Our Modern Day Toynbee Convector
The idea that we create a future that we believe is inevitable, one that we have already caught a glimpse of and is, therefore, just a matter of time, is one of the echoing tenants of science fiction’s relationship with the world.
Scholar William Arthur Ward wrote, “If you can imagine it, you can achieve it; if you can dream it, you can become it.”
And we’ve seen this ruled out time and again in our own recent history. Rocket ships were pure science fiction, until they weren’t. Travel to destinations far from earth, mere fantasy, until it wasn’t.
In case after case, what began as science fiction, became science fact. We saw the future and then set about achieving it, thinking it was our destiny, something inevitable.
In Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Toynbee Convector“, the main character, Craig Bennet Stiles, claims to have invented a time machine he named The Toynbee Convector. Stiles used the machine to travel forward in time about a hundred years from what was an economically and creatively stagnant society (about 1984). On returning to that present, he provided evidence—films and other records collected on his journey—showing that man developed an advanced civilization with many marvelous and helpful inventions, and a restored natural environment. He also claimed to have then destroyed the machine deliberately to prevent anyone else doing the same.
Initially, people were skeptical of the Traveler’s claims, but they are unable to explain or disprove the authenticity of the records brought from the future. Inspired by the prospect of a utopian future, many people began projects to fulfill the vision and create the world the Traveler claims to have seen.
A hundred years later, the perfect world of Stiles’ visions has come to pass, just as he saw in his time travel. Now 130 years old, Stiles – in recounting the story to a reporter in a private interview – calmly reveals what really happened, simply stating, “I lied.” Since he knew the people of the world had it in them to create a utopia, he created the illusion of one, to give humanity a goal, and hope. Because of people’s belief in the illusion, the imagined utopian future became reality.
The story can be condensed to a simple postulate: what we believe to be real, is (or becomes) real.
The actualization of a perceived future can be either our salvation or our undoing. If we buy into the belief that all is lost, that Global Warming and the consequent destruction of the environment is just a matter of time, this belief will make what is only a possible outcome, the final outcome. As Henry Ford put it, “If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right.”
On the other hand, if humanity can pull together an entirely different vision of the future than the one our doomsdayers are programming into our minds, a future where we come together, find peace together, and work together for a ‘utopian’ future, then – just like the rocket ship and space travel – we can make the impossible become the inevitable.
This most desirable reversal of fortune would mean that we must stop focusing on our problems and begin focusing on their solutions. We must turn off the media, whose only story line seems to be how ‘bad’ things are, and begin to dream of how ‘good’ things can become.
I suppose it would need to be a lot like a worldwide positive affirmation, intoned by a world with Stewart Smalley as its leader.
The saying ‘seeing is believing’ makes sense in this context if we define seeing as our imagination, seeing with our mind’s eye. But this ‘seeing’ in our imagination is not useful to us unless we believe we can bring about our vision. Napoleon Hill knew this when he wrote, “Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve.” Not only must we conceive it, but we must believe it as well. And so absolutely believing in a vision of a more positive future and an inevitable triumph of humanity over its own worst inclinations, will can become a self-fulfilling prophesy.
In the Toynbee Convector, the protagonist knew that if his world became convinced that a utopian future was a foregone conclusion and now just a matter of coming together and getting to work, then that is exactly what would happen. And in Ray Bradbury’s story, that is exactly what did happen.
So what would happen to our world, our very real world, if we stopped predicting a dystopian future, and began to convince ourselves en masse that the future was very bright indeed, and now it is just a matter of coming together, rolling up our sleeves and setting about to do the work necessary in order to – as Jean Luc Picard would say – “make it so.”