Whatever Happened to the Future?
“There was no future: there was only a continued slide into still more terrifying versions of the present.”
— John Le Carre, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
We were raised to go mad
A point on a curve: when I was ten years old, my teacher showed us a cartoon diagram of red heat arrows shooting from the sun to the earth. They rebounded off the ground to go back into space, but some of them were then caught caught in the ‘blanket’ of our atmosphere. This was called the Greenhouse Effect.
On this cartoon Earth were smokestack factories that would have covered Mongolia if built to scale. The pollution they pumped out was clogging the atmosphere, trapping more arrows. Soon there were going to be red arrows raining down on us all.
That was around 1996, the year Independence Day showed us how satisfying an apocalypse could be, and that anyway, the tech geeks could sort it with their Apple Macs.
Another point on a curve: the year 2001. At a posh school for Tomorrow’s Men we were taught commerce but not economics. Communism had buckled in our lifetime, but the Fall of the Wall existed too close for history class and too distant for our memories. It didn’t matter — it was a new millennium, it was time to get smart, get rich, get going. We didn’t need to understand the system, just position ourselves at its apex.
This was the way things were, and the way things had always been, and the way things would always be. Nothing would change, because there was nothing it could change into. It was The End of History, and for the first time, there was nothing outside the system.
We learned a lot about curves that year. Curves were part of advanced maths, which was good for getting high marks, which were important for becoming Tomorrow’s Men. Anything could be modelled as a curve!
You could model the rise of the global stock market over time.
Or you could model the rise of global temperature over time.
Cognitive Dissonance occurs when we are asked to hold two conflicting beliefs in our mind at the same time. For example:
A: Our world will end if humanity does not change its behaviour
B: Humanity will not change its behaviour
Armed with this Doublethink, we millennials were sent out into the world to seek our fortune.
I don’t remember the first time I heard the phrase ‘late capitalism’. Probably shouted from a street corner during a Socialist Alternative protest. But in the last few years it’s moved from academia to memes to casual conversation, a shorthand acknowledgement of the cruel absurdity of our era.
In recent months, vaginal glitter bombs, video games that let you gamble for imaginary hats, high-concept dining experiences and gay pornography have all been described to me as late-capitalist. I suppose you could add to that forest fires and mass refugee movements. It’s all part of the vibe.
‘Late’ is a charged word, implying an end state. When the hour is late, the party is almost over. When people my age jokingly say ‘this is late stage capitalism’, what they are really saying is that our world is ending. No more jobs, and anyway we wouldn’t get our pensions if there were. ‘The old’ and their property values eat our hope from one end, ‘the robots’ come from the other end, like Stephen King’s Langoliers. No wonder anxiety among the young is through the roof.
This is where the cognitive dissonance comes in again, because none of these people then seem particularly terrified or elated. They believe our society is failing in the same way they believe in the reality of their eventual death. When I ask people what they think the future holds, by far the most common response is, “I try not to think about it.”
The mascot for the era isn’t Pepe the Frog, it’s KC Green’s ‘This Is Fine’ Dog.
A ‘generation’ is a loose construct, not always helpful, but since World War II, the children of each succeeding Western generation have earned approximately 50% more than their parents. Millennials are the first generation in at least seventy years who are materially worse-off than their parents, and given the apocalyptic trends in the natural world, it’s reasonable to think that our own children will be materially worse off than us.
I think that when most people think about ‘The Future’ as an abstract, they are actually wondering about the world they will be positioned in. From “Where will I be in twenty years?” we move to asking, “where will my society be?” Our individual futures entwine with our ideas of a collective future. But if you assume that you have no personal future, that there will be house, pension or marriage for you, then why look ahead?
People from my cohort and below often get called apathetic. I would say that rather than doing nothing, younger people throw their energies into fights where they can imagine victory. Why campaign for gay marriage? Well, it’s a good cause, but just as importantly — it is a winnable fight. And winning it made us feel better about the fact we can’t do anything about the larger systems around us.
If we were ruled by a dictator, we could imagine a world where he was overthrown. But in today’s world, what can we revolt against? Progressives fight against bigotry, inequality, nationalism and the man in the White House who personifies all these ills; but what are we fighting for? What is the better world at the end of the struggle? The idea of larger social change, of living in a world that is Not This, seems literally unimaginable.
Paradoxically, as we accelerate into the most sweeping technological and social changes humanity has ever known, our culture has lost the concept of a Tomorrow that is meaningfully different to the present moment. We’re walking backwards into our future with our eyes fixed on the past.
