In Ian’s previous articles, we’ve seen how technologies of the future (and present!) can quickly invalidate our future-writing efforts. But the easiest thing for writers to misjudge is how people themselves will be different, within the future worlds we create.
We may be very happy to accept any implausible or kitsch elements in your future-writing if they make for a more vivid and exciting world than our own – but if people (and the way they live) don’t seem to be changed, then you’re missing out on one of the massive appeals of writing the future: that it offers audiences a vision of how we could be different if we lived in such a different world, and how we could make different choices in life if they see life in that new light. The future is, ultimately, a place to play out our dreams of what life today really could, or should, look like, if only we had the chance. Future-writing creates a rare, neutral space in which to play out our conflicting visions, and fears, for the present and the future, all within the safety net of someone else’s story about a totally different world to our own.
If our technologies – or destructive tendencies – smash the way of life we know, then the post-apocalyptic visions of many popular future-stories (MAD MAX, THE BOOK OF ELI, etc etc) may prove a good guide – because people whose lives are a step backwards from ours, are likely to play out in ways that life and history can help us recognize today. So I’ll focus instead on how people are likely to change if that doesn’t happen, and if other historic trends continue instead. Here are some trends I’ve noticed which are extremely likely to continue to change our personalities and choices. If you’re looking for subjects to inspire your next script, the answer might be somewhere here!
- Ever-presents of human nature, like family bonds and tribalism and attraction, will continue to forge our key relationships and allegiances and priorities – far more than rational reasoning would like to admit. We will never actually want to be “one unified world community” – whatever we might tell ourselves, we’ll choose to keep dividing ourselves into tribes and sub-tribes. I’ll write about these in more detail another time.
- Almost every medical condition will become treatable, and most will be fully curable. People will develop ever-more-perfectionist expectations of themselves and others for their health, capacities and looks. Technologies will become better integrated within people’s bodies too, with far-reaching implications, first for treatments and then for enhancements. These trends will create losers as well as winners, mainly due to economic factors that give or limit people’s access to these treatments.
- Almost every conceivable aspect of life and the world will become connected to, or monitored by, our grand digital networks. Going ‘off the grid’ will get harder and harder, with important consequences for thriller stories in particular – many scripts we receive feel quite dated to me already with this in mind. The ‘internet of things’ will pose significant risks for privacy and security, with our everyday lives utterly interconnected with single networks that put us all at risk of having our lives invaded.
- The culture war of the 21st century will continue to be that between fundamentalism (of all kinds), against relativism and tolerance. Western countries may need to start reining in more of the free-for-alls that have risen since the 1960s – because if we can’t, fundamentalism may offer many people a much more reassuring vision than the issues that they perceive in the world around them. I notice that few sci-fi writers want to embrace religious believers into ‘their’ visions of the future. But those people will be there anyway – how will they feel about the world they’re living in? How many of those wonderful 1960s visions of the 21st century (THUNDERBIRDS, etc etc) predicted a global surge in religious fundamentalist terrorism? Perhaps, comparing modern trends to the worldview and expectations of religious fundamentalists, we should have seen it coming.
- War will also be designed to keep actual human beings (from our own country, anyway) completely remote and safe from the intrinsic dangers of the battlefield. This is already basically the case for headline conflicts, we just haven’t invented a way to occupy hostile territories without ground troops yet. I reckon the next major war between global powers will be won or lost by technology (such as cyberattack) within hours without a single bullet being fired. All this has big implications for action stories – where we want to see our heroes put their own lives on the line for the story, without getting immediately cut down by some drone-robot fly.
- Power and knowledge and the ‘moral high ground’ will continue to decentralize away from governments and religious institutions, through technology and the continued trend towards individualization of modern job roles. Improved technologies will also make it harder and harder for anyone to maintain lies and secrets (and foment conspiracies successfully). However, at the same time, we will all be relying on common technologies and platforms, such as the internet, ever more, and so the risks will grow that would-be tyrants and hostile powers will turn our powers and everyday devices upon us.
- Supposedly ‘ignorant’ patterns of thought and behaviour (from racism to superstition to religious bigotry) will continue to decline, but will keep persistently recurring in new forms in every generation, and the continued migration and tourism of people to other countries will ensure that old issues like these will never become ‘a thing of the past’ anywhere.
- Controversial cases that come to light in the news will continue to stiffen public opinion and the law against people who create injustices and avoidable suffering for other people (from our own culture or countries!). Proliferating devices like smartphones will continue to make it easier for victims and others to record and prove that these injustices are happening – albeit via networks and platforms that many governments and others may be demand to control.
- People will continue to intensively map, scan and explore any areas of life or the universe that could be described as ‘the unknown’. Fewer people will believe in the possibilities that rely upon it (such as magic, monsters, aliens and direct ‘divine intervention’) – though interest in stories about them might conversely rise as a result of their ‘otherness’! But people will continue to interpret things in the ways that feel most natural to themselves, so don’t expect religion and superstition to die off anytime soon.
- Automation and robotizing of all aspects of life will continue to render more and more job roles obsolete. The more this continues, growing numbers of people may lean towards anti-globalization movements, backward-looking politicians or authoritative voices. Meanwhile educated, versatile people may find themselves in a minority for remaining economically active and having a secure sense of their own identity and purpose in the world. Which impacts significantly upon my next point…
- While globalization will continue to make countries ever more interdependent, but sociopaths will continue to find ways to take power (click HERE to understand what I mean by ‘sociopath’ – it’s perhaps a much more widespread personality type than you realize). Pacifism will remain naïve in the face of this, and the proliferation of technologies that can empower them in new and ever-more-pervasive ways. But in economic terms, centralized nation-states will be unable to keep up with those that don’t try to maintain full control of all aspects of the economy.
- The environment everywhere will continue to be carved up and predominated by human activity at an escalating rate, until technological changes make it possible (and convenient) to live far more efficiently than people currently choose to. Changes of power and circumstance will keep upsetting whatever is agreed to protect the environment; people will have to innovate within their own spheres of influence instead, to make any difference, but this won’t change the overall direction of travel. Anything that environmentalists achieve can be easily reversed by breakdowns in international or local law and order, and crippling population pressures on resources, not to mention reverses of government policy.
Here are some things that could go either way, but won’t just stay the same.
- Our attitudes towards the suffering of other people (especially those we don’t have any connections to) and animals or nature. – Humans would mostly like to be compassionate, but they would also like to be able to take things for granted so they can get on with life uninterrupted. Economics and politics play a massive role here – and people who are struggling to maintain their way of life have a much less compassionate attitude towards outsiders and those whose inferiority makes their own way of life possible.
- The spread of decentralized media platforms such as the internet means new challenges for debate and decisionmaking. ‘Truth’ and ‘lies’/’fake news’ are heading for an interesting clash which may set in law what ‘truths’ or ‘accuracy’ can be stated or published, and what the punishments will be for those who go against that. This will be an interesting showdown between delusionals, tyrants, sociopaths and their allies (click HERE to see who I mean), and the institutions of the 20th century liberal West. It may have different results in different places, influencing the ideological wars of the century ahead.
Alright, so there’s my two cents. Hope it helps you future-proof your writing and keep clear of some of the mistakes that we see so often. Maybe you can even find the central question of your next script here! If so, let us know where you take it and how you get on…
Read more of Ian’s insights right here and check out the previous entries to this future proofing series…