Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Future of Humanity... envisioned by sci-fi cinema

I have an unhealthy fascination with the movie Idiocracy. The main character, a man of average intelligence by our standards, finds himself 500 years into the future by way of a failed army experiment. Society has become increasingly stupid with each generation and this everyman is revealed to be, by far, the smartest man in the future world. A warning: tender ears will be offended by the language and some themes. The "mastermind" behind the film is none other than Mike Judge, creator of Beavis and Butthead*. The premise, however, is infectious.

I often find myself processing the news of our day through an Idiocracy filter. Octomom, Jon and Kate, Britney idolization, and reality TV all fit well with this "idiot dystopia." Death panel fear mongering, US soldier misconduct at Abu Ghraib and reports of Heart of Darkness-style outpost orgies at our embassy in Afghanistan, denial in Katrina-era New Orleans, lack of big-picture thinking and extreme selfishness on Wall Street and our ability to deal with it a year later also make me feel like we're inching (racing?) down a path to a vastly less intelligent future. Oh, and what about the breakdown in partisan discourse and an inability to address big issues like health care, social security and climate change? I often feel eerily close to the future predicted by this movie.

That's pretty pessimistic, isn't it? Is it that bad? Isn't there hope that we might possibly make some hard, unpopular choices that will be for the common long-term good? If Idiocracy is the future I don't want, what movie might offer a glimmer of hope? I've landed on Star Trek. Sure, they're at war, but not with each other. The Borg or the Cardassians or whoever. I have to admit, I'm not into Trek like I once was, but they seem to have figured out how to live peacefully amongst themselves and they've gotten pretty smart in the process.

So we have here two points on a continuum; Idiocracy on one hand, Star Trek on the other. And then I remembered a conversation with Dave Moody a few years ago where he admitted that he doesn't really get into the future dystopia genre. That's why I love talking to Moody. He always makes me consider the world differently. I hadn't even considered the tone of these kinds of movies as a genre. I left the classification at sci-fi and called it a day. But if you think of "future dystopia" as a genre and you then consider that there is a continuum, you can have all sorts of fun plotting where on that continuum any number of these films lie.

The natural outcome, of course, was a drawing on the whiteboard in my office, an exercise that quickly roused the interest of several passers by - one of the nice things about having glass instead of walls on one's office. We ended up with a matrix. Warmongering / Peaceful on the X-axis and Smarter / Dumber on the Y-axis. Like this:

How could we enhance this further? In addition to considering where other movies would fall on the chart**, I'm thinking it would be interesting to create a framework for processing news and pop culture events and assessing whether that news places us closer to Idiocracy or closer to Star Trek. Kanye disses Taylor Swift? Does that indicate we're on the path to Idiocracy or Fifth Element or something else? Joe Wilson calls Obama a lier on the floor of the House? Where does that baby-step toward incivility lead? The House then devotes cycles to reprimanding Wilson. Wilson and his opponent both bring in bags of cash from the publicity. Jay Leno makes Kanye cry. The President calls Kanye a jackass. Perez Hilton. Problem here is that most news, the kind that "sells papers" (read: creates clickable impressions) trends toward Idiocracy. Boy scout uses iPhone to tweet help for kitten stuck in tree may trend toward a Star Trek future, but it just doesn't gather eyeballs.

Anyway, we could create a Sci-Fi Future of Humanity Index. Kanye decides to take a break and go serve in the Peace Corps? That's a (5,5) on the chart. Octomom decides to do a reality show? That gets a (0,-5). Something like that.

Maybe another use for the model could be to encourage the collection of more positive stories.

Let me know what you think.

* I must admit, just thinking the words "Beavis and Butthead" brings a smile to my face and makes me chuckle. Could it be that I already more closely resemble the idiot future foretold in Idiocracy than the intellectually superior critic/observer I fancy myself? Don't answer that.

** Don't suggest Star Wars. Astute readers will recall that it takes place "A long time ago." We're talking about the future.