As a child, I read Heinlein and Asimov. I scribbled short stories in marble notebooks about time-machines and interstellar explorers. In short, I dreamed sci-fi dreams.
But as Glenn Harlan Reynolds writes in a new essay in Popular Mechanics,
While books about space exploration and robots once inspired young people to become scientists and engineers—and inspired grownup engineers and scientists to do big things—in recent decades the field has become dominated by escapist fantasies and depressing dystopias.
He’s right. As I came to young-adulthood my dreaming came to an abrupt end. I identified with Winston Smith in 1984. I pondered a post-apocalyptic future in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I played Fallout and watched V for Vendetta. For me, and many others, maturity was cynicism. My future was clothed in dystopias.
Broad teenage disillusionment, and the popular image of today’s youth as wasting away in front of video games, are symptoms of how Millennials look to the future. This world is not delivering, so we are making an exodus to the virtual one instead.
In the World of Warcraft, unlike in the distant world of Washington DC, I can still affect politics. I am a crusader in the fight for justice. My voice is heard. These are complete fantasies, of course, but the psychology remains.
Unlike my bland, one-size-fits-all subdivison in a one-size-fits-all state in a one-size-fits-all country, I can start my own new community with an online guild or club. I can connect with anyone, for almost any interest. The only constraint on my community is that it must be good enough that others are willing to join me.
In my one-size-fits-all school, I am a subject — a fixture behind a uniform desk in a cinder-block ‘institution’, a passive receiver of a tracked curriculum prescribed to me by others. I am clay to be molded. I am the guinea pig for standardized tests. I am a statistic. I am insignificant in the national system. But on iTunesU or Khan Academy, I am the master of my learning destiny.
I ridicule, and am ridiculed by, other angry young people in school, themselves disillusioned. But on YouTube, I am a star. I build entire cities of Sims. I engineer species in Spore. I go platinum on Guitar Hero. I rival da Vinci in scale and inventive imagination in Minecraft.
Why, as Reynolds asks, have we Millennials stopped dreaming? We haven’t. Our dreams are there, they’ve just taken a digital detour.
Young people have made their allegiance known. We are the sci-fi fans of the real-life cyberpunk story of Wikileaks. We laugh and jeer as governments and cronies are outwitted by 14-year-old hackers from Lulsec.
But we are pulled by two conflicting forces: the empowering, decentralizing, heroic, communitarian pulse of technology, and the impersonal, stagnating world of our major political, educational, and economic institutions.
We are thrilled to take part in the advance of science by crowdsourcing protein folding. We want to find internet flash mobs for kindness, to send 9-year-old arcade builder Caine Monroy to college. We want a world of collaboration, experiments, open-source, and transparency.
But these are dreams limited by our feelings of political and economic powerlessness. Reynolds is right, we won’t ‘Facebook our way out of economic depression’. We need “to expand civilization,” not find new “forums for gossip.”
Millennial sci-fi dystopias like V for Vendetta and the Hunger Games are maps of our conflicted hearts. We can feel that we are entering a world of tremendous possibility, where the sci-fi fantasies of our parents and grand-parents could soon become realities. But our schools, politics, and economies don’t seem to fit.
Our dystopias are worlds of monopoly, of totalitarian control. We are pawns, ‘administered upon’ by bureaucracy, or made to fight with one another for the amusement of Panem’s elites. The spirit of these dystopias hits too close to home.
We see the beneficent forces of technology being hijacked for war, surveillance, and social control. We can feel that our political and economic world is centralized and distant – anathema to the spontaneity and community that technology is unleashing in other areas. These are worlds made for elites with levers to power, not for us.
Technology marches along, and I hope that inventor Dean Kamen is correct that we stand on the verge of major advances.
But to understand and to fight our Millennial dystopia, we must get our social technology correct — we must dream up innovations in community, education, in law, in governance. Our politics and the rules that govern our lives have become tools for systems creeping toward dystopian nightmares. They creak and split at the seams as a better world created by sci-fi technology comes into focus.
We must innovate our social systems alongside computers and the internet.
If we are to dream, we need the equivalent of jetpacks and flying cars in the ways we can lead happy, prosperous, cooperative lives far beyond today’s decaying national systems. We need to leverage technology, and the allegiance that Millennials feel to the world that it could build, to innovate beyond our political, legal, educational, and economic monopolies. We need a sci-fi of social tech, to resolve our divided hearts and rediscover a wide-eyed wonder to the future.
We have seen what technology can do. The possibilities for human flourishing and creativity, once we dream of ways to innovate our social technology, make the thrills of a spaceship look tame.
Update for Reddit: Some comments on a Reddit version of this article suggested that there was a ‘sense of entitlement’ to a “sci-fi” of social tech. Others have suggested I am encouraging people to play video games rather than work. This is manifestly not what is being argued. By “give us a sci-fi of social tech” I am specifically referring to realigning our focus away from mere innovation in physical technology and towards innovation in social technology.
This is a recurring theme on this site — physical technology is not enough. We need as many people as we can innovating in community, education, law, governance, and culture. For more on this see our introduction page.
If we want to be out in the real world, dreaming big things, it means we need to get the social technology right. It means action. Millennials, and everyone else, must get together and build a sci-fi of social tech.