Thursday, September 03, 2015

Does Anyone Remember the Future?

I've begun watching Extant, the CBS Halle Berry vehicle on Amazon Prime. Like The Whispers, it's another of Steven Spielberg's attempts to conquer TV (television was in fact Spielberg's first love, not movies), and also like The Whispers, yet another example of his alien obsession.

His obsession seems to have gotten a lot more sophisticated since War of the Worlds, and seems to deal more with forces that seem more akin to Poltergeist than E.T.. It's not the greatest science fiction I've ever seen, though it's keeping my attention far more effectively than most TV shows seem to be able to these days. And it is a fairly typical example of what's going on in the genre. 

A lot of science fiction seems to have taken upon itself to be what Bruce Rux described Star Trek: The Next Generation as, a reincarnation of Soviet Socialist Theater from the Stalinist era. Drama is secondary to the inculcation of correct thought, in this case, adherence to the totalizing, reductionist scientistic agenda.

In Extant's case, people who believe in things like the immortality of the soul are ridiculed as "idiots" and parents who worry about their kids going to school with an experimental robot are painted as knuckle-dragging yokels. 

I'm still early into the series so I can't yet tell whether this is just a setup for Scientistic orthodoxy being subverted (a distinct possibility in a show about aliens). But it rankles nonetheless. 

But that's not what bothers me about this show. There's a deeper issue here, one that undergirds the crisis within our science and technology and by default, our science fiction.

Even if the series is fairly entertaining, what I am struck by is how derivative Extant is. So far what I'm seeing is essentially a simple recombination of A.I., Solaris and The X-Files (the latter not surprising given that former X-Files staffer Greg Walker is an executive producer). In fact, the pilot episode rather blatantly lifted a scene from the X-Files episode 'The Calusari', so blatantly I was left wondering if it was tribute or just simple plagiarism.

But the major impression I'm left with is how dated the show's futurism is, how it merely lifts the gizmos and gimcracks from Minority Report, A.I. and Solaris and to a certain extent from William Gibson's Bridge Trilogy. 

What's wrong with that, you may ask? Well, think about it: those stories are all fifteen to twenty years old now and we're no closer to seeing their prophecies come to fruition than we were then (well, the poverty and inequality of the Bridge Trilogy are certainly here, most certainly in California, the most economically unjust state in the Union). 

That you can transpose futurism from two decades ago to 2015 points to a serious problem in the presumed inevitable March of Progress™.

Things may be getting faster and smaller but we're still talking about technological concepts that are decades old now. And forget those gee-whiz headlines, we're nowhere near- I mean not even close- to the kind of Haley Joel Osment androids you see in Extant. Even the space exploration in Extant is downscaled- routine LEO stuff, "astronauts" futzing around on space stations. So in that regard, we're not even near Solaris' jaunts to distant star systems.

There are a variety of little details, animated photographs and talking toasters and that sort of thing, in Extant meant to embellish its vision of a Tomorrowland. But at its heart it's no different than the futuristic worlds presented as a sop to depressed populations since the 1890s. Even with the X-File-ready secret jostling, Extant's future is clean and orderly and harmonious, absolutely nothing like the future that seems to be taking shape outside your door today.

Does anyone buy that? 

I'm watching Extant because I want to see where the alien storyline is going. The futurism isn't only a distraction, it's kind of an irritant. And the materialist/atheist brainwash certainly doesn't help either. But the futurism? It just makes me feel kind of wistful. Younger people may not even process it but certainly in the late 80s and early 90s some of us were foolish enough to believe technology might actually be liberating.

No such luck.

For most of us now, the Future® is a gated community and we don't have a passcard. And even the kind of future we assumed 15 years ago would be here by now seems farther away than ever.


  1. I can't really comment on Extant, as I watched the pilot, and it just wasn't holding much interest. What was ground breaking 15 years, just might not be the case today. But if Nolan's "Interstellar" is a benchmark, then that would be a pretty bleak predictor of the future as well.

  2. The "future" presented on TV & movies since at least 1982 is... well, a product, isn't it? Meant more to pacify and keep the little folk sufficiently excited about the latest gizmos/jeejaws (and to keep con attendance up) than about making any empirical predictions about future events.

    I no more expect "the future" to look like Extant or Star Trek than I expect it to look like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings.

    (Now Dune (the book) however... 10000 years is a long time).

    There's still 'realistic' scifi out there (Kim Stanley Robinson comes to mind-- not only up to spec technically, but IMO he gets feasible historical timing right). But current 'fandom' left those kinds of stories behind at least a decade ago, if not longer.

    1. Well, SF always has been about escapism, so there is that. I'm blissfuly apart from the fandom so I'm not really sure where their heads are at, other than what I see on io9 or whatever. And that doesn't fill me with confidence.

