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Where’s My Utopia?

Science fiction in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s would often portray a world where technological advances put hard work into the hands of machines and robots, freeing up human time to explore personal fulfillment. Some stories even postulated a renaissance of art and creativity.

When personal computers proliferated in the 1980s we saw a different result. Putting the tools for greater productivity in the hands of workers everywhere raised the expectation of how much work a person is supposed to accomplish in a day. The amount of work each worker produces each day, which had remained flat from 4000 BC until 1600 CE, started growing with the accumulation of durable infrastructure. You can do more if you can use buildings, roads, machines, and techniques that are already built. This growth sped up over time and got its biggest boost with PCs in the 80s. A graph of this growth shows the angle now nearly vertical.

Now we are actually building the robots dreamt of in science fiction. If PCs are any predictor of how robots will impact the lives of workers, they will just increase the amount of work each of us will be expected to produce. There seems to be no limit to how much productivity can be consumed. Industries that experience temporary overcapacity are besieged with investor flight and unemployment. Freeing up people’s time is perceived to be evil. The labor-saving utopia is doomed by a world with an insatiable appetite for consumption. Economics has killed the optimistic future vision.

Is this one reason why science fiction has turned so dark? Half-joking cries of “Where’s my flying car?” are met with practical considerations like air traffic. Nobody even asks, “Where’s my utopia?” anymore. The future is filled with technological wonders, yet the people live in hard working squalor. Sometimes this is blamed on an upper class that has bled the wealth out of the system. As often as not, there is no explanation for why things got worse, because that’s not what a particular story is about. There seems to be a consensus that for a future to be acceptable as likely, it has to suck.

Is it generational? More and more science fiction authors grew up with a PC on every desk, Mom and Dad both working, public schools in decline, rampant government corruption, and news that is almost entirely agenda commentary. Orwell wrote 1984 a long time ago, but it was a cautionary tale. I will leave it to historians and sociologists to nail down the timing, but we now have a whole generation of writers who have no reason to believe things will not just become more of the same.

It seems the field that has adopted the possibility of a brighter future is fantasy. Even in the darkest fantasies, bad guys are vanquished, curses are broken, and lives get better. There is a sense of things returning to a natural order of goodness, the way things were before the bad times. Alien invasions aside, there is no period before the bad times in science fiction. The march of progress built our walls of economic confinement one brick at a time. The only way back to a time of innocence is to kill most humans in an apocalypse. Yikes.

Thank goodness our superior technology has also made so much of the old, optimistic science fiction available. I know what my reading list looks like.

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