The nature of existence is something that most animals likely do not concern themselves with all too much, yet for us humans it is a question that has kept philosophers and others occupied for at least as long as written records have been kept. Whether it concerns religion or works of fiction that try to paint a possible future for humankind, they all attempt to look back upon the path carried us to the present, and to look forward to the path that humankind can, should or may take, depending on the work in question.
One type of work in particular is of significant interest here, and that is of science fiction. Unlike the mostly political and socio-political commentaries by works such as Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Huxley’s Brave New World, or modern takes like the Bladerunner and Idiocracy films, the notion in many so-called ‘hard’ science fiction (or ‘scifi’) is that humanity’s future is one of increasing technological advancement and the wisdom to go with it.
Next to the aforementioned rather dystopian works, such a notion of a utopian future for humankind seems rather odd, if not outright bizarre. Although it is highly tempting to look at the recent advances the past one-hundred years and extrapolate from there, it bears reminding that over the course of hundreds of years the ancient Romans had running water, sewage systems, central heating and many comforts we consider ‘modern’, but which really aren’t. Our ancestors over the past ~1,500 years simply forgot about them and had to do without. If anything, human history of even just the past 2,000 years – let alone all the way back to the early days of the Sumerian civilisation, over 8,000 years ago – is mostly a repetition of destruction and rediscovery.
Every time that this planet which we find ourselves on commences yet another cycle around its axis, and we blink groggily awake to another beautiful day, what is it that our minds are filled with? Perhaps we’re pondering on yet more new technologies and methods to advance the state, prosperity and overall happiness of humankind? Possibly we have impromptu meetings whenever a brilliant idea strikes us, and we must share it?
Rather it would seem that when we aren’t asleep – with our minds spending recuperating like this roughly one-third of our our natural lifespan – we concern ourselves with foraging, and keeping up this whole ‘economy’ system that we have decided underlies the happiness and well-being of every single individual in society. Where is the drive towards self-improvement in this kind of world? Why would any individual give anything for free, when they can sell it and stave off starvation for a bit longer?
The reality of the future is that nothing is set in stone. Although for the individual it may seem impossible to not deal with the obligations of society, it bears asking in the context of countless examples of dystopian works of fiction what in tarnation society’s plan is, or perhaps rather whether it even has any. Although we’d ask of a young adult that they figure out an acceptable way to spend the intervening decades until the cessation of their body’s life-sustaining functions, we never seem to ask of society what it wants to be when it grows up. Maybe we’ll just give it another few thousand years and see whether it has finally grown a sense of responsibility?
In the fictional Star Trek universe , for example, society would have gone through the Eugenics Wars (1993 – 1996) at this point, soon to be followed by World War 3 (2026 – 2053). From the remnants of humanity that arose from the world’s sundered ashes gradually grew a new awareness and a massive boost in technological development, essentially signalling an end to conflict on Earth. With the invention of the matter replicator scarcity was eliminated and with the invention of the warp engine humanity found out that it was not alone in the Universe.
From a fictional history like this we can conclude that even with an ultimately rather idyllic future, humanity still had to learn the harshest lessons possible, to the point of nearly going extinct as a species. After that it could be said that it was only the discovery of these marvellous new technologies that granted humanity essentially endless prosperity and freedom from a scarcity- and debt-based economy. Without this technology humanity in even the Star Trek universe would very likely have kept repeating the same cycle over and over, of creation and destruction.
Whether or not humanity today will not repeat the same pattern that the Sumerians, Akkadians, ancient Egyptians, Romans, Greek, Chinese and so many other societies went through over the past ten-thousand odd years is still very much up to debate. Naturally, we got further than any civilisation we know of so far, with our semiconductor technology, flatscreen TVs and satellites zipping around the Earth and Mars, along with an assortment of space probes currently scouring the beginnings of Deep Space, just beyond the borders of our Solar System.
Yet we have seen the warning signs already, with for example the decades long pause in space exploration, where humanity essentially didn’t bother with anything outside of low-Earth orbit (LEO), and where one got the distinct impression that most of the scientific exploration during the preceding decades had been mostly the result of territorial mudslinging and nationalistic chest pounding, rather than out of sheer scientific curiosity. Perhaps this also sheds light on the clearest path to break this constant cycle of rebirth and destruction: the pursuit of science and the natural drive towards self-improvement that comes with it.
When it comes to differentiating ourselves as human beings from other apes, primates and mammals in general, it has to be our ability to express scientific curiosity through experiments, inventions, discoveries and the astounding improvements to our quality of life that come with embracing this pursuit of intellectual challenges. In light of human history it is easy to argue that it is the dismissal of scientific curiosity and scientific findings which is what reverts and regresses the quality of life, and with it humanity’s steps on this path to an idyllic future.
These are all choices that we make. When we accept anti-intellectualism in whatever guise, it harms all of us. This is easily observed in such matters as energy policy – with a refusal to accept the scientific consensus on the necessity of nuclear power – as well as health, with even basic healthcare unavailable to many. Not to mention food, with the rejection of genetically engineered plants, and unfounded scepticism in medicine, including vaccinations, while anti-scientific superstitions like homoeopathy and kin find increasingly fertile ground.
Even as pollution from burning fossil fuels threatens millions due to anthropogenic climate change, starvation and malnutrition kill and maim countless children, and diseases long thought eradicated in wealthy nations make a triumphant return, few if any minds find themselves swayed towards scientific consensus. Meanwhile conflicts and war loom threateningly on the horizon as one geopolitical crisis after the other pops up, amidst an energy crisis of a severity not seen before.
Although humans seem incessant about not being merely another primate species, but one which will conquer this Galaxy and beyond, while eradicating disease, scarcity and all other known ills, the fact of the matter remains that if we wish to accomplish even a fraction of what science fiction promises us, it is essential that we fully embrace the first part of it, namely science. You don’t pick and choose the bits of science that you like, as though it’s a buffet. Either humanity is fully onboard with science, or it’ll just keep using the parts that fit the current narrative.
Humanity doesn’t show off its intellect through conflict and wars, but by preventing them. Whether or not we will learn this lesson this time is anyone’s guess, but it’s the difference between this civilisation accomplishing all those marvellous things, or another civilisation giving it another spin in another few thousand years or so.