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The Wild West of Future-Forecasting Part I: Dystopian Frontiers, Utopian Pioneers

This blog post is the first entry in a series on utopian thinking. Read Part II of the series, and stay tuned for Part III, coming soon!

The idea of utopia (a perfect place, separate from the conflicts and hardships of ordinary life) has always been with us, since before the time of ancient philosophers like Plato. Yet according to professor Yves Zarka in a New York Times op-ed, the modern meaning of utopia had at least two sources – one in Thomas More’s 1516 political fiction Utopia, where the phrase entered popular usage, and one in Niccolò Machiavelli’s political treatise The Prince, which arrived in the same year. More’s version was an idyllic island society wholly removed from the corruption of 16th century England. By contrast, Machiavelli’s perfected State could only be achieved by working through the immoralities and power struggles of real-world politics. More’s utopia was built of idealism, Machiavelli’s of realism.

In the 500 years since the word utopia entered the popular lexicon, science fiction writers seem drawn to its extremes. Whereas pie-in-the-sky narratives like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea are more akin to More’s brand of utopia, cautionary tales featuring concepts like Big Brother take the path of Machiavelli’s cynical realism. Today, we might label Machiavelli’s perspective as dystopian. Nevertheless, it gives us the sense of what an ideal society might be like by showing us what it is not. Dystopian narratives can also act like dead canaries for a society that is on track to a dangerous future.

In June 2013, Wired UK’s Mark Piesing drew attention to a growing frustration with the dominance of doomsday narratives in science fiction. It seems the scales have been tipped in favor of Machiavelli’s dystopian acolytes, and now More’s idealists are on the counteroffensive. Understandably, thoughtful people are beginning to worry that too much doom and gloom is throwing a “wet blanket” over real world innovation. After all, Jules Verne didn’t just write about a marvel of engineering that would take humans beneath the ocean’s waves, he catalyzed its invention.

As I read Piesing’s article, I pictured the new sci-fi optimists as lawmen in a Wild West movie. After quietly chuckling to myself at the idea of gun-slinging writers, I realized how important this analogy is to understanding science fiction’s role in fostering innovation. The future, like the American West, is being viewed as an unwritten story (or an unpopulated frontier) by utopian idealists (who are pioneers), but the dystopian realists see a future already inhabited by consequences (the natives).

Can the Wild West of future-forecasting be won peacefully? Read Part II and Part III of the series to find out.

Image courtesy of lianosi, used under Creative Commons license. Thanks lianosi!