Science fiction films and books succeed in instilling in human culture an expectation of a definite and certain future, and thus they provide us with a valuable tool: they extend our cycle times, allow us to look far ahead into the future, and consider the possibilities before us
October 21, 2015 was "Back to the Future" day, the day Doc and Marty McFly arrived on their journey to the future in the movie "Back to the Future 2". As one of the people associated with futurism and technology in Israel, I was invited to be interviewed in the studios of several TV and radio programs and talk about the future - quite an amusing fact, if you think about the fact that the future is going to come every day. So why should we get so excited about him only on a day arbitrarily chosen by the screenwriters of a movie produced twenty-six years earlier?
The answer lies in the way in which science fiction films and books succeed in instilling in human culture an expectation of a definite and certain future, and thus they provide us with a valuable tool: they extend our cycle times, allow us to look far ahead into the future, and consider the possibilities before us. In this way they may also help - without much exaggeration - to save humanity.
cycle time in the past
As humans and as living organisms, evolution has honed us for one purpose: passing our genes on to our offspring. We are, to paraphrase the words of Richard Dawkins, tankers that carry our genes into the future, as far as possible. It is strange to understand that the process of maintaining the genes throughout the future requires our almost absolute reference to the immediate present. A person who is not alert to tigers, lions and wolves that may be hiding behind every rock and tree, will not survive the present. Millions of years of evolution have shaped living things to focus almost exclusively on the present. And so, for tens of thousands of years of humanity's early life, we ran from the tigers and chased the moose in the present tense.
It's hard to know where the deal we signed with Grandfather Time began, and provided us with power in exchange for measuring and documenting the passage of hours and days. I believe that we started measuring time very early in human history, because understanding the concept of time and its connection to cyclical events brought us knowledge, and knowledge leads to power: the power to survive better than others and to produce more descendants who will also learn to quantify the passage of time.
The time of the first period was certainly short, lasting less than a day. The ancient tribes could tell how long it would be until dark by tracking the sun in the sky. Their cycle time was one day. The woman who wanted to know when the menstrual blood would arrive that would weaken her and attract predators, could mark notches on a stick every night. Her cycle time was a whole month.
The great leap forward occurred in the agricultural civilizations, which are based on an understanding of the past and predicting the future: a farmer who does not know that following spring will come summer, followed by autumn and winter, did not know when to plow his field and when to sow the seeds. Deciphering the cycle of the seasons and actively monitoring it were necessary for the success of agricultural civilizations. The cycle time of the farmers was only one year.
He hasn't progressed much since then.
Some religions have tried to provide their own time cycles. The clerics recorded history and tried to provide a view of the future - often with exaggerations, exaggerations and vulgarities - but they managed to focus mainly on the past, and their promises for the future were vague or useless. Stuart Brand, in his book "The Clock of the Long Now" shares a long-standing joke: the Jews claim that the Messiah will come, and then history will end; Christians claim that Christ will return, and then history will end; Muslims claim that the Messiah has already arrived - and history is meaningless. In the end, they all share the same view that names only one event - the arrival of the Messiah - as significant, and ignores everything else. Even worse: since there is no actual target date for the arrival or return of the Messiah, the members of the Abrahamic religions continue to walk into the future with their eyes covered by black glasses with only one slit in the form of the Messiah.
It is a false time-cycle, which extends into the future and never ends, and does not allow us to think ahead in a reasonable manner. Unlike the other cycle times I described, it is also not beneficial to us. The hunter who counts the days of her menstrual cycle, knows that in a week the period of bleeding will come and she will find it difficult to go hunting. The farmer who counts the days and months of the year knows that he must sharpen his tools for the plowing that will begin in a month. But what does the cleric who prepares for the coming of the Messiah receive, nowadays, quickly, hopefully, Amen? He prepares himself for an event without a definite date, and therefore achieves nothing from it. In fact, the implicit claim from the religion is that there is no point in thinking ahead to the future. Whatever happens will happen, when it happens, most days, when it happens.
