How We Imagine the Future in Dark Times

I have a feature in the Washington Post "Outlook" section today about how people have imagined the future during difficult periods in history (including our own). Check it out!

Here's an excerpt:

When the present promises only economic hardship and political upheaval, what does the future look like?

In 2009, it looks like a world of gleaming spaceships filled with enlightened people who have emerged with their humanity intact after a terrible war. They have entered the 23rd century, shed racism, no longer use money, possess seemingly magical technologies and are devoted to peaceful exploration. I refer of course to "Star Trek" and its powerful story of a better tomorrow, which has been mesmerizing audiences for almost half a century and returns to movie theaters this coming May with an eagerly anticipated 11th full-length feature.

But wait. The future also looks like this: a dark, violent world where a horrific war between humans and cyborgs leads to the near-extermination of humanity. This vision, in the latest "Terminator" movie, is also arriving at your nearest mutiplex in May.

We imagine the future in places other than the movie theater, of course. Still, these two familiar franchises underscore the conflicting stories we tell ourselves in uncertain times about what lies ahead: Either we're bound for a techno-utopia of adventure, or a grim, Orwellian dystopia where humanity is on the brink of implosion.
ad_icon

We've seen this dichotomy before. Nearly a century ago, Europe was headed toward war on an unprecedented scale. Traditional alliances evaporated, shocking new weapons ripped apart bodies and countries, and a generation of artists such as Picasso responded with paintings that showed reality reduced to unsettling, jagged abstraction.

Meanwhile, a pulp writer from Chicago named Edgar Rice Burroughs was concocting stories about a soldier who wakes up one morning in a miraculous, futuristic world full of lost cities, advanced technologies and giant green men.

(Yes, I know there are a couple of errors in the online version that have to do with Barsoom's inhabitants and an unfortunate Buck/Flash, Han/Mongo mixup. Sorry - hopefully those will be fixed soon.)

Check out the rest of the story here. I'll also be chatting about the story live online at the Washington Post site tomorrow (Monday,Jan. 5) from 1-2 PM EST. You can submit questions for me to answer here - I can't promise I'll answer every question, but I'll do my damndest to try!

Plus my article is just one part of an incredibly cool package about the future, with articles on everything from the coming population crisis and robot warriors, to climate change and the future of female leadership. And there's an amazing infographic about future tech.