I have a bad feeling about this

Beyond aesthetics, dystopias are rather cautionary tales

Lidia Zuin
10 min readDec 21, 2020

Disclaimer: Article originally published in Portuguese on TAB UOL

During several talks and events that I joined to discuss the theme of futurology or futurism, I heard some colleagues saying that we are facing a dystopia overload, that we need to imagine better, more optimist futures. It was inspired by this feeling that Solarpunk was also developed as a new science fiction subgenre, one that could feature sustainable, green technologies and a future that is different from the dark visions of cyberpunk.

As a subgenre, cyberpunk was first an attempt to make science fiction “dirtier”, immoral, critical, pessimistic and, therefore, contemplating its suffix punk allied to cybernetic technologies. On the fanzine “Cheap Truth”, Bruce Sterling already declared that cyberpunks didn’t want to read or write stories that “your parents would read.” They wanted to read and write about drugs, sex, dystopian futures that ultimately were simply extrapolations of the signals already flagged by these authors in the 1980s. If Sterling wrote more political and critical fiction, Gibson proposed a more aesthetic version of cyberpunk that was immortalized through his book “Neuromancer”. From then on, cyberpunk addressed topics such as the late capitalism, drug abuse and technology as a means to escape reality, hyperconsumerism, and the political commentary was rather overshadowed by the neon lights reflecting on the puddles of acid rain in the pavement. Paraphrasing Zizek, first cyberpunk was about tragedy, then it became a means to commercialize farces.

Scene from the game Cyberpunk 2077

Because of this aestheticization and productization of cyberpunk, many fans and even writers either abandoned the genre or simply understood that it was no longer fictional, but rather our reality. I always joke that if Black Mirror was released in the 1980s, it would probably be considered a cyberpunk series, but since it was released in the 2010s, then it is something closer to what Sterling as coined as “nowpunk”, a genre that uses subtle extrapolations of the present. After becoming a successful production and having its rights acquired by Netflix, the dystopian formula grew even stronger. Many episodes already started with that feeling that, at some point, something really bad is going to happen. But this creative decision has much more to do with marketing rather than storytelling.

As the entertainment industry understood that pop culture really impacts the imaginary, more neuroscientists were hired by studios to help them write the script for trailers and full movies, although some companies do not really admit that. The field of neurocinema has been studied since the 2000s, though the technique itself is as old as the experiments performed by Eisenstein and his technique of collage. Applied to the Soviet propaganda, these techniques were soon adopted by the Western entertainment industry.

The company MindSign Neuromarketing did a research to map people’s brain activity while watching certain movies. I already heard in different talks that it is the amidala, a part of our brain, that reacts to these triggers, but it seems that many other areas also take part in this process. Besides, science fiction itself is a genre that was born as a hybrid of a horror story if we consider “Frankenstein” to be the first novel: it is a narrative that makes an alert about the dangers of science and of human arrogance when attempting to surpass nature (or even God).

Consequently, we see a growing sense of nostalgia for a future imagined in the past through remakes, reboots, sequels and prequels of titles released in the past decades, as well as the popularization (or even saturation) of superhero movies that combine a message of hope and a touch of social commentary about issues such as racism, sexism or homophobia, for instance. However, when we speak of movies that address futuristic and technological scenarios, it is the dystopian narrative that is more prominent, both in quantity and in the intensity that it achieved in the collective memory.

The problem is that these movies are often not even scientifically correct, as analyzed by the AI specialist Kristin Lennox in the video above. With that in mind, should we really consider that these films are helping us to envision a realistic future or are they simply narratives that are more dystopian-oriented due to commercial reasons? Roboticists such as Hiroshi Ishiguro often say that Hollywood presents artificial intelligence and robots in an incorrect and unrealistic light, an argument that leads us to the discussion that science fiction is obviously not obligated to be scientifically correct (whatever that means, since imagined technologies could one day become actual, functional products after new scientific discoveries) nor to be able of foresee the future. But fictional narratives still inspire us (similarly to what mythology and religions do) and, for this reason, they are relevant in our perception of reality and of possibilities to be envisioned.

