Imagining… and evading… the Quicksand

What will the future be? The question is much on our minds, and not just because we’ve embarked upon a new century. 

Our most-human quality – anticipatory imagination – keeps us both fascinated and worried, using the brain’s prefrontal cortex to probe tomorrow’s murky realm. Through this part of the brain, we envision future actions and possible consequences, noticing some errors, evading some mistakes. This is also where we engage in empathy – imagining “what might it feel like to be that other being over there?” 

Humans have applied these mysterious nubs of gray matter – sometimes called “lamps on our brows” – to future-pondering since before the Neolithic.

What’s changed is our effectiveness using them. Much of the modern economy is devoted to predicting, forecasting, planning, investing, making bets, or preparing for times to come. Which variety of seer we listen to can be a matter of style. Some prefer horoscopes, while others heed advisors in Armani suits. Some even consult science fiction authors. Each of us hopes to prepare, and possibly improve our fate across the years ahead. This trait may be the most profound distinction between humanity and other denizens of the planet. And yet… 

…we should remember that a great many more things might happen than actually do. There are more plausibilities than likelihoods and more likelihoods than actual events. What doesn’t happen is just as important as what does. 

Certainly, we owe, to some degree, our surviving the nuclear confrontations of the sixties, seventies and eighties to the frightening warnings of Dr. StrangeloveOn the BeachFail-Safe, The Day After and later films like Testament, Crimson Tide and War Games, each of them portraying a different failure-mode that retired officers now admit changed actual procedures!Or take warnings like The China Syndrome and The Hot Zone whose worrisome vividness propelled vigorous discussion, and thus helped block their own scenarios from coming true.

In my nonfiction book: VIVID TOMORROWS: Science Fiction and Hollywood I discuss how the most vital imaginings are those that help us to evade catastrophic errors. And sci fi does this by issuing compelling self-preventing prophecies… stories about calamities we might yet bypass, if we heed the warnings. 

David Brin is an astrophysicist, futurist, tech-pundit, forecaster, and NASA adviser who helped to establish UCSD’s Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination. He is also the author of best-selling award-winning science fiction books, including his novel The Postman, which was adapted into a 1997 feature film starring Kevin Costner.