Episode 10: Science fiction and other prophecies of the future
What do you call writings and stories about the future? A long time ago, we used to call them prophecies. You could argue that today, we call them science fiction. Whatever you call those stories, the futures imagined in most of them never came to happen in our universe. But a few of those stories show us our future, or at least glimpses of it. The problem is just that we don’t know which until they happen.
The difference between science fiction and prophecies as a genre about the future, is that prophecies often say that this WILL happen, while science fiction says this MIGHT happen. Some of these stories are tales of darker futures, warning us to avoid them, like “The Handmaid’s Tale”. Others are dreams of brighter days, like “Star Trek”. The prophecies that become popular in their age, whether they are in the form of scrolls, plays, books, movies or video games, say something about the current state of our collective consciousness. What humankind dreams of, what we yearn for and and what we fear.
Many believe that technology is what defines science fiction, and it’s not a hard conclusion to make. The genre tends to be heavy on technology, and in a society driven by technological innovation the marker of a future society is more advanced technology. Before technology, magic was what opened doors to potential futures and other worlds that may be. Magic has no restraints and can invent impossible worlds. But just like Arthur C Clarke said: “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. Technology is anchored in science, and so technology is a more concentrated form of magic, focusing our imaginations on more plausible futures. When we come too close to realizing the dark futures, we use symbols from these stories to warn others that we are getting dangerously close, like all the women who have protested removal of women’s sexual and reproductive rights wearing the red dresses and white wings of the handmaids in The Handmaid’s Tale. This is why people wear Guy Fawkes masks, like V in V for Vendetta, to protest laws that bring us closer to a fascist future.
Popular science fiction stories are our collective dreams and fears of the future. In the sixties, when our future looked bright thanks to technology and we sent humans to the moon, we dreamt of Star Trek, a universe where humans no longer have to work, everyone has what they need provided and everyone is free to advance science, art and culture in whatever way they want. We dreamt of “Lost in Space”, where humanity is exploring and colonizing space. Then, at the end of the seventies, our dreams of the future shifted. We got the first Alien movie, a warning of how corporate greed can lead to sacrifice of human life and endangerment of the human species, all for potential profits. This warning grew darker in the later movies. Alien was unique, and ahead of its time. In general, sci-fi movies focusing on encounters or relations with aliens not designed by H.R. Giger, were positive, or at least neutral. Like E.T., Cocoon, 2010: The Year We Make Contact, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. This lasted well into the 90s. Contact was released in 1997. Sure, you had the occasional horror science fiction, but that’s literally on the horror genre. It’s hard to write a horror movie about a kind alien.
Science fiction movies focusing on technology and the future of our society quickly got dark in the 80s. Blade Runner, Terminator, Robocop, 1984 and The Fly were just the beginning, and they kept getting darker in the 90s with Terminator 2, The Matrix, Gattaca, Total Recall and Twelve Monkeys. Now, one may object: some of these are based on books written long ago, like 1984 which was released in 1949, or Total Recall which is based off a Philip K Dick novel from the sixties – when dreams were bright. But books are cheaper and less complex to write than movies are to make, and successful movie studios have tapped into the collective consciousness. The successful studios are good at choosing stories that resonate with us, that entice enough of us so that the movie studios can make a handsome profit. And so the top three science fiction movies of the 90s on IMDB (based on user rating) are The Matrix, Terminator 2 and Twelve Monkeys, with Gattaca in sixth place and Total Recall in 12th. This dark trend continued into the aughts, where stories like V for Vendetta, Children of Men, Minority Report and Equilibrium are among the top rated sci-fi movies of their decade. I believe that the appeal of Wall-e was that it dared to dream of a society beyond the dystopia of A Brave New World, a dystopia that we are well on our way towardards, if we’re not already living in it. This is the real age of Aquarius.
Then there is a specific subset of technology focused prophecie… sorry, sci-fi movies: the one that deals with Artificial Intelligence. And this genre is DARK. The Terminator, Terminator 2, The Matrix trilogy, “I, Robot”, Battlestar Galactica … we were afraid of a superior technical intelligence for the better part of two decades. I believe this is because we have so long seen intelligence as the justification for being assholes to each other, our planet and other living beings, and so we feared that something more intelligent than us would do the same to us. We still do, with stories like Westworld, Ex Machina, Blade Runner 2049 and Morgan, but the advent of smart assistants like Siri and Google and human collaboration with AI, like Watson, has allowed us to dream of companionship and camaraderie with AI, like TARS and CASE, the two robots in Interstellar. We know that smart assistants won’t kill us, but what happens if they become sentient? What is consciousness anyway? At what point is a robot truly alive, and can it ever be human? Those are our big questions now.