My British friends, Remainers to a person, understandably mocked those Brexiters who seemed to want to roll the clock back to the 1950s, and it is true in recent years nostalgia culture has seeped dangerously into politics. Reactionary leaders in the Anglosphere, India, Turkey, Russia, and the Middle East have lately appealed to imagined past golden ages.
But our own clock is stuck too. The minute hand is twitching in a post-80s dreamworld that jumbles together every song and story from the last thirty years and makes it available at the click of button. Star Wars and Spiderman ruled the box-office in 2017, exactly as they did fifteen years earlier. Children are playing the same video game franchises as their parents used to. My London friends drink and dance in the repurposed ruins of an industrial society they are too young to remember.
The late cultural critic Mark Fisher wrote extensively on this idea of ‘Hauntology’, arguing that cultural production in our era is frozen into an icescape of remakes and retreads, and we are all stuck reliving the Baby Boomer’s music and stories.
A lot of trends have come together to produce this nostalgia culture. First, the difficulty Young Adults have in carving out a space for themselves in the economy. It is shaming to feel unable to step into the traditional roles of ‘adult’ life, and if you feel stuck in an extended adolescence it is tempting to look for comfort in your childhood. Especially if rent prices mean you are forced to live with your parents and old toys well into your 20s.
Second, technology. Ours is the first generation whose childhoods remain cocooned for us on Youtube. Where our parents and grandparents had to recreate their half-remembered pasts in other forms, like Spielberg and Lucas channelling the spirit of 1940s films serials into Indiana Jones, we can just relive the good old days at will, exactly as they were.
The third is the way our economic system drives how our creativity is expressed. Say what you will about capitalism, it gives people what they want, and we want comfort. The Nerds won, and the juggernaut of Western cultural production is now structured to serve our fantasies in a way that would have blown my mind when I was a child. Radically new material is being produced, perhaps as much as ever, but changes in production and distribution trends mean the lion’s share of our attention is increasingly dominated by familiar icons. New ideas are pushed to the margins unless they are amazing enough to break through.
Our culture can be a lot of fun, but the problem is, the further we move from the 1980s, the less relevant that era’s narratives are to the experience of being alive in the 21st century.
Whatever happened to the World of Tomorrow?
Art and literature is supposed to reflect our world back at us. All the cultural ‘isms’: futurism, modernism, romanticism, brutalism, surrealism — they were popular attempts to Say Something New about the Age.
In twentieth century literature it all worked pretty neatly. Historical fiction reminded us of our past, crime and mainstream literature showed us our present and science fiction dreamed our futures.
Today, a lot of ‘mainstream’ films and books fail to accurately reflect our present, perhaps because most currently successful artists grew up in a pre-networked world, and are now living in a networked one. Also because our chief source of stories is still film/television, and a traditionally visual medium is about the worst choice to depict the largely silent, symbolic and shared dreaming of our screen culture.
But if literature is struggling to explain the present, popular science fiction is now demonstrably failing to tell us a story of the future. Science fiction is the literature of modernity, because it rests on the premise that tomorrow will be different from today. That bedrock assumption is historically recent: for most people who have ever lived, the only change they could expect was a short, sharp, shock for the worse. But with the explosive economic growth that took off in Europe from the 1800s, people started to realise that things might not just change for their children, they might be different within their own lifetime, and science fiction was born.
Every era dreams its own future, and they always seem quaint in hindsight. Divorced from their moorings, these imagined universes now float around our collective pop-consciousness, their imagery shaped by the cinema of their time.
The 1950s extrapolated the ‘big science’ trends of World War II and warned us of invasion of giant bees, giant blobs, and giant women destroying middle-class comforts. The 1960s gave us Pax Americana spread to the stars, and programs like Star Trek and The Jetsons brought that vision thoroughly into mainstream culture (as lovingly recreated in 2015’s Tomorrowland). Then in the 1970s, perhaps the closest cultural moment to today’s paranoia and pessimism, we embraced apocalypse. In the popular wastelands of the 1970s we figuratively and literally ate each other, in a vision that was hellish, but at least dramatically different to the present.
My favourite future was the neon-drenched streets of 1980s cyberpunk, where life was urban, malleable, and lived under an American-Japanese fusion culture extrapolated from the economic trends of the period.
And then it just stopped. As the horizons of science fiction drew closer to the present, the notable sf films from the nineties and noughties were set in contemporary times, usually offering mind-bending narratives inspired by the mid-century paranoia of Philip K Dick. It was as if once Francis Fukuyama had declared the End of History, the Future dried up with it.
Of course, plenty of science fiction films, television, books and games are still produced, in fact science fiction is arguably more popular today than ever before. So what are the stories we tell now?
