It is the business of the future to be dangerous.
- Alfred North Whitehead
The pursuit of trying to divine the future — or as today’s futurists generally claim, to think about the future systematically — always seems to trivialize the future’s threats, or to make it seem like tarot card reading. It seems to largely have fallen out of favor, except the end of year predictions that every blogger in the Western world seems compelled to make.
But Whitehead had it right: the future is dangerous, inherently, and never less than today. But the retrofuturistic visions of flying cars, food pills, and intergalactic space travel have led to a distrust of the notion of futurism: that it is a/ possible, and b/ useful.
Robert Cotrell makes the case for thinking small and short-term:
Popcorn and prediction markets
There are still some hold-outs prophesying at the planetary level: James Canton, for example, author of “Extreme Future”. But the best advice for aspirant futurists these days is: think small. The best what-lies-ahead book of 1982 was “Megatrends”, by John Naisbitt, which prophesied the future of humanity. A quarter-century later, its counterpart for 2007 was “Microtrends”, by Mark Penn, a public-relations man who doubles as chief strategy adviser to Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. “Microtrends” looks at the prospects for niche social groups such as left-handers and vegan children. The logical next step would be a book called “Nanotrends”, save that the title already belongs to a journal of nano-engineering.
The next rule is: think short-term. An American practitioner, Faith Popcorn, showed the way with “The Popcorn Report” in 1991, applying her foresight to consumer trends instead of rocket science. The Popcornised end of the industry thrives as an adjunct of the marketing business, a research arm for its continuous innovation in consumer goods. One firm, Trendwatching of Amsterdam, predicts in its Trend Report for 2008 a list of social fads and niche markets including “eco-embedded brands” (so green they don’t even need to emphasise it) and “the next small thing” (“What happens when consumers want to be anything but the Joneses?”).
A lot of my research is about the future, but I’ve seldom called myself a futurist or futurologist, perhaps because the term futurism is deeply embedded in the machine age, and its rejection of the the immediate past. ‘Futurism’ was also an artistic movement that jumped from modernism, and ultimately become a prop of the fascists.
I guess I have tried to stay small and near-term in my futuristic noodlings. At a sanitized, pseudo-objective level, I am a freelance researcher in social anthropology, with special focus on communication technologies, media, and the web. I generally don’t describe myself in cocktail parties as researcher in future studies in any academic sense: in fact, I would be more like to discuss my clairvoyance — I have a touch of it — than ‘futurism’, per se.
What then am I to call my work, then?
Postfuturism is a (relatively) new term being used in heterogeneous ways by unaligned groups of artists and cultural critics. Some are using the term postfuturism as a way to distinguish their art work as distinct from postmodernism, characterized as the dominant cultural logic of late capitalism by Fredric Jameson. Today’s postmodernist futurists are caught up in a practice that is more like conspiracy theory than anything else:
Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism
As I have said, however, I want to avoid the implication that technology is in any way the ‘ultimately determining instance’ either of our present-day social life or of our cultural production: such a thesis is of course ultimately at one with the post-Marxist notion of a ‘post-industrialist’ society. Rather, I want to suggest that our faulty representations of some immense communicational and computer network are themselves but a distorted figuration of something even deeper, namely the whole world system of present-day multinational capitalism. The technology of contemporary society is therefore mesmerizing and fascinating, not so much in its own right, but because it seems to offer some privileged representational shorthand for grasping a network of power and control even more difficult for our minds and imaginations to grasp — namely the whole new decentred global network of the third stage of capital itself. This is a figural process presently best observed in a whole mode of contemporary entertainment literature, which one is tempted to characterize as ‘high tech paranoia’, in which the circuits and networks of some putative global computer hook-up are narratively mobilized by labyrinthine conspiracies of autonomous but deadly interlocking and competing information agencies in a complexity often beyond the capacity of the normal reading mind. Yet conspiracy theory (and its garish narrative manifestations) must be seen as a degraded attempt — through the figuration of advanced technology — to think the impossible totality of the contemporary world system. It is therefore in terms of that enormous and threatening, yet only dimly perceivable, other reality of economic and social institutions that in my opinion the postmodern sublime can alone be adequately theorized.
I have to resist my latent tendency to slip into a postmodern approach to thinking about the future, based on the cultural biases inherent in late stage capitalism, where I have lived all of my life to date. This sort of prognostication seems mostly focussed handicapping various alternative scenarios for companies to make money, for politicians to herd the electorate, or for political blocs to advance their agendas.
So, I am a postfuturist, and my challenge is to craft a postfuturist approach to thinking about the future. I know that we cannot continue with an obsession with endless growth, the faith that technologies are largely benign, or the premise that people herded into markets make rational decisions. I reject objectivity in my work, and believe that all claims for understanding must rest on strong beliefs rooted in not-completely-rational cultural learning, for better or worse.
This is the start of another manifesto for postfuturism, and not just for artists. Or perhaps in postfuturism all life is art, including peering over the horizon and trying to guess what is casting that distant shadow.
(h/t to Jamais Cascio)