Films from the Future




From chapter 11 (Inferno), Films from the Future: The Technology and Morality of Science Fiction Movies

Some years ago, my wife gave me a copy of Daniel Quinn’s book Ishmael. The novel, which won the Turner Tomorrow Award in 1991, has something of a cult following. But I must confess I was rather disturbed by the arguments it promoted. What concerned me most, perhaps, was a seemingly pervasive logic through the book that seemed to depend on “ends,” as defined by a single person, justifying extreme “means” to get there. Echoing both Paul Ehrlich and Dan Brown, Quinn was playing with the idea that seemingly unethical acts in the short term are worth it for long-term prosperity and well being, especially when, over time, the number of people benefitting from a decision far outnumber those who suffered as a consequence.

Ishmael is a Socratic dialogue between the “pupil”—the narrator— and his “teacher,” a gorilla that has the power of speech and reason. The book uses this narrative device to dissect human history and the alleged rise of tendencies that have led to a global culture of selfish greed, unsustainable waste, and out-of-control population growth. The book is designed to get the reader to think and reflect. In doing so, it questions our rights as humans above those of other organisms, and our obligations to other humans above that to the future of the Earth as a whole. Many of the underlying ideas in the book are relatively common in environmentalist thinking. What Ishmael begins to illuminate, though, is what happens when some of these ideas are taken to their logical conclusions. One of those conclusions is that, if the consequence of a growing human population and indiscriminate abuse of the environment is a sick and dying planet, anything we do now to curb our excesses is justified by the future well-being of the Earth and its many ecosystems. The analogy used by Quinn is that of a surgeon cutting out a malignant cancer to save the patient, except that, in this case, the patient is the planet, and humanity is both the cancer and the surgeon.

This is a similar philosophy, of taking radical action in the present to save the future, that Paul Ehrlich promoted in his 1968 book, The Population Bomb. As a scientist and environmentalist, Ehrlich was appalled by where he saw the future of humanity and Planet Earth heading. As the human population increased exponentially, he believed that, left unchecked, people would soon exceed the carrying capacity of the planet. If this happened, he believed we would be plunged into a catastrophic cycle of famine, disease, and death, that would be far worse than any preventative actions we might take.

Ehrlich opens his book with a dramatic account of him personally experiencing localized overpopulation in Delhi. This experience impressed on him that, if this level of compressed humanity was to spread across the globe (as he believed it would), we would be responsible for making a living hell for future generations, something he saw as his moral duty to do what he could to prevent.

In the book, Ehrlich goes on to explore ways in which policies could be established to avoid what he saw as an impending disaster. He also looked at ways in which people might be persuaded to change their habits and beliefs in an attempt to dramatically curb population growth. But he considered the threat too large to stop at political action and persuasion. To him, if these failed, drastic measures were necessary. He lamented, for instance, that India had not implemented a controversial sterilization program for men as a means of population control. And he talked of triaging countries needing aid to avoid famine and disease, by helping only those that could realistically pull themselves around while not wasting resources on “hopeless cases.”

Ehrlich’s predictions and views were both extreme and challenging. And in turn, they were challenged by others. Many of his predictions have not come to pass, and since publication of The Population Bomb, Ehrlich has pulled back from some of his more extreme proposals. There are many, though, who believe that the sheer horror of his predictions and his proposed remedies scared a generation into taking action before it was too late. Even so, we are still left with a philosophy which, much like the one espoused in Ishmael, suggests that one person’s prediction of pending death and destruction has greater moral weight than the lives of the people they are willing to sacrifice to save future generations.

It is precisely this philosophy that Dan Brown explores through the character of Zobrist in Inferno. Superficially, Zobrist’s arguments seem to make sense. Using an exponential growth model of global population, he predicts a near future where there is a catastrophic failure of everything we’ve created to support our affluent twenty- first-century lifestyle. Following his arguments, it’s not hard to imagine a future where food and water become increasingly scarce, where power systems fail, leaving people to the mercy of the elements, where failing access to healthcare leads to rampant disease, and where people are dying in the streets because they are starving, sick, and have no hope of rescue.

