ITS one of the more poignant couch experiences, during lockdown: watching expansive science fiction on your home screen, while the birds outside laugh at you for your single permitted walk a day. The futures bright, you mutter, one popcorn cluster at a time.
This despite most SF being dark and dystopian (thanks Hollywood for continuing to press the button on Project Fear). But the best ones at least put the promise of a better future on a knife edge.
Whatever the Powerful New Machine is, its forces can be turned either way, according to our ethics and awareness. I find it good to experience stories of momentous choice, in these straitened circumstances. Its a wee bit of defiance, however wilful.
Take the recent BBC2 series Devs (highly recommended). The show held out the near-term possibility of a completely transformed world. A fully-realised quantum computer, capable of unimaginably greater calculations than any silicon-based device, seems to be able to predict whats about to happen next.
Heres the intellectual drama: does this mean the near future, or a near future? Is it what we might predict would definitely happen next, if all the matter in the universe was calculable? Or is it what might happen in some parallel universes, which another interpretation of physics suggests are being infinitely produced, in every moment of quantum weirdness?
In Devs, all this infinity and certainty is tethered to the grubbiest, most faltering humans. Fathers are made mad by the mourning of their daughters; secret agents wrestle fatally on the floors of underground car parks; sentimental geeks fall, and then stay, awkwardly in love.
The series written and directed by wunderkind Alex Garland both wants to celebrate Silicon Valleys vaulting ambition, and measure it against the reality of us sweaty, needy bipeds. Its an SF trope that hasnt changed much since Mary Shelleys Frankenstein (and no less valuable for that).
But behind all of the narrative moves in Devs, theres an alluring dream still glimmering here. Human beings are always capable of shocking technological advances ones that can liberate us into potentially more easeful, creative, wiser existences. As the tumbleweed rolls down your corona-cleared street, and the TV credits roll, you start wondering. Imagine we could put such computational power at the service of crunching the data coming, in real time, from our biosphere?
It would be like the ultimate dashboard, showing us how to maintain a healthy balance between human activity and natural restoration, right down to the last gram of carbon. Wouldnt that turn us into Spaceship Earth, sailing sanely and sustainably through the cosmos? Wouldnt it be great to invent that? Im well aware that this reveals what might be called my accelerationist tendencies. Accelerationism is a school of thought which believes humans need to push our inventive, creative-destructive capacities as far as they can go. If so, we can break through to a new world of cost-free abundance.
Yet there are so many voices around me at the moment many of them womens who think these accelerationist tendencies are our key problem. Hasnt agri-business accelerated into virgin jungles, releasing an army of pathogens? Havent marketers accelerated their understanding of human motivation and susceptibility, so were trapped in their web of heedless consumption?
And although the experience of lockdown is very much shaped by inequality, dont we generally accept it implies a change of pace in our working and social lives? A brace of polls over the last few weeks would seem to back that up.
YouGov polls have had 54% saying I hope to change some things about my life as a result of this crisis, with only 9% wanting things returning to the way they were. They also record majorities for Universal Basic Income (51%), rent control (74%) and a jobs guarantee (72%).
Perhaps this explains the brutal rhetoric coming from the Westminster Government this week. It has been snarling about weaning citizens off their addiction to furlough payments (which casts us as either demanding infants, or dependant junkies).
The Tories may be suspecting that millions have appreciated being able to step off a relentless treadmill all that overwork in inessential jobs.
So maybe we make the best of radical technological innovation all those increases in doing more with less that it brings if we have already decided on a different pace and quality of life.
This decision might not just be based on some hippie-like revolution of values, spreading throughout the classes. It might also come from looking soberly at the statistics of modern history. In short, the lockdown has only revealed the slowdown that we are already on.
THIS is the intriguing argument from the geographer Danny Dorling. His new books full title is Slowdown: The End of the Great Acceleration and Why Its Good for the Planet, the Economy, and Our Lives.
With a forest of graphs, Dorling tries to show us that our major trends point to stagnation, not more explosive growth. GDP peaked in 1968; populations everywhere are headed for eventual decline. Even articles on Wikipedia are slowing in growth which is not the endlessly expanding story we expect from digital culture.
Pointing to the tractor, television and telephony or the fridge, the washing machine, air conditioning and the pill Dorling wants to argue a contrary case. These inventions were far more transformative experiences of tech innovation than anything were currently experiencing. Were heading for more than 60 years of computer use, 30-odd years of internet and mobile use. Have we really moved into a radically different life-experience, comparable to the removal of horses from our streets and fields, Dorling asks?
Imagine we accepted in the words of the Scottish wellbeing economist Katherine Trebeck that we have arrived. Where we recognise that human societies, with current tools at their disposal, can more than adequately meet their needs. This would mean abandoning the idea that current inequalities and polarities can always wait to be addressed, because a future that grows the pie will raise all boats.
This is why we always give the green light to the hyped-up adventurism of tech enterpreneurs, in the hope that theyll break through to a new source of wealth (the dream at the heart of Devs).
If you cease to take the exponential view, you start to distribute what you are able to produce more equitably in each society. Dorling identifies Japan and Finland as demographically ageing and shrinking societies, who are turning their supposed stagnations into stabler redistributions of wealth.
This is excellent, usefully counter-intuitive stuff. I especially like Dorlings prediction that, under slowdown, social and cultural innovation will come to the fore.
In 1950, your grandparents might have been able to imagine the combination of typewriter, TV and telephone that comprises todays smartphone. But could they have conceived it would be OK to be gay in the future? Or that young women would be graduating from university at a much higher rate than young men? says Dorling in a recent Prospect interview.
Our grandchildren may laugh at the bigotries of our current conventional behaviour, he suggests. If we get to have grandchildren, that is.
However, that last line triggers my main caveat to Dorlings thesis. Indeed, human beings may have to enact the biggest and fastest course-correction in their existences.
Accepting the news from Nature that were hitting some hard limits, that we must redesign our systems to stay within planetary boundaries, and that we are perfectly capable and tooled-up to do this its all a strong, empowering, challenging story, inviting the best from us.
But say we do manage to turn the supertanker of modernity around (irony intended). Do we really think that coming generations will lack curiosity, ingenuity and ambition, for what science and technology can do? Once we stabilise our world, could we become wise enough to really journey into AI and the human genome (while also glorying in and honouring all other forms of life on this planet)?
Scots have an extraordinary resource in the writings of Iain M Bankss The Culture novels. They work out how exploring such potentials might produce a rich and satisfying civilisation.
See what happens when you watch too much SF in lockdown?
Danny Dorlings Slowdown: The End of the Great Acceleration and Why Its Good for the Planet, the Economy, and Our Lives is on Yale, 18.99.
Devs is currently on BBC iPlayer.
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