🎥 Future Schlock: Hollywood's addiction to dystopia is really bad for us
5+ Quick Questions for ... innovation scholar Adam Thierer on why optimistic sci-fi matters
I often write about the need for not just Up Wing politics and policy but also a pro-progress, techno-optimist culture that celebrates innovation and entrepreneurship and believes a much better future is possible. Science fiction is a big part of that. Sci-fi novels, movies, TV shows, and video games reflect and inform how society thinks about in the future. And creating a better tomorrow starts with a practical, positive vision for how things could go right. As I’ve written:
We have to believe that the inevitable disruption caused by progress will be worth it — if we make the right decisions. We also need to believe that we can invent, broadly, the future we want. Right now, however, it seems we think that we’ve carelessly created a future that our kids and grandkids won’t want — a future of rising temperatures and rising inequality. And since the early 1970s, Hollywood has both reflected and encouraged that gloomy belief.
So is the future depicted in today’s science fiction one you’d actually want to live in? Adam Thierer shares my worry that sci-fi has become too dark, too pessimistic, and too dystopian. And it matters. He laid out his case in a recent article, “How Science Fiction Dystopianism Shapes the Debate over AI & Robotics.” It’s a fantastic piece that’s well worth your time. Even better, Adam obliged my request for a few follow-up questions.
Adam is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. His books include Permissionless Innovation: The Continuing Case for Comprehensive Technological Freedom and Evasive Entrepreneurs and the Future of Governance: How Innovation Improves Economies and Governments.
1/ The 1960s was full of optimistic sci-fi, most notably The Jetsons and Star Trek. Does the fact that the '60s were followed by the pessimistic 1970s show sci-fi simply doesn't matter?
Perhaps we were destined to experience an age of techno-pessimistic fiction after seeing some notable positive portrayals of technology from the mid-1950s to mid-1960s. And because several other social, political, and economic shocks unfolded in the late 1960s and continuing into the 1970s, the cultural zeitgeist was likely ripe for more dour directions in sci-fi.
But that age of dystopian sci-fi now seems to be a never-ending one. As Neal Stephenson has argued, we’re stuck in a rut: “The techno-optimism of the Golden Age of SF has given way to fiction written in a generally darker, more skeptical and ambiguous tone.” And he offers an interesting hypothesis as to why: “Believing we have all the technology we’ll ever need, we seek to draw attention to its destructive side effects.”
If he’s right, it means that techno-dystopian pundits—in pop culture, academic, and policy circles alike—are essentially asking us to settle for the status quo without thinking through the costs of fear-driven technological stasis. This suggests an extraordinarily impoverished imagination exists about our possible futures. To many, imagining a better future now seems passé or outlandish. For many of that ilk, it’s only a question of how pessimistic to make their plots and policy pronouncements.
2/ Is the problem that Hollywood has become obsessed with dystopias? Or is Hollywood just serving us what we want? Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton once said, “If you imagine a future that’s wonderful, you don’t have a story.” Is dark and dystopian sci-fi inherently more interesting from a storytelling perspective? If more optimistic sci-fi were produced, would audiences even want that? Are we the problem?
Yes, we are the problem to some extent because we want to be entertained. Let’s face it, techno-dystopian hellscapes can be terrific fun. Sci-fi writers and Hollywood are just being rational actors. You don’t sell books or movie tickets by delivering plots where technology is a force of good in the world. It’s just not as titillating. I, too, would be bored to tears if I spent good money on a book, movie, or show that ended with the mundane truth about technology just improving our lives in incremental but important ways. “Curmudgeons, doomsayers, utopians and declinists all have an easier time getting our attention than opinion leaders who want to celebrate slow and steady improvement,” notes Steven Johnson.
3/ If there is a guiding principle to downbeat sci-fi, would it be the Precautionary Principle?
I doubt many sci-fi writers have even heard of the Precautionary Principle, and most of them probably don’t set out to craft their pessimistic plots with the goal of changing policy directly—even if some of them probably do favor more heavy-handed controls for tech. Instead, as I just noted, other things motivate these attitudes.
