Films from the Future: The Last Chapter
From the closing chapter of the new book “Films from the Future: The Technology and Morality of Sci-Fi Movies”
As I’m writing this, I’m looking out over the Firth of Clyde, from the Scottish island of Arran. I first came here nearly thirty-four years ago, in 1984, and it’s been an occasional getaway for me ever since. Over this time, there have been changes, but the island still has that comfortable feel of a place largely untouched by the frenetic pace of modern innovation. As if to remind me of this, I’ve been traveling along crumbling roads over the past few days, in a rental car that modern automotive technologies seem to have completely bypassed, while grappling with patchy Wi-Fi and even patchier cell-phone coverage. It all feels a long way from the cutting-edge technologies that have threaded through the previous chapters.
As an outsider, Arran still feels to me as if it belongs to a previous age. Take away the intermittent internet and cellular phone system, and to my off-islander eyes, I could still be in 1984. Yet I find this strangely comforting. Despite sitting here wrapping up a book on the profound changes that emerging technologies are likely to bring about, it gives me hope that there’s life outside the frenzied technological pace at which we sometimes seem to be living our collective lives. And it affirms my belief that happiness lies not in the latest technology, but in the more basic things of life, like food, shelter, warmth, and good company.
Yet there’s a part of me that knows that these dreams of a slower, more pleasant past are a sentimental illusion. Much as I enjoyed my few days of potholed roads, rickety transportation, and intermittent internet connections, I suspect that there are plenty of permanent residents on Arran who have very different opinions about how things are there. Despite the siren-call of nostalgia for a simpler, less technologically complex time, the reality is that emerging technologies, when developed and used responsibly, can and do improve lives in quite powerful ways. There are far too many people in today’s world who are living disadvantaged lives because they don’t have access to technologies that could make them better, and I worry that, if we’re tempted to start renouncing technologies from a position of privilege, we risk denying too many people without the same privileges the chance to make their own decisions. I would go so far as to say that we have an obligation to explore new ways of using science and technology to improve the world we’re living in and the lives people lead.
This is an obligation, though, that comes with some tremendous responsibilities. These include working hard to ensure the technologies we develop benefit people without harming them. But they also include learning how to live responsibly in a world that, through our own drive to invent and to innovate, is constantly changing.
These are tough challenges, and they’re ones that it’s all too easy to leave to “experts” to grapple with. Yet I fear that this is, in itself, an abdication of responsibility. Some of the technological challenges we are facing are so profound, so life-changing, that the questions they raise are ones that we cannot afford to leave solely to people like scientists, innovators, and politicians to answer. The reality is that, if we want to thrive in the technology-driven future we’re creating, and we want to equip our children, and our children’s children, to do the same, we all need to be able to wrap our collective heads around what’s coming our way and how it might affect us. This is no mean feat, though. It’s one that will require a journey of discovery that uncovers the often-hidden links between ourselves and our technologies, and how we can nudge them toward the future we want, rather than one that someone else decides for us.
Through this book, I’ve set out to show how science fiction movies can help point the way along this journey, flawed as they are. As I’ve been researching and writing it, I’ve developed a deeper appreciation of how the movies here can expand our appreciation of the complex relationship between technology and society, not because they are accurate or prescient, but precisely because they are not tethered to scientific accuracy or to realistic predictions of the future. It’s their creativity, and dare I say it, their entertainment value, that helps open our eyes to seeing the world in new ways which, when seasoned with feet-on-the-ground thinking, can help us better understand what innovating responsibly means.
Yet, for all their usefulness, there are dangers in getting too wrapped up in science fiction movies as we think about the future. Moviemakers draw on what we can imagine now, based on what we already know; they cannot invent what’s yet to be discovered. And in most movies, science and technology are simply devices that are used to keep a human-centric plot moving along. This is precisely why they excel at revealing insights into our relationship with technology. But at the same time, it makes them a poor guide to the technology itself, unless, like here, they’re used as a stepping- off point for exploring new and emerging developments. There is another danger, though, and this is that, without a good dose of scientific facts and social realism, science fiction movies can leave us with a misplaced impression that we’re careering toward a hopelessly dystopian technological future, and there’s not a lot we can do about it…
Taken from the last chapter in Films from the Future: The Technology and Morality of Sci-Fi Movies. This is a short chapter–just five pages long–and it gently wraps up the themes around the challenges and opportunities of getting technology right that pervade the book.
I started writing this chapter while taking a few days to relax and regain my bearings on the Scottish island of Arran. This a place I’ve been going back to for nearly thirty five years now, and as you’ll see from the opening paragraphs, it’s a location that still has the power to influence and mould my thinking.
Originally published at 2020science.org on November 8, 2018.