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Future Fail

How to rescue ourselves from posterity

“But today the past is dead, transformed into a packet of well-worn and thumbed glossy images. As for the future, which may still be alive in some small heroic collectivities on the Earth’s surface, it is for us either irrelevant or unthinkable.”

—Fredric Jameson

On a Twitter account called @Shitty_Future, you can find, according to the feed’s anonymous authors, “the future we deserve.” The future is milking the breasts of a robot sex doll. The future is putting a QR barcode on your gravestone. The future is strapping on a virtual-reality headset to prepare for the rigors of Black Friday shopping, and the future is most decidedly now: hackers take over your kitchen appliances, and Facebook moderators go after teens who try to live-broadcast their own suicides. Since January 2016, Shitty Future has been collecting these and other outtakes from our cynically marketed age, evidence of technophilia gone amok. Or maybe you’d prefer to browse @internetofshit, with its even grimmer snapshots. Either way, brace yourself for an extended anticlimax, a letdown to end all letdowns: to arrive at “Oh shit,” you have to pass through “That’s all?”

Robot milk is about as lustrous as a Soylent drink as it arches through the air, but this is not a joke; it is a way of seeing the future—with disappointment teetering into dread—that we will need to embrace. When modernity arrived, with its bet that human agency would grow ever smarter, ever sleeker, its apostles told us that our visions of a new world order should reflect both the way we live now and the kind of world we hope to make. But somewhere along the line, “the future” has gone from a promise to a threat, stripped even of the caveat that the righteous shall be saved.

The Shitty Futurists have noticed. The people who know that the future is shitty have realized what many have not: things didn’t have to be this way, and it’s too late now.

Before you dismiss this vision of radical future malfunction as so much unearned slacker nihilism, consider our options. Our more respectable cultural critics keep busy by trashing an entire generation of millennials or by—have mercy—reading Wired magazine. They wouldn’t recognize the absurdity of a cancer patient’s crowd-funding plea if it hit them in the face. Meanwhile, millions of Americans lack unleaded water, a half-dozen counter-insurgency wars drag on in Muslim nations (so much for GOP “peace candidate” Donald Trump), and in the aeries of power, oligarchy no longer really bothers to conceal its agenda, as a few select moguls accrue more wealth, rights, and influence than the rest of us could ever imagine.

These markers of imperial decline sit awkwardly, to put it mildly, alongside the social mythology that billows out from Silicon Valley, the country’s dream factory of capitalist striving. The VC titans of Sand Hill Road are entrusted with the critical business of inventing our future. But what has the future given us, except a yardstick by which to measure our disappointments? It shouldn’t seem bizarre that some of us are asking this question; what’s bizarre is that more people aren’t. The future is irrelevant, over and retailed, entirely kaput. The future is gone. After years of failed salesmanship, it’s time to bury the concept, and don’t bother with the QR scannable headstone. The autopsy report, by the way, is gruesome, suggesting it was choked.

The Late, Great Disposable Earth

There’s a boyish greed in our oligarchs’ futurism. You can hear it when Elon Musk, in response to a question about his involvement with a Trump economic advisory board, says, “I’m not trying to be anyone’s savior. I’m just trying to think about the future and not be sad.” A thought-leader with a child’s imagination, Musk—who finally resigned his Trump sinecure after the president exited the Paris climate change agreement—may be the supreme proselytizer of the futurist faith. His solution to mass extinction and climate change is to create a “backup drive” of 1 million human colonists on Mars. Musk’s vision of making humans a “multi-planetary species” requires something more than the usual dose of magical thinking. Beyond the problems of getting there and terraforming the planet, the weak gravity on Mars would progressively destroy the health of any humans who survived the trip. But the Mars-as-humanity’s-future fiction is a lot more comforting if a person sees the present planet as disposable, a world-building experiment that will eventually run its course.

