Friday, 2 February 2018

Blog revamp: Rewild Zone 2075

It's a mistake to think that SF only concerns high-tech futures. These days, the field is far more diverse. My own focus, too, has changed somewhat since I first became interested in the field a rather long time ago. Hence the new banner to this blog....

Thirty years ago, the IT revolution was in its early stages, and the space program had more or less sunk into post-Challenger doldrums. Cyberpunk was cutting edge at that time, works by William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Pat Cadigan and others. The future in cyberpunk was typically noire, with plots derived from Raymond Chandler set against backdrops of Bladerunner-like urban decay.

The technology was supplied by ruthless transnationals, and cyberspace was ubiquitous. Cyberspace was described by Gibson as '...A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation....'

Well, we're living in that world, surrounded by junk piles of recently-discarded consumer technology. The predominant ideology of our culture, too, remains endless technological progress, but I'd suggest that we've got to the point where this basically just means that the junk-piles will get progressively bigger.

The popular myth, where we 'Merge' with our technology in some kind of technological Singularity also seems to be deeply problematic. The basic idea is that we'll reach a point where 'we' (i.e. the rich) will upload ourselves into virtual immortality and float off in a kind of cyberspace bubble. In this state, of course, a collapsing environment won't be a problem.

I'm afraid that I do not see this sort of future as very realistic or very desirable. I'd suggest that the average citizen in the developed world is already too immersed in virtual realities. This has not only caused or contributed to a range of health problems (i.e. fractured attention, depression and anxiety, obesity and possibly some forms of autism and ADHD) but also exacerbated a growing sense of disconnection from the world around us.

These personal and social costs detract from dreams of god-like technological futures and render them unsatisfactory responses to our current situation.

There seems therefore a desperate need to rethink the mythology of the future.

Hence a REWILD zone based several decades in the future. This illustration draws from a somewhat different tradition that has been broadly labelled 'Future Primitive.' Such futures might still feature high-tech, but only as part of a wider context of recovery.

This recovery involves a number of things, including rewilding, which directly challenges the often unspoken dogma that 'wilderness' must always give way to 'civilisation.' Instead, there is the suggestion that the future might contain more wilderness than our denuded present. Recent non-fiction expressions of this include George Monbiot's Feral and Edward O. Wilson's Half-Earth, which suggests returning half the Earth to wilderness. I also like Alan Weisman's The World Without Us, which imagines what might happen if humans vanished from the surface of the planet overnight.

The second element of a 'future primitive' is a rethinking of social and political arrangements. This often involves a rediscovery and reinvention of the life-patterns of traditional and indigenous cultures. A prime fictional example of this is the late Ursula Le Guin's masterwork Always Coming Home. On the non-fiction side, there are Jared Diamond's suggestions in his book The Day Before Yesterday that we have much to learn from indigenous people.

Quite often this sort of move prompts accusations of 'romanticism.' There are a number of ways to respond to this. Firstly, yes, there are problems with unrealistic or idealised depictions of indigenous cultures; the movie Avatar might serve as a recent example. Second, the risks of cultural appropriation and 'Orientalism' need to be acknowledged.

But also and perhaps controversially, it seems to me that any fiction 'romanticises' its subject to some degree. Much SF surely 'romanticises' space travel, AI, and high tech futures. So why is it okay to 'romanticise' one but not the other?

The third element is the idea that we might somehow be able to come to a wider reconciliation between the need for technology and the needs of the natural world. Maybe there's some future mode in which we can have our high tech cake and eat it whilst simultaneously having extensive environmental restoration. This seems implied by Edward O. Wilson's book, which combines his 'Half-Earth' proposal with a discussion of possible developments in Artificial Intelligence and Gene-editing technology.

This latter problem, by the way, remains unsolved, despite some in my view unsuccessful attempts to provide solutions (namely, the eco-modern movement which has been rightly criticised for a range of failings).

What SF can do is provide dramatisations of various 'modes' across the Future Primitive spectrum, and provide visions of what a future with healthy forests, oceans and human cultures might look like. I can only hope that it's not too late to build such a future.

Corrective Postscript: Since writing this piece my thinking has evolved somewhat, in part because of further research. (1) I'm no longer happy with the term 'Future Primitive,' especially when associated with indigenous and traditional cultures, because I think the term 'primitive' carries too much negative baggage. 'Deep Ecological Future' is perhaps a better alternative. (2) I've also discovered that Diamond's work has proved controversial for a number of reasons, which I will also discuss in a later post. However, the central point, that it is possible to learn much from the life-ways of traditional and indigenous cultures still seems important to  me. This is a difficult area, however, because of the history of colonialism, exploitation, and cultural appropriation.

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