I may not know the difference between a two year old human, a pig and a dog, but I can tell you what separates homo sapiens from other animals: telling stories. Other animals have languages too, but our language is so complex that we can look at a cave painting of two humans with spears and say “this is us” and then point to the animals drawn running from the humans and say “we hunt these”. Language allowed us to collaborate, which in turn allowed our language to evolve. When we were hunter-gatherers and lived in relatively small tribes, whatever we dreamed of, or feared, died with us because we had no way to speak to future generations. We were isolated from other humans by both time and space. Everything we know about the culture of our early ancestors consists of more or less educated guesses made by anthropologists.
One thing we know is that we started telling stories long before we began writing them down. We know this because in order to collaborate with humans outside our tribe, with people we have not yet met and maybe never will, we need shared beliefs and common goals. How do you create shared beliefs and common goals if you cannot tell stories? The invention of writing allowed us to talk to people in the future, and to convey ideas without being physically present. The process was slow, as every copy of a book had to be written by hand, and by 1450 there were about 30,000 books in all of Europe. That’s about the time we got the printing press, which considerably sped up the dissemination of ideas and knowledge to our current speed, where a well-read fifteen-year-old knows more about our universe than ancient philosophers like Socrates and Pythagoras. Pythagoras spent a large portion of his life gathering the knowledge and wisdom that eventually would lead him to the Pythagorean theorem, and today we teach it to teenagers. When it comes to math, a mathematically gifted teenager today starts where many an educated man ended two thousand years ago. Each generation stands on the shoulders of the previous generation, and the overall trend is that each generation lifts the next higher, than their parents lifted them.
If writing language conquered the barrier of time, the telephone conquered the barrier of space: with the invention of the telephone, we could communicate in real time with people in cities far, far away. This allowed information and knowledge not only to be transmitted, but also to be expanded and evolved through discourse. Our collective consciousness learns things at the speed of information. The internet is for the telephone what the printing press was for written language. More than 4000 years passed between the invention of writing language and the invention of the printing press, which gave us an exponential increase in available information. Only 400 years passed between the invention of the printing press and the invention of the telephone. And then, only about 120 years passed from the invention of the telephone to the beginnings of the Internet. We have conquered the forward barrier of time (the backward cannot be conquered, at least not with our current understanding of the universe) and we have conquered the barrier of space. At least in theory, 3 billion people can access and discuss ideas, information, knowledge and wisdom in real time. So what’s the next barrier, after time and space? Consciousness.
Here is my prophecy:
The next big breakthrough, akin to the printing press and the internet, will be communicating at the speed of consciousness. Exchanging thoughts with other individuals. Telepathy through technology. There’s already a company working on such interfaces, and if Neuralink succeeds with creating the brain-machine interface (a feat which many scientists in relevant fields believe quite possible) then that will be how history remembers Elon Musk: not as a founder of an electric vehicle company, but as the founder of the company that broke the consciousness barrier of communication. If we can connect two people’s brains and create a shared consciousness, we will be on the path to connecting more people, until we have a shared global consciousness. I truly believe this path is inevitable, and I believe that more and more people having awakenings is an indicator of this. Once enough of us are ready for a shared consciousness, the technology will be there.
But all that is still some decades away and until then, we have reached the limit of conscious communication. All common forms of language, whether written or spoken, are being used at pretty much at the highest speed possible. Sure, people learn to speed read, and listen to podcasts or books at double speeds, but those are just marginal improvements of old technology. A problem with language is that words are disconnected from feelings, and whereas feelings don’t change – the feeling of awe was the same three thousand years ago as it is today – feelings don’t change, but words do. I believe this is why animated gifs are so popular on the internet today. Take the word awesome for example. In the beginning it meant something that inspires awe, a feeling consisting of a mix of reverence and amazement tinged with fear. Today, we use the word about things that are really great, and the more we use a word, the more mundane it becomes. It loses its connection to the feeling, and so sending a gif of Chris Pratt’s awed face in Parks and Rec much better communicates the feeling of awe than a text saying “That’s awesome!”.
The words describe the feeling, the gif expresses it. In that, the gif conveys much more information than the word, in just as short a time. And it’s not just feelings that we can convey in a much more effective way, the same goes for knowledge and information. Take Einstein’s general theory of relativity: he was 26 years old when he published it, and had spent a considerable amount of his time and attention in figuring this out. He didn’t start from scratch, he too stood on the shoulders of earlier generations. Today, 102 years after Einstein published his theory, any well prepared fifteen year old can grasp the fundaments of it by watching Interstellar. Well prepared, I say, because you need some understanding of physics and spacetime to grasp why seven years pass for each hour they spend on Miller’s Planet. But we, too, stand on the shoulders of earlier generations, and so we can prepare fifteen year olds to grasp in a short time, things that took Einstein many years to figure out.