These are the men who, along with their retinue of geeks, scientists, military propagandists, marketers, and other rainy-day prognosticators, prop up the dream of a redemptive future, shuffling it around like the title character in Weekend at Bernie’s.

The future is milking the breasts of a robot sex doll. The future is putting a QR barcode on your gravestone.

Their conviction that time is a guarantor of technological as well as social and political progress is one hell of an attachment fantasy.

Fantasy, indeed, is a big part of our futurist predicament. Any American yearning for the future over the past half-century or so was likely to draw from a familiar well of imaginative tropes: Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, World’s Fairs, B-movies, Epcot, flying saucers, space travel, Star Trek, comic books, AI, robots, gobs of sci-fi mass entertainment, the accumulated dreams of the atomic era. (Musk, for his part, cites Battlestar Galactica and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as among the inspirations for his Mars program.) Some of these visions shaded toward dystopia, but all reflected an inherently optimistic faith in advancement by way of technology. The future could be bleak, but it was also pliable; if we heeded the promethean dangers of blind hubris and authoritarian technocratic rule, we could indeed fashion a better, saner world one day, lovingly made in the image of our fondest quasi-millennial imaginings. All it took was the right sort of controlled dreaming.

When people weaned on these myths become billionaire executives charged with remaking our world, the results are far from pretty. In 2011, the Founders Fund, Peter Thiel’s venture capital firm, published a document called “What Happened to the Future?” The paper traces a history of venture capital, eventually lamenting that “VC has ceased to be the funder of the future, and instead has become a funder of features, widgets, irrelevances.” The quest for empty (if profitable) novelty has diminished world-conquering ambition into incrementalist gadget infatuation and short-term market thinking, the Founders sigh—and as a result, venture capital has relinquished its destiny as the financial backer of transformative inventions.

The problem can be summarized in another mantra often attributed to Thiel: “We were promised flying cars, and instead what we got was 140 characters.” (Maybe Twitter isn’t Thiel’s platform of choice, but in the self-regarding critiques of other techno-philosophers, the capacity to communicate with almost anyone anywhere in real-time ranks pretty high on the innovation scale.) 

But where the Shitty Futurists see the many failures of gadget-driven progress as cause for some long-overdue collective humility, and perhaps even a renewed spirit of collective reform, prophets of the mogul class insist that the problem is that they’re not deploying their genius on a larger social canvas. According to Thiel and his Founders, the only remedy for our ennui is to place big, bold bets on companies engaging in important research in areas like aerospace, biotech, AI, energy, and the internet. Should any of this over-the-top self-dealing start to seem a little gauche, just remember, as the Founders manifesto observes: “The entrepreneurs who make it have a near-messianic attitude and believe their company is essential to making the world a better place.” An unerring sense of “world-historical” importance is essential to the cause.

At this apparently late date in our species’ history, as rising seas swallow South Pacific islands and chunks of Louisiana, the reverie of a frictionless, optimally engineered human prospect now demands considerable gall—together with a heaping of political naiveté, mindless consumerism, historical ignorance, and class and racial privilege. But given our republic’s notorious indifference to such things, the plaints of future interruptus have now become commonplace. It’s the sentiment behind every nostalgic longing for more corporate maestros like the sainted Steve Jobs, and it’s the mindset that stokes demand for a moonshot, or a new Manhattan Project, or a twenty-first century Marshall Plan to solve some pressing problem (rotting infrastructure, climate change, the seeming inevitably of death). Even as our country struggles to furnish basic services, its chief imagineers call for Hail Mary passes into the splendors of Future 2.0, promising to solve in one swoop those problems that we’ve neglected for years.

Heaven Knows We’re Miserable Now

Always expecting a technological miracle in the next product cycle, supplicants at the shrine of VC futurism fail to see that we already live in an advanced stage of innovation, and it’s miserable. Ecological collapse, the pitiless exploitation of natural resources, the witless forward march of planned obsolescence, the industrialization of mass surveillance, the militarization of American society, Gilded Age inequality and a dysfunctional political system perpetuating all of the above—this is the present reality bequeathed to us via every technological fantasy concocted over the last half-century. We live in someone’s idea of the future, and it is shit.

