This is the raw text of the keynote I gave at Improving Reality on Thursday. Thanks again to Honor and her crew for being so wonderful, and for so kindly inviting me.
HOW TO SEE THE FUTURE
The concept of calling an event Improving Reality is one of those great science fiction ideas. Twenty five years ago, you’d have gone right along with the story that, in 2012, people will come to a tech-centric town to talk about how to improve reality. Being able to locally adjust the brightness of the sky. Why wouldn’t you? That’s the stuff of the consensus future, right there. The stories we agree upon. Like how in old science fiction stories Venus was always a “green hell” of alien jungle, and Mars was always an exotic red desert crisscrossed by canals.
In reality, of course, Venus is a high-pressure shithole that we’re technologically a thousand years away from being able to walk on, and there’s bugger all on Mars. Welcome to JG Ballard’s future, fast becoming a consensus of its own, wherein the future is intrinsically banal. It is, essentially, the sensible position to take right now.
A writer called Ventakesh Rao recently used the term “manufactured normalcy” to describe this. The idea is that things are designed to activate a psychological predisposition to believe that we’re in a static and dull continuous present. Atemporality, considered to be the condition of the early 21st century. Of course Venus isn’t a green hell – that would be too interesting, right? Of course things like Google Glass and Google Gloves look like props from ill-received science fiction film and tv from the 90s and 2000’s. Of course getting on a plane to jump halfway across the planet isn’t a wildly different experience from getting on a train from London to Scotland in the 1920s – aside from the radiation and groping.
We hold up iPhones and, if we’re relatively conscious of history, we point out that this is an amazing device that contains a live map of the world and the biggest libraries imaginable and that it’s an absolute paradigm shift in personal communication and empowerment. And then some knob says that it looks like something from Star Trek Next Generation, and then someone else says that it doesn’t even look as cool as Captain Kirk’s communicator in the original and then someone else says no but you can buy a case for it to make it look like one and you’re off to the manufactured normalcy races, where nobody wins because everyone goes to fucking sleep.
And reality does not get improved, does it?
But I’ll suggest to you something. The theories of atemporality and manufactured normalcy and zero history can be short-circuited by just one thing.
Ballardian banality comes from not getting the future that we were promised, or getting it too late to make the promised difference.
This is because we look at the present day through a rear-view mirror. This is something Marshall McLuhan said back in the Sixties, when the world was in the grip of authentic-seeming future narratives. He said, “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.”
He went on to say this, in 1969, the year of the crewed Moon landing: “Because of the invisibility of any environment during the period of its innovation, man is only consciously aware of the environment that has preceded it; in other words, an environment becomes fully visible only when it has been superseded by a new environment; thus we are always one step behind in our view of the world. The present is always invisible because it’s environmental and saturates the whole field of attention so overwhelmingly; thus everyone is alive in an earlier day.”
Three years earlier, Philip K Dick wrote a book called Now Wait For Last Year.
Let me try this on you:
The Olympus Mons mountain on Mars is so tall and yet so gently sloped that, were you suited and supplied correctly, ascending it would allow you to walk most of the way to space. Mars has a big, puffy atmosphere, taller than ours, but there’s barely anything to it at that level. 30 Pascals of pressure, which is what we get in an industrial vacuum furnace here on Earth. You may as well be in space. Imagine that. Imagine a world where you could quite literally walk to space.
That’s actually got a bit more going for it, as an idea, than exotic red deserts and canals. Imagine living in a Martian culture for a moment, where this thing is a presence in the existence of an entire sentient species. A mountain that you cannot see the top of, because it’s a small world and the summit wraps behind the horizon. Imagine settlements creeping up the side of Olympus Mons. Imagine battles fought over sections of slope. Generations upon generations of explorers dying further and further up its height, technologies iterated and expended upon being able to walk to within leaping distance of orbital space. Manufactured normalcy would suggest that, if we were the Martians, we would find this completely dull within ten years and bitch about not being able to simply fart our way into space.
Now imagine a world where space travel to other worlds is an antique curiosity. Imagine reading the words “vintage space.” Can you even consider being part of a culture that could go to space and then stopped?
If the future is dead, then today we must summon it and learn how to see it properly.
You can’t see the present properly through the rear view mirror. It’s in front of you. It’s right here.
There are six people living in space right now. There are people printing prototypes of human organs, and people printing nanowire tissue that will bond with human flesh and the human electrical system.
We’ve photographed the shadow of a single atom. We’ve got robot legs controlled by brainwaves. Explorers have just stood in the deepest unsubmerged place in the world, a cave more than two kilometres under Abkhazia. NASA are getting ready to launch three satellites the size of coffee mugs, that will be controllable by mobile phone apps.
Here’s another angle on vintage space: Voyager 1 is more than 11 billion miles away, and it’s run off 64K of computing power and an eight-track tape deck.
In the last ten years, we’ve discovered two previously unknown species of human. We can film eruptions on the surface of the sun, landings on Mars and even landings on Titan. Is all of this very boring to you? Because all this is happening right now, in this moment. Check the time on your phone, because this is the present time and these things are happening. The most basic mobile phone is in fact a communications devices that shames all of science fiction, all the wrist radios and handheld communicators. Captain Kirk had to tune his fucking communicator and it couldn’t text or take a photo that he could stick a nice Polaroid filter on. Science fiction didn’t see the mobile phone coming. It certainly didn’t see the glowing glass windows many of us carry now, where we make amazing things happen by pointing at it with our fingers like goddamn wizards.
That, by the way, is what Steve Jobs meant when he said that iPads were magical. The central metaphor is magic. And perhaps magic seems an odd thing to bring up here, but magic and fiction are deeply entangled, and you are all now present at a séance for the future. We are summoning it into the present. It’s here right now. It’s in the room with us. We live in the future. We live in the Science Fiction Condition, where we can see under atoms and across the world and across the methane lakes of Titan.
Use the rear view mirror for its true purpose. If I were sitting next to you twenty-five years ago, and you heard a phone ring, and I took out a bar of glass and said, sorry, my phone just told me it’s got new video of a solar flare, you’d have me sectioned in a flash. Use the rear view mirror to imagine telling someone just twenty five years ago about GPS. This is the last generation in the Western world that will ever be lost. LifeStraws. Synthetic biology. Genetic sequencing. SARS was genetically sequenced within 48 hours of its identification. I’m not even touching the web, wifi, mobile broadband, cloud computing, electronic cigarettes…
Understand that our present time is the furthest thing from banality. Reality as we know it is exploding with novelty every day. Not all of it’s good. It’s a strange and not entirely comfortable time to be alive. But I want you to feel the future as present in the room. I want you to understand, before you start the day here, that the invisible thing in the room is the felt presence of living in future time, not in the years behind us.
To be a futurist, in pursuit of improving reality, is not to have your face continually turned upstream, waiting for the future to come. To improve reality is to clearly see where you are, and then wonder how to make that better.
Act like you live in the Science Fiction Condition. Act like you can do magic and hold séances for the future and build a brightness control for the sky.
Act like you live in a place where you could walk into space if you wanted. Think big. And then make it better.
© Warren Ellis 2012 All Rights Reserved etc etc