As 2011 draws to a close, we find it easier to imagine the world ending than to imagine a seismic change of the sort that seems likely in 2012. Apocalypse cults herald the Rapture and the Mayan prophecies of doom, but critics of capitalism stop short of imagining a revolution in America or a new political order in the UK.
The stories we tell about the future are no longer hopeful, excited tales of technology and human spirit revealing new vistas of experience and exploration. Toby Barnes talked about this in his excellent post wrapping up Playful 2011: “Our visions now seem to be so close to home.” Not just in science fiction, in the stories we write and the movies we see, but in other areas of culture too, we go around in circles exploring the past. The New Boring aesthetic is everywhere, in our television, our clothes, our music, our interior decoration. Even cupcakes and cake stands are back.
It’s a little like the UK has collectively mislaid the cultural ability to imagine beyond the horizon, and started looking backwards over its shoulder instead. Not lost, because that implies it won’t come back, when the world stops changing so fast and people have jobs and can afford to eat and pay bills comfortably again (assuming that happens). But we have shifted our focus away from the shiny bright realm of limitless possibility to the scary possibilities of the present. While in some parts of the world 2011 has been about imagining revolution and embracing hope, in others the realm of the future has become a place where ends are easier to envisage than evolutions.
The same is true of the news industry. In a year when a British newspaper was unceremoniously killed by its owners, the end of a national newspaper suddenly changed from something hard to picture into something easy to recall. It’s much easier to envisage the end of the newsprint business than to conceive of its evolution. It’s harder to imagine what the news business in general will look like in 2031 than it is to imagine that there simply won’t be one. The apocalypse is a much easier story than the sci-fi future, these days.
I hope, in 2012, that changes. I hope we get our hopeful visions back.
Last Friday was Playful 2011, an awesome conference about games and toys and, well, being playful. It was at Conway Hall. It was lovely in that way that you don’t always agree with, but that makes you think and gives you a different slant on the world. I enjoyed it immensely.
Running through the day were several threads that I want to come back to at some point – most notably for me the blurrings of boundaries between art and technology, between physical and digital things, and between creation and consumption. But the dominating theme was nostalgia – nostalgia for a vision of the future that was born in the 1970s with big-budget sci-fi epics, and that simply doesn’t exist now.
It’ll come as no surprise, if you saw me live tweeting, that this future-past nostalgia doesn’t resonate with me. I think there are a couple of reasons for this, one personal and one much more general and more interesting.
First up: the personal. The touchstones of the nostalgic middle-aged man don’t reflect me. This isn’t just an age thing – I watched Logan’s Run and Star Wars, albeit a few years late – it’s a gender and a sexuality thing too. My present, as a not-entirely-straight woman, is a hell of a lot more interesting and self-controlled and autonomous than any 1970s sci-fi vision of that life (Alien dutifully excepted). I could be an astronaut, or a prime minister. I can control my fertility (isn’t it weird how few people who talk about humans as cyborgs ever mention that?) and I don’t have to sleep with everyone I meet as a result. I am the star of my own movie, not a sidekick. It’s not perfect, and others have it worse – this future like all others is unevenly distributed – but it’s getting better.
So I like this future, where I don’t have a jetpack but also I don’t have to wear a silver breastplate or high-legged leotard or gold bikini. Nostalgia for those images makes no sense to me.
The other thing – and this is the less personal one – is that trends in technology aren’t actually about the tech. Trends in anything aren’t about what’s technically possible so much as they’re about what matters to people. Trends are about us, about humans and what we want and need from our world. This is true for toys and games and news and jetpacks and flying cars. So one big reason we don’t have flying cars is that the desire for flying cars was never actually a need for flying cars. It was a problem (get places fast, avoiding congestion) that could be solved by flying cars, but also in other ways. Like telecommuting.
It’s the internet’s fault that you don’t have a flying car.
We don’t always think of the web as bridging physical space problems, but it does – so smoothly that we don’t notice. I have my work colleagues in my pocket and a window to my work space in my bag. Now, why do I need a flying car?
(Yes, there are also technological and logistical reasons why flying cars are difficult. The internet isn’t a perfect solution to the problem. But it’s not bad, for an unevenly distributed future. And if it didn’t solve the problem pretty well, I reckon we’d find a way to make flying cars work. We’re clever little monkeys, and we’re good at solving problems.)
What else is in my pocket? I have the biggest encyclopaedia there has ever been, and a satellite view of the entire globe, and a personally curated collection of interesting writing by clever people that expands every day beyond my ability to read and absorb it. I have a direct, fast, simple line out to millions of people, and tools I can use to collaborate with them on any number of exciting projects or toys or games. Oh, and the news, too. All of it.
Something else that ran through many of the Playful talks was a focus on play as an event that happens between an individual and a machine. It struck a peculiar note for me, operating in a space with Zombie where all play is collaborative between humans, and a space at the Guardian where news gathering and consumption are going the same way.
The risk here is that by focusing on the toy at the expense of the needs of the player – the shiny tech, the jetpack, the iPad (it’s the future of news, you know) – we lose sight of what’s actually happening. New toys are solving old problems. We are collaborating more and more, in incredible ways. We are capable of incredible endeavours, playful and serious, because we are connected. The key vision of the next generation isn’t a baby playing with a magazine as though it’s an iPad. It’s social networking on Moshi Monsters and multi-player collaborative world-building in Minecraft.
Sci-fi has always been good at identifying problems and imagining solutions – but usually it’s much better at predicting the needs than the resolutions. Jetpacks, incidentally, have been around since about the 1940s. They didn’t really solve much.
Nostalgia for the promise of a different future doesn’t make sense to me in a world where I can already see the solutions to those problems in the flesh. Why get misty-eyed over the promise of a flying car or newspapers with moving pictures, when we can see the whole world from the sky on Google Earth and join in with news happening at the tips of our fingers on Twitter and live blogs and YouTube?