As well as being a starkly sobering vision, this is also a plausible one—up to a point. We know that when animal populations get
out of balance, they often crash. And research on complex systems indicates that the more complex, interdependent, and resource- constrained a system gets, the more vulnerable it can become to catastrophic failure. It follows that, as we live increasingly at the limits of the resources we need to sustain nearly eight billion people across the planet, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that 
we are building a society that is very vulnerable indeed to failing catastrophically. But if this is the case, what do we do about it?


Early on in Inferno, Zobrist poses a question: “There’s a switch. If you throw it, half the people on earth will die, but if you don’t, in a hundred years, then the human race will be extinct.” It’s an extreme formulation of the ideas of Quinn and Ehrlich, and not unlike a scaled-up version of the Trolley Problem that philosophers of artificial intelligence and self-driving cars love to grapple with. But it gets to the essence of the issue at hand: Is it better to kill a few people now and save many in the future, or to do nothing, condemning billions to a horrible death, and potentially signing off on the human race?

Ehrlich and Quinn suggest that it’s moral cowardice to take the “not my problem” approach to this question. In Inferno, though, Brown elevates the question from one of philosophical morality to practical reality. He gives the character of Zobrist the ability to follow through on his convictions, and to get out of his philosophical armchair to quite literally throw the switch, believing he is saving humanity as he does so.

The trouble is, this whole scenario, while easy to spin into a web of seeming rationality, is deeply flawed. Its flaws lie in the same conceits we see in calls for action based on technological prediction. It assumes that the future can be predicted from the exponential trends of the past (a misconception that was addressed in chapter nine and Transcendence), and it amplifies, rather than moderates, biases in human reasoning and perception. Reasoning like this creates an artificial certainty around the highly uncertain outcomes of what we do, and it justifies actions that are driven by ideology rather than social responsibility. It also assumes that the “enlightened,” whoever they are, have the moral right to act, without consent, on behalf of the “unenlightened.”

In the cold light of day, what you end up with by following such reasoning is something that looks more like religious terrorism, or the warped actions of the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, than a plan designed to create social good. 

This is not to say we are not facing tough issues here. Both the Earth’s human population and our demands on its finite resources are increasing in an unsustainable way. And this is leading to serious challenges that should, under no circumstances, be trivialized. Yet, as a species, we are also finding ways to adapt and survive, and to overcome what were previously thought to be immovable barriers to what could be achieved. In reality, we are constantly moving the goalposts of what is possible through human ingenuity. The scientific and social understanding of the 1960s was utterly inadequate for predicting how global science and society would develop over the following decades, and as a result, Ehrlich and others badly miscalculated both the consequences of what they saw occurring and the measures needed to address them. These developments included advances in artificial fertilizers and plant breeding that transformed the ability of agriculture to support a growing population. We continue to make strides in developing and using technology to enable a growing number of people to live sustainably on Earth, so much so that we simply don’t know what the upper limit of the planet’s sustainable human population might be. In fact, perhaps the bigger challenge today is not providing people with enough food, water, and energy, but in overcoming social and ideological barriers to implementing technologies in ways that benefit this growing population. 

Imagine now that, in 1968, a real-life Zobrist had decided to act on Ehrlich’s dire predictions and indiscriminately rob people of their dignity, autonomy, and lives, believing that history would vindicate them. It would have been a morally abhorrent tragedy of monumental proportion. This is part of the danger of confusing exponential predictions with reality, and mixing them up with ideologies that adhere religiously to a narrow vision of the future, to the point that its believers are willing to kill for the alleged long- term good of society.

Yet while such thinking can lead to what I believe is an immoral logic, we cannot afford to dismiss the possibility that inaction in the present may lead to catastrophic failures in the future. If we don’t get our various acts together, there’s still a chance that a growing population, a changing climate, and human greed will lead to future suffering and death. As we develop increasingly sophisticated technologies, these only add to the uncertainty of what lies around the corner. But if we’re going to eschew following an immoral logic, how do we begin to grapple with these challenges?

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Published by Mango Publishing
ISBN: 978-1633539075