Back in the 1950s and 1960s the popular vision of the 2020s was simple. The future was defined as the turn of the millennium; the 2020s were the future of the future, and this nebulous future future had every potential to fix humanity’s problems. By the 2020s all disease would be conquered. We’d have climate control. All social issues would be resolved. Oh, and apparently we’d also have flying cars, self-aware computers and Mars bases.
It was a utopian vision. Still, when I look around at the world today, beset with a pandemic that has served to intensify the social disruption provoked by social media; beset with the the end-stage social outcomes of neo-liberalism; confronted by climate change that we triggered – but where major nations won’t stop doing the things that make it worse; and where AI is mainly a set of algorithms cynically designed to allow corporates to make more profit from social media, I can’t help thinking about the optimism of the mid-twentieth century idealism that portrayed a better world. It really was utopian.
Utopianism isn’t new, of course – nor is cynicism about humanity’s ability to achieve it. The word itself was coined by Sir Thomas Moore in 1516 to describe just such a failure.
Why was cynicism not widespread about the 1960s vision at the time? I put it down to optimism. There was a period in the mid-20th century where technology had leaped ahead and the potential for a better future really did seem unlimited. It was an illusion caused in part by the fact that, just then, a whole lot of new technologies were in their infancy and the limits weren’t fully appreciated. As one example, in 1945 jet engines transcended the speed possible with piston aircraft, and rockets were on the horizon. There was talk of routine supersonic travel, rocket-planes to orbit and more. What actually happened was that jets had only certain potential and rocket-planes remained experimental. Things plateaued. In fact a typical jet airliner today is a bit slower than the original Boeing Model 367-80 that first flew in 1954 – but way safer and more efficient.
Equally, the ‘conquest’ of disease failed. I believe smallpox exists only in labs these days and other traditional killers are minimised. But many older diseases haven’t been conquered, new diseases have arrived – Covid, obviously, but also an epidemic of cancer, diabetes and auto-immune disorders. Apparently the social inequities caused by neo-liberal policies that create a new urban poor have also led to inadequate health-care and a rise in older diseases long thought beaten, including tuberculosis, scarlet fever and (wait for it) bubonic plague – that’s right. Black Death, which was recently found in California, Colorado and New Mexico, as an example. But in any case, despite sporadic efforts, ‘disease conquest’ was only a First World benefit anyway.
And there was no sign of being able to control the climate. Well, we’ve shown that our civilisation has had profound effect on climate. But not by design or, indeed, intent.
As for social utopia? When I look at the mess our world is in, I am moving more and more to the idea that human civilisation has outstripped our hard-wired nature. This was formed when our species consisted of bands of around 150 individuals (the ‘Dunbar number’) and doesn’t work in communities of large urban and national scales.
I miss the vision of the 1960s. And the flying cars. Well, actually not the flying cars, Because Reasons. Other than that, a disease-free social utopia where it only rained at night would be quite nice about now.
What’s your take on it all? Tell me in the comments.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2022