Manufactured normalcy

I had a brilliant couple of days in Brighton this week, attending Improving Reality, Brighton SF and then dConstruct. Several speakers talked, in passing or in depth, about whether now seems like the future we expected or wanted.

It might just be coincidence but I’m sure I hear this more and more. Maybe it’s post-millennial disappointment, something Leila Johnston spoke about. Often, as with a couple of speakers at Playful 2011, the discussion is jokily dismissive. They’re all, “Why isn’t the 21st century like everything I was promised as a kid? Why are there no jetpacks / orbiting cities / Mars colonies?”

Well, you know, we don’t have those things because those “promises” were fictions, flights of fancy. And, even if you’re serious, we don’t have those things because it takes longer to develop such technologies and societies than it does to for you to grow up into a neophilic thirty-year-old.

But also, the more usual response, other than rolling one’s eyes and leaving the room, is to point out the many ways that 2012 would seem futuristic to anyone from your childhood.

The text of Warren Ellis’s opening keynote at Improving Reality should be tattooed across the epidermis of anyone who treats the 1979 Usborne Book of the Future as some kind of broken contract. There’s no reason to describe the present as banal and disappointing, compared to past visions.

A writer called Ventakesh Rao recently used the term “manufactured normalcy” to describe this. The idea is that things are designed to activate a psychological predisposition to believe that we’re in a static and dull continuous present.

Later, Warren says:

The theories of atemporality and manufactured normalcy and zero history can be short-circuited by just one thing.

Looking around.

Ballardian banality comes from not getting the future that we were promised, or getting it too late to make the promised difference.

This is because we look at the present day through a rear-view mirror. This is something Marshall McLuhan said back in the Sixties, when the world was in the grip of authentic-seeming future narratives. He said, “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.”

He went on to say this, in 1969, the year of the crewed Moon landing: “Because of the invisibility of any environment during the period of its innovation, man is only consciously aware of the environment that has preceded it; in other words, an environment becomes fully visible only when it has been superseded by a new environment; thus we are always one step behind in our view of the world. The present is always invisible because it’s environmental and saturates the whole field of attention so overwhelmingly; thus everyone is alive in an earlier day.”

Maybe the problem is that in the past — I don’t know, say, the past of 40+ years ago — (our) society was simpler. Less fractured, more top-down, more homogenous. And so it was easier to create consensus visions of the future. Post-World War II, the world would improve, technology would generate bigger, better, faster stuff, and the only variable would be whether East vs West would destroy us all before we got to Mars.

I don’t quite subscribe to the idea that in the 21st century the world is changing faster than ever before. But (our) society is more varied than ever before, and so maybe the world is changing in more ways than ever before. This perhaps leads to a greater variety of possible visions of the future floating around, all of them seeming less likely than our once shared single jumpsuits-and-space-cities future. Perhaps this is why some people can’t imagine a future — because it’s harder work. There’s no one dominant image of tomorrow.

Which isn’t to say the future is unimaginable. To do so — like one apparently imagination-free guy in the Brighton SF audience who asked a question — is an inability to see the present and to extrapolate in any way from the vast amount of possibilities you see. Warren Ellis again:

To be a futurist, in pursuit of improving reality, is not to have your face continually turned upstream, waiting for the future to come. To improve reality is to clearly see where you are, and then wonder how to make that better.

Act like you live in the Science Fiction Condition. Act like you can do magic and hold séances for the future and build a brightness control for the sky.

Act like you live in a place where you could walk into space if you wanted. Think big. And then make it better.

9 Sep 2012 at Twitter

  • 10:59am: @jar0n I’ll be testing you later!
  • 11:01am: @jar0n Yes, the test will cover the entire syllabus!
  • 12:14pm: Tending my online garden. Almost wishing I just had an online window box. Sometimes it’s as if Miss Havisham had a website.
  • 12:36pm: We're starting a new year! How about an evening class? eg http://t.co/bR9HVInv http://t.co/WcP6MJNX http://t.co/7mx9VWk0 Always be learning.
  • 03:46pm: 18 months ago I estimated I could clear my “books to read” shelf by now. However, upon examination it appears to have defied my instruction!
  • 04:43pm: Listening to the C4 stream of Paralympics with no action. Can we have a permanent O/Paralympic ambient soundscape for when it’s all over?
  • 04:45pm: You know, that ambient electronic music, distant voices, occasional cheering and clapping, occasional national anthems, more music…
  • 04:46pm: Generative Enolympics.
  • 07:33pm: Someone’s got lost on the way to Burning Man.
  • 07:37pm: Is this continuing the story of Britain from the Olympic opening on into the future, and this is the post-apocalyptic ‘The Road’ scenario?
  • 07:44pm: @chrislunch @mildlydiverting I wish I could take full credit, but it’s the name of a club night.
  • 07:57pm: Art cars, flamethrowers, poi, safari hat, el-wire… It’s so Burning Man. Although the performers do look a bit more po-faced.
  • 07:59pm: If ‘Stomp’ ruled the world.
  • 08:00pm: @simonth I'm sure they're lovely!
  • 08:13pm: @antimega Imagine all the football chants they could illustrate!
  • 08:16pm: @antimega Yeah, and those pixels *are* brilliant. Do we know who planned/designed them?
  • 08:21pm: @iamdanw Just checking.
  • 08:24pm: @knolleary @antimega Thanks, good stuff.
  • 08:39pm: I realise Coldplay are hugely popular and I'm happy some people will love it, but… the sheer blandness exhausts and mystifies me.
  • 08:40pm: @moleitau Legacy. Coldplay playing across the nation for ever. From every speaker, every pair of headphones, non-stop.
  • 08:41pm: @tomstuart Thank you for tweeting. Your tweet is important to us.
  • 08:41pm: @alruii Not just on special occasions?
  • 08:42pm: I love TV adverts.
  • 08:46pm: Rhianna had to kill Annie Lennox to get on that boat.
  • 08:53pm: I want to see the running again. Can we go back to the running bit? And the jumping and stuff? What was wrong with that?
  • 08:55pm: Rhianna! No Coldplay! Music has never felt so (comparatively) vital and alive!
  • 08:58pm: @katylindemann Yeah they were really going for the montage gold medal! All the tears.
  • 09:08pm: @Zoonie @katylindemann Apparently it wasn't filmed by the Olympic Broadcast whatsit.
  • 09:24pm: I see now that the odd 2° on Coe's lectern at the opening was part of the map design, which should have been hidden by the missing agito.
  • 09:32pm: Don't understand. Fireworks went off in real world when Coe was talking on TV. Now more real world fireworks while adverts are on TV.
  • 09:34pm: Ahh, yes, Thames Festival fireworks, 10.30 to 10.45 or so apparently. (Thanks @jwheare)
  • 09:41pm: @schulze I was just thinking of all the angry Barbican residents inevitably complaining about the firework noise…
  • 09:56pm: Aaaand… you're back in the room!

9 Sep 2012 in Links

On this day I was reading