Will our popular culture survive into the future?

Many works of science fiction agree that we'll all be reading Shakespeare until the heat death of the universe. But what about the works of Isaac Asimov, George Lucas, JK Rowling, and Steven Moffat? What, if any, cultural legacy will we leave to people the who come after us, and will we like the way that legacy looks?

One of our favorite books of 2011 was Ernest Cline's Ready Player One, a work of speculative fiction that's as much about the future of popular culture as it is about the future of technology. It's fun to imagine that future generations will appreciate Star Wars and Back to the Future as readily as we do today, but is that realistic? How might our popular culture — our books, our television, our movies, our music — make its way into the hands of future fans?

Scenario #1: Schoolteachers will decide. The culture tastes of the crew of Star Trek: The Next Generation's Enterprise is famously highbrow, almost to the point of stodginess. Picard may have a fondness for detective pulps, but he's more likely to be found spouting Shakespeare or playing Mozart. Lieutenant Barclay and Dr. Crusher stage Cyrano de Bergerac. Commander Riker woos the ladies with his jazz trombone. When Q casts the crew in his private production of Robin Hood, even Worf (whom you'd think would be more familiar with Russian literature than English) has enough familiarity with the tale to quip, "I am not a Merry Man."

So why does the crew of the Enterprise reenact Charles Dickens but not JRR Tolkien? Well, putting aside the TV writers' practical concerns about airing public domain works with which a large segment of their audience will be familiar, there is the fact that all commissioned officers have to go through Starfleet Academy. And Starfleet Academy offers students a fairly classical education, even by 21st Century standards. (They still offer Latin, when Klingon, Cardassian, and Romulan seem far more practical.)

Of course, if we do end up in a future where teachers and academics are the ones who distribute pop culture to the masses, chances are it won't look like what we see in TNG. For one thing, in an increasingly global era, it seems unlikely that the lessons will be so overwhelmingly Western. For another, the tastes and goals of teachers will probably change over time. For all we know, future generations will find more resonance Harlan Ellison or Frank Herbert than George Orwell. And I'd hope that even the most traditional educator would teach a wider range of media than the instructors at Starfleet Academy; in the 24th Century, only the most die-hard aficionados of 20th Century culture are familiar with that antiquated cultural receptacle known as the television. Maybe it's cultural vanity, but I'd like to think that some of this era's movies and TV shows will be found worthy of future study.

Will our popular culture survive into the future?S

Scenario #2: Powerful individuals will decide what culture survives. The genius of Ready Player One is that reclusive genius James Halliday, who had so much trouble connecting with other people, was able to bequeath his geeky obsessions to an entire generation. Halliday offers a multitrillion-dollar prize to the first person who finds the Easter egg hidden in his giant virtual reality simulation OASIS, but winning the game requires intimate knowledge of all of the 1980s pop culture that Halliday adored. This drives a resurgence of eighties culture, at first because the largely poverty-stricken populace wants to win Halliday's fortune, but then also because many kids in 2044 genuinely connect with the stories with plucky child heroes and unbelievable artifacts of power.

It's an extreme portrayal of popular culture wrenched into the forefront at the whim of an individual, but it's not hard to imagine a world where a person or handful of people use their power to influence or even control popular culture. Consider Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, where no one is allowed their own private island of culture in the form of a book and instead have to watch the vapid dramas beamed onto their parlor walls. And there are plenty of real-life examples to draw from, such as Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the former President of the Republic of Kalmykia, who is so obsessed with chess that he made it a required class for school children and had the opulent Chess City complex built in the impoverished steppe region. And, as we mentioned a few weeks ago, the late Kim Jong-Il loved kaiju movies so much that he kidnapped South Korean director Shin Sang-Ok and forced him to make the monster movie Pulgasari. So, if you want your favorite piece of artwork to survive, make sure your kid loves it, too, while instilling her with a firm sense of megalomania.

Ready Player One fan art by Ian D. Brisbane.

Scenario #3: Future people will hang onto current pop culture that most closely mirrors their own values. Let's get down to the real reason I posed this question: I want to know whether folks in the future will still read science fiction made in the last hundred years. Will future culture consumers regard our speculative fiction as curious artifacts — childish dreams of people experience the constant, exponential growth of technology? Or might some of them love our strange stories as much as we do?