To be sure, the futurism of the modern world also warned us, in grimmer moments of prophetic transport, that the shape of things to come might very well suck. Indeed, one of the other defining features of the futurist epoch was a fear of nuclear annihilation. Thanks to the maddening logic of mutually assured destruction, Americans moved through their confident future-oriented routines mindful that the world could end at any time—or remain locked for the foreseeable time being in a tense cold war. A kind of pre-apocalyptic expectation was in the air. From Dr. Strangelove to film-reel tutorials on surviving nuclear blasts, eschatology became a minor national pastime: how would it all end? Today, when our national security state pours a trillion dollars into “modernizing” our nuclear weapons and hands the trigger to a madman, it’s hard to think we live in any safer times.

But somehow it’s worse. Now we have the perverse certainty of knowing that, should we manage to dodge nuclear war or a deadly pandemic, the world as we know it is ending all the same. Climate change is already here. The media scholar Fred Turner describes the parallel between nuclear annihilation and climate change as a vivid form of dread: “I imagine that the children who cowered under their desks during Cold War air raid drills felt something like the creeping chill I feel now, when I see a power plant belching coal smoke or even an airplane taking off.”

Perhaps by continuing to force its death grip on the global supply chain, the United States will prosper in the coming resource wars. But once we lose Miami and New Orleans (again), we may begin to feel the sting of climate exceptionalism.

What will the futurists console themselves with then? Can even the most feverish techno-utopian fantasias hold out against the rising tides?

Techno-utopian and apocalyptic thought are not as opposed as they might seem. “The idea of the apocalypse has accompanied utopian thought since its first beginnings,” the German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger noted, “pursuing it like a shadow, like a reverse side that cannot be left behind: without catastrophe no millennium, without apocalypse no paradise.”

But the contemporary vision of apocalypse is a peculiar one, according to Enzensberger. Writing in the late seventies, Enzensberger remarked that the apocalypse “was once a singular event,” a dramatic rapture occurring through a swift act of God. But now, he observed, the end of the world is the promised byproduct of our own industrialization and obsessive drive for economic growth. The apocalypse, as a consequence, “is ever present, but never ‘actual’: a second reality, an image that we construct for ourselves, an incessant product of our fantasy, the catastrophe in the mind.”

And while the specter of apocalypse had previously served as a foretaste of history’s fulfillment—and a measure of long-deferred cosmic justice—it was now becoming distressingly mundane. The final reckoning, Enzensberger argued, has been deprived of “finality, which was formerly . . . one of the reasons for its power of attraction”—like utopia, it promised an end of history. Apocalypse was also (again like utopia) supposed to be a great leveler. Instead we find that—as with William Gibson’s famous comment about the future already being here, but unevenly distributed—it “differs from country to country, from class to class, from place to place.” Some nations thrust themselves into solving the epochal challenge of rising sea levels. Others pull up the drawbridge and put more guards at the gates.

The choice to do so remains a political one. “There is no longer any such thing as a purely natural catastrophe,” Enzensberger declared, echoing the axiom that all famines are manmade. The end of the world, when it comes, will be our own contrivance.

The One True Faith

Like any millenarian ideology, futurism is essentially religious in nature. The Indian scholar Rakesh Kapoor points to David Noble’s claim that “technological pioneers harbor deep-seated beliefs”—such as transhumanism, the Singularity, and technological determinism—“which are variations upon familiar religious themes.” Futurists content themselves with fantasies that new technological innovations are inevitable and will solve the problems of today. Whatever damage we have lately created will succumb, amid the glories of the future, to the crowning logic of all techno-determinist change: we will upload ourselves to some kind of machine consciousness, and realize our collective posthuman destiny. The faith is that the future itself, and its divine instrument of technology, will provide, like a caring god.

