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Dystopias are so 2020. Meet the new protopias that show a hopeful future

Ari Wallach interviews Andrea Kritcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
Ari Wallach interviews Andrea Kritcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Dystopias are on their way out. At least, that's the hope of Kathryn Murdoch.

The activist and philanthropist is married to James Murdoch, the liberal-leaning son of Rupert Murdoch, the founder of Fox News. She's also the executive producer of a TV show of her own. A Brief History of the Future premieres on PBS on April 3.

"The whole concept started, actually, when my daughter told me she didn't think there was any hope for the future," Murdoch told NPR. "And I was really upset by that, because I had been working on democracy and climate change issues for such a long time."

Murdoch has dedicated herself to environmental issues since 2006. She's served on the board of the Environmental Defense Fund and co-founded the Quadrivium Foundation, which funds "practical, evidence-based solutions for critical societal problems." She's well aware of the tremendous problems currently plaguing the planet, and she reassured her daughter that intelligent people are doing their diligent best to fix them.

"She still thought her future looked bleak," Murdoch said. "And I couldn't understand that. And she said, well, look at all the young adult books [that] are about dystopias. Look at the television shows. Look at the films. Everything about the future is dystopian."

It was hard not to concede the point. The cultural preoccupation with zombies shambles on in The Last of Us and other movies and video games. The Hunger Games and The Handmaid's Taleremain influential in fiction and on screen. Murdoch could not find a single YA show or book that portrayed a positive vision of the future, at least not a plausible one that didn't involve superheroes or dragons. "Really, the last time we dreamed about a better future was Star Trek," she said. "It was 1964."

The Star Trek universe, she says, is a good example of a "protopia." She didn't make up the word. It was coined by futurist Kevin Kelly in his 2010 book, What Technology Wants. The idea is this: dystopias are horrible, and utopias are perfect (and therefore not feasible, and potentially also menacing and pre-dystopian.)

Protopias, on the other hand, are achievable. They present a realistic, better tomorrow. But even the protopian visions of more recent iterations of Star Trek, she notes, do not necessarily grapple with our most immediate crises.

"We don't have anything that's dealing with climate change, with democracy, with AI and all the problems and challenges that we have today." Murdoch says, adding that movies such as The Day After Tomorrow and Don't Look Up only serve to scare us about failing to save the planet. "We've done a less good job of showing what the world would be like if we do act."

So Murdoch co-founded Futurific Studios, which is focused on telling these stories. Its first production is the PBS series, hosted by the company's co-founder, futurist Ari Wallach.

In A Brief History of the Future, he travels the world to meet people finding solutions. Like Valérie Courtois, a Canadian expert in Aboriginal forestry, who works with other First Nation activists and the Canadian government to protect national parks. And Dutch entrepreneur Boyan Slat, who runs a non-profit organization called The Ocean Cleanup.

"We have interceptors now in 11 rivers in some of the most polluting rivers in the world and we believe we can stop most of the world's plastic emissions from leaking into the ocean," Slat explains in the show's second episode.

The series also features stories about training AI on the best of humanity, not the worst. A story about the cleanest waste-to-energy power plant, in Copenhagen. A U.S. company on the cutting edge of using virtual reality in healthcare. The common thread: innovation and hope.

"If you look at history, everything that we now take for granted used to be impossible at some point," Slat observes. "If there's one bit of advice that you should really ignore, is people saying that something can't be done."

But is it it possible, I asked Kathryn Murdoch, that PBS viewers are already receptive to the show's measured, evidence-based message? Wouldn't it be more productive for a Futurific production to end up, say, on Fox, where the audience is massive? What are the chances her series could be aired on the network started by her father-in-law?

Murdoch pointed out that PBS attracts a bipartisan audience, with nearly half in 2017 identifying as conservative. Plus, she added, the Murdoch family no longer owns most of the Fox entertainment assets. "So actually it would be Disney, and I think that would be great," she said.

What's next for Futurific, Murdoch says, is a series of graphic novels, a famously dystopian medium. After all, graphic novels were the original source of The Walking Dead. Perhaps eventually, Futurific's might also be adapted into protopian shows or video games. But it's not easy, Murdoch admits, to compete with the perverse allure of dystopian stories

"It's sort of thrilling to think of yourself as, 'Oh, I'm gonna be the lone survivor in the apocalypse but I think there's something to be said about civilization," she said with a laugh. "And I would like to see examples of people working together and cooperating and making a better future for my kids."

And becoming, as Ari Wallach puts it, the ancestors that our future desperately needs.

Edited for the web and radio by Rose Friedman.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.
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