A couple of months ago, I highlighted a webcomic called Escape from Terra, about libertarian utopia that springs up on the dwarf planet Ceres while the Earth and Moon are shackled by a nefarious global government. I poked a bit of fun at EFT's constant references to current pop culture, especially its characters' utter fascination with Star Wars. But, while some of EFT's references continue to mystify me (including a recent nod to Lynyrd Skynyd), on further reflection, it makes perfect sense that so many of Ceres's individualist denizens still idolize Han Solo hundreds of years later. After all, Han spends years thumbing his nose at the evil Galactic Empire as a smuggler before helping to bring the whole fascist organization down, giving him the qualities Ceresians most admire. And the EFT creators do reference some fiction that more closely matches their anarchic, frontier existence, such as Robert Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. But then again, that's just us imagining a future where our current science fiction will thrive. Here's crossing my fingers that we don't all end up in the dustbin of cultural history.

Will our popular culture survive into the future?S

Scenario #4: Today's most pervasive popular culture will survive — provided there's no language barrier. In the years following Caesar Augustus's reign, all Ancient Roman schoolboys were forced to read Vergil's Aeneid. In fact, the opening words of the epic poem, "Arma virumque cano," were common graffiti in the city of Pompeii. Today, however, the Aeneid is relegated to upper-level Latin classes, while middle schoolers and high schoolers get the Greeks' mythical side of the story with Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. So why do Hector and Achilles get a starring role in English class (and, consequently, big box office movies) while Aeneas and Dido don't? A Latin teacher once explained to me that when she tried to teach Vergil's poem in English, she had very little to say. The Aeneid is one of the great works of Western literature, but appreciating it depends heavily on understanding the language in which it was written: Vergil's word choices, his syntax, even the number of times he uses certain words to describe Dido's hair. (I had a Latin teacher who could deliver hour-long lectures on the color of Dido's hair.)

As today's languages shift and evolve, perhaps the works of literature that will best endure are those that depend less on clever wordplay than on psychology, myth, and exciting plotting. Perhaps the transmutation of the English language will forgive clunky dialogue and focus instead on pretty spaceship chases and roguish heroes. Perhaps Commander Riker plies his alien paramours with jazz because it translates better than the lyrical works of Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.

Scenario #5: Future cultures won't take any interest in our popular culture. Perhaps it's hubris to think that future cultures will care about our arts at all. I can't help but wonder if theater-lovers from the Elizabethan era would be disappointed to learn that the average English speaker has never seen Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus performed, even if we still talk of Helen of Troy as "the face that launched a thousand ships." Today's popular culture may very well show up only in tomorrow's equivalent of college electives, or trickle through future language and culture in dribs and drabs, its context mostly forgotten.

Scenario #6: Intellectual property restrictions will make older, public domain works extremely popular. Derivative works are an important way that we interact with our culture, even though a lot of the works we create fall into a murky legal gray area. Technically, so much of the fan art and fan fiction that we so love is a violation of character copyright, but rights holders often willfully turn a blind eye to it all. After all, those unauthorized works can help cement your fan base (and suing your fans makes you look like a big jerk). But as Congress mulls over SOPA, it's not hard to imagine a future where copyrights are more stringently enforced. If sharing your awesome drawing of your favorite manga hero becomes a legal hazard, maybe you'll start looking to works in the public domain to test out your artistic skills on. Who knows? Works that are obscure today could develop rabid, creative fan bases only after their IP deaths.

Will our popular culture survive into the future?S

Scenario #7: The information apocalypse will render the whole question moot. As much as we like to think that our cultural legacy is our immortality, chances are that someday all these wonderful stories will fall to the metaphorical sands of time. Already, there are episodes of Doctor Who that have been lost or destroyed and films whose only copies crumbled before they made it into fresher formats. With so much new culture existing only in digital form, there's also the worry of the data apocalypse, the fear that all those precious ones and zeroes will be forever wiped from history. In that case, it may well be that whoever published the most books — or carved the most stone tablets — wins the hearts and minds of future fans.

Of course, if humanity were to leave Earth entirely, our cultural legacy will depend on what future humans decide to carry with them.

And then there's the frightening possibility that when we're all gone from this timeline, all that we'll leave behind is this:

What other scenarios can you imagine for the future of our arts and entertainment? What current culture is most likely to survive the next few centuries?