Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Future

Coming to terms with the future:

The Future of the Past

I don’t remember my 2nd grade teacher, Mr. Conklin, all that well. I remember he had a giant “pencil” made out of a fencepost at the front of the class. I remember that he had a monkey puppet named “Monte Math” that I assume that he used to teach us math, although I don’t remember that actually happening. I remember him saying that by the year 2000, we’d be living on the moon. The future was this amazing place full of adventure and excitement, new discoveries, robot maids, world peace and maybe even aliens. I day-dreamed about the future all the time.
In some ways, I think some of us have felt like “the future” has let us down. This sadness became salient as we watched the Space Shuttle Discovery being flown on the back of a jet to its “final resting place” in a museum.

[Picture Courtesy of NASA]
Not only are we not living on the moon, we aren’t even going to send up shuttles anymore. While some say that we are giving up the shuttle program because we are going to “the next era” of extraterrestrial travel, there are so many questions. Will we really? How long will it take? Who will pay for it? Without the impetus to conquer space before the communists, what will its driving purpose be? There are too many questions about the future, too many doubts, too many fears. When a Presidential candidate talks about his goals of a moon-base, he is mocked in the media.

The hopelessness of the future pervades our mass media. While television science fiction once primarily showed the Earth as a future utopia, where we would have to seek out adventure among the stars, current popular culture shows a future dystopia, dirty, polluted, controlled by vice and corruption, where getting through daily life is a violent and dangerous adventure in and of itself. My students don’t hope for a good position on a moon-base. They are preparing (only half-jokingly) for a zombie apocalypse.

Expect the best, prepare for the worst.

One of my favorite student speeches this semester was from a young woman for whom the above mentioned zombie apocalypse was the subject of her deliberative speech. Her argument was reminiscent of Blaise Pascal’s theological wager that if Christianity is false, he’s at least lived a better life for believing it was true. This woman’s argument was that if one prepares for a zombie apocalypse, and there is no zombie apocalypse, one has still made one’s home secure, has extra food and water on hand and has learned some survival skills. None of these will ever prove to be a disadvantage and might prove advantageous in any number of situations other than a zombie apocalypse. The speech was fun, well researched, creative and well delivered. It also was a pretty solid argument. The old saw that we should expect the best and prepare for the worst is good advice for preparing ourselves for the future.

There are people with whom I’ve attended church who have told me “I don’t contribute to a retirement fund because the Lord’s coming back before I’ll be old enough to retire.” Well, if they’re right that’ll be great. What if they’re wrong? Every generation of Christians has believed that they lived in the end times. One of them will eventually be right.

President Obama is suffering some bad press right now because of his deep seeded belief that solar energy is the energy of the future. He’s sunk billions of tax payer dollars into solar energy companies which, even with that money, have come crashing down, unable to create a viable product. Now, Obama may turn out to be right yet. I don’t know what the “energy of the future” is. Still, it might be wise to look at more options. Perhaps he should have been prepared for the idea that this whole thing might not work out.

It is good to be optimistic, as I’ll discuss later, but maybe you should prepare for retirement in case Jesus doesn’t come back right away. Maybe you should invest in things that are already proven. Maybe you should have some extra canned food in your pantry. Maybe you should have a fire extinguisher, a smoke detector and some insurance even though you probably won’t have a house fire. Maybe you should quit smoking because perhaps they won’t have it all cured by the time it catches up to you. Bad things happen. They really do. Bad things will continue to happen in the future and a utopian society will not exist so long as it is made up of fallen people.

But good things happen too, and while I am sometimes disappointed to not be on the moon, I am amazed by what does exist. The modern mobile phone, really a mobile computing device, is a great example. Teachers once told me that I might live on the moon, but they also told me that I wouldn’t always have a calculator with me. Bull. For $49 a month, after taxes, not only do I have my communication hub always with me, I have a calculator, a calendar, a dictionary, a phone-book, an encyclopedia, a notebook, a stopwatch, a camera and even a music player which is always with me. I don’t have a robot maid, but by constantly jingling me with little reminders throughout the day, my phone is really is often a robot secretary. All this, and my phone is not even a very good one! It’s one of the cheapest, no contract phones from Wal-mart.

We often hear about how college students today spend fewer hours studying than they did ten years ago, but teachers are requiring hundreds more pages of output from students than they once did. A ten page term paper was once the standard maximum output from a college sophomore, and that would only be in the few classes which actually required any writing. Writing across the curriculum initiatives at colleges all over the country have made the term paper a standard in almost every class and 10 pages would be a short one, probably only existing in classes where the professor already required two five page papers earlier in the semester. The reason that we are able to require more output and they do less work is the same reason that you are required to create more output in less time at your job than you once did. It is because so much of what was once time consuming is now automated. Students don’t even need to set foot in a library to do real, solid, research anymore.

I could go on and on. The e-reader which will look up words you don’t know as you read and pronounce the ones you don’t know how to pronounce is amazing. The little GPS that my wife and I take on trips has been awesome. Streaming Netflix has changed our lives. Many of my students, even those who live right on campus, still take my classes online because asynchronous learning is a better pedagogy for them.  And just think about this blog; anybody can have one.

Wow! Maybe the future isn’t bad after all. Still, maybe we should get ready just in case it is.

The Future of the Future.

I think we have a real social need for futurists right now. I think we need to have people who can narrate a vision for the future that gives us a reason to dream. I think that dreams beget goals which beget objectives which beget tangible betterment for all of us. We need to be thinking about moon-bases and clean energy. We need to be imagining scientific breakthroughs and philosophical developments. We need these because while we need to plan for the worst, we also need to hope for the best.

In the past there were futures predicted that were wrong. We don’t have regular extraterrestrial vacations for the average consumer. There were also predictions that are right. The other day I was having lunch with one of our administrators and talking about this need. The administrator asked me what I think was supposed to be a rhetorical question: “Who could have imagined the internet or the smart-phone 30 years ago?” I answered: “Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong.” Then I had the wonderful opportunity to teach my colleague about the amazing work of some great communication researchers. These men’s work looked at the way that the world was changing and saw the potential for that change. After seeing the potential, they articulated that potential. It was really from the articulation of the potential that others were able to make it happen.

I think we need to continue that kind of work right now. Researchers need to be willing to speculate realistically and positively about the potential for change which is good. I am working on several papers right now, and among the work I am doing is some that I hope moves in this direction. I see great potential in what we are now seeing in the kindle and nook that I know is going to change the way we communicate.

I also think we need good science fiction again. Science fiction has always held in it the warning of the dangers of technological advancement, but it also needs to hold the hope of overcoming those dangers. Science fiction should not just tell us that the zombies are coming because the virus escaped from the lab. It should also show us how we can use that same ingenuity and technology to defeat the zombies. It shouldn’t just plan for the worst, it should also hope for the best.

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