backBack to Archives

Imagining the future

02 May
Mon, 12am

By Hong Xinyi

What's out there?

In 2021, when many territorial borders on earth remained sealed to varying degrees, space tourism took off. The most high-profile flights were the ones launched by billionaires' companies — Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, and Elon Musk's SpaceX.

The passengers on these flights included pilot Wally Funk, a member of an all-female cohort of privately funded American astronaut trainees in the 1960s, none of whom were chosen for space missions; Sian Proctor, an American scientist and artist; and Laura Shepard Churchley, daughter of astronaut Alan Shepard, who was the first American to travel into space.

These, and other guests, seemed to have been carefully chosen to underline the feel-good factor of these groundbreaking blast-offs. This was a new chapter in humanity's drive for exploration. And this time, the billionaires promised, everyone would be along for the ride. You know, at least symbolically. Whose bodies get to embody adventure? Whose bodies make history?


(Image credit: iStock) 

Predictably, criticism followed, mostly addressing the inherently queasy prospect of space travel becoming more akin to a cruise on a private yacht for the obscenely wealthy. But the less cynical had good points to make too, namely that these launches could catalyse better, faster, and eventually cheaper forms of technological innovation. These would, over time, yield benefits for all.

The tenor of our collective reception to space ages can often be gleaned from popular culture. In the 1960s, the visual vocabulary of rockets, astronaut gear, and the galaxy itself inspired all facets of creativity. You could sense the heady optimism of the times in the curve of a convertible, the silhouette of a chair, the glint of a metallic mini-skirt.

Our recent jaunts into the cosmos seem to have provoked a more ambivalent response on earth. It feels like it's been years since a blockbuster movie set in space revelled in a sense of possibility. Instead, they tend to dwell on the daunting logistics of survival, and the necessity of sacrifice. Space is full of peril, these stories stress.

And it is. But, of course, the tone shifts depending on which stories you look at. Writer Jacob Dreyer notes the way people engage enthusiastically with space-themed displays and establishments in a Shanghai shopping district, and how everyone he meets in in Xi'an, an aerospace hub, seem invested in the country's space ambitions. "A culture of techno-optimism and an obsession with infrastructure, science and technology have become the levers to thrust China into a prosperous future," he writes.  


What's happening here?

The summer during which some of the aforementioned space flights took place was also a season of calamity on earth. There were record-breaking heatwaves in North America, and extreme flooding in India, China, and Europe. According to the United States' National Centers for Environmental Information, July 2021 was Earth's hottest July since global record-keeping began in 1880, and possibly the warmest recorded month for the world since the same year.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that if earth's temperature rises more than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, the changes in our climate system would be devastating. Among other things, "extreme weather such as droughts, floods, heatwaves and fiercer storms would wreak havoc", The Guardian reported. Keeping warming within 1.5C is "a level scientists regard as a planetary boundary beyond which some of the impacts of climate breakdown will become catastrophic and irreversible". Reducing the use of fossil fuels is critical to meeting this goal.

Meanwhile, the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP26, came and went. The results were mixed, as these things usually are. A clause in the final agreement that instructed countries to "phase out" coal-fired power generation was supposed to be a major milestone, marking the first time since 1997 such a commitment was included in this international effort. At the last minute, China and India negotiated a change in the language, to "phase down".

As Vijaya Ramachandran, the director for energy and development at environmental research centre the Breakthrough Institute, points out, in many developing countries, building up infrastructure and industry is the only way to break the poverty cycle. And without fossil fuels, they will not be able to do so. "Their needs are too great to be met solely with current green energy technologies, which are also too expensive for these governments' finances," he writes. "Failing to be honest about the energy needs of the developing world is inhumane, uncompassionate, and immoral."

That may be so. But we are running out of time. And some of us, in places both rich and poor, already know full well how vulnerable we are when lashed with fire and ice. Whose bodies get to survive? Whose bodies thrive?

How will we live?

Are we now seeing the space race as a rehearsal for escaping an ailing planet? In The Once and Future, Singaporean filmmaker Yeo Siew Hua and members of the Berliner Philharmoniker collaborate on an expanded cinema experience set in the not-so-distant future, when we have crossed that planetary boundary and earth is no longer able to sustain human life. In our exodus, we leave our bodies behind. Without corporeality, we are safer, no longer bound by fevers and frailties. But how much will we miss these needful forms and their insistent, transcendent hungers? What is a human without a body?

Who gets to ponder the dichotomies of the spirit and the flesh? In Remotes x Quantum, Singaporean poet and playwright Eleanor Wong and Filipino film-maker John Torres combine film, poetry, theatre and sound in a live installation, exploring the physicality, spirituality, and politics of human bodies in their home cities on the brink of a dystopian world order. The body can be an afterthought, if you're lucky, a vessel for intellectual abstraction; the body can also be a tool, the only bargaining chip you have. Whose bodies get to be self-possessed?

Other framings of our increasingly convoluted relationship between our selves and our worlds arrive in the form of Australian artist Lucy McRae's performance film, Delicate Spells of Mind; and a concert by American sound artist Holly Herndon.

In her depiction of a tug of war between a Seeker driven to optimisation, and a searching  Other, McRae continues her exploration of the human body's creative potential as a driver of technology. "I'm not interested in a future that is associated with science-fiction tropes that are masculine, mechanical, or not reflective of what I think makes us human. I'm interested in things that are messy, visceral and human," she has said. "The art I make speculates on the human condition with narratives that are feminine, raw and laced with emotion, to provoke and steer our future."

Herndon is known for creating music that features contributions from an artificial intelligence programme named Spawn. This AI was trained on music and sounds composed by Herndon, fed into the programme via singing and reading undertaken by her and her collaborators. This process was not about teaching technology to imitate, but rather to help it come up with something new.

"So it's not about automating the composition process or trying to replace that at all. It's about trying to find what's aesthetically interesting and new with this new technology which can be used in a compositional environment," she has said. In other words, her artistic goal is fundamentally (re)generative. "The human body has been like a machine since industrialisation, so how can technology get the body out of these machine-like motions so we can be more human together. That's the vision."

Whose bodies will get to shape the future? Where does optimism lie?

About the writer

Hong Xinyi is a writer, editor, and producer. Her essays explore the intersections of gender, technology, and culture. Read more about Hong here


We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. By continuing to browse the site, you are agreeing to our use of cookies.