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It's the Future, Jim, But Not As We Know It

George Jetson is (or will be) a liar, says noted historian Michael Bess, who sees redesigning the human platform as the story that both scriptwriters and policymakers are missing.
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This has been a solid summer for big-screen science fiction, with movies like Terminator Salvation pushing aside the successful resurrection of the Star Trek franchise, which in turn outshone the latest X-Men flick.

But to historian Michael Bess, the Chancellor's Professor of History at Vanderbilt University, such single-variable visions of tomorrow almost inevitably come up well short of a future that is already in sight.

As he says, changes in pharmaceuticals, bioelectronics and genetic manipulation have launched narratives that are usually ignored — both in fiction and in policymaking.

His poster child for this failure of imagination?

Meet George Jetson.

Jetson, the patriarch of a cartoon family, launched his animated arc in 1962 as The Flintstones of the future after that animated show — itself based on the live-action sitcom The Honeymooners — was a prime-time hit. The Jetsons depicted an average suburban family of the year 2062, but the family of the future looked a lot like the family of the present, Bess noted, "patriarchal dad, well-coiffed wife, tyrannical boss. ... What marked their world as different were the gadgets."

As he told a recent gathering at the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at the University of California, Santa Barbara, "The gadget-rich world encapsulates misconceptions of the future. Technologies will evolve while we humans remain the same. I call it the 'Jetsons fallacy.'"

Of course, George Jetson's two-dimensional shoulders are a little frail - even if "Astro" is there to help out - to bear all the blame. Bess points to Star Trek in all its incarnations, where the only routine body modifications are the chilling Borg, or Star Wars, where "strange beings exist alongside unmodified humans who are no different than what we have today.

"The exception is Darth Vader — a cyborg." And his redemption comes when he removes his prosthetic helmet — the subliminal message, Bess suggested, that "humans should be humans, not modified."

And even when popular speculative fiction does touch on body modification — think Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Alien: Resurrection or even Inspector Gadget -- the modification is always the exception, not the routine.

To be fair, Bess acknowledged the goal of most science fiction is to make a buck, not a point — "to beguile us and not freak us out." And he doesn't paint every sci-fi work with the same brush, pointing to varied works like the dystopian classic Brave New World ("the only systematic effort to depict a world filled with genetically modified humans") and to the more recent film Gattaca (where "good ol' fashioned humans can still prevail" against the modified).

Bess is not a historian of speculative fiction per se — his last book was a nuanced look at the moral quandaries of World War II that dove well past the obvious milestones of the Holocaust and Hiroshima, and the book before that examined ecology and technical modernity in France.

And ultimately, he isn't really focused on science fiction at all, but on the real future that humans — policymakers and just plain folks — seem unwilling to confront. The Jetsons just make a handy prism for viewing that denial.

Multiple Human Species
Bess suggested that the fiction reflects a fact: "We are psychologically unprepared for what will exist," something he feels is dangerous. "It presents a false image of blandness and business as usual, while a careful study points to a very different conclusion."

That conclusion might be the (genetically modified) elephant in the room right now. He suggested a historian in the year 2300 communicating about this time would almost certainly focus on the rise of biotechnology as the key story of today.

Specifically, he follows three threads from that tapestry of redesigning the human platform: pharmaceuticals, implanted prostheses and genetic interventions. None are new, whether talking about drinking coffee, domesticating animals or installing peg-legs. And yet breeding several generations of prize sheep over years is a long way from cloning Dolly, and putting human insulin in cow's milk or helping the paralyzed use their brain signals to operate machinery represent amazing changes.

"A skeptic might say, 'This is hype. Haven't we always done this?'" Bess admitted. "But that misses the increase in potency. We have reached that qualitative threshold in all of these biotech arenas."

But to steal a line from the Ringworld series, sometimes there ain't no justice. Or to be exact, there's justice — or body enhancements — for those who can afford them.

And the result of that would be a speciation gap that mimics the current concerns about income inequality, both within a culture and between the first and third worlds.

"The division between the haves and the have-nots will then be inscribed in our biology," Bess suggested. He then asked a series of provocative questions.

How will parents cope with designing their offspring, and will they fall prey to fads? Will genetically based political parties arise? How will patents deal with enhancements that are seen as necessary and not just voluntary? Will personhood become a commodity? And as performance standards keep rising, what happens to those who reject enhancements?

"We accept levels of disparity as it is, but these will blow those up," he suggested.

One policy option might be the European focus on equality of health access, in which everyone has a theoretical ability for "basic" enhancement. "We may be forced to that sort of model for these enhancements, or else inequality would be even more severe," he said.

How about just legislating a stop?

"How much of a say do we really have on where this is going to go?" Bess asked rhetorically. "Some may think they have a say where this will go, but we probably can't stop them. As long as some subset of 6 billion people can afford this and want this, they will occur."

And besides, these changes won't come in wolf's clothing, but in (probably cloned) sheep's skin, Bess said. "This all comes from medicine, the desire to heal the sick. And when the ability to do something to help someone opens up, who will say no? And thus it moves from treatment to enhancement."

He pointed to Ritalin, a drug marketed to combat attention deficit disorder now being repurposed by some college students as a studying aid. "What's morally wrong with becoming more cognitively adept," he posited, asking the sorts of complicated questions about benefits from any enhancement taken as a single advancement that look simpler when looking at all the permutations in concert.

Dissing Utopia
Bess is currently writing a two-volume book, tentatively titled, Icarus 2.0: Justice and Identity in a Post-Bionic Civilization, in which he deals with possible answers for the hard questions he's just asked in a sober and academic way. But in keeping with his swipe at poor George Jetson, the first volume of Icarus will be ... a science-fiction novel.

As such, it will extend a literary experiment he made in his second book, The Light-Green Society: Ecology and Technological Modernity in France, 1960-2000. Despite that tome's uber-academic title, one chapter was a fictional representation of where the policies of the French Greens were likely to lead the country. (Spoiler alert: He used the term "full-scale ecological utopia.")

Now, the first half of his bi-furcated latest work, Bess said, will lay out the world of 2088, and how some of the questions and policy choices may play out. Some of the subject matter will concern itself with the collateral and horrifying damage — enhanced animals that approach human intelligence but are neither fish nor foul, and whose defining trait is loneliness, or "mistakes who are persons," humans who still have rights and feelings but no place in society.

As such, the book will travel the path of much science fiction, where the goal is to beguile and not freak us out.

On the whole, Bess promised, the book will actually be utopian, at least compared to the disturbing visions of Orwell's 1984 or Huxley's Brave New World.

But it might be dystopian to those who treasure the status quo.

"It's a return to the big questions about the long-term survival of the species. We may survive, but we may not survive as something we recognize. I really think 50 years from now, people sitting around in a room like this will look really, really different" — and not like George Jetson at all.