Science & Physics Society & Culture Technology

Just imagine an amazing future

When we imagine far off worlds, or make predictions of a future beyond the horizon of present day science and technology, and then make good of those imaginings, we create a self sustaining loop. By dreaming in the here-and-now of an as-yet unseen future, we change the present…

When we imagine far off worlds, or make predictions of a future beyond the horizon of present day science and technology, and then make good of those imaginings, we create a self sustaining loop. By dreaming in the here-and-now of an as-yet unseen future, we change the present…

Beginning here in the present with the dreamers, their imaginations reaching out into the future, they pluck the plausible and the speculative from those imaginary worlds, and then return them to our present, to inspire and influence not just other dreamers, but those who have the power to make those dreams come true.

As the landscape of the present then begins to resemble these imagined future times, the process continues, bringing more of the future back into the present — again and again and again. Just imagine, perhaps like the dreamers.

The origins of the future

Somewhere in northern Iraq, around 4850 BC — some 6,861 years ago — farmers settled and tended the land and their animals. To the best of our knowledge, this is the earliest example of farming. This one event marked a turning point in human history; technology and society converged in a truly meaningful way for the first time. Man now had the ability to manipulate the land, to cajole animals into tacit domestication, to build a variety of tools to break, carve, cleave and dig the very land beneath feet and hoof.

Prior to this, the extent of mans forethought extended only as far as the ranging beasts they would hunt, where they would anticipate their every action and inaction, in an attempt to kill them with spear and arrow. Now, rather than await the seasonal tides and swathes of migrating animal herds, swarming across the great plains of central Africa, man could coral them in pens and manage them as a cyclical, controlled resource, to ride out the harder times.

Also, man could look further ahead and plan for entire seasons, by planting crops to coincide with the cyclical patterns of nature and seasonal rain fall. All of this represented the most fundamental change in the direction of our species, one that those early agrarians simply couldn’t have imagined the implications of. Or could they?

Might they not have imagined larger farms, with more land, more animals, and more children to help tend both land and animal alike? We can ourselves only imagine.

Thoughts of the future become facts of the now

Now let’s return to the future. Or, more precisely, the recent past, relatively speaking. Let us consider those who imagined — authors such as Philip K. Dick, H. G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, Jules Verne, and Arthur C. Clarke. Or those behind genre-defining science fiction cinematic classics such as The Predator, Blade Runner and The Terminator. These people imagined our world, and worlds beyond our own many years hence. They imagined the subtle and supreme changes to human society that our technologies and our scientific advancements would bring.

In a sense, those writers and producers of science fiction novels and movies are conceptual time travellers, as their insights of what will be are brought back into the here and now, and often used as a basis for present day developments. There is an irony here. In other science fiction novels, those concerning time travel, the authors often speak of and warn against travelling back through time and interfering with events of the past. Yet do we not do the same when we imagine the future?

However, for any imagined worlds, spectacular scientific achievements and towering technologies to influence the fabric of our world of the now, they must influence the minds of people first. And so those authors whose ideas are most well read, whose ideas we exalt and hold aloft, it is their imaginings that we aspire to. Or perhaps, hasten to avoid.

Collectively, their readers and viewers are deciding, as if as a committee, which ideas are the most credible, or simply incredible. Their imaginings have fuelled the imaginations of younger generations, inspiring them to become the scientists and the technologists of the now, aspiring to build the world of tomorrow.

Alternately, what of those novels and movies whose ideas are equally amazing, but not nearly as well read and viewed? They need but the keen attention of one person of great influence and their ideas would also flourish — great influence can either rest in the hands of the collective, or the individual.

Would anyone have imagined building optical tweezers (which is essentially a scaled down version of the “tractor beam”), or mobile phones (also the realization of communicators) had someone not seen Star Trek as a child? In fact, we’re far closer to Star Trek technology than you would think.

Would the military be so eager to research invisibility for their soldiers vehicles and aircraft had someone not seen the movie The Predator?

Just how advanced would humanoid robotics be right now, had authors like Isaac Asimov, not written I, Robot and movies such as The Terminator not been produced?

In a very real and profound way, we are interfering with our present, by imagining the future, changing our time line as we go along. By imagining amazing science and technology, and having those ideas be accepted and blended into our cultural language, we place that most important thought into the minds of those with the will, the wherewithal and the raw talent to make good of the most important question of them all — “What if?”

By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.