THE ABILITY TO travel through time in our minds, to inhabit re-created pasts and imagined futures, is arguably one of the defining characteristics of human civilisation. It is one of the great foundations of literature, an age-old tool of satirists, and is purpose-made for film, which better than any other art form immerses the viewer in an alternative reality
Imagined time travel makes it possible to step beyond the mundanity of the quotidian, to challenge the status quo and dream large. Wondering what if and why has shaped religions, philosophies and cultures.
So in April 2011, when Chinese authorities announced that despite increasing popularity, no more film and television time-travel dramas would be made because they ‘disrespect history’, critics were quick to find an alternative explanation, and a metaphor. For an authoritarian state, an imagined past – especially one in which heroic individuals prevail against the system – could be -dangerously utopian. As an animated Slavoj Žižek told the Occupy Wall Street protesters a few months later, ‘We in the liberal West do not need such an explicit prohibition: ideology exerts enough material power to prevent alter-native history narratives being taken with a minimum of seriousness. It is easy to imagine the end of the world – see numerous apocalyptic films – but not the end of capitalism.’
Although British directors continue to produce period dramas – often charming, sometimes challenging – Hollywood’s staple fare fills the world’s cinemas not with an idealised romantic past where brave people change their society, as worried the Chinese censors, but with a violently dystopian future. Apocalyptic movies more likely to induce fear than encourage big dreams.
This is more than entertainment; popular culture shapes a sense of the possible. Talk to anyone who grew up on a childhood diet of futuristic television, from The Jetsons to Star Trek, and their sense of the possible is likely to be more optimistic than those raised on darker contemporary series. ‘Today, the possible and impossible are distributed in a strange way,’ Žižek declared. ‘In the domains of personal freedoms and scientific technology the impossible is becoming increasingly possible… On the other hand, in the realm of social and economic relations, we are bombarded all the time by a
THIS YEAR IS the five hundredth anniversary of the publication of Thomas More’s seminal work Utopia, and the debate around its legacy, his intent and its interpretation over centuries promises to be lively. By creating a nowhere place where challenging and emerging ideas could be tested and explored, More established a template for generations of writers to draw on, and imaginatively explore the tensions between individual and collective rights.
As Isaiah Berlin famously wrote, ‘The idea of a perfect society is a very old dream, whether because of the ills of the present which lead men to conceive what their world would be like without them…or because these utopias are fictions deliberately constructed as satires, intended to shame those who control existing regimes…or perhaps they are social fantasies – simple exercises of the poetical imagination… The main characteristic of most utopias is that they are static…nothing in them alters, for they have reached perfection.’
This makes the quest almost impossible, but also leads to curious rhetorical flourishes. So when the impeccably uniformed Roman Quaedvlieg, head of the Australian Border Force, addressed the role of the new authority at its launch in July 2015, he declared its mission was to ‘protect our utopia’. That this line was uttered without a hint of irony was remarkable. The notion of contemporary Australia as a vast, static island utopia, its borders under threat from unwelcome people and products, is one that many would take issue with and invites comparisons with More’s imagining.
THIS IS A very different time. All the evidence points to megatrends that will mean the world in fifty years’ time will be very different to the world as we currently know it. Climate change, automation, genetics, digital disruption, the internet of things, globalisation, urbanisation, human displacement on the one hand, and the quest for sustainability and for political and social systems that make such sustainability possible on the other, will be the engine of change.
The early signs of what might be are present in many of these areas, but complex systems are unpredictable – and the prospect of taking control of the future seems elusive. It helps to be able to draw on the past and to be alert to the early warning signs, but the pace of change makes it hard to find space to just wonder, for mental time travel.
As we now possess more knowledge than at any other time in human history, the question is whether we have the imaginative capacity and moral fortitude to seek to apply our learning to create a better, if not utopian, future.
In April 2008, early in the term of the first Rudd government, there was a bold experiment in collective imagining. Over an intense few days, a thousand people came together at Parliament House in Canberra for the Australia 2020 Summit to imagine what the nation could be like in a dozen years, and the steps that needed to be taken to achieve the change.
The tone was set early when a metre-long cylinder of ice from Antarctica was brought onto the stage at the Great Hall – a prop for the address by the Governor-General, who noted that the ice from a kilometre below the surface had been layered over eighty-thousand years, since about the time the first people settled on the Australian continent. The frozen water captured records of changes in the atmosphere and the fabric of the world – a physical manifestation of climate change. It reminded everyone of the transitory nature of our existence.
The summit was a crazy brave idea, exciting and full of possibility. But it proved to be incompatible with the established processes of public administration and politics. Within days, events quickly rolled on as though nothing had happened, much to the delight of cynics and political opponents. Imagining was not sufficient – it needed to be nurtured with debate, action, processes and systems.
But as an exercise in the possibility of collective imagining, it left a lasting impression of the art of the possible on many of those who attended or watched the live streaming. At the time 2020 seemed a long way off; now it is nearly here.
Creating the space and the possibility to imagine, by mental time travel or experiment, is essential if we are to own the future, and ensure it is a time and place in which innovation is not just a tool to increase efficiency and the wealth of the few in their personal utopias.
WORKING WITH LONG-TIME Griffith Review contributor Professor Brendan Gleeson, the director of the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, as co-editor to draw together the distinguished contributors to this volume has been a fascinating journey. To have such distinguished contributors, including two Nobel Laureates, is a tribute to the ground-breaking work the Institute, at the University of Melbourne, is undertaking. It is essential to first try to first imagine the future and then create it.
3 March 2016