  3. Good piece. I avoid television like I avoid herpes or bad coffee, so I appreciate you putting up with it so I don't have to!

    I have been wondering more and more what it does to a civilization to have its animating dream yanked out from under it. Think about it: As you alluded, we've had the central guiding light of materialist technocivilation being a vageuly outlined future where toasters talk and you can have a video phone conversation with someone on a moon colony. The problem to me seems to be the nature of power relations in the society. Once we reached the point where we could tick off all the material advances that were promised, The End of History And the Last Man was declared. The meaning of life, the universe and everything was to Make Money.
    I can't help but think a big part of the malaise the world is suffering through is the ultimate brittle core of the neoliberal/materialist axis. All it offers after the pretty things are handed out (as McKenna might say) is a harsh world for 99.99999% of the world's population. Sort of like Zardoz: "I have seen the future and it doesnt work"

    1. You could very well be right. The rot comes from the head, so to speak.

  4. I have certainly felt the bleakness that hangs over current reality like a fog that you have been elucidating on recently. The future is such a haze of "what-if's" that it can be overwhelming at times, so thank you for giving us all a place to help keep our heads up while we try to get through whatever the fuck our great grandkids what call this perilous time frame.

    Now, this is tangentially related, but the talk of moonbases etc takes us to the repeated lament of "where the hell are all these things we were 'promised'" futurist theme you've been tapping into. But what actually piques my interest in this story is the news a few weeks ago that Russia was going to do a complete investigation into the Apollo 11 mission and now this? Seems more than coincidental. Would like to see what you think:

    1. OK, they're announcing a big mission to take place a decade or so away and it's robotic? Huh.

      Huh, I tell you.

  5. Hello Mr. Knowles,

    I completely agree with your assessment of the popular presentation of the future in media and the industry of consumer technology and electronics.

    I will voice a counterpoint, however, on real progress of technologies that are of value to the human condition. These are often incremental and don't usually conform to a totalizing vision of materialistic progress, but they do matter to human lives.

    I think that one such technology is cheap, publically available genetic sequencing. For most people this tool is a novelty, but for me it has made a radical difference in my life. I was able to send out a saliva sample, receive my raw genetic data, send that data to independent third parties to provide analysis and discover a metabolic deficiency. Treating that deficiency with a simple set of vitamins and minerals (that I had tried previously to no effect because they were in the wrong combination for my condition) resulted in the alleviation of years of chronic pain. To put this in personal terms, I was afforded an opportunity, the power to confront demons that had tormented me since childhood.

    Cheap, quick, genetic sequencing, only became consumer available beginning around 2007 and has continued to improve since then. I see this as a potentially dangerous technology, but one that also offers profound positive change as the price of sequencing continues to fall, availability increases and the surrounding medical knowledge and resources improve.

    To make a succinct conclusion, I think there are still wondrous and terrible strides to be made in our understanding and influence of the physical world. The prevailing attitudes of our culture ignore the ways that they can contribute to a human future. As we pursue the numinous, we don't need to make the same mistake.

    Thank you for your time and thought,

    1. Well, I don't know I'm arguing against technology per se. I'm talking about technohype and the unequal distribution of technobenefits. There's a neologism for you.

    2. A lot of the new technology seems to be used for 'evil', or at least business-as-usual, data harvesting, privacy invading, consumer market segmentation, social network manipulation, etc. etc. but on occasion something does strike you as a truly 'magical' step forward.

      On a recent visit to Italy I was able to use the Google Translate app on my phone to instantaneously translate both printed text via the camera and spoken conversation via the microphone, something that did seem like a real piece of the Star Trek vision in my back pocket. I suppose that's actually been around a little while now, but I hadn't had cause to use it before. Seeing the translated text appear right in-place on the phone screen as a kind of augmented reality was a bit awe inspiring though. OK, it's still a bit rough, with words popping back and forth between different translations and things, but still amazing considering what it's having to do to work at all.

      So I guess we have to forgive the some of the FarmVilles of the world if it pays for the stuff that's genuinely useful.

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  7. You are right. This is an age of recycling ideas. Recycling is when you take garbage and refine it into a usable, yet weaker form of future garbage.

    The whole way in which our culture responds to futurism has been altered. I don't think any expectation of progress exists. I think that is replaced by an expectation of conformity, which is completely understood.

    Anyways. Fear of robots. Really, it is a distorted projection. When kids grow up with robots, they will be afraid of people. While simultaneously connected at all times to the LIKES of their peers, short circuiting all introspection of what they would - like - to become with or without approval.

    Terrifying. Let us know what happens to those knuckle draggers, I won't be watching, I'll be dragging.

    1. Well, I'm not afraid of robots because I keep an eye on what's going on in the field and it's nowhere near where the hype would have you believe. Like so many things, no?

  8. "Younger people may not even process it but certainly in the late 80s and early 90s some of us were foolish enough to believe technology might actually be liberating.

