In 1909, E M Forster published a short story titled, The Machine Stops. In it, Forster paints a picture of future where everyone is provided everything they need by a single, all-encompassing machine. One machine for the whole world. Each person has his own room, full of light and buttons for anything he might request, and able to connect with anyone he might want to see. There is a button for food, bed, Skype, and any sort of seminar or lecture you would want to learn anything from.
As futurists tend to do, Forster projected out in straight lines for his picture of the future. He imagines tactile buttons for any need, not a flat touchscreen. Instead of something visual, as we would imagine today, Forster imagines a sound-based sort of entertainment of seminars. His most innovative idea was the Skype-like feature, but he describes the picture as grainy and vague. He can't imagine something with very good definition.
Although Forster's vision of the future seemed limited in content, he had a much more definite concept of its quality. As the story unfolds, we learn that these rooms where everyone lives are actually underground, that people rarely leave their rooms, and they despise both traveling and the sky above. They avoid these things because they are quite inconvenient. Above ground, if people must go there, they wear oxygen masks for the tough requirements of breathing natural air. In fact, the machine will hunt you down if you get out.
Forster's description is quite depressing to us, and pathetic it seems. It lacks foresight in multiple ways. Forster's imagined advancements in technology create an hard, artificial world. But Forster's imagination of the future is not an isolated example. Look at more recent movies where technology shapes of the imagined future: Soylent Green. I-Robot. Surrogates. The Matrix. Avatar. The Island. Gattaca. Terminator.
In all these movies, technological advancement is seen as having a powerful role in shaping the environment. So why do these movies paint such bleak pictures? Is it that these movie makers are more cynical about the future in general? Do they have a keen fear of technology specifically? If so, why aren't there other movies that paint a more hopeful picture of the future and technological progress?
In these movies, the theme of man versus machine persists—and with it, the triumph of man over machine. The human spirit invariably overcomes the forces created by technology. But why does technology play such an ominous character in these imagined futures?
When I put this side-by-side with today’s average sentiments about technology, there's quite a dichotomy. The constant developments of cell phone innovations, new mobile apps, crowdsourced ideas, crowdfunded NGOs, and clever ingenuities—all this makes us hopeful and bright-eyed. The motion pictures, by contrast, seem like nightmares that burn off in the daylight.
Why do we have these two diverging views of technology? Why is our short-term expectation hopeful and excited while the long-term imaginings are fearful and alien? Why is technology pitched as the solution to every contemporary problem we face (think, TED) and the cause of every future one? The dichotomy doesn’t make sense.
Perhaps the common denominator is money. Hope sells technology for the immediate future, and apocalyptic omens make for movies that will sell. I think this is perhaps part of it. But still, why is technology at the center in both of these cases?
I recently finished reading Jacques Ellul's The Technological Society, published in 1964. In his closing chapter, he briefly alights on "A Look at the Year 2000." He recites some of the predictions by "Nobel prize winners, members of the Academy of Sciences of Moscow, and other scientific notables whose qualifications are beyond dispute." Among their predictions: "voyages to the moon will be commonplace; so will inhabited artificial satellites. . . . Sea water and ordinary rocks will yield all the necessary metals. Disease, as well as famine, will have been eliminated. . . . The problems of energy production will have been completely resolved. . . . Knowledge will be accumulated in 'electronic banks' and transmitted directly into the human nervous system." It goes on.
They seem like pipe dreams. Yet they also sound familiar. Virgin Galactic is testing commercial space flights. The "electronic bank" is already here. You're on it right now. And people have admitted they'd implant the Internet in their brains if given the chance. The other things—energy independence, clean mining, disease elimination—are all things we're still hoping for—believing technology will bring to us, a bit like Forster’s machine. These aren't the dystopias of the movies. This is our real-life hope. This isn’t the imagination that makes movies, but the one that makes the future. So why the difference?