Post Modern is a podcast contemplating the future of technology. Listen to the episode above or read the transcript below.
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Today’s episode is about humanoid robots. The kind that walked across the stage at Elon Musk’s AI Day presentation last fall. At the time, Musk extolled the virtues of a robot built for a human-shaped world that could eliminate dangerous, repetitive, and boring tasks.
But I thought: Is this the kind of future we want? Do we want humanoid robots in our homes? A kind of embodied Amazon Alexa or Google Home? That is, after all, the plot of Mother/Android, in which robot assistants turn against their human counterparts in a reckoning that sends us all analog.
It’s not that I think there’s only a dystopian future for these inventions—it’s only that I wonder whether we would include them in a utopian one. Just for a second, imagine you time travel one hundred years into the future. Now imagine it’s the most beautiful future possible. What would it be like?
I imagine a kind of garden city. Where nature is built into public spaces, everything is indoor/outdoor and built for walking, architecture is a piece of art, and everyone has enough leisure time to enjoy it. Maybe technology helps out, maybe it prints my clothes for me, grows a garden in my backyard, and even cooks for me, but it almost fades into the background. A technology that supports our lives, but remains invisible to them.
“If I were to open up my wishful thinking as much as I could, that's the world that I think we would want to move toward. Where we eliminate the cumbersome nature of technological interfaces—which is all about keyboards or switches or buttons or whatever—and it becomes about using our voice to interact with embedded technologies. In that case, you can live in a forest because you can adjust the settings within the forest to provide the appropriate environment that you need to be successful, whatever that may be.”
That’s Ramsey Avery, and he knows what he’s talking about. Avery designs futures for a living—as a production designer he and his teams have created the worlds depicted in films such as Minority Report, The Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power, Star Trek, Guardians of the Galaxy, and even Disney’s Tomorrowland.
Avery knows what a utopian future looks like—he’s designed them. When he wants to create a more idyllic setting, like those found in Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power, he adds lots of nature and lots of water. But when he wants to create a dystopian future, like the one found in Minority Report, he adds lots of technology. A high-tech utopia is almost an oxymoron.
“I think it's eminently possible to have a high-tech future. I think it's not as possible to do a high-tech future that feels utopian.”
But if we know that a utopia is filled with nature, and a dystopia is filled with technology, why do we keep heading in a high-tech direction? Why do we keep trying to create Minority Report?
“I certainly grew up reading Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, even Heinlein—although I was never really a fan of Heinlein. The future they represented in terms of the wonders of technology was certainly a future that I wanted to live in at that time. But by the time you're getting to William Gibson and you're seeing what technology could really start to turn into—and really what we are experiencing now more and more—is that technology is not, in every case, opening our horizons. In many cases, technology is closing it down.”
Technology didn’t use to seem so antithetical to a utopian future. Clarke, Asimov, and Heinlein were science fiction authors who depicted a world that was all about space exploration, teleportation, and moon colonies. Their books came out around the time of the apollo missions—we didn’t even have computers yet—and yet there was a sense then that we’d have flying cars, moving sidewalks, and jet packs by now. Asimov’s Foundation series even inspired Elon Musk to found Space X.
But then we get to Gibson and technology starts to be used in a dystopian sense. His books are all about artificial intelligence, simulations, and cyber hacking. He basically invents the cyberpunk genre which goes on to influence The Matrix Trilogy and Blade Runner. Along came computers, the internet. Now we’re worried about implants in our brains, government surveillance, uplo ding our consciousness to the cloud, and living virtual lives. It’s become a world of techno-pessimism. Ironically it inspires Elon Musk to create Neuralink, and yes the humanoid robots that crossed the stage last year.
“I, from my 60s sci-fi upbringing, tend to be an optimist but I'm a little worried these days about how all of that is beginning away from us.
Avery thinks Disney’s Tomorrowland best exemplifies that progression. At the time the theme park was built, Tomorrowland was a vision of the future. Now it’s a relic—a nostalgic 1960s view of the future. There have been talks to revamp it but they always stall. The future doesn’t look as bright anymore. In fact, it looks bleak. What does tomorrow look like from the perspective of today?
“By the time you build it, it's already obsolete, right? It's just that you cannot, in a world that takes four to five years to build something, make something that is going to constantly stay ahead of what technology really hits.”
There’s also been a shift in the way we see the future. We wouldn’t want to see a Tomorrowland that was built to look like Minority Report, we’d rather head over to Pandora, the more humanist, nature-filled world from the Avatar movies. Or even the elaborate treehouse setting from Swiss Family Robinson.
“One of the things that we actually were exploring was how could we embed the technology and how could Tomorrowland look more like it's about nature than it is about architecture (the way Tomorrowland is in the parks currently).”
In other words, how could we build a Tomorrowland that looks more like yesterday?
“When I first worked on Minority Report, Steven Spielberg hired a futurist from MIT to be the consultant full time— like he kept this guy John Underwood on for most of the production and he was constantly developing these white papers in terms of what the appropriate technology 80 years in the future could be. And one of the things that was really clear in that, and we can see it as it's now been happening 20 years later, is that technology is really disappearing. The most effective technology is the technology we can't see.”
Avery talks about technology that allows us to look up at the world around us rather than down at our screens. And here we have to talk about the Chobani commercial, an animated short titled Dear Alice. Though its goal was to market yogurt, the brand narrative was superimposed over an animated vision for a future paradise in which solar-powered farms are watered via rain irrigation, harvested via automation, and delivered to our tables via drone delivery. It was even musically scored by the Studio Ghibli composer Joe Hisaishi.
Though the film imagines a high-tech future, it is also a pastoral one—where families gather together beneath an oak tree for dinner even as a drone puts the finishing touches on the meal. The film became an anthem for the so-called solarpunk movement—an antithesis to the more industrial steampunk literary genre. One fan even removed all the branding from the video to create a pure, less commercialized version.
Solarpunk is new, more of a concept than it is an actual literary genre, but it illustrates our desire for a new vision of future. Not the high-tech future of Minority Report or even the pastoral paradise of Rings of Power. But something in between. Let’s call it “high-tech pastoral.” And this, I think is the future we’d rather create.
“I'd love robots to be out making food for us, right? So we don't have to have people bending over in 100-degree weather picking strawberries—I’d much rather have a robot doing that and let that person have a chance to express themselves whatever that may be, whether that person wants to make beautiful tapestries or whether they want to stay home and raise kids.”
I agree. Automation? Yes, I’m all for that. But humanoid robots? Do we really want that?
“I’m with you. I don't think I necessarily want to have a bunch of sentient humanoid figures walking around my house.