There might be another explanation, too. We can think of sci-fi dystopianism as a sort of radical chic. You get to hang around the in-crowd of techno-skeptics who sneer at things that capitalism and innovation have given the masses, but which some elites or tech skeptics insist we don’t really need. In his 2013 book, Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better, Clive Thompson astutely observed that “dystopian predictions are easy to generate” and “doomsaying is emotionally self-protective: if you complain that today’s technology is wrecking the culture, you can tell yourself you’re a gimlet-eyed critic who isn’t hoodwinked by high-tech trends and silly, popular activities like social networking. You seem like someone who has a richer, deeper appreciation for the past and who stands above the triviality of today’s life.”
Others have noted this same elite snootiness existed long before pessimistic sci-fi came along, however. In a 2018 Wall Street Journal essay, Matt Ridley asked, “Why Is it So Cool to be Gloomy?” He noted that as far back as 1828, John Stuart Mill commented on how “I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.” Perhaps, then, this problem has always been with us and always will be.
4/ If Hollywood had churned out optimistic visions of the future for the past half century rather than dystopias and dark sci-fi, would the world be a markedly different place? From The Martian and Interstellar to For All Mankind, is optimism making a comeback? Or are those sorts of movies and TV shows lost among the zombies and dystopias?
There certainly are some positive portrayals of tech in sci-fi, and I’m glad to see that they’ve found an audience. In addition to The Martian and For All Mankind, you mentioned The Jetsons and Star Trek earlier.
On the other hand, what’s notable about these and some of the other sci-fi plots we cite as positive depictions is that they tend to be narrowly positive about spacefaring technology. That’s great; we should celebrate those technological capabilities—existing or imagined. But it has always bugged me that space tech gets lionized in many sci-fi plots only to be later undermined by some sort of nefarious onboard AI or robot. This is true in my favorite movie (2001: A Space Odyssey) and countless other book and television plots.
It seems like the best we can hope for is plots in which technology operates mostly in the background as a helpful force, like in Star Trek or in Jonny Quest, a cartoon that I was mildly obsessed with as a child. But as soon as tech is brought front and center in most plots, it’s usually only to be villainized.
5/ You write that “Most of today’s tech critics prefer to just spread a gospel of gloom and doom and suggest something must be done, without getting into the ugly details about what a global control regime for computational science and robotic engineering looks like.” Doesn't that suggest that sci-fi isn't all that influential on our policy debates?
Sci-fi’s influence on AI and robotics policy remains to be seen. We’re still very much in the early days of public policy for computational science. But dystopian sci-fi narratives clearly shape policy debates about these technologies. Rarely does a hearing or a policy event end without some mention of Terminator, Minority Report, or similar movies or shows. In recent years, I have been consistently amazed by how many serious policy debates I am engaged in end with my opponent frustratingly exclaiming, “But haven’t you seen the latest Black Mirror episode?!” If I get them to that point, I know that they’ve run out of ideas. They’re just relying on worst-case instincts and fearmongering to try to win points. Still, it’s exhausting and dispiriting to have this conversation endlessly.
Bonus: Outside of the science fiction genre, are we doing a good job of inspiring kids to have a sense of wonder, to take risks? How could we improve?
Several years ago, I wrote a book chapter entitled, “Failing Better: What We Learn by Confronting Risk and Uncertainty.” I uncovered some interesting academic literature about the effects associated with what some have referred to as “surplus safety” with children’s playgrounds, pools, and other play areas. We’ve become a hyper-cautious society, trying to insulate kids from all sorts of potential hazards (big jungle gyms, tall diving boards, etc.). Many parents and policymakers seem to want kids to live in a bubble.
Research revealed these attitudes and associated policies had both direct and indirect consequences. If you discourage risky play, you might get fewer injuries, but likely at the cost of more lethargy. That’s one of the factors driving record levels of childhood obesity, which has major public health impacts. Indirectly, the move toward surplus safety had the unfortunate result of making children less resilient and even giving many of them life-long phobias, including fear of heights. In other words, there can be such a thing as too much safety.
There are broader lessons here. A society that demonizes certain activities—including types of technological tinkering—will likely discourage kids from putting their creative juices into those endeavors. I’ve probably recommended Lenore Skenazy’s Free-Range Kids to more people than any other book because it offers such fresh thinking on this, encouraging parents and policymakers to think hard about the costs of over-insulating our youth from the world. You won’t have much of a sense of wonder, or the guts to take risks to do bold things, if you’ve been forced to spend your entire life sheltered from every hypothetical boogeyman out there.
