SXSW: Modern Cities Defy Sci-Fi Predictions
AUSTIN – For more than a century, science fiction authors and filmmakers have produced visions of future cities that have alternated between utopian metropolises sealed in glass domes and gigantic slums pervaded by scum and villainy. In both cases, they got the mechanics right, but frequently got the social effects horribly wrong.
Speaking on a panel at the South by Southwest music, film and interactive technology conference here, urban design consultant Igor Schwarzmann, urban technology specialist Adam Greenfield and University of Chicago historian Jo Guldi detailed how people have dealt with extreme population density and pervasive surveillance better than sci-fi authors thought they would.
“There is a far wider belt of situations where science fiction and film get it wrong,” Greenfield said. “Take density. Urban density portrayed as a driver of insanity, murder and even mass murder. As it turns out, density is manageable, and even not problematic. If their culture gives them the tools for it, people live with it. The typical sci-fi party line that density in and of itself is problematic, I just don’t buy.”
Greenfield cited examples of cities in Asia that have the highest population densities in human history, but lack the social problems of urban dystopias such as Judge Dredd's MegaCity One. Similarly, Greenfield pointed out that science fiction often portrays urban anarchy as the impetus for widespread murder, rape and even cannibalism. By contrast, Barcelona, abandoned by all sides during the Spanish Civil War, flourished without government intervention.
But if modern case studies in urban degradation failed to match the prognostication of sci-fi pessimists, the success of vibrant cities failed to match the perfection of anticipated utopias as well.
“Another thing that was big in my life was 'Star Trek,' which is something a lot of 20-something nerd guys can say. They rarely show Earth, but when they do, it is like heaven,” Schwarzmann said. “When I look at how most sci-fi authors portray the future, they are very dystopian, very dark, and there’s no hope. When you look at cities in the third world, that’s not unlikely.”
Those perfect cities, often encased in Epcot Center-like domes, failed to materialize because the projections themselves came from a limited, highly problematic source.
The perfect city, as portrayed in most American and European science fiction, originated from a Victorian concept that imperial capitalism, through colonial resource extraction and webs of international trade, would banish the terrors of privation, disease and war that had ravished Europe and the Americas during the 1700s, Guldi said.
“Such dreams extrapolated dreams of consumption into a dream of peace,” Guldi said.
A modern re-evaluation of the morality of imperialism, combined with the absence of any Malthusian population crises that require a massive change in land use, rendered the urban utopias, as imagined in sci-fi, impractical and unnecessary. In reality, the wonderful bubble cities of science fiction only exist today in “the Mall of America, the Galleria and NORAD,” Guldi said.
So what did sci-fi get right? Personal rapid transit, "Minority Report"-style personalized advertising and the very rich and very poor living in close proximity, the panelists said.
This article was provided by InnovationNewsDaily, a sister site of TechNewsDaily.