    No such luck."

    To this, I can only say, your friendly local patent office is the culprit. As far as I can see, anyhow.

    The idea of "intellectual property" has pretty much bound the whole system up!

    1. Oh, if only. There are culprits galore, culprits by the score. Culprits by the shore, culprits at the store. It's a rigged system.

  9. >For most of us now, the Future® is a gated community and we don't have a passcard.

    We won't have a passcard to the front door. Some of us will "earn" one for the servant's entrance, as long as we remain silent shadows who serve the tea and clean the toilets. And for those who do earn this "privilege", expect a sizable portion of them to willingly take up arms and protect their masters, so that they might in turn retain their three hots and a cot and clean clothes, and not be counted amongst the wretched rabble.

    The only movie I've seen recently that comes close to the future is Elysium - and there, only in its setup, not in its hero-of-the-people-saves-the-day narrative. That is spectacle designed to quell the masses. Also, no space station - that's eye candy. Someone mentioned Zardoz already - merge those two films and there you have it.

    Such a system of unequal privilege will eventually collapse, and those opposing it might play a part, but more likely its innate, human-born perfections will rot it from the inside. Eventually.

    Much more economical and effective to prevent its rising, if that's still an option.

    1. Edit: I meant, "human-born IMperfections". Proving by doing, I guess.

  10. I just started this series as well on Prime and I have to agree with you 100%. I just finished Season 1.
    It’s reasonably entertaining, but not gripping or mind expanding in any sort of fashion. As you say, it sticks to the Technocratic, Reductive, Materialistic, Scientism peppered with passé and clichéd Spielbergisms; antiseptic, shiny-toyed-households, designer chairs, self-driving electric vehicles, dirt-proof-future-clothing®, etc., and occasional Halle Berry Future Blouse® boob shots sprinkled about to loop in the primal motivated male audience.
    The alien theme (ala X-Files “Field Trip” alien spores) seems somewhat tertiary to the emphasis placed on the Transhumanist AI boy-bot, but they are both used in concert at times to propagandize a message of accepting that man can somehow create consciousness; as you state, completely unfounded concepts which are delivered as a “Truth” through SF. There also appears to be an idea that this human made AI can defeat the evil alien invaders; another persuasive reason to accept the AI “solution”.
    While the show does ostensibly offer more of a debate on the AI theme, the presented AI opposition characters (a biased and unrealistically contrived opposition) are equated with crazies or terrorists who are unable to adapt to the scientific reality through their own ignorance or hate. Again, no factual proof exists for humans being able to artificially create humans (or “consciousness”), but the show freely uses its emotional pomp to underline this as a reality. It’s obvious to us that the SF medium assumes a cloak of “fantasy”, but it’s a fact that the concepts pushed in shows like this do become part of the overall worldview of the uncritically aware masses who slowly become acclimatized to the beneficent “reality” of Transhumanism and Artificial Consciousness; man as God.
    It’s just another show that is further pushing this TH ideology which seeks to offer a wishy-washy faux-“spirituality” (one I feel lacks any real depth considering its hard-lined atheistic creation) that disregards the potential of human spiritual/conscious origins emanating from beyond the material realm. (The Skeptiko podcast addresses this consciousness as product of matter theme extensively and pairs nicely with shows like this.) AI is on equal grounds with natural humans; both machines with consciousness, but evading the subject of consciousness as the driver of that machine.
    The some closing words of Season 1 are quite revealing (no spoilers within):
    “No one could explain how it happened. John set out to create a more human machine, but in the end what he created was much more than that. In those final moments Ethan taught us something about what it means to be human. How our connection to each other and our ability to love and sacrifice transcends our physical forms. I’ve never been a big believer in miracles but there is one I have come to embrace, something time and space have revealed to me over and over again. Whether by divine creation or cosmic accident we made it here, we exist and that’s a gift rare and beautiful.”
    The end of episode 13 goes on to heighten AI to God-like status.

  11. " In his research, Lewandowsky found that conspiracy theories tend not to exist in isolation—someone who doubts the moon landing may also believe the FBI killed Martin Luther King Jr."
    Newsweek goes out of it's way to remind all the "rational" people that anytime you look into something for yourself; look at evidence, read books by hard working researchers, think about things logically - you may be a wacky conspiracy theorist. (Uncontrollable laughter), so just remember everything is EXACTLY what WE tell you and governments and/or highly influential people/corporations would never mislead, steal or murder for power or gain in anyway. I suppose every so often the mainstream feels the need to remind us this-with the same exact point from "experts". In this case, psychologists.

    Funny how truly laughable it is.

  12. Chris, I just realized I incorrectly posted a comment on this article by accident. Hope you can adjust accordingly. If not, no worries. :)

    1. It's all good- and yes, these articles are increasingly shrill and desperate. And self-defeating in my estimation.