1968. A ten-year-old boy picks up a ‘Hobby Buch’ in his local library, expecting a ‘Boys Own’ treat of exciting snippets of information about rocketry, technology, geography, plants and animals, as well as games, puzzles and sundry tips to while away an afternoon on a rainy day in a small town in Northern Germany. Instead, he is confronted with a massive dose of Zukunftsoptimismus (optimism in the future): Signale vom Jupitermond, written by Robert Brenner (1931-). The book features a garish cover with robots and a spaceship, with a narrative purporting to extrapolate social and technological developments and presenting them in a state of happy conclusion.

The scene is set with a world cup quarter-final held in an arena in Rome, only it isn’t a human football team but robots from different universities around the globe who compete for a prize. The audience in the stadium, and the billions of viewers around the world, are entertained by the robots’ ability to manage physical and abstract tasks, with much teasing by the presenter when they get it wrong. The representatives of the participating universities, including Vic Curtis and his wife from Melbourne, gather for a post-match discussion with a global TV star and munch the latest food fad, the synthetically produced No. 412 that has just been introduced worldwide.

In a separate narrative strand, we get to know more people of the future: Urs Meyer is a primary school teacher in Zurich who looks after a group of twelve 5-year-olds in direct and remote sessions, making use of video conferencing and recorded lessons tailored to his pupils’ individual needs. One night, he has a chance video-chat with Ping-kai-hui, a research student at Bejing University. Ping has discovered strange signals coming from one of the Jupiter moons, Ganymed, and wants to share her discovery with someone.

Next day Urs goes shopping for a mate for his trained monkey, and bumps into Vic Curtis at the Frankfurt Ape centre (the Curtis’ are also shopping for a new pet whilst in Europe), and he tells them about Ping’s discovery. They pay with a ‘card’, and the narrator helpfully explains that all citizens’ data, their finances, health records, education, etc is centrally held in computer clusters (think Dave Eggers The Circle).

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As the story unfolds, we learn more about this world of tomorrow: people do not use private cars any more, except on holiday for fun, and they fly around the planet going where their work and inclination takes them. There is a world government in New Dehli, and most day-to-day administration is performed by computers in a form of an enlightened, planned economy that looks after human needs from cradle to grave. Resources are directed to where they are needed: old houses are cleanly demolished by giant machines and replaced by new ones in a matter of days, and people move with minimal luggage as everything they need in terms of clothing, food etc is available in every home at the press of a button.

To continue with the storyline: it transpires that the signals found by Ping come from aliens who must have established a foothold on that moon. Following a discussion between the world computer ELIAS and the wise world President Mbuku, a vast sum is allocated by ELIAS and Ping is put in charge of a team to plan a mission to find out more. In a matter of weeks, scientists and engineers from all over the world converge at the space port of New Dehli to work on the project. They fly to a rotating orbital station reminiscent of Kubrick’s classic film 2001: Space Odyssey, then to the human colony on Mars (a sort of a New Frontier town) and finally to Ganymede, where the encounter with the aliens makes for a dramatic finale.

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If all this isn’t mind-blowing enough for the ten-year-old reader, the book also contains three interviews with people who are supposed to know about the future: there is Werner von Braun, the rocket pioneer, who is introduced as the ‘guiding light’ of Peenemünde (the production and launch site of the V2-rockets) and the current director of the American rocket research facility. There is the ‘founder’ of the new science of the future, a bona fide futurologist by the name of Ossip K. Flechtheim. And there is the philosopher and scientist Robert Jungk, who has a slightly gloomy view, not about science and technology, but about the growing global population.

2018. A 60-year-old University professor teaches a seminar on German Utopian Thought in Fiction and Film to a group of British students in the fourth and final year of their undergraduate programme. They are idealistic and sincere, but they hold very little hope for the future. They live in a world where pretty much everything that was depicted and predicted in Signale vom Jupitermond has become a reality: manual labour has been broadly delegated to machines, food is plentiful, entertainments are shared globally, and the world is their oyster. While we do not yet have a World Government, we are on a trajectory to a global society, with vast multicultural cities, instant global news networks, global tech firms that rival nations in terms of resources and influence, an intricately woven net of trade and transport routes, and a slowly growing collective awareness of each other’s motivations, needs and values.

