I could never get past the kitsch of the acting and the sets of the original Star Trek series that Gene Roddenberry created and put on TV in the 1960s to appreciate the thought behind it. Still, the show was as everyone now knows progressive, ahead of its time. It had a diverse cast and some of the technologies it imagined such as the voice activated computer and the “communicator” have fifty years later become indispensable in our daily lives. (Although not yet the “transporter”, a technology that may remain a figment of our imagination.) The show’s stories were penetrating: Why do we eat? What is love? What makes us human? I believe that Roddenberry set the show in a far-off future in far-off places to create a safe place for the popular culture to ask those questions, to behold who we are and what our future might be: How will we evolve? Will we progress?
For a hundred years or more technology seems always to have been the answer: better technology will enable us to evolve. It’s been our almost unconditional certainly unquestioning faith that machines will make our lives and ourselves better. We now know though that technology unchecked (and the science behind it) has caused problems with which we now have to contend: global warming (underway), extreme poverty (modern medicine both the problem and the solution) even robots who think for themselves (maybe around the corner). And while new science and technologies (photovoltaics, nanotechnology, biomedical engineering, machine learning) may hold the answers to the problems that old science and technology have created how do we know that they will not in turn create problems we cannot now foresee?
Not much more than a hundred years ago when faced with a blank sheet of paper architects in the west might have asked: “what would the Greeks and the Romans do?” Their art was interpreting lessons of the past for purposes of the present. In the 20th century architects instead asked: how can we build for the future? This reversal was driven by the overwhelming sense that science and technology would unleash unprecedented changes in the way we live, how we organize as societies and engage with the planet and that we architects ought to anticipate those changes. As early as the first two decades of the last century architects began imagining possibilities for the future by extrapolating from technologies already known (steel, electricity, trains, planes and cars). Faith in the future supplanted all other imperatives and except for a few outliers and questioners (Louis Kahn, Colin Rowe) remained fundamentally unchallenged and steeped within the popular imagination.
This imperative has only grown in urgency and ubiquity in the 21st century. Innovation (any innovation) is forward moving, the way we’ve done things up to now backward thinking. Everyone has assumed that fueled by innovation things will continue to change (always for the better) and that the job of the architect is to design for the future, or at least make things look like they belong in the future. And we architects are all supposed to somehow be able to predict the future or worse make it come true. But prophecies and predictions are the domain of prophets and seers and architects don’t tell people how to live. Faced with accelerating change what then is the role or the goal of an architect?
The satellite technology that made cell phones possible was well under way in southern California in the 1960s as was in northern California the scientific research in computing and machine learning that has made voice activated computing possible. (Scientific theories behind “artificial intelligence” have been around since the 1950s. It has only been the vast exponential growth in computing power that has enabled the harvesting of “big data” that has in turn made AI more of a reality today) Gene Roddenberry must have been aware of these currents of science and the new technologies they would engender. He imagined them in practice, he visualized them, dramatized and maybe even romanticized them. He certainly made them seem plausible. Was he predicting a future or merely insightful in reading the present and anticipating a future that he was pretty sure would soon arrive?
Planning, designing and building a building takes long enough nowadays relative to the speed with which technological and sociological change happens that we as architects are almost required to behave as futurists. To provide for a present that may be years into the future we have to be as astute as Gene Roddenberry in observing what’s happening in the world now. But because we deal with a real world and not a fictional one we are obligated to temper our enthusiasm for the future by acting with measured and deliberate intention, more prescient than prophetic, less prediction, more reflection: enabling our future not forcing it.