Television is our favourite storytelling medium of the moment. In America, the creators of Stranger Things built a joyful simulacrum of their childhoods, and we loved it. The Handmaid’s Tale postulated an openly regressive future, and it felt believable. Meanwhile Black Mirror, the most popular small-screen science fiction in Britain, offers a sterile vision of the future as ‘a still more terrifying version of the present’. In Black Mirror, we haven’t escaped our social situation, we’ve just been consumed by the technological toys we built to make it bearable. Often literally, sometimes by their own volition, Black Mirror’s characters are trapped in a frozen present.
In literature, Steampunk was the huge pop-culture success story of the last decade. Steampunk’s alternate 19th centuries are perfect settings for stories of colonialism and identity, allowing us to re-imagine the past as we wish it could have been, instead of as it was. It also looks fabulous. Steampunk can do many things, but it has little to say about where we’re headed.
Young Adult science fiction of the 21st century has been notable for its vicious renderings of inter-generational warfare. The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner, The Giver, even Harry Potter at times — they all depict talented and idealistic youth forced into a system of murderous competition that they don’t want. That’s not about Tomorrow either, that’s preparing teenagers for Today.
In Hollywood, science fiction has completely dominated the box office for twenty years, but largely by telling the same stories over and over again. Remake culture is so normalised now that is hard to imagine how weird it would seem to a film buff transported from the 1970s. And an oddity of this culture is that science fiction films are increasingly following divergent futures of franchise past. Timelines grow confused: which version of the 1990s is canonical for The Terminator? How is the Marvel Universe’s New York changing after a decade of intergalactic warfare? Blade Runner 2049 literalised our haunting by Yesterday’s Tomorrow, faithfully extending its progenitor’s universe into a future where flying cars are old hat, and Atari remains a major corporate player.
Franchise science fiction cinema is pure nostalgia. It’s not about our future, it’s a celebration of Yesterday’s Futures.
The most honest, mainstream vision of the future today — by which I mean the one that specifically grows out of this current historical moment — is one that can be found across thrillers, time travel stories and space opera. It’s a vision that draws heavily on our shared concepts of the 1930s, as if the further we look ahead, the further back in time we go.
I call it Desolation Porn.
It’s a world of rusting cars in weed-filled yards. A world where things have just run down until they stopped. Society has continued to worsen, but not to the extent where anybody has revolted or developed new modes of living. Nobody has the energy for reform. If the rest of the world is doing better than the West, we don’t hear about it.
The stories play out in the spreading economic dead zones of ‘Real America’ or ‘Brexit Britain’. After the glossy urban futures of the nineties and noughties, we’re back in the countryside, but it’s the Great Depression with drones: dustbowls, corn fields, struggling farmers. When we do see cities, they have the exhausted beauty of an Urban Decay Tumblr page.
It’s pornographic because it’s a titillatingly pessimistic view of our hinterlands, imagined by a mainly urban cultural elite. It’s the world they see through screens: train windows and news channels. It’s the world projected from what we know about climate change. It’s the only future that makes sense when you know that everything has to change, but nothing ever will.
Remember the X-Men movies of the 2000s? They showed us a near-future which was shiny, white and comfortable. Well they’ve moved with the times. In Logan, (2017), Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine is a weary old man in a hopeless world. The same aesthetic grounds Looper (2012) and Interstellar (2014), and with slight variations in The Road (2009), Elysium (2013) and Children of Men (2006). Blade Runner 2049 (2017) niftily bridges cyberpunk and Desolation Porn by taking its hero from the familiar 1980s cyber-city into the desert of the surrounding countryside, where the colour palette updates accordingly.
All these movies reflect the lack of a central authority in our world. There’s no evil king, no-one to blame. The enemy is the climate, the economy, the system. The enemy is us. The scariest thing about so many of these stories is that the Apocalypse hasn’t happened. Petrol stations and coffee shop chains still serve us, like ice-cream trucks idling at the gates of hell. This is just the inevitable end-point of our society.
Compared to the 1970s dystopias, this future is more insidious because there’s no escape. Today’s Logan does not break free at the end of his Run, and there’s no fabled oasis at the end of the desert. Nobody escapes the system, because it extends to the edges of America, which in American popular culture equates to the ends of the Earth.
All the comfort that remains in Desolation Porn movies comes from the smallest possible tribe: the family unit (in which the mother is optional). A reluctant father-figure has to sacrifice everything so that a child might make it through the fallen world.
SPOILER WARNING: Hugh Jackman dies. Joseph Gordon-Levitt dies. Clive Owen dies. Matt Damon dies. Ryan Gosling dies. Viggo Mortensen dies. They are all content to go at the end, these stolid patriarchs. They’ve recognised that there is nothing left except the child they give their life for. There is hope — there has to be hope — but it’s the prerogative of the next generation. We don’t know how to get out of this world, it’s literally unimaginable.
