It is hopeless to try to guess at how the future will judge us. We are in the thick of things, and we don’t know what will emerge as important or significant over time. Events that seem to us exciting may well be completely forgotten (except perhaps among specialists), and slow, incremental changes that we are not even noticing may turn out to have huge consequences, and become the banner for our age. For all we know, we are now in the Age of Genetic Hope, or the Age of Solar Awakening, or the Age of Socially Conscious Marsupials, or some other theme we do not even have terms for. Only an idiot tries to guess in advance.
So here we go. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it turned out that we are now living in the Age of Moonshot Ideals? I’m thinking here of the massive projects undertaken by the likes of Google and SpaceX and even the efforts of cheerleaders for science like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye. There is a long list of faults, gaps, and genuine worries associated with these projects, to be sure, but I will ignore them for now. For there also is a possibility that there will be a coming generation of smart people who (okay, this goes against my surly temperament, but I will say it) look to the stars and ask themselves, “Why not?” Why not use the great insights we are gaining into human and artificial natures and chart our own hopeful course into the future? Why not create colonies on Mars, AI systems that can work our complex economic and logistical problems, and genetic engineering that will make us better, stronger, and more capable?
Alongside these efforts will be sagacious bystanders, armed with solid knowledge of history and well-founded pessimism about large-scale human endeavors, who will warn and scold and preach the apocalypse. But what if these bystanders are, for once, totally wrong, and the march of science goes on, and we create a Star Trek style of near utopia? What if, hearing all the warnings and objections raised by the bystanders, the tech-elites respond: “Good point; I think we can develop a work-around for that” – and then they actually do?
Wouldn’t that be cool?
As I have said, this sort of bright-eyed optimism goes against my temperament (I would be sure to be one of the nay-saying bystanders), but it cannot be denied that this is a possibility. Moreover, it may be that the possibility itself becomes more probable only if people like me are put in the back seat and others follow their bright-eyed optimistic visions, heedless of all our well-placed worries. As Project Hieroglyph has been urging, it may be time for sci-fi authors to start writing more optimistic visions of the future, manufacturing more or less the same brand of hopeful Kool-Aid that was generated in the times leading up to the actual moonshot project of the 1960s. We can look back on and laugh at that brand of sci-fi as comically naive. But the fact is that many engineers who got us into space were inspired as kids by Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein and Gene Roddenberry. “Nothing great is achieved without enthusiasm,” as Emerson wrote – and “enthusiasm” here means something like irrational frenzy, or being possessed by some demonic spirit that refuses to listen to the rational voices advising us that it can’t be done.
Well, it’s something to consider. I’ll now retreat back to my flat-footed skepticism. But I’ll look up to the stars now and then, and permit myself a small moment of hope.