Last year I tweeted about something I called cozy futurism;
Cool-shit futurism (space colonization, moon telescopes, tech for the sake of tech to some extent) vs cozy futurism (urban reform, renewable energy, solving climate change; focusing on specific problems and having tech as an ends) are categories I've been thinking about recently— José Luis Ricón Fernández de la Puente (@ArtirKel) November 10, 2020
Recently there were a series of tweets that got me thinking again about the same idea;
Space travel is an exciting idea, but right now we need to focus on Earth and create a progressive tax system so that children don't go hungry, people are not homeless and all Americans have healthcare. The level of inequality in America is obscene and a threat to our democracy. https://t.co/CbMWYnPFUx— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) March 21, 2021
“we must never do anything new until everything is perfect” https://t.co/O96IdafmwG— Mike Solana (@micsolana) March 22, 2021
There are various ways to think about these tweets; or rather there's a spectrum of views one could have
- Space travel is a worthless waste of resources, we should just stop doing that, period.
- Space travel is ok but maybe we shouldn't be pursuing it now, rather we should focus on other problems first
- Space travel is ok, but on the margin we should do more of something else (Like helping the homeless)
- Space travel is great!
- Space travel is awesome, we should consider giving SpaceX tax credits, taking the money out from various forms of welfare
- Space travel is the pinnacle and raison d'être for any advanced society. All social activity should be structured so that indirectly or directly supports space travel
A few of these are possible views that I expect few people will hold. Bernie can be seen as espousing 2 or 3 whereas Elon and Mike Solana may be on 3-4. There are of course other issues going on in those tweets like the relative importance of reducing inequality, whether one thinks that reducing public (private?) spending on space will free up resources that will be then used for other desired ends (welfare), or whether all things considered, even from a view that doesn't value technology for its own sake, investing heavily on going to space (at current or greater levels) is the right thing to do, as it may inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers, or provide a road towards new kinds of materials manufactured in space, or having a backup planet in case something happens to Earth.
But this post is however not about that; rather I wanted to use that as a starting point to note that space-related activities seem cool and futuristic whereas helping the homeless seems like a mere and pedestrian social problem that isn't particularly interesting to the technically minded. Ending homelessness, affordable healthcare, or making buildings beautiful again are problems that do not seem to require much—if at all— technological development (we could solve them with technology available right now, plus appropriate policies and institutions) so there's a temptation to consider those as easier problems that are already kind of solved and just in the need of convincing a bunch of people, whereas the real problems are those that involve figuring out if Nature even lets you do something, and how that might be accomplished.
Futurism seems to be almost synonymous with a variety of technical advances and feats of engineering. What in my original tweet I called cool-scifi-shit futurism may involve giant carbon-nanotube-based pyramids, spaceships, Artificial General Intelligence, moon-based radiotelescopes, nanofabrication, O'Neill cylinders and other Big Objects in Space1, and so forth. This is just a stylized, somewhat impressionistic depiction of a lot of futurism, the key point being a stress on advanced technology or large engineering projects.
In contrast, cozy futurism, as in the original tweet, starts not with technology but with current problems and human needs and looking at how those could be solved and met; so you could imagine societies where poverty is absent, housing is affordable, cities are architecturally pleasing (There is only so much glass and steel one can take before yearning for good old bricks, stones, and wood), economies are environmentally sustainable, and all disease is cured. Then you work backwards from there to the technologies, cultural shifts or policy changes needed to get there.
Cozy futurism is not necessarily less ambitious than cool sci-fi futurism; in fact by the time we get to Mars there will still be homeless living among developed countries back on Earth. Nor is cozy futurism just about institutional or cultural solutions. Fusion reactors and anti-aging therapies are key enablers of a cozy future. With cozy lenses on, when envisioning that future you would be thinking of what those advances enable, how they improve our lives; rather than on the technical advances themselves. When we fully swap gas and oil plants for nuclear and renewables, going to visit power plants won't probably be an activity that will be commonly practiced, so when thinking of new things you'll be able to do, you won't be thinking of higher order, distant, capital goods, but of consumer goods. This is perhaps another way of looking at the cozy vs sci-fi distinction, the former emphasizing consumer goods and how specific human needs are met, rather the technical advancements required to manufacture distant enablers of those consumer goods.
Cozy futurism is distinct from solarpunk; solar punk seems to stress a retrofuturistic aesthetic, some sense of return to nature, perhaps smaller cooperatives instead of large corporations, a sense of self-reliance, urban agriculture, or distributed, renewable-based power grids. I'd say that cozy futurism is a subset of solarpunk, and that one could imagine multiple cozily futuristic ideologies or aesthetics, solarpunk being one.
Why write this and why now? Basically I found myself thinking about what a nice future would entail and what came to mind were not things that are usually associated with futurism. At some level, Bernie has a point; I and probably others spend a lot of time reading articles about, say, space. I've spent a lot of time reading about Space Race trivia, or watching explainers of SpaceX's Raptor engine. But I have spent little time thinking about all those other things like urbanism or what the causes of homelessness (and what could be done to solve it) are.
Being a cozy futurist is being aware that even when indubitably science & technology are cool, we can't forget about the lives of the users of said technology; the goal is a nice future, not just a technically advanced future.