So here we are.
2014 is certainly in the realms of that which in the nineteen-sixties and seventies we used to designate as “the future”. We’ve long passed Arthur C. Clarke’s milestone of 2001 (nothing remotely HAL-like existed then), and all except the last date point in Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles are already in the past (the date yet to come is the title of the final chapter in the Bradbury novel, April 2026).
We now exist in that tomorrow we used to eagerly read about as children. It’s extremely interesting therefore to revisit Isaac Asimov’s predictions for 2014 made in 1964: flying cars, robots, videophones, enforced leisure.
The cybernetic and singularity dreamers are working hard to ensure the coming to pass of the first three items in that list. Sure, flying cars may be a little way off, but Google’s recent purchase of Boston Dynamics, and neuromorphic processors mean advanced robotics and artificial intelligence are a little closer to becoming a reality.
Interestingly the technology to enable video-telephony has been around for a long time now, but those mid-twentieth century futurists forgot to take humans into account; our fuzzy non-systemic qualities such as (self-) consciousness and emotion. Throw all the technology that you like at the videophone concept, but people – more often than not – do not want to be seen at the other end of a telephone call.
Technology 0, People 1.
The socio-technical flaw at the heart of the videophone concept leads nicely into the main thrust of this piece. As things currently stand, many of us are working – through our desires, acquiescence and effort – to make concrete these earlier technological dreams. However, that nineteen-sixties futuristic shopping list contains one outlier: enforced leisure.
Asimov saw this future idleness as a curse. However, many others saw it differently:
‘We stand at the threshold of a leisure-orientated society, a nuclear age with unlimited possibilities for the enrichment of human life. The potential of recreation and leisure time services for satisfying, creative, and enriched living is limitless’ (Weiskopf, 1975)
Either way – good or bad – the predicted leisure society has not come to pass. If anything the professional classes are working longer hours than ever.
At present, there is an infatuation with the impersonal, the material and mechanical, and with technical progress. In many ways it’s not surprising considering all the jaw-dropping achievements of this paradigm. Somehow, in our idolisation of the toolset, there appears to have been a forgetting of the social progress that was supposed to go hand-in-hand with the technology. Indeed once upon a time, social and human progress was the goal, and technology was simply the means to get there. In our bright shiny cybernetic future, this has somehow been turned around.
In an alternative, parallel present – one which branched in a different direction from the world that we currently inhabit – the efficiency gains arising from the deployment of all this technology would have been distributed a little more equitably, and thus would have enabled that leisure society for citizens. This would have meant less profit for corporate shareholders perhaps, but it is one of those ‘greater good’ utilitarian arguments. A small number of super-wealthy shareholders would be less wealthy and unhappier; nonetheless huge numbers of workers would be very grateful for the increased leisure time.
Firms in this imaginary future would choose (or be required) to maintain high staffing levels relative to the ever-reducing amount of human work required in their operations (e.g. automation in banks, supermarkets etc.). The workers however, would remain on equivalent levels of pay compared to their full-time forbears, yet be working reduced hours. Moreover, the corporates would also pay their taxes, which would help to fund other aspects of the leisure society. With a bit of imagination, I think, such a world could have been envisaged – or even built.
A form of unrestrained capitalism is prevalent in the west and is single-mindedly focused on profit. National governments appear unable or unwilling to master the insatiable beast. I don’t blame the companies, this is what they exist to do! Nevertheless, instead of the savings that result from automation being used as described above to create that leisure society, they are simply funnelled to a class of increasingly wealthy investors – such that the current distribution of wealth has become insane. The irony is that those who remain in work are toiling long, long hours to help further increase these profits. I mean, these wealthy companies could surely afford a few more staff to ease the burden on the workers. Note that the mid-century futurists didn’t predict this outcome – I think it might have appeared too dystopian!
This was meant to be futurology, but I’m very aware it sounds a lot like sociology – and many would even say socialism. However it is what it is; I’m simply following the trajectory of those mid-twentieth century dreams and comparing the reality of now with the imaginings. For much of my life, I’ve been one of those who has chased the dreams in a technological context, and now we’re pretty close to making the visions real, shouldn’t we now turn our attention to the sociological?
Time, perhaps, to replace science fiction with social fiction.
Happy 2014 everyone!
Weiskopf , D. C. (1975). A Guide to Recreation and Leisure. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.