“Instead of trying to locate our problems in the context of our own irresponsible actions,” Kapoor writes, “the solutions are externalised in the form of technology. Since the problems are solved with the aid of technology in the future, responsibility for the same problems in the present is evaded.” This kind of thinking reveals the ironic poverty of imagination among so many futurists. They imagine sci-fi solutions to every problem without any consideration of practical or political constraints, and thus they fail twice. They don’t want single-payer healthcare; they want to cure death for themselves and make apps for the rest of us. They don’t want free public transport on trains and buses; they want individual self-driving pods that can be summoned at will, with oppressive surge-pricing. They have no political program, no collective vision except the faded memories of shared childhood entertainments. They have no shame and no self-knowledge, requesting praise for white-knighting their way into crises that their own highly valued companies may have helped to make.

They have even less sense about how the other half—or 99.8 percent—lives. As Kapoor notes, futurist rhetoric “has little or no relevance to a majority of the people of the world.” Smart homes do nothing for people without homes or who only get a few hours of electricity per day. Futurism furnishes market-based thinking without any acknowledgment of other belief systems (except as threats to be maniacally extinguished). Nor does it see any areas of life immune from commoditization.

Fantasy is a big part of our futurist predicament.

It has no solutions beyond throwing more technology and managerial thinking at a problem, even as it proclaims its own intellectual radicalism.

It’s hard to look at futurist thought and see anything but a program designed to make a handful of western corporations rich. As Ziauddin Sardar remarked:

the future is defined in the image of the West. There is an in-built western momentum that is taking us towards a single, determined future. In this Eurocentric vision of the future, technology is projected as an autonomous and desirable force: as the advertisement for a brand of toothpaste declares, we are heading towards ‘a brighter, whiter future.’ Its desirable products generate more desire; its second order side effects require more technology to solve them. There is thus a perpetual feedback loop.

“One need not be a technological determinist,” Sardar concludes, to understand that this posture “has actually foreclosed the future for the non-West.” Through this lens, globalization represents the west’s colonization of the future, the imposition of “a single culture and civilization” upon the world. Nowhere is this grim connection more clear than, for instance, in the mining of conflict minerals like coltan, whose refined byproducts are used in various gadgets. Coltan is frequently mined in brutal camps in the Congo and on the Venezuela-Colombia border, its profits flowing to paramilitary groups. The West’s futuristic creature comforts depend on the exploitation of people in the Global South, who live far beyond the ambit of the enlightened, gadget-filled future.

We live in a period often called the Anthropocene—quite simply, an era when human impact on the environment has become acutely visible, a dominant force. “The Anthropocene represents a new phase in the history of the Earth,” McKenzie Wark writes in Molecular Red, “when natural forces and human forces became intertwined, so that the fate of one determines the fate of the other.” In this cosmology, God is dead, replaced by fallen humans who continue to pillage the Earth. Perhaps in smaller numbers, Wark suggests, the environment’s natural cycles and capacity for regeneration could have tolerated us. But now humans live in such numbers and amid such a flurry of over-industrialization that the planet can’t recover. “One molecule after another is extracted by labor and technique to make things for humans, but the waste products don’t return so that the cycle can renew itself. The soils deplete, the seas recede, the climate alters, the gyre widens: a world on fire.”

Wark’s outlook might again strike us as nihilistic and/or alarmist. But in our mundanely chthonic new world order, it’s actually the soul of descriptive realism. In the Anthropocene, apocalypse is titrated out with each molecule of carbon burned. It is a daily, slow-motion horror. For some to look at this tableau and, against all evidence to the contrary, still fantasize about a better era to come is a striking act of naiveté, bordering on delusion. The future, with all of its ideological baggage, and its smoldering graveyard of unfulfilled dreams, has failed us. We’d do well to abandon it, and start figuring out how we might survive the present.