Now, broaden this thinking out to cover entire societies. Returning to Neal Stephenson: “Innovation can’t happen without accepting the risk that it might fail. The vast and radical innovations of the mid-20th century took place in a world that, in retrospect, looks insanely dangerous and unstable.” Or as Wilbur Wright famously said, “If you are looking for perfect safety, you would do well to sit on a fence and watch the birds.” We humans would have never taken to the skies if the Wright brothers had not gotten off the fence and taken the risks they did.
Are we teaching today’s kids to sit on the fence when we bombard them with dystopian tales of a pending techno-apocalypse? I hope not. But as J. Storrs Hall’s argued in his important new book, Where Is My Flying Car?, that might be one reason many brilliant young people opt for degrees in “critical studies,” law, and other soft sciences instead of going into engineering fields or similar “builder” sectors. Hall argues that we need to push for “a world of makers instead of takers,” yet dystopian-minded thinking about the future teaches us to just settle on figuring out how to divide the fruits of yesterday’s advances, instead of how to build an even better technological future.
▶ California lawmakers vote to keep Diablo Canyon online - World Nuclear News | The California Assembly passed Senate Bill 846 (SB846) by 69 votes to three in the closing hours of the legislative session which ended on 31 August. The bill then returned to the Senate — where it originated — for the final vote needed to see it passed for signature to Governor Gavin Newsom. Thirty-one senators voted in favour of the bill, with one vote cast against it. On the same day the legislature passed SB846, California declared a State of Emergency with a significant heat wave bringing temperatures in excess of 100°F (38°C) and putting a significant demand and strain on California's energy grid. The California Independent System Operator has asked consumers to reduce electricity use between 4pm and 9pm on 31 August and 1 September, saying: "That is the most critical time on the grid, because solar production is going offline, but temperatures remain high."
▶ The Pandemic Erased Two Decades of Progress in Math and Reading - Sarah Mervosh, NYT | The declines spanned almost all races and income levels and were markedly worse for the lowest-performing students. While top performers in the 90th percentile showed a modest drop — three points in math — students in the bottom 10th percentile dropped by 12 points in math, four times the impact. “I was taken aback by the scope and the magnitude of the decline,” said Peggy G. Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, the federal agency that administered the exam earlier this year.
▶ The metaverse is evolving from fiction into fact - John Thornhill, FT | Although coy about the details, [Neal] Stephenson is developing his own experiences in the metaverse; a kind of multi-modal prequel, or sequel, to Snow Crash. He dismisses those who see computer games as no more than escapist fantasy. Every society since the dawn of time has sought distraction and entertainment, albeit in different forms, he insists. Neanderthals painted cave walls while the 19th-century bourgeoisie listened to grand operas and now we play computer games. “Why the hell were they painting walls when they could have been out stabbing mammoths?”
▶ Tweetstorm of the issue:
I agree 100% on the need for optimistic sci-fi, and I'd even like to see more optimistic Sci-fi on AI, which is clearly a technology set to dramatically improve our lives.
I also agree that applying the precautionary principal to non-existential risks is mistaken. Risks of progress should be balances against risks of stagnation.
I would love to be persuaded that AI existential risk concerns are much ado about nothing. But Adam Thierer's dismissal of AI existential risk is uninspired. The gist of his arguments are that 1) human level AI is further off than some people imagine and 2) many AI researchers are not worried.
Regarding 1) if we are talking about existential risk, I don't really care if the risk is 50 years or 150 years in the future. Some people don't care about long-term existential risk, but that's not likely to persuade those of us that do.
Regarding 2), there is no consensus among AI experts on this. Stuart Russell - the author of the top textbook on AI - is worried, and a lot of other AI experts are also. I grant that the existential risk is small, but 10%, 1% or even 0.1% is something to take serious when we are talking about existential risk. If Adam Thierer doesn't want laymen to rely on sci-fi to judge the risk, he should offer us something better than casual dismissal that it's far in the future.
None of this is to say there exits any sensible policy or regulation to reduce AI risk. That is another important question, and I have no idea whether there is or not. But the observation that Adam Thierer doesn't take AI existential risk seriously causes me to devalue his ideas about AI governance.
In fairness to Thierer, I haven't exhaustively read his work: I've just done a cursory internet search. It is possible that he definitively discredits existential AI risk. If so, I apologize, and ask that he find ways to convey this in popular articles such as this. But in the absence of such an argument, I'll continue to entertain governance proposals that attempt to balance existential risk reduction with the obvious benefits of AI progress.