professor Ed Finn, the Director of the Center for Science and the Imagination who has a PhD in English and American Literature from Stanford, graciously answered a few emails I sent him inquiring about the intellectual grounds and institutional resources of the CSI. Finn emphasized that members of the center don’t argue that a lack of positive visions has been a “barrier to technological development, but rather that our lack of ambitious, optimistic thinking about the future has played a part in a shift towards incremental rather than transformative change.”
This narrower scope?–?the nature of change, rather than the amount of change?–?was not clear in the original telling I heard, but even if we grant Finn this narrower arena, the CSI crowd simply has not made the kind of historical/sociological/economic argument that would be needed to sustain it. When did we shift from transformative to incremental change? What is the evidence that science fiction played a crucial role in whenever this earlier transformative change was supposedly occurring? Where is the argument that the shift from transformative to incremental change came from cultural causes?–?like a lack of positive visions?–?rather than from something else?
Finn pointed to his article in the science fiction magazine Asimov’s, where he laid out some of the founding ideas of the CSI. The die-hard sci-fi fans who read Asimov’s will no doubt be predisposed to believing their beloved genre is super important, but what stands out is the lack of evidence in Finn’s piece. Like Stephenson, Finn points to some cherry-picked anecdotes where science fiction supposedly inspired technological development. “Asimov’s robots, Heinlein’s rocket ships, and Star Trek‘s communicators are all examples of ideas that profoundly shape our thinking about technology and progress,” Finn writes. But the larger historical argument that something has changed and that a lack-of-positive-futures has at least partly caused that change receives no attention and no support throughout the essay.
There’s also some conceptual confusion, and some things just don’t fit the hypothesis. Both Stephenson and Finn mention large infrastructure projects from the early-to-mid-20th century. But the Hoover Dam and the Interstate Highway System didn’t come from science fiction, nor were they rooted in cutting-edge technologies, nor did we stop building them just because we lacked optimism. Federal budgets—and ever-mounting infrastructural debt throughout the USA that Strong Town’s Chuck Marohn calls “The Growth Ponzi Scheme”—never enters the CSI’s discussions.
Finn also pointed to an article he co-wrote in the Journal of Cultural Analytics. The article builds on Darko Suvin’s claim that science fiction is a literature of cognitive estrangement “whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment”?—?in other words, it’s fantasy. Finn and his co-authors work to quantify these moments of strangeness through something they call the “strangegram.”
But here too, the authors neglect the historical argument needed to sustain the CSI’s founding myth. A telling moment comes late in the article. The authors note that a loop between science and science fiction should be clear and perceivable, if their theory is right. But so far “the contours of a larger system of circulation, perhaps even a model for that circulation, remain out of reach?—?the objective for future research, we hope.” So far they only have “much-remarked upon anecdotal evidence.”
What this means, in the end, is that the Center for Science and the Imagination has existed for about seven years, and has apparently been repeating its founding myth all the while without bothering to back it up. When bullshit persists in universities, businesses, government, and other organizations without being challenged and questioned, we should again ask why.
Solutions to non-problems
My bet is that it’s no coincidence that a program based on the lack-of-positive-futures has been built at Arizona State University, which, under president Michael Crow, is the epitome of what some people describe as a corporate, or neoliberal, vision of higher education. As Mark S. Ferrara writes at the Ask My Professor blog, “In the book Designing the New American University, Michael Crow and William Dabars proffer a jarring vision of the fully corporatized higher learning ‘enterprise’ that panders to the needs of industry and government while paying lip service to humanistic learning and the common good.” Crow and Dabars argue that universities should become, in their words, “complex adaptive knowledge enterprises.” Of course, as in all of higher education, one important stream for supporting universities as businesses is external, sponsored research funding.
What does this have to do with the Center for Science and the Imagination? Although the CSI has not really supported its founding myth, it has managed to sell the idea to a number of public and private organizations, including the Hewlett Foundation, the National Science Foundation, NASA, the World Bank, the Intel Corporation, and a small part of a $4 million grant from the Department of Defense’s National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. If a story can be sold without being substantiated, why would you ever even bother doing the work?
The CSI’s salesmanship also makes sense of its unsubstantiated absence argument. As David Edgerton and Will Thomas have examined, absence arguments enable arguers to insert themselves as solutions to (non-existent) problems. In this case, the CSI’s argument that there is a lack-of-positive-futures (even though there isn’t) strengthens its claims to be offering a special and unique service worth paying for.
In the end, I do not care if Neal Stephenson wants to make the self-interested and silly argument that science fiction is super important for the future of technology and that we have suffered from want of his wares. Stephenson writes fictions about the past and future. If he wants to write fictions about the present, too, that’s his business. But the fact that members of higher education would repeat these ideas without attempting to put flesh on them is more troubling.
When I was researching the CSI and its founding myth, I was often reminded of the Stanford d.school’s Design Thinking programs, which I have written about recently. Design Thinking has its roots in consulting and makes outlandish claims for its own uniqueness that it doesn’t bother to support with anything but cute, fluffy, feelgood rhetoric. It’s a deep risk of turning universities so explicitly into businesses.
Capitalist structures?–?the political economy of contemporary higher education?–?are discouraging proponents of the lack-of-positive-futures hypothesis, Design Thinking, and other ideas from trying to support their views. Instead of urging members of the higher education community to think, the drive for profits fosters unthought. The fact that multiple programs across the country share these characteristics suggests there might be a broader phenomenon at hand, something we might call unthought.edu.
Perhaps all of this would be tolerable if the lack-of-positive-futures hypothesis did not come with such obvious moral and political risks. You can see why its vision appeals to corporations, granting bodies, and defense agencies. The CSI strips Science and Technology Studies of its confrontational nature and rootedness in critique and says instead that we should be spinning positive visions of tomorrow, visions that just happen to accord with, rather than challenge, corporate interests and status quo power.
At its worst, it fits the model of ASU that Mark Ferrera describes: it “panders to the needs of industry and government while paying lip service to humanistic learning and the common good.” In the face of all of the headwinds and structures I noted above that have limited technological change and led to real harm?—?headwinds and structures that are primarily social, not technological, by the way?—?the lack-of-positive-futures hypothesis suggests that we are literally going to fantasize our way out of this mess, as if our collective wet dreams are going to get us out of our prone position.
Perhaps one day the lack-of-positive-futures crowd will get it together and gather some evidence, though I, for one, don’t see much chance for that optimistic tomorrow. Until they do, though, I suggest we give them a standard reply: Get real.
A version of this essay originally appeared at Medium. Lee and Andrew Russell are currently writing a book on the problems with innovation-speak, titled The Innovation Delusion. Follow him at @sts_news.
This essay reflects the views of this author, but not necessarily the editorial position of Fast Company.