Thursday, July 18, 2019

World Without End

Photo by NASA on Unsplash
My favorite science fiction program in recent history hasn’t been Star Trek: Discovery or The Orville, although each have their charms (and failings). It also hasn’t been The Expanse, which is one of those shows I think I should like, but in which I haven’t been able to stay interested. The science fiction show I’ve enjoyed didn’t have a lot of special effects, and didn’t last more than three seasons. Have you ever heard of Dark Matter? I found the writing engaging and the characters relatable. I also think it portrayed a more realistic perspective on the future of humanity than most other science fiction.
Science fiction abounds with utopias and dystopias, too numerous to name them all. Let’s consider two.
First, there’s Star Trek. Gene Roddenberry envisioned a future in which humanity transformed itself after discovering we are not alone in the universe. After first contact with Vulcans, humans came together in common cause, eliminating poverty and disease, and reaching out for the stars. The original Star Trek series pushed the envelope in a number of ways, including having a black woman in a position of responsibility and authority on the bridge. Uhura and Kirk went on to share the first interracial kiss on television, something that sadly still ruffles feathers today (remember the innocuous Cheerios commercial with a mixed race couple and child?).
In the world of Star Trek, evil still exists, but it’s an aberration. Both the Federation and Starfleet have noble values. Society itself has even moved into a post-scarcity economy in which money simply isn’t necessary. The impression is that, given time, the civilization of the United Federation of Planets will only get better and better.
Second, consider Terminator, trying to not focus too much on the re-boots and timeline changes. In this universe humanity is driven nearly to extinction by Skynet, an artificial intelligence group mind. Scenes of piles of human skulls indicate what this future holds for us. This is an extreme dystopia, to be sure. I could as easily have cited Blade Runner, Planet of The Apes, or any number of dystopian fictions.
Earlier in life, as a result of youthful zeal and naivety, I was a libertarian. It wasn’t all misguided though, in my opinion. One of the key phrases that the late Harry Browne said in his run for US president in 1996 (he ran again in 2000, but I didn’t follow as closely then) was this: “Utopia is not an option.” Although I disagree now with the conclusions he reached following that, I agree with the idea. As John Bender said in The Breakfast Club, “Screws fall out all the time, the world is an imperfect place.” In the Unitarian Universalisttradition much is made of the idea of ‘Beloved Community.’ While exact interpretations and hopes differ, the general idea is that we want to build congregations that are warm, welcoming, and diverse where everyone is valued, and then by extension we want to promote this sort of world beyond our four walls.
Try as we might, we won’t succeed. Sorry to be a Debbie Downer about it, but it’s unrealistic to think that the social ills we’ve had to deal with will all go away at once, or even over 100s of years. Yes, we can make dramatic improvements in quality of life, and already have in the past 200 years of modern science. Our ethics, unfortunately, don’t tend to keep up with our technological advancements. A lot of good has been built on the backs of the oppressed, through exploitation of labor, unethical human experimentation, and dirty backroom deals. Right now we’re facing the very real possibility that people using CRISPR techniques are going to be producing gene-edited babies with or without government oversight and approval. Aside from the risk of introducing unexpected mutations into individuals and then, through them, the larger human genome, there is the strong likelihood that access to this medical treatment will be spotty at best, possibly limited mostly to the wealthy.
Right now the United States has a government that can’t get its act together because of a bunch of old white men who wallow in ignorance, bigotry, sexism, greed, and donor funds. When our congress people talk about technology, it’s mostly ill-conceived nonsense. It’s been refreshing to have some new, younger faces in the House who actually know ‘how the Internet works’ and will probably be considerably more tech and science savvy. With the old guard still in place, though, and with their dependence on their grandchildren to set up their smart TVs, we aren’t in a position to ponder the ethics and legislate responsibly with regard to genetic modification. If we don’t have single-payer, universal healthcare, the groundwork has not even begun to be laid to ensure equal access to CRISPR and related approaches to removing defects or building in disease resistance.
All this does not mean that I believe history-ending apocalypse and dystopia to be inevitable. On the contrary, I think it’s about as unlikely as utopia. Things have gotten bad many times in human history. Predecessor species’ to our own suffered bottlenecks that could have ended the line entirely, and yet here we are. Even if a nuclear winter were to take place, people could feasibly survive and carry on. It would take centuries if not millenia, but civilization could be rebuilt.
What I’m getting at is that for all our high hopes for utopia and morbid fears of dystopia, the truth is that both happen, and neither last. Further, no utopia has ever been free of dystopia, and vice versa. Depending on our position in society, an age can seem fantastic, horrific, or just plain ‘normal.’ For some, like people of color in white-dominated areas, women, and lgbtq+ folks, most of history has been pretty difficult. We have a moral responsibility to work toward a free society where want is no more and all are affirmed and valued. We also need to be realistic that as good as it may get, we’ll never be done, and it can all go away in no time at all if something goes awry.
There’s a Christian doxology that concludes, in an English translation, with the phrase ‘world without end.’ It might be better translated as ‘unto the ages’ or ‘forever and ever,’ yet I find something compelling about ‘world without end.’ It speaks of a world that does not end in catastrophe, and which keeps going and going. In the Christian hope this involves redemption, new heavens and new earth (except for the gnostically-minded Christians of our times who eschew the flesh entirely and yearn for platonic disembodiment). In secular terms it brings to mind that TV show I enjoyed, Dark Matter.
In that universe, humanity has settled throughout the stars. I say ‘humanity’ because no sentient aliens were included (aside from an unidentified creature). From a production standpoint, this saved the studio money on alien makeup, as did the virtual lack of special effects when compared with other programs. For an in-universe explanation, we could say it’s because in all the long history of the galaxy other civilizations might have arisen, but they have not survived. Other habitable worlds might have life, but it isn’t measurably sentient. Humans alone in the galaxy, making their way with governments, corporations, criminals and colonists. Just like life is likely to be, should we become a truly space faring species.
Utopia is not an option, and dystopia can be overcome millions of times over through the long march of time. Someday, descendants of our species might be there at the end of the universe, in dwellings built around black holes that derive energy from interactions with the immense gravity well. Even when the last of those black holes diminish into nothingness, I suspect someone will live on, somehow. That is far, far, far beyond the horizon of our meager lifetimes, and so perhaps its best we focus on the span of time we have, asking ourselves what kind of lives we want for our grandchildren, and work towards that.