What We Talk About When We Talk About the Future

Scott Jordan

Article

I wish to make an observation. It is not by any means ground breaking, but at this moment, I’d argue more so than any in the past, it is paramount to reflect on this micro-cultural gesture. The future, it would appear, is all the rage. Walking through bookstores, newsstands, and even from waiting room to waiting room, the ever present, omniscient 24-hour news a theme rising above the day to day. That theme: What’s next?

What happens after the next fiscal quarter? What happens after the next gun-related community tragedy? What happens after the next election? After Trump? What happens after Brexit? After the refugee crisis? After the next militant attack? What will Russia do next? China? What happens when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman becomes king? What happens after the Syrian Civil War? The next financial crisis? The next epidemic? The next fashion fad or popular diet? After the new airport is built? After the road construction completely changes the commute? After the seas rise and the summers burn warmer? After the sun goes down?

The future is hot. Science is reigned over by the future of the human body, the future of technology, and the oh-so-futures ridden concepts of space and physics. It seems that every other article in the realm of current affairs, politics, and sociology can be distilled down to the title “Where do we go from here?” Society itself is obsessed with the latest tech, the newest forms of transport being dreamed up, and how change itself can be utilised. Even children’s media seems to be focused on dystopia, distant worlds, and empowerment.

An essential problem that should be highlighted is that popular culture has, up to this point, failed to agree upon a proper lexicon for the future. ‘The Future is Here’ is a common cliché. Despite its beauty as a contradiction, it speaks to a higher confusion on the concept. Advertisements often tell me ‘the future is yours’ or some such combination of words. At first, I think, this should be obvious, but then I turn to dread, for they must mean that someone has taken it from me, but then I wonder, who am I to take The Future? Also, the future seems quite limited if all it involves is me wearing a sporty new pair of shoes with the latest hairstyle, surrounded by voluptuous women and men who are all supposedly my friends and we all smell amazing together. Let us not even begin to list the innumerable accounts of campaigns aimed at using ‘my future’ to get me to go back to school or learn a trade or buy this or that insurance or give this person money to tell me something, regardless of its usefulness.

In the fray of marketing snafus and the hysteria of public opinion, the concept of the future is gaining popular academic attention.

Now, I must note here that those working in the field of futures studies have been purposefully left out of my thoughts here. They have pointed out and been working on the issues raised here for decades, but the issue I am pointing to is how major academic institutions and of course the popular books of the day are taking a stance on the future. As this phenomenon continues to sprout up, misunderstandings are also arising and there is a great threat that the logic (often flawed) being used by contemporary academics has a great potential for derailing the work of those in futures studies and creating public stigmas that will take great effort to overcome. While the small works of popular academics and institutional mandated knowledge series may seem insignificant and doomed to fail the test of time. They are what is being seen in bookstores and the backpacks of current students. The cleaver ad campaigns that have gotten them this far stands to put an entire academic generation into a slump in futures literacy that could rival the popularity of neoliberalism seen by the 1980s western student body’s devotion to economics policy carried out by Reagan and Thatcher.

You don’t have to search hard to find one such academic series. MIT sponsored The MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series and saw fit to have amongst its ranks, a volume on both ‘The Future’ and even ‘Post-Truth’. The volume on ‘The Future’, penned by Nick Montfort a poet and professor of digital media at MIT, can be summed up in its opening quote accredited to Alan Key. “The best way to predict the future is to make it.” Two fundamental and immensely problematic assumptions are made here which carry on through the book. First, any proponent of futures studies, within the first five minutes of talking, will likely request that you dismiss any illusions of crystal balls and Nostradamus. The future is not one to be predicted. In fact, to predict it would involve such a process of construct and bias that it would be doomed to fail in even the lowest form of a plural society. Second, Key’s concept of making the future assumes that we recklessly dive head first into the unknown, but that human society has reached a level of equality that even allows any one person the position to take on such a foolhardy mission.

I know I said there were two fundamental assumptions creating issues in this quote and the book at large, but there is a third that I should point out. It is small. One letter in fact. The future. That is an immense hypothesis. But what of the futures? The future is a canonical epic, the result of a prediction, which as I stated above, is doomed to fail, for times change. As is pointed out in PNT literature, the world is too complex, a locus for chaos, and a medium of contradictions. The potential futures are endless, be they good or bad. After all, Montfort rallies to a common dichotomy amongst academics, that there is the good (we prefer ‘preferred’) and the bad future. But what of the ugly future? Or the beautiful? Or the multiplicity of all variety of futures? This is where the MIT Press shoot themselves in the foot on looking to the future (not to mention that even Montfort pops a jab at the whole field of futures studies).

Montfort, in a pseudo-post-modernist step, is aimed at tearing down the assumption that future is destiny. His answer, that is, in order to defy destiny, we must take control of the future. We must redefine that game and tear down the corrupt and evil structures of society that have set our trajectory on this dystopic course. Great, I for one am with him. But, wait, who is we? Are we, the oppressed all equal. Does a black man or a transgendered individual have the same access to ‘control’ that a cis white man does? What about a woman?! Not only does Montfort leave this discussion out of the Essential Knowledge series, but he almost appears to say, ‘we’ constitutes whoever can stand the trials. Leave the others behind for now, for when we have found the promise land, they will be welcomed in. After all, the French Revolution went so well for the little folk.

