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A Loss of Wonder

At some point, we stopped telling the stories we used to tell.

We used to tell stories that evoked a sense of wonder, a sense of the infinite possibilities out there, both for us as persons and for mankind. Now, we tell stories of mundane people involved in everyday tasks.

I've been watching a lot of ‘Star Trek’ recently. I started watching the original series two years ago, then switched to ‘The Next Generation’, and now back to the original series. The contrast is stark.

While the original series really spoke of the endless possibilities once we reached space, and interstellar travel; TNG really dealt with socio-political issues of the day. In a sense, TNG was really the story of the world in the 1990s, set in the twenty-fourth century.

Maybe my wistful longing for the 60s can be attributed to the allure of nostalgia so poignantly described in ‘Midnight in Paris’; however I think this is unlikely.

To my mind, the 60s were the epitome of an optimistic thinking that hasn't been seen since. Of course, we had Kennedy's promise; who wouldn't be fascinated by a president who threw his cap over the wall, promising us that a country would send a man to the moon and return him safely before the end of the decade. Star Trek showed the possibilities that would be available three centuries later. Not if, not what if, but will. ‘The Jetsons’ showed us how life would be a century later, that we would all live in Space-needle like buildings, drive flying cars, work an hour a day two days a week. The 60s also had the Googie style of architecture, bonnet-rockets on cars, everything that to me today evokes a child-like sense of wonder and hints to the vision of the future with which the baby-boomers grew up.

Perhaps spurred on by the spectre of nuclear annihilation, science and technology grew at an unprecedented rate. I'm not referring to just the growth brought on by Moore's law or its equivalent in other fields, but the overarching theme of bigger, better, faster that seemed to prevail. The SR-71 blackbird, the Concorde, the space programme, the twin towers at the World Trade Center, the Space Needle, everything seemed to open up more and more possibilities. We sent rovers on Mars, surely it is only a matter of time before we send people there. Of course we'll live forever (which is why the boomers never planned for retirement). The general atmosphere was one of optimism in spite of ‘duck and cover’.

Today, innovation just means following Moore's law. A bigger battery, a bigger screen, a bigger phone, a faster processor, a newer app. My favourite jibe is that our smart-phones now have more computing power than the Apollo missions, and yet we just fling birds into pigs. NASA sent men to the moon with less than we now have in our pockets. Casio had an incredible history of innovation with digital watches from the 1970s–90s. Most of them flopped really badly, but isn't that the point of innovation? Today, Apple announces its watch, which is the same as Android wear, which in turn was based off the Pebble, which did not even aspire to the same level of gall as Casio. Casio thought it would be a cool idea to put in a GPS in a watch back in 1999. Or their watches with big ‘Data Bank’ logos stamped on them, which could hold a phonebook, a planner, and a notepad. This was back in the early 1990s. Today's smart-watches barely measure up to Casio's models from over two decades ago. On the other hand, today, we are happy to throw money at Kickstarters that will sell you a printout of your Whatsapp conversations.

This lack of optimism is a dangerous meme not just restricted to American culture, but has coloured every part of the world. In some sense, we had a brief glimpse of this in the late 1990s in India when I was 10, although everything in the world looks rosy in the pre-teen years of one's life. But then it was snuffed away and replaced with the cynicism inherent in the satellite TV waves projected by American satellites on my country. We had a nation to build when the baby-boomers were dreaming overseas. By the time we reached our age to dream, the world was a colder, darker place. The cold war was over, the threat of global annihilation through a nuclear war was over, but then we had our own local threat in south Asia. The political mood was grim, with daily news of terrorist attacks; and the cold, harsh reality of how divided a country India still was after fifty years of growing together. Today, that sense of optimism and wonder is dead, even when we launch missions to the moon, and beyond to Mars. ‘India Mars mission to launch amidst overwhelming poverty’, The Guardian reported, and the Indian media echoed. For what business does this country have dreaming, when we haven't been able to solve any of our problems by the day. What right do the people in my country have to dreaming, or to any sense of wonder?

And that's the problem. We haven't been able to solve anything, or make any progress without dreaming. People who wish to scale and cross a wall throw their caps over the other side, and then follow their caps. It means that their caps won't be left behind if they fall off on the wall. It also gives them a reason to scale the wall. If we give a hundred groups of smart, young students resources, and ask them to build something; 10 build a messaging app, 10 build a hookup app, 30 build video games; we have a problem. The world is good enough. It could be better, but that would take work; that would make the present a little less good, but the future brighter. And we don't care about the future. The future is for others to worry about.

Neal Stephenson proposed that a reason for this stagnation today is that science fiction writers haven't done enough to encourage the world to inspire people. Jules Verne inspired us to travel around the world in less than eighty days, to build submarines and spaceships. Ray Bradbury inspired us with tales of terraforming and colonising Mars, but today, people who propose that we realise this idea are looked upon as from the loony-bin. Stephenson goes on to theorise two ways in which science fiction has played a role in inspiring change:

  1. Inspiring people by showing us the possibilities that exist, and by inspiring youngsters to participate in science and technology.
  2. By providing people with hieroglyphs, a hieroglyph being defined as something that ‘…supplies a plausible…picture of an alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place…Such items serve as hieroglyphs – simple, recognisable symbols on whose significance everyone agrees.’

This theory underscores the problem today. We no longer have science fiction producing effective hieroglyphs. Does science fiction still inspire people to consider careers in science and technology? Maybe, maybe not. I really am not the right person to make such a judgement. In India, almost everyone goes into science and technology, if only because science and technology pays more than say, the liberal arts. All around me, I've only seen people who're in science and technology, and I don't think they were inspired there by science fiction.

Does contemporary science fiction still produce hieroglyphs? No, I don't think so. The hieroglyphs today are produced by scientists, and they aren't catchy enough to grab anyone's attention. After all, who wants hieroglyphs of vibrating patterns of energy, of ten of twenty-six dimensions, of lineland and flatland, or even cats in a box, or god playing dice. We don't talk about ray guns and warp engines any more. We talk about AI as if it is Skynet, and cringe or laugh when it classifies some persons as a particular species of ape. We want better AI, but we want it to drive our cars, to organise our enormous photographic collections, to solve our maths assignments, or to enable us to remember less. Basically, we want our lives to improve while remaining unchanged in essence.

The lack of good stories to tell, the loss of wonder and amazement and the sense of possibilities, the cynicism and pessimism in today's culture has seeped into the political establishment, which has decided to position itself at the opposite corner from science, technology, and development. Funding for the sciences is down, and dropping. People are no longer interested in development. No one wishes to take any risk any more. Fifteen years ago, Cornell University – where I now work – decided that it was too much of a liability to work on nuclear research and the promise it offered, so they shut down the research reactor here. Today, we computer architects are taking over the building that housed the forgotten reactor. There are some gremlins working on self-driving cars in the basement below. Yeah, we're the ones who will make it possible for you to throw higher-resolution birds into higher-resolution pigs, but that's all you'll be doing. Send a man to Mars? Probably not in our lifetime. I doubt that we'll even have the International Space Station up any longer, given the abject failure of the space programme in the wake of funding cuts to NASA, the agency that famously has given us the super-soaker, freeze-dried food, memory foam, ‘space blankets’, or advanced robotics. Hey, they made a car that could work on the moon. Version two of the lunar buggy sits here on earth, never to see flight, much less the surface for which it was made.

Perhaps it does take a spectre of war to be innovative. Or we could go the way the Chinese have, and invite the best science fiction writers to talk and inspire people at science fiction conventions.

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