Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Future Fatigue

William Gibson:

Alvin Toffler warned us about Future Shock, but is this Future Fatigue? For the past decade or so, the only critics of science fiction I pay any attention to, all three of them, have been slyly declaring that the Future is over. I wouldn’t blame anyone for assuming that this is akin to the declaration that history was over, and just as silly. But really I think they’re talking about the capital-F Future, which in my lifetime has been a cult, if not a religion. People my age are products of the culture of the capital-F Future. The younger you are, the less you are a product of that. If you’re fifteen or so, today, I suspect that you inhabit a sort of endless digital Now, a state of atemporality enabled by our increasingly efficient communal prosthetic memory. I also suspect that you don’t know it, because, as anthropologists tell us, one cannot know one’s own culture.

The Future, capital-F, be it crystalline city on the hill or radioactive post-nuclear wasteland, is gone. Ahead of us, there is merely…more stuff. Events. Some tending to the crystalline, some to the wasteland-y. Stuff: the mixed bag of the quotidian.


  • Heavy stuff. Though it's interesting that in the link itself, Gibson says that this--the state of now-ness, of consumable, disposable, lived quotidian stuff--is a good thing, considering it a sign of maturity. Given the fact that "Future" was one way of talking about the unknown, and thus admitting to mystery and awe, I would strongly disagree--a world without conceptual room for such larger unknowns, a world of an "endless digital Now," strikes me as a highly immature one indeed, a world of childhood, not a mature realization of Larger Things. Sad, really.

  • Russell, while I agree about immaturity of the "endless digital Now," I wonder if it is any less mature than fantasies about either a perfected future or an devastated apocalyptic landscape. Both images feature a future that is final and complete, where nothing more can really happen, where all decisions have been made and all that's left is an eternity of consequences (good or bad). It seems that all our fantasies, whether of an endless Now or a completed Future, are ultimately about escaping a life in which choices are always fraught and their consequences always in need of negotiation.

  • I find myself singing Donald Fagen's song "I.G.Y.":

    On that train all graphite and glitter
    Undersea by rail
    Ninety minutes from New York to Paris
    (More leisure time for artists everywhere)
    A just machine to make big decisions
    Programmed by fellows with compassion and vision
    We'll be clean when their work is done
    We'll be eternally free and eternally young

  • Hmmm...a few rather random, possibly contradictory thoughts:

    - Would Augustine, then, be "immature," given his eschatological focus? Of course not - and of course Alan doesn't think so - but the "maturity" of Augustine, if we can think that way, rests profoundly on his efforts to show the quotidian stuff of our life as shadows leaning toward the consummation of all things.

    - I worry deeply about a world in which we *just* have the quotidian, especially the ephemeral consumer items of *our* quotidianism. Most of all, it just denies what seems to me a rather recurrent human desire for something whole - if we beat that out of ourselves with the diversions of the day, will we really be in a position to take seriously the life we have been given? Or will we just, as one famous fellow put it, "blink"?

    - I doubt we've lost the Future. Or at least not any more than we've lost History...

  • the "maturity" of Augustine, if we can think that way, rests profoundly on his efforts to show the quotidian stuff of our life as shadows leaning toward the consummation of all things.

    Right, and leaning towards it because of a Divine purpose for Creation that cannot be defeated or deflected. Very different than the belief that the perfect future can be "programmed by fellows with compassion and vision."

    Gibson goes to some pains to distinguish what he's saying from the "End of History" thesis, but I might add that History is always with us, but the Future (in Gibson's sense) has not always been. That is, the idea that a technologically-managed culture will end conflict and pain (will indeed end History) is a relatively recent idea, no? And it comes and goes. In 1983 Donald Fagen could satirize it, but in 2010 it seems to have returned in a form just as vibrant as in the International Geophyslcal Year (the year of my birth, by the way). Techno-utopianism is not always with us: it comes and goes.

  • I should probably think more about how much family resemblance there is between Techno-utopianism (a la Kevin Kelley and Ray Kurzweil) and Millennialism.

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