The Future Is a Land of Contrasts

In the 1990s, there was a bumper sticker, popular among powerless and frustrated people, that said “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” Today, on the cusp of the 2020s, it might be more apt to say “If you’re not confused, you’re not paying attention.”

The future, as they say, is a land of contrasts. Butt implants are literally killing people in a Kardashian-centric culture, while AI increasingly inscribes gender norms into technology, commerce, and law in a way that is definitely not going to have negative or unintended consequences. The “economy” is supposedly “good” these days; hundreds of millions of humans have climbed out poverty in the last 30 years, from Bangalore to Bratislava, and the unemployment rate in the US is officially “low” — yet people in various and sundry countries everywhere are protesting in the streets, in probably the most widespread global eruption of dissent since 1968. In fact, the uncoordinated yet unmistakably mirroring protests from Hong Kong to Chile to Lebanon to the UK may be even bigger than the events of 1968 that rocked New York, Tokyo, Mexico City, and Paris.

(Our very own Pablo Valenzuela and Troy Kokinis provided context for the events in Chile in the last week or so.)

Meanwhile, in our benighted country, teachers and autoworkers have successfully struck for better wages and, in the case of schools, better conditions for students. A tight labor market threatens to make actual wage growth a thing, and workers are seizing the moment. We may seem rather quiescent in the US, even as the rest of the world burns. But the biggest fire only needs the tiniest spark to eat up the world.

We were reminded this week of the work of ethologist John B. Calhoun, whose experiments with mice and rats not only inspired The Secret of NIMH, which traumatized us as children, but also provided the formula for various dystopias of overpopulation. Calhoun supposedly found that when mice communities have unlimited resources and reproduce to the point of overcrowding, dire consequences result; male and female mice take on antisocial behaviors of random violence and neglect of their young, while some mice retreat into private, refusing to fuck and constantly grooming themselves (the mice that Calhoun, in a not-at-all creepy way, called “the beautiful ones”). The whole situation became a script for portentous allegories of the human future. Indeed, Calhoun’s work seems like an influence on subsequent fiction such as The Handmaid’s Tale or Children of Men, where high-tech society somehow leads to perverse results where the natural instinct to reproduce society falters. The “beautiful ones” have been compared to Japan’s hikikomori, youth shut-ins who eschew work, friendship, love, and marriage.

In other words, we humans are characteristically as contradictory as ever: we fear a future with too many people as well as too few. And our butt implants are settling in a really lopsided way.

Here is the best of the week, chosen by our editors: