Losing sight of the Future

We used to think about what the future might look like. Now, we turn away in dread.

One of the main themes of this blog is The Future. I feel like Trump, and the Trump Era, was the ultimate expression of The Past — an era of looking backward, re-fighting old battles, and groping for various golden ages that never really existed. It’s time to move on. So where do we go from here? Technology and urbanism aren’t the whole Future by any means, but they’re an important and interesting piece of it.

I recently wrote a fun Twitter thread comparing “retrofuturist” visions — mostly from the 1950s — with the way technology and urbanism actually turned out. Of course, I cherry-picked — stuff like “hospitals in space” obviously never materialized — but I was pretty startled to find that about half of those ancient visions effectively came true! Here are just a few examples from my thread:*

People are fond of saying we didn’t get the future we were promised, but really, we mostly did. Other than easy space travel, flying cars, and jet packs — things that require a lot of energy and a lot of energy density — most of the futuristic tech people predicted back in the 1950s actually became reality. We got the communications tech, the agricultural improvements, and, increasingly, the robots and the electrification.

What’s more notable to me is how nowadays we don’t seem to spin nearly as many of these futuristic visions. Occasionally you’ll see a story about “the house of tomorrow”, but usually when you google for things like this you get 50-year-old retrofuturist art. Why? Right off the top of my head, I can predict tons of cool futuristic tech we might have in the future:

  • A.I. houses that do everything for us

  • mRNA vaccines against a bunch of diseases we didn’t think we could vaccinate against

  • electric self-driving cars

  • package delivery drones

  • personal transport drones

  • Crispr modifications to our bodies, to our pets, and to plants

  • food fabricators

  • augmented reality environments

  • cybernetic body parts like eyes that connect to the internet

  • brain-computer interfaces

  • Mars colonies

…and plenty more! There’s no shortage of future visions, for people who want to draw them.

But I don’t really see many people wanting to draw them. Instead, most of the sci-fi art I see is either 80s-vintage cyberpunk cliches or solarpunk, which is nice but which hasn’t yet moved much beyond “put a tree on everything”. In particular, I don’t see a lot of excitement about the physical changes the future holds — the new tools, the new homes, the new cities.

I’m not the only person to have noticed something like this. Anton Howes laments that we don’t have exciting public exhibitions of new technology anymore. Jason Crawford notes that we don’t celebrate technological achievements much anymore. Americans still generally like the tech industry, but there doesn’t seem to be much excitement for actual new tech.

If this cagey attitude toward the future is real — and I am always apprehensive about trying to explain a “fact” that isn’t backed up by solid data — then why? What’s making us fear The Future instead of embracing it wholeheartedly like the people who made all those futuristic visions back in the 1950s?

The most obvious hypothesis is that technological and economic progress simply doesn’t hold as much allure for modern Americans, since the benefits of that progress haven’t been broadly distributed in recent years. It’s a cliche by now, but William Gibson was really right when he said “The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.”

Take a look at real personal income per capita in the U.S. versus real median personal income — a straight-up comparison between median and mean.

The average goes up by a factor of 3 from 1980 through 2019, the median only by a factor of 1.5. That divergence is explained by the runup in inequality. There are lots of other measures, and some graphs that will be even more eye-catching, but this is the basic fact, right here.

What that means, in real concrete terms, is that the “home of the future”, whatever it is, probably isn’t a home that most people can actually have. Someone will live in that beautiful glass-and-wood bubble with all the screens and the electric car and the cleaning robots — it just statistically won’t be you, the average American. You’ll be choosing between living in a big house in a remote desolate exurb and commuting hours a day, or living with roommates into your 40s in an unaffordable superstar city.

The economic growth of the postwar period was broad-based, so it made sense to think of The Future as something the average American was going to get. The economic growth of 1980-2019 was much more unbalanced, so it makes sense to think of The Future as something someone else will get — just one more thing to envy.

On top of that, Americans in the modern era have been taught to think of technology as a threat to their livelihoods. For a long time, many economists told the public that the reason for rising inequality was “skill-biased technological change” — basically, that only some people are smart enough to use computers to their economic advantage. There was never a whole lot of evidence that this was the main cause of inequality, but the idea seemed to lodge itself in the public’s mind — not just because of econ papers, but because of politicians who envisioned education as the solution to poverty and inequality, and spun visions of a nation of computer programmers. It did not work out that way.

More recently, the skill-biased technological change idea is creeping back into our discourse in the form of fear of automation. Surveys show this is a very common fear. Even Bill Gates bought into this, proposing a tax on robots even as other countries embrace automated manufacturing. (Interestingly, many countries are more afraid than we are, but their government and business elites are ignoring those worries for now, and so far there have been no apparent negative results.)

On top of all this, we have the problem of artificial scarcity. A lot of the things you see in those old “city of the future” or “house of the future” drawings was about urbanism and regulation, not just about technology. If you want towering gleaming skyscrapers, you have to actually allow them. If you want delivery drones, you have to actually allow them. If you want beautiful futuristic cities that are cheap enough for the average America to live in, you have to actually allow cities to build enough housing in those cities. And so on. A lot of Americans don’t want the “house of the future” built next door if it might contain the wrong sort of people.

So decades of unequally shared progress, rampant NIMBYism, elites telling Americans that some of them don’t have what it takes to use computers, and fears of automation taking jobs. No wonder Americans aren’t as excited about The Future as they used to be!

But as reasonable as that caginess toward The Future might be, I still think America could benefit from a lot more artists crafting positive, optimistic visions. That art would serve not just as a promise of cool new gadgets, as in the 50s, but as a promise of a more egalitarian future of broadly shared prosperity. If Americans won’t let the cities of the future be built, we can at least draw them! And if Americans can’t yet imagine themselves living a life of prosperity and luxury thanks to new technologies, perhaps we can help them imagine it.