It should be noted at this point that the Jewish religion is to be credited, in which a longer agricultural cycle time of seven years took root -
"And for six years you shall sow your land; and gather her grain. And the seventh shall be neglected and forsaken, and the sheep of your people shall be eaten, and the beasts of the field shall eat their sacrifices; Yes, do to your vineyard, to your olive tree." - Exodus, XNUMX
The importance of the long cycle time
The consequences of the short cycle times we know can be seen in many great civilizations from the past, which were and are no longer. In his book "Collapse" Jared Diamond reviews several such civilizations. The people of Easter Island did not understand that they had to think about the cycle of trees and soil and fish populations, and over several generations consumed the island's natural resources. The settlers in Greenland failed to think in cycle time relating to vegetation and the changing climate - and became extinct after the goats and cattle they brought damaged Greenland's ecology.
Agricultural civilizations naturally think in cycle times of a few years, and have difficulty moving to thinking in longer cycles of tens and hundreds of years - the cycle times of trees, soil and the evolution of animal populations. Agricultural civilizations harm all of these, corrupt their environment, and eventually collapse and disintegrate themselves when the environment can no longer support them.
If we as humanity want to continue to exist over time, then we must switch to thinking in longer cycle times, of tens and hundreds of years. We must start thinking for the long term, for our own good and for the good of our children. But how can we do this? How will we root such long cycle times in human culture?
The answer is clear, to anyone who remembers the beginning of the article: we must visit the future, 'return' to it in our collective imagination, in order to create new cycle times lasting decades. This is the craft that science fiction writers and screenwriters do, and the best and most famous of them create cycle times that fit into human culture and make us examine and compare ourselves to the future every day.
Time from the movies
Science fiction stories and films have an impressive ability to reshape social consciousness. The play RUR from 1920, in which the writer and playwright Karl Chapek coined the word robot for the first time, instilled in Western culture the fear of robots taking over humanity - just as they did in the play. The movie "The Terminator", released in 1984, finally established the fear of robots in Western culture. All of these stand in clear contrast to Japanese culture, for example, where the robot Astro-Boy became a cultural hero in 1952, and has assimilated the love for robots ever since.
I believe that the most influential movies and books are the ones that include dates in them, since these give us cycle times that we can refer to in any thinking about the future. When 1984 arrived, journalists around the world tried to decipher whether George Orwell's vision had come true. As we reached the last week of October 21, 2015, all the TV channels checked whether the technological predictions from "Back to the Future 2" really came true. And when the turn of 2029 comes - the year in which Skynet is supposed to rule the world according to "The Terminator" - I predict with great confidence that the robotics experts will receive invitations to appear in the media every morning.
As a result of all these works of science fiction, humanity begins to enjoy a new and ambitious kind of time-cycle: we look ahead in our imaginations to the future for definite dates, and check each time whether the apocalyptic or optimistic visions written for them have come true. The more modest cycle times in science fiction works refer to the future several decades away. The more grandiose cycle times jump forward to 2364 (in Star Trek), to 2800 (in Dan Simmons' Hyperion), or even to the end of the universe (in Isaac Asimov's short story: "The Last Question").
The longest cycle times - those estimated in thousands and millions of years - may not be relevant to us, but the shorter cycle times receive clear attention from society, and influence our behaviors in the present.
We need new cycle times that far exceed those developed in human culture so far. Although policymakers refer to decades-long forward forecasts, created by expert analysts, the general public is not often exposed to these types of reports. Instead, the public's cycle times are determined in part by popular science fiction books and movies. These long-term cycle times reshape humanity's perception of time, allowing it to deal with long-term existential problems, such as ecological catastrophes or social breakdown, ahead of time. At the same time, long cycle times spur social innovation.
So if you want to save humanity - start writing science fiction.
More of the topic in Hayadan:
A space odyssey - what Arthur C. Kalrak predicted what happened in reality
Rumors about the death of science fiction