November 2019, the month in which the science fiction film classic “Blade Runner” takes place, is now behind us.
Any time I feel the need to masochistically induce a brain-quaking migraine, I simply try to reconcile my youth in 1970s-1980s rural Oklahoma with the mega-morphic world in which we now find ourselves.
Back then, time and technological progress seemed to move like Quasimodo with one foot jammed in a cinderblock, clump-dragging down the timeline, slouching toward a dim and boring future that appeared to be more of the same, slow humdrum.
In hindsight, I think that I probably turned to science fiction to cope. I’m an olde-school geek, back in the dark days when it wasn’t fashionable and we were hunted for sport. I got my first hit of Star Trek on a tiny TV whose screen looked like a convex porthole. Then I moved on to Twilight Zone & Outer Limits (because, after-school reruns).
Leveling up: my young, still-malleable mind was totally blown into hot vapor by the size and spectacle of Star Wars, even though now I realize that the screen upon which I first viewed it in a shabby theater in Crapsplat, Oklahoma is probably smaller than the TV in my living room. No matter. It was a shot of pure, colossal awesomeness blasted straight into my 8-year-old brain that radically changed my life.
So, there I was … high off Star Wars (Star Trek looked tiny, feeble and flaccid in comparison), feverishly hunting my next hit of sci-fi. Battlestar Galactica … Buck Rogers in the 25th Century … Star Blazers … Battle of the Planets … Space:1999. All grist for the mill, but I kept craving that big-screen buzz.
No internet back then, so I got all my geek news from Starlog magazine, usually read at the grocery store newsstand while my mom did the family shopping. It was in the pages of Starlog that I first heard about an awesome flick on the horizon called “Blade Runner.” The pictures of the movie were like absolutely nothing I had ever seen. The world in which Blade Runner was set was futuristic, sure, but it was wet, blazing with neon, shiny and … gritty. Simply put, it was way different from all of the science fiction to which I’d been exposed … and it just looked very, very cool. I could just tell it was tres badass, just from the grainy magazine photos. I was hooked.
I asked my Dad if I could go see Blade Runner. I was 13 at the time and I tried to sell the hell out of this flick: “It has Harrison Ford in it … y’know … Han Solo … Indiana Jones. You love those guys. It’s science fiction and it looks awesome!”
“What’s it rated?” my Dad asked. Remember, this was early 80s Bible Belt.
“Uhmmmm … not sure … maybe … R … ?”
“No.” Dad said.
So, I did what any strong-willed geek would do. [No, I didn’t defy my dad’s will and sneak off to the movie. I was majorly irked about his decision, but I still respected – okay, feared – him.
I did exactly what I had done a few years earlier with Alien: I went right out and bought both the paperback of the source material – Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep – and the Marvel Comics adaptation of the movie. Books and comics don’t [well, didn’t] have ratings. So there.
Wolfed those down. Visceralized ‘em. Imbued my geek DNA with ‘em. And I talked about ‘em. A lot. This was probably my rebellious equivalent to, say, sneaking out at night [where I would go, I have no idea] or breaking into the family’s [nonexistent] liquor cabinet.
Not me … no, I just made it highly obvious that I KNEW ALL about the forbidden film and I could even compare/contrast it with the vastly different novel upon which it was based. Yuhp … I was a bad boy. Instead of a pack of Luckys rolled up in my t-shirt sleeve, there was a science fiction paperback … horribly stretched out the sleeve, but totally worth it.
At one point I was talking about Blade Runner with my aunt, a geek in her own right [Tolkien was her drug of choice]. So I told her all about my forbidden knowledge: the gritty palette of Blade Runner, describing Sid Mead’s iconic designs, then delving into the tech: flying cars and replicants: AI-driven robots almost indistinguishable from humans. I then naively said, “wouldn’t it be cool to live in a world like that?”
She bluntly replied: “The only way you’ll live in a world like that is if you work in the movies.”
At the time, I was crushed … but now I understand. We were sitting in front of an – ah – ‘independent’ grocery store that looked like it couldn’t decide whether to collapse under dry rot or just fade away. We were in Oklahoma in the early Eighties … there was absolutely NOTHING GOING ON. Nothing had been going on for quite some time, nor was there any sign that anything would be going on in the foreseeable future.
So I get her take, especially now.
However, my counterpoint … a bit of time has passed and technology has advanced as if strapped to a super-lubed rocket sled jetting down a snot-slick ice track. The following tech is here, and presciently present in Blade Runner:
- Flying drone taxis/passenger drones are being tested, with a probable limited release on the horizon
- Human-like sexbots [Well … human-esque. I guess the definition would depend upon what one is used to. Not that I would know. No, really. Anyway …]
- Autonomous killbots [the tech is present in Blade Runner, in principle if not in form. Yes, it’s a thing. Don’t get me started.]
- Private industry exploring space
I’ve worked in straight-up tech or tech-ish industries for over 20 years, taught graduate and undergraduate courses in various flavors of technology for over 16 years, and yet I’m still quite surprised at where we are and where we seem to be headed. Coming at it from a different – but similar – vantage point as my aunt: while she never thought we’d get here, I have difficulty reconciling this present and apparent future with my memories of the past. They seem as if they happened on different worlds … and perhaps, given the topic at hand, that’s appropriate.
It’s like sitting in a piping-hot sauna for half an hour, then running out and jumping into a cold swimming pool. Quite the shock. [16-year-old me did that … all my pores slammed shut and I’m pretty sure my heart stopped.]
Hope that doesn’t collectively happen to us.
Consider: we’re having serious, grown-up conversations about the possibility of mass job loss to AI/robots. No one is snickering, nervously glancing around, hoping that others who are in on the joke will give a sly signal wink. Nope. It’s the real deal.
I’m no Blade Runner … I don’t hunt down renegade androids, though I wouldn’t be surprised if that wasn’t a job posting on Indeed in the very near future. What I do is different: in order to weather the professional challenges coming from the Age of Automation, I equip humans with a “go bag.” I look down the board a few squares and assume the worst – that there is no silver lining and/or parachute upon which we can depend. I then help people weave and spin up substrate, foundational skills that allow them to see the world differently, give them firm ground upon which they can plant & pivot and rapidly evolve ahead of the curve.
Regardless of my young sci-fi fever dreams, I never in a million years thought that would be my job description.
Yet here I am, and here we are … moving past November, 2019 into a very tumultuous future.
While life hasn’t perfectly imitated art in this case, it’s taken a hearty swing at it.
It will be interesting to see what 2049 serves up.
Evans Mehew is a renegade professor and the founder of FastFulcrum. His courses and work can be found at www.fastfulcrum.com.