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.
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of the environment that has preceded it; in other words, an environment becomes fully visible only when it has been superseded by a new environment; thus we are always one step behind in our view of the world.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.