This is why futurists have been proposing the concept of “White Mirror” in opposition to “Black Mirror”, meaning that they want to create more positive futuristic scenarios. By the way, one of the methodologies used to this kind of speculative exercise in futurism is based on Jim Dator’s four models that schematize possible outcomes that could be of collapse, continuation, transformation, or limitation of current trends. Nowadays, however, we already have a broader perspective suggested by Alessandro Fergnani in a research where he presents six narrative archetypes

Projects such as Better Worlds, sponsored by Boeing and created by The Verge, are attempts to change this paradigm by writing more optimistic science fiction stories. Now, do optimistic fictions make us more optimistic? Isn’t it all about propaganda and/or marketing stunts?

When Asimov published “I, Robot” with its enthusiastic stories about a future of space exploration and the transposition of the American Dream in cartoons such as “The Jetsons”, we see that there is no way to disconnect our social reality and politics from the narratives we create. On the other hand, during this same period, Samuel R. Delany started to tell his stories about aliens and racism, identity and sexuality, highlighting himself as a black science fiction writer that would later be accompanied by Octavia Butler. This is when science fiction was changing from its hard style to its soft version, where authors give more attention to social and political issues instead of writing an elegy to technology. Cyberpunk, therefore, was a next step in this same path.

If Better Worlds was designed to be more optimistic, there are other examples, such as this project that I did in partnership with Envisioning for ArmaSuisse and which is focused on the challenges and gifts that may come from the interaction between humans and machines. In my interactive short story Legaco, I explore the concept of mind uploading through virtual reality, transhumanism and gene editing.

Still, back in 2012, Neal Stephenson made a call to arms for science fiction authors to be less pessimistic and learn how to “love the future”. Wait, what? After publishing the article Innovation Starvation on Wired, the author ignited a reflection on how science and technology were stuck “in boredom”, with nothing really grandiose being created if compared to the period when the US were sending humans to space.

The other theory that Stephenson brings up is the “Hieroglyph Theory”: “Good SF supplies a plausible, fully thought-out picture of an alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place. A good SF universe has a coherence and internal logic that makes sense to scientists and engineers. Examples include Isaac Asimov’s robots, Robert Heinlein’s rocket ships, and William Gibson’s cyberspace. As Jim Karkanias of Microsoft Research puts it, such icons serve as hieroglyphs — simple, recognizable symbols on whose significance everyone agrees.”

And this is how the Hieroglyph Project was born, two years before Stephenson was hired as chief futurist at Magic Leap, a company that is developing glasses of mixed reality. Coincidence? The fact is that, as I argued before, substituting dystopias for utopias is not exactly a valid equivalent. At that time, I argued that solarpunk is no real substitute of cyberpunk, but that does not mean that the genre is not important, it is just that we are not looking for dethronings. As a researcher and journalist, I see this demand of people for more optimistic discourses about the future, but where is the limit between assuming a naive and commercial posture about technology and assuming an apocalyptic, anti-tech posture that may not even be more literate in the real technological and scientific possibilities, but simply being pessimistic for the sake of it?

In a broader sense, this is the dilemma held between Silicon Valley futurists and artistic and political collectives that use the same methodology of design fiction, for instance, but with different understandings. It is curious to see how Bruce Sterling, who created design fiction, is placed in this limbo between the corporativism of events such as SXSW and that scenario that he envisioned alongside Rudy Rucker in “Transreal Cyberpunk”, where they actually make fun of this same industry and its stereotypes. If everything is ultimately swallowed and aestheticized by capitalism (as suggested by Giles Lipovestky), then seeing cyberpunks working for corporations does not seem so weird anymore — take the series Mr. Robot as an example, or even the case of Assange and Snowden, for instance. The ideal would be that the creative processes of design fiction weren’t confidential, but something done in partnership with companies that are rather worried to do something good for the society, as this article on Wired already discussed after a project by Google leaked and made it clear that the company was speculating about a future when they would have access even to our DNA.

