Science-fiction has always tried to predict the future. In some cases, it’s succeeded – like in the eerily prophetic Stand on Zanzibar, which saw the rise of electric cars and a generation that eschews marriage in favour of hook-ups – but in others, it failed. Badly. We were supposed to be living on the moon by now!
So what did sci-fi suggest for the distant future of 2017? The reality is way stranger than fiction.
Lots of sci-fi set in 2017 takes place in a dystopian cityscape/apocalyptic wasteland where petty criminals/down-on-their-luck heroes fight to survive against totalitarian governments/cannibalistic raiders. So we’re not quite there yet. But what science-fiction has done well is predict the broad strokes of society in the 2010s.
The Running Man (1987), which stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as a convicted criminal forced into a series of televised gladiatorial games, anticipates the rise of institutions like the ‘for-profit prison’. These are prisons run by corporations in exchange for government funding. The corporation receives a stipend from the government, based on the size of the prison or number of prisoners in it, which is supposed to be used to for prison amenities and food, etc. In reality, for-profit prisons cut services in order to make more money when the price of prisoner upkeep drops. This can mean anything from poorer quality food to fewer guards, with a reciprocal increase in crime in the prison.
Even worse, some judges have been found sentencing children to unreasonably harsh prison sentences in exchange for money from private prison operators. The Running Man predicts 2017 as cartoonishly dystopic, but the reality is almost worse. Per the rules of the gladiatorial games, participants can at least earn a pardon; in modern private prisons, there’s no way out.
LOVE IS IN THE AIR
One of the central characters of the film Cherry 2000 (1987) is a malfunctioning sex robot – the eponymous Cherry. While we’re a long way from the creepily life-like ‘gynoids’ of that particular 2017, the sex robot has become popular among – ahem – certain sections of society. One French woman maintains a sexual relationship with a robot she 3D printed and programmed – she says she’s only attracted to robots and hates ‘physical contact with human flesh’ – while an entrepreneur is hoping to open a ‘robot fellatio’ café in London, where you could have coffee and oral sex with a robot. Different strokes, I guess.
LEAVES OF GRASS
A favourite feature of several films set in 2017 – Cherry 2000, Barb Wire – is the post-apocalyptic wasteland, chock-a-block full of mutants and raiders and cars that are simply implausible in a world where gasoline is in short supply. But the movies aren’t too far off on this one; while they might not be devastated by nuclear war or runaway climate change, 2017 has plenty of wastelands to go around.
Cherry 2000 and Barb Wire opt for a traditionally sun-blasted desert hellscape, but the reality is a lot more green where many parts of America – and the wider world – are being overrun by nature, due either to neglect or fast growing plant species like kudzu. Detroit provides particularly spectacular examples of this reclamation. Large sections of the city, affected by economic decline and racial tension for nearly half a century, have been completely reclaimed by nature; so much so that some parts of it can be described as an ‘urban prairie’.
Kudzu creates a different kind of wasteland. Capable of growing a foot a day – under optimal conditions – the vine threatens the ecological diversity of the American south, as well as the effectiveness of infrastructures like railroad tracks and power lines. Kudzu is very much capable of pulling down telegraph poles and causes millions of dollars of damage every year. If this doesn’t look like a wasteland, I don’t know what does.
DESTROY ALL HUMANS
Since the Terminator reboot moved the date Skynet takes over the world to 2017, I am forced to write about it. Could an artificial intelligence like Skynet, which was designed to administrate America’s nuclear arsenal, bring about the end of the world?
No. But its predecessor can certainly make threats in that direction.
When Microsoft released an advanced chatbot onto Twitter, things went swimmingly for a while. The conversations were normal. The bot was appreciative and seemed to like humans. Then this happened:
The bot was designed to create output from input – learn from the conversations it had, and use the information to have more conversations. But when it had conversations with racist trolls, it started to act like one. Microsoft quickly pulled the bot, but the damage was done.
While ‘TayTweets’ isn’t likely to bring about a nuclear holocaust anytime soon, the ramifications of artificial intelligence learning to conduct itself from what it’s taught are scary.
2017 may not be the year the world ends, but some of these movies might be on to something…