But information and knowledge are impotent without stories. Stories add context and evoke feeling. They can express information in a way that knowledge cannot. Even if that well-prepared fifteen year old doesn’t grasp the concept of time dilation in Interstellar, the story can make him or her curious and interested enough to find out. We only learn things that in some or other way feel important, and schools have a long history of making intake of information seem important by way of judgment and grades. Only recently have we realized that adding context and emotion to learning results in much more creative and self-sufficient students. I believe that had I watched “Cosmos” with Neil DeGrasse Tyson as a thirteen year old, I would have learned more physics in half the time, compared to what I actually learned in grades 7 through 9.
Simply put: the best way to spread information to many people is to weave it into stories. And since stories contain more than just information and knowledge, they become a language of their own: a language of our collective consciousness.
Have you ever heard someone say “we only use 10% of our brain?”. Next time, tell them that just because a part of our brain isn’t very active at a particular time, doesn’t mean that we’re not using it. Think of it as a traffic light: just because only one light is active, doesn’t mean we aren’t using all of them. The brain is hardware, and we use all of it. But what you could argue, is that we use less than 1% of our consciousness. The focused part of your consciousness, your attention, can handle about 40 environmental stimuli per second. The subconscious can handle 20 million environmental stimuli per second. But the subconscious is not some isolated box, it communicates with us. We have many words for it: intuition, gut feeling, suspicion, hunch, or simply feeling. As the Swedish proverb goes: “beloved child has many names”. There’s even scientific evidence for this. In one study, where participants were asked to play a card game with the goal of guessing the pattern, their subconscious understood the pattern 70 cards before conscious processing figured it out.
Whether you choose to call it gut feeling, intuition of something else, it’s simply tapping into more of our consciousness. We do it all the time, when we read a person’s body language, facial micro expressions or listen to the space between the words. Some of us are better at it than others, but that is from practice, not because we are born with it. We are all pattern recognition machines, and intuition means identifying a pattern based on feeling, rather than reasoning and logic. Whether you call it feeling or intuition, it helps us arrange known patterns into new, more advanced, and yet unseen ones. This is why no idea belongs to one person alone, it belongs to every human who ever lived. You cannot come up with the general theory of relativity from nothing, it’s a creative evolution of knowledge found and refined by earlier generations. Once our collective knowledge is sufficient, ideas and discoveries often independently pop up at the same time in different parts of the world, found by individuals who identified the same patterns. Ideas and discoveries are like mushrooms, finding them is a question of perception, of knowing where and when to look. And this, perhaps, is where we come to the moral of this particular story:
If our brains are the hardware, then our consciousness is the software. It is how you perceive reality and existence. What you believe to be true. Your consciousness is first configured by your immediate family, by the way the interact with you and the stories they tell, and which cultural programming they choose to pass on to you. Perhaps they believe that boys should be strong and good at sports, and girls should be pretty and quiet – then that becomes part of your initial programming. The language you learn plays a vital part in this programming, because it will determine the pattern of your thoughts and how you see the world, and yourself. For example, speakers of a language that has the same word for yellow and orange have a harder time distinguishing between these two colors. Speaking a language with strong future tense, like English where you say “I will go see the play tomorrow”, programs you to separate your future self from your present self. This does not happen as much in speakers of a language with a weak future tense, like Chinese where you would say “I go to the play tomorrow”. The result of this is that speakers of languages with weak future tense are 30 percent more likely to save money for the future and 29 percent more likely to exercise. They are also less likely to smoke. All of these are investments in your future self, and it is believed that the grammar structure of languages with weak future tense is responsible: what you say about the future is grammatically equivalent to the present, which makes us see our future selves as less separate from our current selves.
Then, as you begin making your own choices, you start programming and expanding your consciousness with the stories you read, watch, listen to and play out. Every interaction with another living being, every social media post, every news article we read is an ever so small configuration or expansion of our consciousness. Once information is in there, it cannot be unlearned. That is the true message in the story of Eve and the apple. It can be temporarily forgotten, but only by our conscious mind. Our subconscious always remembers. And so if you only read news about how bad things are, you start reprogramming your consciousness to perceive the world as going to hell in a handbasket. If you believe you were made, which is what we in the western world tell children they were, your consciousness will be configured in a slightly different way than that of a Chinese child, who asks “how was I grown?”
The larger the consciousness, the more parameters it can take into account. A small mind cannot find great ideas, and a mind can only be as big as the consciousness it exists in. But even big minds can be programmed to do the most horrible things. So, friend, be picky in what you allow to re-program your consciousness, and choose wisely what you dream of. Even dreams configure our reality, both our present and our future. I wish you dreams that further expand your consciousness, friend. Sleep well, until you wake up.