Monday, May 10, 2010

Imagining the Future's Future

Two things have always slightly bothered me about the "look" of science fiction:

  1. It dates very rapidly. If a film is shot in the 1960s but set in the early 2000s, everyone looks like they're in a slightly updated 1960s. If a film's shot in the mid-1990s but set in "the future", everyone looks like they're still in the 1990s. And the technology isn't much better. Ever notice how futuristic computer graphics are only as good as what was possible at the time of filming?* 
  2. There's a distinct lack of science fiction. Is SF really going to become passé once we've travelled to Alpha Centarii with the warp drives donated by Rar-Kla'rk? Is humanity going to stop dreaming of what else it could do? Are we going to start looking solely backwards, as Star Trek would have us believe?**
What this boils down to, in my view at least, is a lack of imagination. If we're able to take current technology and our knowledge of what's possible in terms of machines and create worlds where augmented reality is so much the norm it's nearly outdated or where children play laser tag in altered gravity space stations, why aren't we able to do the same with clothing*** and come up with something insane? I know Hollywood's an indescribably huge influence on the visuals of sci-fi, and they seem to say fashions can't be too unfamiliar to the viewing audience, but I think we can still do better than carbon copies of current clothing.

The same of course goes for my secondary point about computers. Right now we're on the cusp of quantum computing and holograms. We can generate photo-realistic images and near-perfect synthetic voices. We can store and transport terabytes of data with ease. So on and so forth. Speculation seems largely limited to quantum processors, augmented realities, robotics, Uplifting, and the Singularity, but is that really it? Are the future's infographics really limited to interactive holograms and touchscreens, technology we already have? Are AIs going to be a) kind and human or b) evil and alien, instead of c) in between, and therefore even more unfamiliar? Can we design a useable, popular AR system that isn't based on a real or fictional reality, but is more metaphoric, along the lines of human cognition?

Right now I think we're deriving most of our "Future" by taking an idea and running as far as it'll take us, then writing about that end point. Fair enough. It's a useful technique. But what if instead of writing about the result as we see it, we took the result as the beginning and extrapolated again? 

If the "end" is an alien-human clone/hybrid with an occasional consciousness transmitted wirelessly, where could that then take us? The ability to download human memories into animals and robots (and animals into humans), followed by a fuzziness of what could be called human based on the fact that Fido-Clone-7 is now Grandpa and there are six dolphins-in-human-form living in San Francisco, followed by a global shift in perceptions about and knowledge of animals, followed by a spaceship crewed solely by ex-animals? Or maybe we went through those stages on the way to the hybrids.

The idea of recursive extrapolation takes me to my second point of bother: the lack of SF in sci-fi. Why don't we see Montgomery Scott reading about an inter-species battle over the building of a new planet, or the crew of the Heart of Gold sharing a quiet raucous evening watching a holodrama about a detective and his time-travelling, six-armed, two-tailed lover?**** (Does Doctor Who never run into a geek for the same reason that horror movie characters never watch horror films?) I really don't think we're going to stop hoping for Greater Things when we reach the future—after all, 2010 is the future, though not the one envisioned in the 1960s. Where are the stories within stories? Where're the holodeck terraforming narrative or the AR aliens?

I realize the issues I'm ranting against are due to a general human inability to envision anything that doesn't already have a foundation. I know we're limited by that. I just want us to try to take our current visions and push their envelopes past the event horizon—or at least get them halfway so scientists and inventors can take over.

* I saw an online article about this recently. Danged if I can find now I want it, though.
** Interestingly, I don't have the same quibble about fantasy. There's quite often a fairy tale or myth that surfaces within the story. However, the fashions still date, especially the hair.
**** At least the main Stargate teams seem reasonably familiar with contemporary canons, to the point of them becoming a fictional canon of their own, but they're the exception, not the rule.

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