This past spring I started a collaborative project with my friend Greg Borenstein. Greg came to me with an image: one of my sculptures scaled up until it dwarfed the New York skyline. Because of my interest in urbanism and SciFi, he wondered if I might work with him to imagine an urban future. While I had no idea this project was coming my way, I was immediately ready with two preconditions: No flooded cities and no dystopia. Not because I don't believe in Climate Change, or I because shit isn't horribly fucked up and might get much worse, but mostly, because in the realm of SciFi both mean streets and flooded streets are cliche. And while I am well aware that near-future predictions are some of the hardest to make (and for SciFi authors, some of the hardest to make convincingly), I had a very particular bracket of time I was interested in setting our project within. There are a number of demographic trends, all converging around the year 2050, that could easily make the second half (2H) of the 21st Century (2K) the most remarkable period of modernization we have seen yet.
The project Greg and I have agreed to pursue is a brand of design fiction, but while most design fiction tends to be a mashup of concept design and infomercial, so far ours is shaping up to be about the ways technologies end up getting used, not about how they are meant to be used. So perhaps it is better described as a form of Object Orientated SciFi (I'd like to think so anyway). To begin I've written 12 short stories; one for each month of the year 2050. The first five stories are now up:
on going conversations, and Greg is using them a launching point to begin generating imagery; "concept designs for a nonexistent movie" is how he describes it. The end of our story is the very first image Greg came to me with. The effort of the collaboration is to explain the image of that megastructure to ourselves; to decide what it means - to imagine what kind of world might produce it.
Greg, who I first met when he was a student at ITP, and who is now researcher in the Playful Systems group at the MIT Media Lab, is far more technically savvy than I could ever hope to be. And while Greg has answered dozens of queries on everything from the future of digital camera technology (cool stuff), to robotics, to facial recognition and CVDazzle. But most of what we have discussed (and debated) are social changes. The biggest difference we have between us is the question of dystopia, and even there we are not that far apart. When he pointed to how intractable the problems of climate change, student debt, income inequality, etc are, I totally agreed. I'm not oblivious to how bad things are, I'm just not interested in projecting those problems into a nightmare future. I'd just as soon leave the eternal face stomping boot to others.
I told Greg that I'd prefer to imagine a future in which we show novel ways problems could be solved. He told me about Neal Stephenson's Hieroglyph Project, which was pretty close to what I had in mind. But I am less interested in inspiring others to “get big stuff done” than I am in imagining a future in which the day to day business of family life, making a living, and living together within a functional body politic have all been transformed until they are all but unrecognizable, but are still things everyone can take part in, and might still want to. What I realized, as I told Greg what I wanted to do, was that I wanted to imagine a world that delivered on the avant-garde promise that Art will melt into life, and life into Art; that we will ALL be artists. This is very different from the Libertarian fantasy of charismatic heroes knocking down oppressive systems (i.e. Neo from the Matrix). What I found I wanted to imagine instead, was a system in which everyone was an artist, and no heroes (or Great Artists) were needed.
As a working artist I have a very particular idea about what it means to be an artist, and therefore what it might mean for everyone to be artists. I do not mean that everyone will walk around with colorful daubs of paint on their jeans or sporting asymmetrical haircuts. Rather, I mean that most of us will be poor, but not poverty stricken, not proletarian. I mean that more of us than ever will be over-educated and under-employed. That we will be "middle class" in the sense that the critic Ben Davis uses the term: "The hallmark of middle-class identity is not a certain tax bracket, in this view, but having an individual stake in production, and a perspective that correspondingly focuses on the values of 'independence and authority.'" So while less and less of us will have "good jobs", the work we will do, will be deeply meaningful - but not employment in any conventional sense. Call it "Work for Work's Sake." This is a very hopeful vision, and not an altogether absurd one.
"What if you had known, in 1973, that a dollars worth of computing power was going to double every 18 months for the next 40 years?" - That's the question I posed to a close friend who is a political activist working (on the side of angels) for radical political change. It was a loaded question, and it was intended as such. Like a lot of young activists on the far Left, my friend is computer savvy, and immediately understood that I was referring to Moore's Law - that predicted exactly that - and was a prediction made in 1968. So I was asking my friend to imagine a world in which the Left could have acted on information, which we now know had true revolutionary import and that was available at the time - but information that almost everyone (on every point of the ideological spectrum) failed to understand the importance of. But my question was doubly loaded, because both of us were aware that 1973 was around the time that the Left stumbled along with the rest of the country.
Between the disillusionment of Watergate, the horror of and obvious catastrophic waste of the Vietnam War, an entire "political generation" lost its footing; the momentum of the Labor Unions, the Civil Rights movement, Feminists, and other activists stuttered and stopped, and the conservative rollback began. (There's a great explication of this moment in Andrew Cornel's book Oppose and Propose.) And to be clear, I'm not talking about Gen-X, Y, or any such arbitrary countdown from America's founding. According to Peter Beinart, a political generation is the creature of historical events:
To understand what constitutes a political generation, it makes more sense to follow the definition laid out by the early-20th-century sociologist Karl Mannheim. For Mannheim, generations were born from historical disruption... a generation was the particular slice of history people experienced during those plastic years. A generation had no set length. A new one could emerge “every year, every thirty, every hundred.” What mattered was whether the events people experienced while at their most malleable were sufficiently different from those experienced by people older or younger than themselves.The reason I pointed my activist friend back to 1973, is that, forty years later, we are at a similar moment now, a moment that will have profound effect on the shape the next forty years takes. The Long Recession that began around 2000, has never really abated for most young people. That hard-scrabble stretch is casting another political generation, this cohort, according to Beinart, is of a very different ideological mold than the last. "Millennials" are less religious, more likely to favor gay marriage, inter-racial marriage, and Labor Unions, but they are also far less likely to support military adventurism. And because these young people are not only entering the work force at a time when good jobs are scarce, but also after decades of deregulation - and "at a time when the government safety net is far more threadbare for the young than for the middle-aged and old" - for the first time in decades, the US has spawned a cohort that narrowly favors socialism over capitalism. And, like 1973, there are other trends as transformative and even more inevitable as Moore's. Trends can either swamp us or lift us higher.
When Greg and I met I was already preoccupied by the convergence of two demographic facts. First, that the population of the world is expected to peak by 2050 at somewhere between 8.5 billion (on the optimistic end of the spectrum) and 11 billion (at the alarmist end of things). That's a big spread, but the consensus view is somewhere around 9 billion. Still a lot more people, but manageable when considered in the light of the second trend. In 2011, for the first time in the history of our species, over 50% of us lived in cities; a ratio that took us 10,000 years to reach. But like Moore's Law, that trend has been accelerating, and is expected to continue to do so. That means, that by 2050, 75% of the world's population will live in cities. So if we do indeed peak at 9 Billion all of that additional population will be in cities - and most of it in cities in Asia and Africa that don't even exist today. Like Moore's Law these trends represent enormous and disruptive challenges, but also opportunities. As I told my political activist friend, this is a disastrous moment in history for the Left to be anti-urban.
City dwellers not only have a smaller carbon footprint than their country cousins, they are also less religious, have higher literacy rates, are more productive - and are therefore wealthier, healthier and have fewer children. That last one is the reason the peak number will probably be closer to the optimistic 8.5 billion (but not the only reason, soap operas might help too). And this is what I told Greg: that's where things start to get really interesting.
Over the next few weeks I will begin posting the first six of the stories I've been working on. (Now linked to above and here.) I'll use them as opportunities to post nonfiction introductions, exploring some of the ideas and issues I've projected forward and fictionalized. To continue reading those essays, follow these links: