Friday, March 09, 2007

The Short History of our Future(s)

(above: sand robot at "save the robots" exhibition, image © FatherCrow 2005)

When you think of the future, what visions do you see?

Does your vision create our future as one of benevolence, of technological aspirations? Of buildings rising through the firmament like modern day Towers of Babel, luminescent in steel and silvered glass, bulging in pregnant rotund geometry at points. Do you see these manifestations of human will linked by veins of suspended transport tubes that circle and join these great structures. All the while they rise and race the sun to it’s zenith with their promise of humanities potential? Or do you perceive our species breaking the fetters of Terra, constructing great galleons of the stars, sucking energy from the fabric of the universe and roaring like great beasts as their engines fight the oppressor gravity, pushing their leaden weight upwards through the ozone and the Van Allen belt and outwards toward new planets and new homes for our future evolution?

Or is it something grimmer, the fall of man perhaps, endless wars, precipitated by endless global crisis of fuel, water, food, minerals, nuclear technologies. Do you see our species fall, driven downward into the dirt and filth of this savage planet by the hand of God or Gods or even just blind fate. When the future of this world enters your head, are we in rags, scrabbling for food and guzzoline, reduced to mere beasts. Do we beat each other with bones before stripping the flesh so that you and your kin can live. Do we kidnap and rape and enslave women so as our bloodlines can continue to move into that amorphous and uncertain future.. Are we clothed in rags with sunken empty eyes dragging frightened children behind as we push carts full of filthy survival necessities across a ravaged, sterile and desolate wasteland?

What is it that you see? And where is it that you get your visions from? Do they filter in from the digital ether of television shows, Radio, Usenet and the World Wide Web? Or do they come from more time honoured sources; books, newspapers, conversations with your peers, even dreams? or a hybrid of them all?

Ultimately what is it that creates our future? Is it, as Giambattista Vico the 17th century Neapolitan philosopher says in his verum factum principle that truth (in this case “future truth”) is verified (or in this case manifested) through creation or invention. And why is it that what awaits for us in this amorphous future is always changing, always mutating, metamorphosising into something that seems to depend on a cultures current economic, philosophical and technological zeitgeist.

How many futures do we have now? How many futures have we had in the past? How many futures that yearly are discarded as the present incorporates unexpected and surprising aspects of ideas turned to technology turned to societal change? How much turbulence on the crest of the wave form that lies between today and tomorrow?

The future isn’t what it used to be. It’s an ever changing multifarious beast that is constantly sprouting new limbs and discarding old ones. Has it always been like this though?

Have we always had a future?

I don’t think so, at least not in the way we envision the continuance of time today.

Back in ancient times, before the Renaissance, before the Reformation, before the Industrial Revolution we as a species had spent thousands of years as an essentially agrarian mammal. There were thousands of years between the advent of sedentary farming and mans imagination, ideas and vision coalescing into the iron, smoke, oil and grease of James Watt’s steam engine, Richard Arkwright’s water frame and the great belching blast furnaces in the Iron Foundries of the industrial revolution.

Agriculture first arose in Mesopotamia around 9500 BC and spread to Egypt by 7000 BC and from there across the world until the Industrial revolution which historian Eric Hobsbawm states 'broke out' in the 1780s did not completely establish itself until the 1830s or 1840s.

That’s a long time.

A long time where nothing much happened, save for the occasional advancement in drainage in the middle ages or of crop rotation in the Renaissance. I would say that it was easy to let the future take care of itself, as every day, every year, every decade was much like the last, save for the occasional change in King, Baron, Lord or whatever vicious bastard that had fought his way to the top using violence, guile and flattery. It must have been easy to view the only future as a personal future. A future filled only by personal relationships, and relationships between the individual and the land that stretched only as far as the coming harvest.

There were of course prophets and diviners, oracles and soothsayers, the like of the Sybilline and Delphic Oracles of Classical Greece, Zoraster in Persia, Nostradamus, while proto-sciences like astrology and sputtered into existence as well. These individuals who were viewed as instruments that could commune with powers beyond to divine the future were some what limited. Mostly they divined the personal futures for individuals who wanted to divine what would happen in their personal, near term futures, even the most expansive view of the future tended to be personal, the like of Kings asking what would the future of HIS kingdom be like within the years of his life? Those few diviners and prophets that went beyond the merely religious and eschatological, men like the French Nostradamus, wrote only in code and allusion, so that, I imagine, his “prophesies” would retain their applicability to whatever current situation happened to be in motion at the time. This may be the reason that Nostradamus’s Les Propheties have so rarely been out of print since his death in 1566.

