BBC’s A History of the Future

Counter-intuitively, for the very first post on this blog about robots in popular culture, I want to draw your attention to a series that isn’t about robots at all.

BBC Radio 4 has this week begun a series called A History of the Future, a series of 15 minute episodes, to be broadcast from 13:45 – 14:00 every weekday (yes, right before the Archers) for a fortnight. The series promises that host Juliet Gardiner will look at how cultures of the past view the possibilities of the future, and what these visions day about the pre-occupations of the time.

We’re already 4 episodes in and there isn’t a robot in sight. We’ve had programmes on the Oracle of Delphi, Druids, the Book of Revelation and Nostradamus. The closest we’re going to get to ‘the future’ is HG Wells and George Orwell at the end of next week.

But that’s fine. Because what I take from this series are two very important points, ideas that we must bear in mind when we are looking at and talking about how we conceive of robots in our culture. First, as Gardiner says at the outset of the series, the history of the future is really a history of anxiety. What we see in the future says much more about the present, our hopes and aspirations of right now, but much more importantly also our present  fears, than it says about any possible future. And so it is with robots. What we see in our literature and in our films and in our video games says nothing about what robots might actually one day look like but everything about our expectations and our fears. Perhaps, partly, we fear what robots might look like, yes, but I would suggest that this is secondary. More fundamentally, like all great monsters in human histories, from Grendel to vampires to aliens, the idea of the robot functions as a complex symbol (or, in the parlance of Kleinian psychoanalysis, a container) for fears and anxieties which may or may not have to do with anxieties about technology more generally.

It is entirely possible that robots will one day wake up, realise that humans are a parasite on the earth and destroy us all with laser cannons. But I’m not really interested in how likely or unlikely that is. What I am interested in is the very real function that the image of the robot serves in our cultural discourse right now. What anxieties we project onto the robots and the ways that our imaginations use these creatures will be the subject of many future posts, I am sure. So for now, let me return to the history of the future.

Because the other important idea that this series conveys is that ‘the future’ itself is not some thing, a given, out there. This series reminds us that ‘the future’ is a culturally contingent idea, as much a product of our imagination as the monsters or the gods that we predict will live in our tomorrow. Though the impulse to peek into events-yet-to-come seems to be a cross-cultural phenomenon, we find that the conceptualisation of something called the future is very different in different cultural contexts. Notions of ‘progress’, for example, seem to be very particular to our own culture since the nineteenth century. Whereas, for example, the future for the Druids looked very much like the past, for Karl Marx (not that I want to predict what Gardiner might have to say about him), the notion of progress was inextricably linked to tomorrow: the future is synonymous with ‘change’, or ‘evolution’.

For other Victorians, the future also held the possibility of change for the worse, or a sort of ‘devolution’ — the idea that if the wrong choices were made, the future of the human race might not be a glorious procession to a telos, some fabulous Shangri-la, but a slide backwards, towards some horrific dystopia.

Why is this interesting for the study of robots, AI and cyborgs? Because I think today, for example, we see a very similar tension — between those who imagine a utopian future and those who fear a dystopian nightmare — in the debates between the transhumanists and those that the transhumanist movement labels ‘bioconservatives’. This is a debate I am very keen to follow and discuss on this blog, so look for future posts on that, too.

Because of the miracle of BBC’s iPlayer, you can catch every episode of the History of the Future for a week after it was first broadcast, and with the omnibus editions on Fridays this should give you plenty of time to check it out. (I am sorry, I don’t know if iPlayer radio links work outside the UK, but if not I hope some enterprising enthusiast finds some way of making them available on the wider web. Watch this space.)