Column: The darkness where the future should be — what happens to a society that loses its capacity for awe and wonder at things to come?
By Michelle Goldberg
The New York Times|
Jan 24, 2020 | 5:15 PM
William Gibson, the writer who coined the term “cyberspace” and whose novel “Neuromancer” heavily influenced “The Matrix,” has spent a lifetime imagining surreal and noirish possibilities for human development. But Donald Trump’s victory threw him off balance. “I think it took me about three months to come out of the shock of his actually having been elected,” Gibson told me. And when he finally did come out of it, Gibson still wasn’t quite sure what to do with the manuscript he’d been working on, about a young woman in modern-day San Francisco, since the world he’d situated her in seemed to have suddenly disappeared.
“If I had somehow been able to finish it, by the time it was published, it would have just been this lost thing,” he said, “completely out of time and unconcerned with what I immediately saw as being the beginning of something extraordinary, and almost certainly something extraordinarily bad.”
In the end, he turned the new book into a sequel to his 2014 novel “The Peripheral.” Part of The Peripheral is set in a 22nd century where the world as we know it has been wiped out by a confluence of events known as “The Jackpot,” which is, as Gibson put it to me, “All the bad stuff that we’re worried about now coming true.” Eighty percent of the population has died, and many of the survivors live under the authority of a hereditary oligarchy descended from Russian kleptocrats. People in that future have developed the ability to use data to reach back in time, but when they do, rather than changing the course of events, they inaugurate new, parallel continuums, called stubs.
Much of the new book, “Agency,” takes place in a stub where Hillary Clinton won the election and Brexit never happened. Characters from the future — from Gibson’s extrapolated version of our own dark timeline — try to help people in the alternate past avoid a similarly cataclysmic fate. The question looming over the book is not whether the future will be horrifying, but if there’s even the possibility of a future that isn’t.
Gibson is famed for his sensitivity to the zeitgeist, and I asked him if he thought that part of what he’d picked up on here is a growing sense of the future as an abyss. “In my childhood, the 21st century was constantly referenced,” he said, “You’d see it once every day, and it often had an exclamation point.” The sense, he said, was that postwar America was headed somewhere amazing. Now that we’re actually in the 21st century, however, the 22nd century is never evoked with excitement. “We don’t seem to have, culturally, a sense of futurism that way anymore,” he said. “It sort of evaporated.”
The dearth of optimistic visions of the future, at least in the United States, is central to the psychic atmosphere of this bleak era. Pessimism is everywhere: in opinion polls, in rising suicide rates and falling birthrates, and in the downwardly mobile trajectory of millennials. It’s political and it’s cultural: at some point in the last few years, a feeling has set in that the future is being foreclosed. When the Sex Pistols sang “There is no future” in the 1970s, there was at least a confrontational relish to it. Now there’s just dread.
The right and the left share a sense of creeping doom, though for different reasons. For people on the right, it’s sparked by horror at changing demographics and gender roles. For those on the left, a primary source of foreboding is climate change, which makes speculation about what the world will look like decades hence so terrifying that it’s often easier not to think about it at all.
But it’s not just climate change. In his forthcoming book, “The Decadent Society,” my colleague Ross Douthat mourns the death of the “technological sublime,” writing that our era “for all its digital wonders has lost the experience of awe-inspiring technological progress that prior modern generations came to take for granted.” This is true, but doesn’t go nearly far enough. Our problem is not just that new technologies regularly fail to thrill. It’s that, from artificial intelligence to genetic engineering to mass surveillance, they are frequently sources of horror.
Consider some recent headlines. The New York Times reported on Clearview AI, a startup whose facial-matching technology could give strangers access to the identity and biographical information of anyone seen in public. (“Sure, that might lead to a dystopian future or something, but you can’t ban it,” one investor said.) Reuters described classes in South Korea that teach people how to arrange their features for job interviews performed by computers that use “facial recognition technology to analyze character.” Wired had a story about “smart contact lenses” that could overlay digital interfaces on everything you see, which is not so different from the visual feeds that the post-Jackpot characters have in “The Peripheral” and “Agency.”
Around the world, the social media technologies that were supposed to expand democracy and human connection have instead fueled authoritarianism and ethnic cleansing. Andrew Yang is running a remarkably successful insurgent presidential campaign premised on the threat that automation and robots pose to the social order.
Fear of the future doesn’t pose much of a political problem for conservatism. Reactionary politics feed on cultural despair; the right is usually happy to look backward. In his 1955 mission statement for National Review, William F. Buckley Jr. wrote that the magazine “stands athwart history, yelling Stop.”
It’s a bigger problem for the left, which by definition needs to believe in progress. In 2013, Alyssa Battistoni wrote in the socialist magazine Jacobin about the challenge that climate change poses to left politics, asking, “What should the orientation be of a politics that’s playing the long game when the arc of the universe is starting to feel frighteningly short?”
I suspect that one reason Pete Buttigieg, the 38-year-old former mayor of a small Midwestern city, has vaulted into the top tier of presidential candidates is that he speaks so confidently about the future. He asks voters to picture the day after the last day of Trump’s presidency and discusses how the world might be when he’s nearly as old as his septuagenarian competitors. “You just have a certain mindset based on the fact that — to put it a little bluntly — you plan to be here in 2050,” he once said. But his forward-looking technocratic pitch has mostly failed to resonate with his own generation. Instead, it appears that the people most soothed by Buttigieg’s ideas about what America might look like decades hence are those who won’t be here to experience it.
The candidate who polls show has the most support among young people is Bernie Sanders, the oldest person in the race. Clearly, Sanders fills his followers with hope and makes them feel that a transformed world is possible, but he also speaks to their terrors. Recently Sanders backers released one of the more moving campaign videos of this cycle. Set to a mournful cover of “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” it features inspirational scenes of the senator and his supporters, but also flooded streets, wildfires and an emaciated polar bear; in one scene protesters hang a banner that says, “We deserve a future.” It’s an ad that speaks to the desperate longing for kindness and solidarity to replace the cruelties of a society devouring itself, but also a grief-stricken apprehension of what’s in store if they don’t.
Writing about the future is usually just a way of writing about the present, and were it not for climate change, one might see widespread anxiety about what’s coming as just an expression of despair about what’s here. It’s still possible, of course, that someday people will look back on the dawn of the 2020s as a menacing moment after which the world’s potential opened up once again. But that would seem to require political and scientific leaps that are hard to envision now, much less stake one’s faith in.
Though Gibson’s older work is frequently described as dystopian, he used to consider himself an optimist. “Neuromancer,” he pointed out, was written in the early 1980s and posited a future in which the Cold War hadn’t led to apocalypse, something far from guaranteed at the time. “Since the end of the Cold War, I’ve prided myself on being the guy who says, eh, don’t worry, it’s not going to happen tomorrow,” he said. “And now I’ve lost that.” This darkness where the future should be, he said, “makes my creative life much, much more difficult,” since he doesn’t simply want to surrender to gloom. Gibson is a man renowned for his prophetic creativity, but he can’t imagine his way out of our civilizational predicament. No wonder so many others are struggling to.