To do you one better, Montfort leaves our fate in the hands of the creatives. So, it is to be the way of the Spanish Civil War. That went so well in the end! I should not be so critical here. I too have on occasion made the claim that really all there is left in the future is where the creatives, be that artists, writers, filmmakers, designers, inventors, or whoever, can dream us to. Where I grow critical is that this is the monumental break through that the book leaves us with. Now go forth and multiply! I say to Montfort what I say to Karl Marx, thanks for the thought, but how do we do it? No structure is left. No ethical framework to hang our hat, not even a call to something, anything (be that the flawed rallies of social justice, equality, decolonisation, globalisation in all its forms, etc.). While I too dream of a Star Wars like rebellion of artist against the evil empire for the fate of our destiny, how realistic is this? Uniting creatives carries the difficulty level of uniting nations, if the UN is an example, there is much work to be done.

In his book, The Naked Future, Patrick Tucker takes a much more pessimistic view of the future. Tucker gives the hopeless cry becoming more and more popular amongst scholars of climate change. It’s too late. Since the advent of the internet, its proliferation, and the added attention of governments and ecommerce, data collection has been the ace in the whole. Data collection has been the biggest secret kept from the common public in recent times. Watergate, political sex scandals and Russian influence cannot even begin to fathom the elaborate and phantasmal practice of data collection. Marketing, from creating trends and targeting your inner most desires to the manipulation of democracy itself is all the result of countless bytes of data. Tucker steps in here and says that before Congress debates how to protect your data or you individually begin taking privacy steps, you have already surrendered countless volumes. So much so, that you have given away your future.

Now algorithms and admen tell you what you want, how you think, and what you should do with your day. You can try to resist, but they know everything about you already, even what you will protest to and how you will protest. We are enslaved by our routine, trends, and easily persuaded natures. In his mind, there are two extreme positions. The apocalypse, in that we revert to the technological dark ages and completely disconnect. Try discussing that with your trusted advisor Alexa, or is it Siri, or Dot? The other option is the Naked Future, where all privacy has been given up in the name of freedom. The consequences of either path are astronomical.

Both Montfort and Tucker gives us a troublesome pulse reading on the public’s exposure to futures literacy. As everyone seems to be looking to ‘the future’ even Pope Francis I, whose latest book “A Future of Faith” tells us where his mind is focused, a proper academic look into futures is more important than ever. It is important that we all take the initiative, in all walks of life, to better each of our own futures literacies. Ziauddin Sardar takes an interesting approach to beginning such a reflection in All That Matters: Future. The book begins simply enough with the common individuals’ thoughts and preoccupations with the future. He then lays out a brief history of the field of futures studies while also clarifying many of the misconceptions and false assumptions made about what these scholars do. Finally, the book moves from the theoretical into various practices that work to study what comes next.

Themes that ring out in Sardar’s book pertain to diversity and plurality. There is no one future. There is no one view point. To study the future, one must study everything, everywhen and everywhere. The book hints at the future being uncontrollable as many would use futures studies for profit. In fact, the use of futures studies for any particular endgame ends to in itself, limit one’s scope and compile multitudes of ignorance and uncertainty. All That Matters: Future, leaves the reader with a list of ideas and texts to consult and propels readers to be more reflective in themselves and their field.

Sardar’s book makes for a wonderful entry point into PNT. PNT provides a wonderful framework for looking at the future. The future is often quarantined off into its own little box, but it is important to see the future within the complexity, chaos, and contradictions of PNT. At least up to this point, things appear to be going more and more postnormal, thus the future itself looks quite postnormal. The future must also be looked at in the context of history and the multiverse of actions that occur at every moment in the now. PNT also allows us to better explore concepts of diversity and power that are being overlooked in popular literature about the future. Through PNT theory we can begin to navigate towards negotiated preferred futures for all elements of society.

So, in closing this thought I invite you to explore the other aspects of the postnormaltim.es website, looking into other works, papers, writings, diagrams, exhibits, and workshops that the CPPFS has put on. Also take the time to improve your own futures literacy and explore, even dream, beyond the current structures and framings.

While a great discography can be compiled containing songs pertaining to the future and future images. I am drawn to one in particular by the B52’s titled ‘Song for a Future Generation’. The song is composed of a number of questions, asking if you want to become a series of individuals ranging from those likely in one’s own life to the fantastical characters of imagination. Intercut within the questioning are several testimonials where characters state their home, zodiac sign, and one insight into their personalities. The answer provided by the B52’s is the same, simplistic answer for each question. ‘Let’s meet and have a baby now’. While this lyric may speak to the pressure for American youths to take part in one of the aspects of the ‘American Dream’ and make a family, this may also speak to handing off those dreams to the next generation. For perhaps the future of the present is too far determined already ahead of itself. I like to instead take a more hopeful approach to the lyric. That is speaks largely towards taking steps now and making decisions now with the future in mind. Seek to diversity while also limiting the power others have over one’s own future. To build a world for our children, setting them up for the most preferred futures and in the process, freeing our own. Nevertheless, a greater futures literacy is required and this begins with clarifying the murky dictionary we use to talk about the futures.

 

References

Montfort, Nick. The Future, The MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series. (MIT Press, Cambridge, 2017)

Tucker, Patrick. The Naked Future: What Happens in a World That Anticipates Your Every Move? (Current, New York, 2014)

Sardar, Ziauddin. The Future: All That Matters. (Hodder & Stoughton, London, 2013)

Timeline

I think therefore I am
I progress therefore I am
I shop therefore I am
I share therefore I am
Defined
Monolithic
Relative
Contradictory
I am tradition and culture
I am science and technology
I am what I buy
I am online
Simple, Closed
Complicated, Closed
Complex, Open
Open, Interconnected, Chaotic
Conquest, Supremacy, Progress
Progress, Efficiency, Modernization
Relativism, Plurality, Individuality
Complexity, Chaos, Contradictions