However these visions of the future are so alien to our current view of it, as to appear comical, the stage set does not change, only the players do. The “future” always happens within the framework of the agrarian age. This does not seem to change until the advent of the Industrial Revolution, which as mentioned before did not step onto our stage of world history until the decade of their lord, the 1780’s. This is whe/n/re the future was born.

Mary Shelley's (30 August 1797 – 1 February 1851) books, among them Frankenstein (1818) and The Last Man (1826), were to initiate the age of Futures. These books were to influence the other founding pillars of Science Fiction, men like Edgar Allan Poe (January 19, 1809 – October 7, 1849) who wrote a story about a trip to the moon, more and more examples appeared throughout the 19th century spinning mythological tales. These stories were not about the past, but about our distant future where not only were the people different, but so was the landscape. No longer were people’s imaginations limited to the pedestrian tales of purely human interaction but those characters took flight into space, aided by the endless mutating shapes of nature and machine. Then as the Industrial revolution continued and new technologies like the telegraph, electricity, the steam engine, and even the car rolled over the face of the earth transforming not only the way we lived, but the environment in which we lived. Factories belched smoke and drew the peasants to the great new metropolises and almost overnight transformed them from farmers to workers. We had transferred our evolution from a species that evolves itself to deal with changes in its environment to a species that evolves its environments to allow for the existence of the species. And it was then at that time, at that fulcrum, that crux, that we essentially began to invent the future(s) that we imagine today and sometimes, experience tomorrow.

More writers such as Jules Verne (February 8, 1828–March 24, 1905) and H. G. Wells (September 21, 1866 – August 13, 1946) forged ahead and created the new environs of what was then known as philosophers of foresight working in the genre of what was then called “Scientific Romance”. These writers pollinated their ideas even beyond the intelligentsia of their societies and down, down to the average literate citizen who devoured these tales of the fantastic, and allowed these mostly utopian visions to first paint the walls of their grey industrial existence and then infect scientists, philosophers and sociologists with what would today be called memes. These men of learning almost like academic avatars of the ideas themselves set about seeing if these thoughts could be made concrete. Some succeeded more than others, and some not at all. Our species had taken a hand in it’s own destiny and had begun to manifest the futures of it’s own imagination.

Then as time progressed so did the ideas, which spread out across the planet with the increase of industrialisation, eventually making their strongpoint in the United States of America. America was then one of the greatest industrial powerhouses in the world. This was partly as a result of the savage futurist reality tunnel of “manifest destiny” where the white man moved Westward across America taking his God and his machines with him, exterminating and destroying any opposing views as he went, it being the will of God, in the view of the proponents of the theory, as the white man was superior and destined to improve this land by any means necessary. For God and Country and Commerce. In 1925 “Amazing Stories” magazine was founded by Hugo Gernsback who gave voice to a whole generation of people, mostly men, who looked to the stars, and to technology as a means of facilitating man’s future evolution. Then in 1937 John Cambell took over editorship of “Astounding Science Fiction” in New York and triggered what is known as the “Golden Age” of Science Fiction, he escorted writers the like of Isaac Asimov, Damon Knight, Donald A. Wollheim, Frederik Pohl, James Blish, Judith Merril and many others, they called themselves the Futurians. Other writers also contributed to the magazine, writers the like of Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and A. E. Van Vogt. All of these men wrote and infected the men of science with their fevered and hallucinogenic visions of mankinds glorious and, for the scientists, an idyllic future. Everything from mobile phones, to weapons to our reach from the stars had their genesis in the realm of science fiction

But then, the Future changed.

And the Second world war began. A time of almost apocalyptic terror and destruction. A truly world war, from Europe to Aisa, Africa to North to South America the scream of children and the uproar and tumult of millions of guns and bombs.

Humanities second unsuccessful suicide attempt.

The world, save for North America was left in ruins and our glorious dreams of voyages to the bottom of the sea and flying cars temporarily crumbled to blackened brick and burnt flesh. It was then that our dreams of the future, became dreams of our survival as men and women wandered searching for family members, brethren that most likely lay as flayed corpses in the gutters of destroyed cities. It was then that science fictions future inventing twin, “futurism” was born. The term “futurology” had been coined in the 1943 by a man named Ossip K. Flechtheim, a German Professor. The term Futurology means, quite literally, “the study of the future”. Flechtheim developed a coda for the newly born Futurology, that of a systematic and critical treatment of questions that related to the future which would become a new science of probability that took in many possible permutations of many variables so as to come up with a probable view of what may happen. If it was to be for the good, it was to be encouraged, if for the bad (like for example the second world war) options were to be made available for its avoidance.

