To be absolutely clear upfront, I didn’t write the following post. Warren Ellis did. It’s a text companion piece to the How The Light Gets In festival, and was sent in the latest edition of his newsletter, Orbital Operations. I found it to be such a quietly wonderful and impressive piece that I decided to reprint it here, without his permission.
Thinking about the future isn’t rocket science, and neither is it archery. Time’s Arrow is a seductive idea. The notion that time travels in a straight line, and that we rise into a single future. Or, if you’re feeling oppressed and cranky, that the future is a single cutting head diving down towards us. It simplifies things nicely, and makes passengers of us. It is convenient and sometimes comforting to believe we have no agency in the face of Time’s Arrow. The Future is coming and we’re trapped on the ride.
I stopped believing, a long time ago, that the future works in that way, no matter how many rocket scientists you throw at it.
It works like The Great Storm of 1987. If you weren’t in it, your friends and parents will have talked about it. I lived by the water’s edge on the estuary at the time, and woke up to a two-foot drift of sand piled against my front door. Walking to work was the full Walking Dead experience: totally alone, walking up the middle of the road through the debris and the shattered glass, the only real difference between that and a zombie show being the ancient trees laying across dual carriageways and sticking out of houses. You’d think that, as a bloody great 122mph meteorological convulsion that killed twenty-odd people and caused two billion pounds’ worth of damage, a Great Storm would be an unmissably large piece of the future smack dab in the middle of Time’s Arrow’s path. But no. The projections were off. Prediction will always get you into trouble, as anyone who ever talked about flying cars will tell you.
Living on the estuary, I have a different sense of the future. I watch weather systems bounce around all over the estuary. The path of any one of them is determined by a dozen different elements interacting and colliding. Out here on the water, you understand how meteorology is a nightmare discipline. Look at America’s recent experience with the “winter weather bomb” that was on course to destroy the East Coast, until it kind of didn’t. Part of that is down to the hyperbole that accompanies prediction. Part of it is down to the nature of single prediction, the stuff of futurism, itself.
From this perspective, the Great Storm was the mobile phone. It could be seen in the distance, along with a dozen other swirls of stormy weather, but we had no idea it would hit hard enough to change the shape of the world. It hit hard enough to break science fiction, one of our traditional early-warning stations, and it became interpolated into and interrogated by contemporary and popular fiction without science fiction ever getting to lay a finger on it. “Gene-editing,” as a phrase, has broken into the world without a science-fictional genesis. This will keep happening if we keep believing we’re on a single rail to the future and that single prediction is the way to see ahead.
The future is a weatherfront, and attempting to predict single lightning strikes is stupid and wasteful. Understand the future as weather, and yourself as standing on the shore looking out to the horizon. Breathe the air and watch the water. There are dozens of different systems acting on the approach of the future. In order to get a handle on what’s coming, you need to be talking to and working with and keeping an eye on many different fields. Not just “technology.” The future is also always social, and economic, and political, and many other things besides, and those things act on the path of the storm. And, if you’re standing on the shore, you know that there are a lot of storms out there, and any one of them could hit like a hurricane. If this sounds good to you, then, please, get to it. Because we’re running out of reliable early-warning stations.