On Cultural Futurism

These days it is very trendy to talk about the long-term impact of emerging technologies — Silicone Valley’s obsession with this brand of futurism has infected pop culture. We all are dreaming of a future with VR, self-driving cars, and space travel accessible by the masses (or at least some of the masses).

As a long-time nerd this is an easy leap to make. When I read Asimov for the first time my friends and I wondered about the long-term impact of artificial intelligence, taking for granted it’s sometime arrival. Similarly aspects of Star Trek felt predictive (technology enabled medical diagnosis?) and who didn’t read Snow Crash or Neuromancer in the 90s and believe, really believe, that clearly we’re heading to a future whose limits are only defined by the broadest extent of the peak human imagination?

Which is why it strikes me that so much of our collective imagination is spent unpacking the impact of technology. I think this is an inheritance of the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution — an awareness of the deep, seismic impacts technology can have on our political institutions, our economic endeavors, and our social experiences.

Why don’t we spend more time and effort thinking about the future of humanity if we change our culture, if we evolve the paradigms through which we view our individual, collective and inter-cultural experiences? What would the impact of this imaginative exercise look like? While this is an exercise that can be undertaken by policy-makers, academics and artists (among other disciplines), for the sake of sticking to what I know I’m going to reserve my comments to the realm of the arts.

We’ve taken baby steps in this direction. The Next Generation iteration of Star Trek famously was created through a series of rules Gene Roddenberry had in place for the types of conflict that would be allowed in this future world. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Black Panther draws on the intellectual wealth of Afro-Futurism; strains of this thinking also impact Solange Knowles’ art and discourse.

Put simply, cultural futurism takes the responsibility of the artist beyond merely reflecting society back to itself. In terms of trying to address the changes needed by our society — particularly our deeply flawed American republic — many artists focus on the “no”. The responsibility is not with us to proffer solutions, only to show the world what we see and experience. That is an important function of art, but what about the “yes”?

This isn’t about policy proposals but about holistic, visionary world building. Using the artistic faculties to imagine how thoroughly our human dynamic and story telling could change in the far future can inspire future actors to see beyond the possibilities and exigencies apparent in their age. And probably, we’ll get it wrong. But at least we’d be trying.

Some topics we could tackle include: what would an America that purges itself of the deep sin of racism look like? What about world in which gender equality is taken as a foregone conclusion, how would we date, how would we talk to our spouse, how would we raise our children? How could a real, capitalist economy marry effectively the social need of avoiding the extremes of wealth and poverty?

Specific questions that fascinate me (and as such are probably distractions to this whole mental experiment):

  • How would we regard strangers to our neighborhood if we assumed our well-being was not threatened? How would we regard new cultures?
  • We currently live in a world dominated by the driving hunger of most to join the Western, consumerist culture defined first by Europe and now dominated by our blessed US of A. What could we alternately aspire to accomplish? Could we redefine prosperity?
  • If we move towards a poly-cultural stance, how does that exchange define itself into an aesthetic?
  • What does a protagonist mean to us, in the “West” (lots of impact here from classic Hollywood tropes, the 19th century novel, and European theatrical traditions)? Are there other versions of heroism that let more agents of social change into the spotlight?

Cultural futurism is an interesting concept that I’d like to explore more. If this strikes you as fascinating, or if you have readings / media that reflect on this topic, please let me know!

Future reflections could include structural reasons why this concept is difficult to engage on a mass-market level, and passageways we can find to explore it more comprehensively.

Travel safe.