Also in the mid 1940’s various futurist consulting firms sprang up, that proffered their services to the American government, companies like the RAND corporation and SRI. These companies used techniques that they termed scenario development, systematic trend watching, visioning and long-range planning. These programs were first run under the auspices of the U.S. government and military and then for private corporations. It was not unusual for different corporations and think tanks to come up with different memes of the future that were to compete for the headspace of the public and the public’s leaders. That period of time, from the 1940’s to the 1960’s signalled the birth and then the honing of methodological and scientific attempts to measure future trends. Methods that continue to be used up until this day.

From the future of hover cars and robot butlers, to the future communist world takeover, from space migration to earthly bio-extinction it has literally been in the last 200 years that we first envisioned these technological and evolutionary heavens and these hells, 200 years since we worshiped the modern potential for the manifestation of them. 200 years since we began to watch the battle between mental abstractions and the manifestation of possible futures. 200 years since we began to learn that what is allegorical fantasy today can be scientific reality tomorrow. 200 years since we invented and began to disseminate a multitude of possible futures from the differing geographical centres of the creative imagination, and started infecting the minds of the scientific imagination. Thus in turn changing the physical and societal form of this spaceship earth. 200 years since we the people got to choose which model we, personally and individually would build our reality tunnels around, paranoid or positive, even before “it” happened. 200 years since the future invaded the present.

200 years since we began inventing the future(s).

Peace and Hope



Blogger Rob Pugh said...

Fantastic read... thanks. Was like a short history of, well, everything.

1:30 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

I can see your point that it seems as if global culture is accelerating since the steam engine literally accelerated the flow of people and ideas across the geography of the earth, but I take issue that the era between the invention of agriculture and the steam engine was "a long time where nothing much happened." Several strides--from flint napping to metallurgy, from tribal organization to urbanization, from the ancestral horse or dog or cow to the varied specialized breeds--happened in that long era. Humans increased their creative output over the eons. That the artifacts are more complex and more impressive seems to be a progression. To me, progress has accelerated at an exponential pace and, since Watt, humanity has started to hit the strong upcurve of the path.

Also, I think that Watt also comes as part of a paradigm shift. The Age of Enlightenment and the Age of Reason gradually supplanted the long-standing theistic tradition. In this way, as I think you have correctly pointed out, thinking about the future replaced divination and heaven as ways that humans though of tomorrow. (Remember that the 2000-year-old Christian concept of heaven necessarily implies a future: I'm alive to today, but when I'm dead--tomorrow--I'll be in heaven.)
In this sense, future-thinking has antecedents.

Perhaps thinking about a future comes with thinking about a past--it was like this and it will be like that. Since the industrial revolution put newspapers (something with a routine occurrence), watches and clocks (something to measure time), and calendars (something which measures time but also clearly shows a past, present and future), into the sphere of the masses, the zeitgeist has definitely started thinking about what you call the future. I do not agree that this thinking is fundamentally different at its origin.

Consider Burroughs' discussion of Mayan culture outlined in The Job. The May had use of a very precise calendar and their theology was based up this repeating, cyclic thing that they created. According to Burroughs, this had two basic functions:

1. To control the patterns of slash-and-burn agriculture which requires an ability to predict the seasons and the climate at a given time of year.

2. To control the populace and incite them to work to produce goods and services for the benefit of the ruling class.

Here, the priest-kings definitely knew the future. They had a system to predict what was going to happen on a given day. Burroughs sees this as a way to control people in that the populace, as informed by the priest-kings, would know well in advance what they had to do in a given day. Hence, the society was rigidly structured to finish one day's work in preparation for the next.

This is not rocket cars and zap guns, but it is evidence of forward thinking in humanity's past. Of course, since the Western tradition flows from Classic Greece and has grown to dominate a majority of global culture, I will agree that the futurists and futurians represent a change of sorts in how humans think about the future, but I am inherently dubious about the idea that somehow the human animal did not think about tomorrow when our whole history is built upon the presupposition of cyclic events.

2:28 AM  

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