If Sci-fi Films Show Us Wonderful Technology, then Why is the Actual Future Just Out of Reach?
Pop culture, both literary and multimedia, is full of great works that predicted rich and futuristic visions. In recent years, we have passed a number of such dates of sentimental value: the Future Timeline of a successful movie. Only last year, we celebrated November 2019 as the month Harrison Ford’s Blade Runner chased down replicants. The Back to the Future Day came and went by only a few years before that on October 15, 2015. There have been more famous futures such as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: Space Odyssey and George Orwell’s 1984. Dates for some standout ‘futures’ are still to come. The one I’m most excited for is the setting for Minority Report: 2054.
A few attributes stand common in all these visions. There are shiny toys to play or kill with, societies are tech-heavy to the point of gluttony and there are some mind-boggling or deeply unsettling circumstances to contend with. One thing that always strikes me whenever another ‘future’ passes us by is this: we have barely achieved it when that date arrives.
The only hoverboard in 2015 that was a true machine and not some half-baked publicity stunt was the one flown by the Canadian inventor Catalin Alexandru Duru. We are nowhere near having AIs in the street who can almost pass the Turing Test (or rather the Voight-Kampff test as it was called in the film). The telescreens in 1984 were the kind of 3D affairs that LED projection finally brought to life in the new millennium. On a side note, smartphones also began exploiting the ‘screens that watch us’ utility of the 1984 screens. In the same vein, I just don’t see us flying along Minority Report’s vertical highways in 2054 either.
One wonders why this is. But the answers are not that hard to find. Pop culture is the jump from an artist’s imagination to the fancy of the public. Who says it must be limited by the speed of actual human progress?
In fact, a ‘woke’ realization is slowly taking over the world. We may have sacrificed a one too many facet of human progress in a single-minded race for superior tech. While we diligently pursue 5G infrastructures to launch the next age of the Internet, we have left our climate problems to fester and boil over. We may look into the farthest reaches of the universe and photograph a blackhole. But the bigger news is that a female scientist is finally outrightly credited for that success. We may plan to cryogenically store our bodies, literally freezing our lives for posterity. But many among us still can not cross the boundaries of gender and skin color for equity. When the pandemic started wreaking havoc in the United States and journalists questioned scientists and doctors about a speedy solution, someone replied that if developed societies had spent the millions flooded on celebrity entertainment-providers where they should be spent, preserving the future of the planet and humanity, we would have those speedy solutions already.
Maybe it’s because of an unplanned, arbitrary approach to science spending that we keep stalling our own progress as a species?
Gender and Racial Disparities Lead to Decreased Academic Spending
It’s no secret that huge chasms in equity exist at all levels of society, especially in the USA. If scientific research and academic theory is the way forward in all areas of progress, then what do these disparities tell us?
As a refresher, take a look at the educational attainment proportions for selected US groups against the overall population figures. These figures were created by graphing data available from the American Council on Education. First up is the attainment of whites which is of course closely matching the proportions of the overall population. Currently, White Americans form under 65% of the total US population. The figures however, underscore one more thing which is a yardstick for comparing how other groups fare in comparison. These figures represent how the pattern of educational attainment would look like if there was no influence from skin color. The African American’s infographic for instance, shows how smaller the degree of educational attainment for them is at all the higher reaches of education: associate degrees, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral. It would be wrong to say that the figures are less of the minority group because they make a smaller proportion of the population. The proportions for African Americans were calculated using their total population in the US. That means, if say, 30% of all White Americans can attain a bachelor’s degree in the USA, only 15% of all African Americans can. In a fair system, the proportions of attainment would be equal relative to each population group.
I created comparison graphics for two more groups, Hispanic- and Native Americans. I left out Asian Americans among the major minority groups as they were the only ones performing at similar or superior levels to the overall population averages. I was shocked to find that Hispanic Americans came out worse in the comparison. For some reason I wasn’t expecting that.
It gets worse when you compare the faculty disparities. Again, the graph below was created using national data from the American Council on Education.
These faculties are the eminent, qualified academics who supervise or assist with state-of-the-art research which forms the bedrock for all research in labs all over the country. What happens when an increasingly diverse student body is constantly under the tutelage of a rigidly skewed faculty demographic? You guessed it right. Skewed priorities and values show up in approvals for research grants. Consider the following two infographics I created from two study reports, one from the UK, and one from the US. The UK one shows the dependence of research grant approvals, and the gap in the grant sums approved by ethnicity. The US one shows what topics are more favored for approval among Blacks and Whites. The preferred ones’ are all those microscopically nerdy ones the white guys pursue. The less favored topic-cluster reflects a community-based, problem-solving focus that is too less often approved.
There are more disparities of more varieties. The gender gap in higher education has been steadily decreasing and in some countries has even reversed. But consider the following infographic reporting other female-focused gaps:
Scientific Discovery is No Longer a Global Concern
There are more ways humans restrict the opportunity to prosper where it matters. Scientific progress, alas, is not even a part of the UN’s developmental goals for the new millennium, as the world remains mired in much deeper, primary problems. Research on military threats and global state politics has shown that interstate rivalry and threats lead to increases in military expenditure and aggression. Of course – but they also lead to a decrease in female representation in those states. SPIRI, the Sweden-based Stockholm International Peace Research Institute had some interesting facts for this.
SPIRI recently revealed that Germany was the only top military spender in recent decades that also consistently ensured a high quality of life for its population. The USA, of course, was the top military spender and has boasted more than a third of the world’s total military expenditure quite consistently over the years. The current pandemic alone has gruesome lessons in failures of national priorities. The fact that a federal office for pandemic control was shut down by Trump as soon as the new President took office came back to bite the nation in a big way come 2020.
The true priorities of the human collective aren’t that hard to deduce after all. We haven’t even scraped this barrel yet as there is no room to describe how political interests, Big Money, and academia’s personal visions, ambitions and beliefs shape the pinnacle of research and progress in the labs.
It’s a myth that humans can use only about 10% of their brains at any time. This misleading factor has been perpetuated by films such as Limitless. The actual percentage is likely to be much higher. And yet, accounting for systemic discrimination in the highest cognitive reaches of human civilization, we are clearly reducing the collective percentage to an alarming extent.
We are pulling the whole down to ‘less than the sum of its parts’. It should be greater.
One can’t help but wonder how groupthink in unrepresentative research labs and being stuck in Maslow’s ‘lower levels’ for the non-developed world aggravate these proportions? Scientists increasingly collaborate with people of similar ethnic backgrounds even though they have varied their co-research credentials with gender and academic age. With the ‘expected’ exceptions of China, India and Japan, all the countries leading scientific research are predominantly white. The rest of the world simply doesn’t have the resources.
Could the futures we are dreaming of on the silver screens of our minds and cinemas are all kinds of wrong? For now at least? I can not name a single pop-culture phenomenon where the shape of the future did not rest on some shiny gadget or far away stars. The closest we got someone imagining a future based on equity was Kant? And Stalin? But that went horribly wrong. Maybe, collectively we don’t try hard enough? Or rather, inventively and creatively enough. We are certainly limiting our pool of ideas and inventive, earnest ways of coming up with solutions to the world’s biggest problems by keeping the money gurgling in the same limited circles.
Maybe, we shouldn’t care too much if androids don’t yet dream of electric sheep. At least until we figure out a way to set our compasses straight.
Disclaimer: Most of the infographics are custom-made by the author. To license or commission, please approach the author.