The students have access to technology (Skype, facetime, whatsapp, Instagram, twitter, facebook) that enables them to communicate with every human being on the planet for free, and to research every question or problem they might take an interest in. They are well travelled and almost guaranteed to get a job, yet they are pessimistic about their prospects and do not expect to reach or surpass the living standard of their parents. In contrast to a small minority who believe social change is possible on the fringes of mainstream society, they do not believe in any utopian project. As they see it, while Brunner’s depiction of the future has become a reality on the technological side, the dream of a united humanity has run into the buffer of experience, causing widespread pessimism and disillusionment. Some of the reasons are obvious: worries about repaying their student loans, Brexit, migration, terrorism, fear of another financial crash, concern about the environment (fracking, climate change, plastic in the ocean), in short: an acute awareness of the fragility and complexity of life on Earth for 7.5 billion people has been with them all of their short adult lives. They simply cannot imagine that their future will be bright.

To these students, the most memorable message they picked up during their year abroad in Germany is a song by rappers K.I.Z., titled Hurra, die Welt geht unter (Hurray, the world is going down the drains, 2015).[1] The video accompanying the song shows three young men on a raft in the ocean, subsisting on meage rations of canned food and fish while looking for survivors following a nuclear holocaust. Their world view is cynical, cursing their elders for knowingly letting the world go to ruins. But these survivors see some positives: they do not have to live by the rules of the discredited older generation, they have no use for money, relationships are entered into, and ended, by mutual agreement, with offspring cared for by the collective. Each verse of the song is sung by a different rapper, and in between we hear the refrain from an operative in a nuclear bunker: “Und wir singen im Atomschutzbunker, hurra, die Welt geht unter.”

At the end of the video clip, the young men on the raft sight land: the island with the nuclear bunker where the few surviving operators open the doors to greet the newcomers. Obviously, the song and video borrow heavily from a global tradition of apocalyptic, post-catastrophe and end-of-days imaginaries ranging from Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove to Kevin Costner’s Waterworld and J.J. Abram’s TV series Lost. In a German context, any number of dystopian yarns (from Marlen Haushofer’s Die Wand and Carl Amery’s Der Untergang der Stadt Passau to Wolfgang Jeschke’s Das Cusanus Spiel and Tim Fehlbaum’s film Hell) have contributed to the message that the future will be bleak.

Somewhere over the last 50 years, we seem to have lost the belief in our ability to create a better world, a better future. For every idealistic imagination of a positive future, we can find a hundred depictions of our world going to pieces around us. What happened? Are we incapable of imagining a utopian outcome, that we can be the masters of our own destiny? Why are we so addicted to the masochistic pleasure of seeing our homes go up in flames? And why are we so afraid of the future if, to any objective observer and compared to fifty years ago, we now live in a much safer world, a world where more people die of obesity than hunger, where the threat of mutually assured destruction through nuclear war has receded, and in which we have almost promethean powers to manipulate and alter the world around us and ourselves. Who benefits from such a gloomy world-view and why are writers and film directors so easily complicit in creating catastrophic visions of the future?

The 60-year-old academic seeks answers. Having written a book about the construction of ‘1968’ as a utopian moment and how the feeling of a missed opportunity to create a better world has never really left Germans over the subsequent five decades, he now wants to find out whether erstwhile student leader Rudi Dutschke’s assertion that ‘Geschichte is machbar’ (we can make history) cannot also mean ‘Zukunft ist machbar’, that we can shape our own future.

To find out, we need to go back, to a moment in time when the future still seemed bright, and identify the key moments that changed the grand narrative of the future. As the future we imagine becomes the present and eventually a future of the past, what can these texts and films tell us? Can they still inspire us, and perhaps even help us prepare for that ‘undiscovered country’, or have they lost their purpose and are now only exhibits in a museum, to be taken out of storage to remind ourselves of our childish/naïve/innocent (or, if you lean to a different view, dangerous/subversive/utopian) dreams? Will they, like so many texts that once held great social relevance, become children’s stories?

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XTPGpBBwt1w