Hence, I would like to add a new reference for this discussion that I recently learned of during the First International Summit on Transhumanism organized by researchers from PUC-PR. According to the German philosopher Hans Jonas, futurology is an exercise of hypothetical projections that is placed “between two knowledges (ideal and practical; emotional and theoretical), it seeks a connection between ethics and responsibility, a connection that, according to an upcoming deformation of humankind, in an heuristic sense, would reveal the object to be preserved in the image and in the concept of mankind”, as described by Geovani Viola Moretto Mendes in his dissertation “Hans Jonas e a questão da técnica”.

The difference here is that Jonas suggests the forecast of negative probabilities, so we may know what should be avoided. Jonas’ futurology is actually called “comparative futurology” or “warning futurology” as a means to differentiate it from the “futurology of an imagined desire”, which would be closer to the traditional ethics or even to corporate ethics, although Geovane does not use this term is his research.

The researcher, however, argues that the comparative futurology would act in a different way while being pessimistic, because it would ultimately lead to a “voluntary break” against the excesses of power. If companies and governments are trying to speculate about future scenarios in which they are still lucrative, relevant and dominant, with comparative futurology, there is a stronger concern to think about the ethics of the issue, not the technical terms. But is it really desirable that we maintain the status quo? Should your slaughterhouse enterprise persevere in a future when other technologies offer the possibility to avoid animal suffering, global warming, deforestation and so forth?

Apocalyptic scenarios such as Matrix’s are not so plausible if compared to the world of Her, which is based in a more plausible scientific premise and thus addresses more reasonable developments of this technology, being them positive or negative. However, on the other hand, Jonas also criticizes progressive Marxist utopias that envision a future when communism would be finally achieved because of the technological developments in automation — such as is the case of fully automated luxury communism.

For Jonas, there is no difference between this automation utopia or the capitalist version, and it is interesting to see that Bastani even mentions Peter Diamandis and other CEOs from the Silicon Valley as an example of people who are investing in technologies that ultimately would make capitalism obsolete according to his speculation. Jonas does not believe that this is something positive, since, according to him, happiness and freedom are not achieved through consumer goods and nature has a limited amount of resources. Bastani suggests that the future world will be fully based on renewable energy sources and space mining, for instance, but Jonas criticizes this technological utopian perspective less in a sense of feasibility but more in the issue of how desirable it is. This argument tends to create a technological determinism as suggested by Geovani, who also adds that these same developments could ultimately cause “a dependency of human beings for technology”, something that is nevertheless not so far from our reality.

Jonas’ argument, therefore, is not eschatological, but rather anti-utopian. He states that the opposite of hope is not fear, but prudence. Between utopia and dystopia, Jonas chooses prudence, since this would generate an urgency to reflect on the hopes and real risks of technological and scientific development. However, this does not mean that Jonas was a Neo Luddite as many times he was seen. In fact, the author states that “from the dangers that come from technical progress, for instance, the one that comes from greedy hands that control nuclear fusion, he only recalls that it is necessary to use the present in a wise and moderate way, thus assuming a viewpoint of global responsibility”, describes Geovani.

Therefore, I would like to invite those who work with futurology or futurism to think about the way they are speculating future scenarios, being it in partnership with governments or corporations, or if you are doing this on your own. Sure, this does not fit in the case of entertainment and artistic creation, since in both cases science fiction is not being used as a business, management, or product/service creation tool. It was after such reflections that futurist Kevin Kelly proposed the concept of protopia, that is, an intermediate scenario in which one can find positive and negative things, just like things indeed are. This call thus speaks more about the ways we need to protect ourselves from the temptation of imagining apocalypses or paradises, because reality is much more complex and ambiguous than the supervillains and superheroes want us to believe. In other words, let’s be less like “Avengers” and more like “The Boys.”

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Lidia Zuin

Brazilian journalist, MA in Semiotics and PhD in Visual Arts. Researcher and essayist. Science fiction writer.