For the last few years, I’ve been teaching a class called “Human Futures.” I designed it because I was struck by the increasing pessimism among the undergraduates I taught, many of whom expressed deep anxieties about the future. I wanted to provide them with a curriculum that was both realist in its assessment of the threats we collectively face, but also inspired them to consider what can be done to make a more livable future.
On the first day of class, we do an activity where I ask students to predict what’s going to happen at future intervals – 5 years, 10 years, 25 years, 50, 100, 200, 500, 1,000, 10,000, 100,000 years. I give them a stack of events, typed, printed and laminated, generated by the first cohort to take the class. Among the many futuristic events they consider is “Global Pandemic.” In the past, they’ve tended to not know what to do with it, and it either gets ignored or stuffed alongside some other random events long after they imagine being dead. What tends to be frontloaded are concerns with the environment – sea level rise, acidification, drowning coastal cities.
In our debriefing after they’ve made their collective future timeline, I’ve told them that – for the most part – environmental degradation is slow moving and we’ll have time to prepare ourselves for it. What they really need to worry about are global pandemics. I rehearsed the history of SARS, swine flu, Ebola, HIV/AIDS, and how global transportation technologies have sped up the spread of viral disease. It’s my scared straight moment. It always makes me feel like a bit of a Cassandra.
Now, thinking back on that assignment and those conversations, I’m not sure how they’ll unfold in the future.
In the past, I’ve taught Greg Bear’s Blood Music, which isn’t about a virus per se, but rather about a nanite technology gone horribly awry. Not to spoil anything, but a rouge technologist invents a nanobot that he injects into himself when barred from continuing his work. The nanobots first improve him – they make him better looking, healthier, smarter – and then liquidate him and, flushed down the drain, go on to infect everyone who drinks municipal water in the city where he lived. They spread around the world exponentially and provide a real existential threat to life on Earth. Needless to say, it’s not a novel that ends well for humans.
It’s a fascinating, bleak book. It presages the 1989 Ebola outbreak and is roughly contemporaneous with the HIV/AIDS outbreak in the late 1970s and early 1980s. My impression from students was that many gave up about halfway through – when the main character’s girlfriend is found liquified by the nanobots and dripping down the shower drain. Only a few ever made it to the part where the viral nanobots liquify all life on Earth to fuel their cosmic ascension.
Over the course of the class, I try and get students to think about the kinds of future they want. The challenge for me, pedagogically, is that I’m often working against their ingrained pessimism – and, in many of the things we talk about, what they encounter in the class only makes them feel more pessimistic.
One example of that is our discussion of automation. In the past we’ve read Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano alongside the economists, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, who wrote The Second Machine Age, about the likelihood that all jobs will be automated in the future. For Vonnegut’s characters, full automation brings about a social crisis of feeling unfulfilled – Vonnegut sees human as inexorable tinkerers who just want to work. Brynjolfsson and McAfee aren’t much different and suggest that while Universal Basic Income funded by heavy taxes on those industries that move toward automation will offset the financial costs of automation, people will still want to work. The responsible thing to do, policy-wise, is to regulate automation to preserve certain kinds of creative, fulfilling labor. Fair enough.
This year I swapped out Player Piano for Biting the Sun, Tanith Lee’s novel about a post-work world. There are a handful of people in Lee’s world who choose to work—largely overseeing automated processes—but for most people, everything is taken care of, from housing and daily sustenance to the end of disease and death. Bodies can be rejuvenated or entirely altered. The plot, such as it is, follows one young person (gender isn’t fixed) through their ennui. Life without labor just doesn’t seem worth living.
But what I try to impress upon my students is that all of these imaginings of the future of labor and automation come from people who have grown up in the context of capitalist labor regimes. Could we imagine what a life of full Universal Basic Income and the freedom from labor would actually look like? Not, it seems, without some kind of radical break from history.
And so here we are amidst the coronavirus pandemic of 2020. 2020 seemed like such a futuristic year to me as a kid, and until February, it seemed fairly mundane. But now we are on the cusp of some kind of altered future—because of COVID-19, but also because of the total failure of market capitalism in the United States. Skyrocketing unemployment, enormous government bailouts that favor corporations, failures in provision of care and supplies in the health care system, threats to disabled people who rely on ventilators, and likely hundreds of thousands of deaths. It’s not the revolutionary moment that people imagined—Bear, after all, imagined global society crumbling in the wake of a viral threat—but here we are.
Amid all of the terrible things that this global pandemic is bringing about, it’s hard to imagine what might be on the other side of this moment. It’s worth considering what we want that future to look like and how this pandemic moment might allow us to see new possibilities, to imagine ways out of our current crises and those ongoing crises of government and market capitalism that have compounded the effects of COVID-19.
Things are terrible, they’re going to continue to be terrible, but focusing on the horizon of possibility might mean that the future isn’t quite so bleak.
The current pandemic is exposing clear, well-documented problems in the American health care system and health care systems around the world. It’s also exposing the deep problems of in-person voting requirements, gerrymandering, and the structure of American electoral politics. The profit motive in American market capitalism is causing strains both among our leaders, who see their reelection tied to economic stability, and for hospitals, who are overspending to procure necessary medical equipment as a feature of manufactured demands. It might be tempting to consider the current situation as just a medical one and that changing how medical institutions works in the United States would be enough to address future pandemics. But it’s clear that American health care is an outgrowth of a much deeper, broken system.
Now is the time to develop wide-ranging, systemic changes that mitigate future pandemics and also overcome the biases and shortfalls in American society generally. Speculative fiction is one source to look to for inspiration, and so is a century of social science critiques that have sought to identify failures in our social systems.
Matthew Wolf-Meyer is the author of Theory for the World to Come: Speculative Fiction and Apocalyptic Anthropology (2019), The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine, and American Everyday Life (2012), and Unraveling: Remaking Personhood in a Neurodiverse Age (2020). He teaches anthropology at Binghamton University.