In this grim vision our future and our present have come together, because a similar story is being told in Hell or High Water, Arcade Fire’s music video for ‘Everything Now’, or the Jack Reacher novels. It doesn’t really matter if this is the future or the present. It’s all the same.
It’s a particular male fantasy of despair, where a white, working-class hero can redeem the world. And individually, these stories are often really good, and tell us something true about our moment. Taken together, they’re a drag. There should be more to look forward to than this. But it seems that when so many people lost faith in capitalism in the crash of 2008, our ability to imagine a better future died too.
When we were living in a more stable present, we didn’t notice that the future had gone away. But now that (for better or worse) that present is on the way out, it’s a concern that nobody has an idea for what’s coming next. More and more of us, doing bullshit jobs in a world run by bullshit leaders, have become cynical about our system; but we lack the tools to imagine anything else. And so our stories either retreat to the past, or they are stuck at the stage of, ‘this is the problem’. We need to move to ‘these are the solutions’.
I’m not saying the past was better (it wasn’t) and I’m not saying the future is hopeless (it isn’t). But we’re at a difficult moment. The level of widespread pessimism people feel is unprecedented in my lifetime, and there’s not much reason to expect it will get better soon.
If capitalism is a party, #Latestagecapitalism is a party on the Titanic, where black water swirls around our ankles. If it’s true that ‘the future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed’, then the news today can be thought of as a time-machine teasing us with glimpses of coming decades. Parents carrying their children along flooded streets. Burning forests. Refugee camps the size of cities. Militarised police beating protesters.
So in response, for the last ten years people in the West have been undertaking a steady withdrawal from traditional society, into the safer and more social worlds of our phones. Not much has objectively changed in our surroundings — the oceans are a little hotter, cities a little bigger; but as the future closes in around us we’re entering a depressive slump, and like any depressive we’ve become cynical that there could ever be a change for the better, or even a change at all.
I think much of my cohort understand what is happening — our civilisation CANNOT continue exactly as it is, it’s a matter of physics as much as ethics. But we’re too cynical/realistic to want revolution, and we lack the vocabulary to talk about the alternatives, because our culture is not providing people with those concepts.
So the past and the future are locked against each other like two continental plates, and while we wait for them to slip we tinker with remakes, watch revisionist historical dramas and argue over historical monuments, perhaps because we’ve reached a stage where the past seems more malleable than the future.
There’s nothing unusual in living in an endless present, it was the default state of humanity from the Stone Age to the 19th century. But all those people had the luxury of knowing that nothing fundamental really was going to change. In 2018, change is all around us. It feels like those continental plates could wrench apart in an earthquake, and we might finally confront some of the contradictions our society has been labouring under for thirty years.
We can bury our heads in the sand, but as anybody with credit card debt knows, avoidance rarely leads to a better outcome. The future is going to happen, and life is going to change dramatically. It’s not optimism but simple realism to acknowledge that the most powerful technological tools we’ve ever known are in the pipeline, and they could have the capacity to change our societies, our bodies and our planet for the better. Or they could make things worse; but the more we expect that the more likely we make it a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This is not an essay about everyone, or even everyone I know in my limited social circle. For every example of pessimism and stasis I’ve mentioned, I’m sure there is another that counteracts it. Kim Stanley Robinson, Elon Musk, Emmanuel Macron, Emily St. John Mandel, Mohsin Hamid, everyone trialling Universal Basic Income, all the great writers in the Hieroglyph Project, they are all banging the drum for Optimism, and specifically optimism that we can live in a world that is different to our own, but not necessarily worse.
But those narratives are still on the margins, and I think the trend towards stasis and pessimism is real. Too many politicians, artists and entrepreneurs in the West are failing to make a case for Tomorrow. And there is a hunger for that case — look at the way Brexit’s blithe optimism prevailed over Remain’s status quo.
It’s easy for us to forget that almost everyone in the world is richer, better educated and healthier than their grandparents, and those guys muddled through. So let’s start thinking big again. Let’s imagine some futures where we fix the environment and come up with a better economy too, where we can go around the world in eighty minutes and be friends with the people we find on the way.
Those dreams are not going to come true, utopias never do. That’s not the point. When we lay out signposts ahead of us, it gives us something to aim for. Where we’ll end up is another question, but at least it won’t be here. And perhaps we can tell each other some new stories along the way, that our grandchildren will be able to remake so they can party like it’s 2018.
We need to let go of this present. We’re not even enjoying it anymore.