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We are living in the future by Ernest Lilley
SFRevu Editorial  ISBN/ITEM#: 0504EL
Date: April 1, 2005 /

Living in the Future by John Prine
From Great Days: The John Prine Anthology

We are living in the future
I'll tell you how I know
I read it in the paper
Fifteen years ago
We're all driving rocket ships
And talking with our minds
And wearing turquoise jewelry
And standing in soup lines

I've long been a fan of poet folksinger John Prine , whose reputation among alt-folk-country folks has been slowly but steadily growing over his 30 plus year career. He's a twangy philosopher who started out in the 'Nam era, but has never taken sides with any groups except people trying to get through the day.

If you asked him what the meaning of life would be, I expect he'd say it was something you already know and nothing you can figure out. And he likes to make it rhyme while he says it.

Prine is seeing the contrast between what we imagined and what we realized, and ironically, it turns out that sf readers are among the least able to envision the future as it will be, while we are especially good at showing the future as we?d like it to be.

Terry Pratchett once commented on the relationship between SF's airs of credibility (over fantasy) by pointing out that it was 'fantasy with nuts and bolts on' it. It's a telling hit, as we can see plenty of examples of both genre that adhere to greater or lesser consistency among the rules, and there are as many SF stories with inconsistent or just plain bad science as there are fantasies that concoct magic on the fly to resolve plot conflicts. Deus ex machina, they used to call it. Today we face a future where something like gods may well turn up in our machines, and the phrase may get new life.

But here on this April first, in the year 2005, I thought I'd look at some areas that SF failed to predict back in its golden age, and why.

To put the cart before the horse, the reason that we tend to get things backwards about the world of tomorrow is because were trying to wish the world of today away without first coming to grips with why its here.

We didn't expect that computers and email would lead to an age of disinformation, that the homeless would multiply in response to cleaner safer cities with more social services, or that terrorists would show their rejection of the world of corporate and techno wonder by blowing things up. The thought that we?d be exchanging business cards by exchanging business cards is enough to boggle the mind of any fifties futurian. That money would still look like money? That there would be people who had never used a phone? Forget, aircars?who would have thought that supersonic flight was a thing of the past? We couldn't have imagined that having invented the pocket computer, people would laugh at anyone who pulled one out and tried to use it. Who'd a thunk it?

All those things aren?t absolutes. There are a few folks who break those rules of thumb every day. In the case of phones, more than a few. But for the most part, that is for most of the world, change is hard come by. What. We didn't expect, and there's no excuse for it, is for humans to stay the same cranky, self absorbed, herd instinctual bunch we've always been.

That's a bit ironic, since out best writers have frequently mined the classics of literature for plots, but somehow resisted the belief that people would stay the same.

Even as we remake ourselves into more than human, as Charles Stross points out in his interview this month, we use a human template to do so, and the changes we make are driven by human wants and needs.

I recently read a book on the relationship between AI and religion titled "God in the Machine" (TechRevu: Does Gort have a soul?) Though it doesn't take on the direct question of god in the universe, and centers itself far too much in western spirituality, which holds the peculiar notion that humanity is at the center of everything, the book does a pretty fair job of dealing with the subject.

One might imagine asking a robot/AI if he had a soul, to which he would return the question thusly: "having created me in your own image, and incorporated all your best properties, how could you doubt but that I have a soul? Did you leave it out?"

The moment in the future that I dread, when humaniform robots are on the loose, and fear not, they really are coming, is when a smooth talking robot knocks on my door with an irresistible sales pitch. I'm hoping I will only wind up with easy installment payments on a robotic vacuum cleaner...but I fear that I will become lifelong subscriber to the Watchtower instead.

As time passes, the words of Walt Kelly's Pogo echo through the canyons of the ages more and more loudly.

"We Have Met The Enemy. And He Is Us."

And always will be.

Ernest Lilley SFRevu ? April 1, 2005

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