We order time by three related concepts: the past, the present, and the future. These form an uneasy triangle: each is dependent on the other two.
The past refers to any point in time before the present and the future. It doesn’t exist in the present, but only in relation to the present, as artefacts and memories. Any physical artefact of the past exists only in its present state; memories are material states of libraries, video cassettes and human nerve cells, and are as such subject to the same rules.
The present (or now) is defined as the space in time between the past and the future. This slice of time is so fine it can hardly be said to be there at all; as soon as it comes into being, it vanishes into the past.
The future is a point in time that exists only in relation to the present and the past, and is the most nebulous of all three concepts – in any given present, we may speculate a range of futures. The past is littered with futures, and by studying these past futures we may better understand our present ones.
So the future’s up for grabs. As soon as it becomes the present, it becomes the past, and new futures bloom. Futures are characterized by their multiplicity – in the model we have now, only one can become ‘fact’ — but the very nature of futurity is defined by potential. There are infinite forks in the road of what might be. Because the past is the graveyard of presents, there exist also an infinite number of dead futures – what might have been, but wasn’t. The futures of today are ghost-haunted by these past futures.
It’s an interesting time on planet earth. Science-fiction has long been a medium for the exploration of our possible futures, and an examination of our present through the innately hypothetical medium of the imaginative future. Now we’ve come to a place where the people who grew up on science-fiction are changing our world, conceptually and physically, and past futures are becoming present realities. The rate of technological acceleration and the mind-fucks that come with it are redefining what it means to exist and to be human at a rate greater than at any time in our past.
Science-fiction then means state-surveillance and flying robot soldiers now; it means a food-substitute (invented by a computer scientist applying the hacker ethic to his own body) being named in tribute to Soylent Green (that movie where it turns out the fascist government is making us eat our own dead). It means a time, maybe, when we can realistically talk about doing away with our own bodies and let our conscious minds inhabit beautiful machine worlds.
An evolutionary paradigm shift for humankind has long been a favourite theme in science-fiction. In the 1950s and ‘60s, the west’s terror du jour came in the form of the mysterious atom – a catalyst for exciting (if poorly-understood) mutations and evolutions – just think of The Amazing Spider-Man.
There were voices of disquiet. The perennial pessimist Philip K. Dick on his Golden Man (1953):
Here I am saying that mutants are dangerous to us ordinaries, a view which John W. Campbell, Jr*. deplored. We were supposed to view them as our leaders. But I always felt uneasy as to how they would view us. I mean, maybe they wouldn’t want to lead us. Maybe from their superevolved lofty level we wouldn’t seem worth leading. Anyhow, even if they agreed to lead us, I felt uneasy as where we would wind up going. It might have something to do with buildings marked SHOWERS but which really weren’t.
Alan Moore’s Watchmen (1986-7) takes a Spider-Manesque origin story for the character of Doctor Manhattan and follows it to its logical conclusion: as the Doctor becomes increasingly unified with the cosmos, he consequently more indifferent to the eye-blink that is humanity.
The nuclear future has receded (for now), and so we find ourselves applying our potentialities to a new framework – the computational networks that span our age. Posthumanism and transhumanism have become buzzwords to describe a future in which we have changed unrecognizably. Millions anticipate a technological singularity; supposing processing power continues to exponentiate, a point may come at which there is a Cambrian explosion for machine life, computer intelligences designing their own successors, and so on ad infinitum. If such a thing should come to pass, a universe-dominating intelligence might appear frighteningly quickly, leaving its human progenitors in the shade. A world populated by intelligent computers might be a legacy of human intelligence, but will physical human beings still get to play?
An alternative scenario: ‘We’ may well have to colonize other worlds to avoid ‘our’ destruction by cosmic catastrophe. In that process, ‘We’ may have to alter ‘our’ genetic code to such an extent that ‘We’ are no longer ‘Us’. The thread of what defines humanity wears ever finer, but does it matter? Given that human nature counts murder and genocide among its children, is its loss necessarily a bad thing?
This issue is about coming to grips with what it means to be human now, and what it might mean to be human then. Whichever future wins, it’s going to be a little different, and we probably won’t be around to see it.