COMMENT AND OPINION:
CONSENSUS FUTURE, CULTURAL NOSTALGIA, & THE RISE OF THE NEW POPULISM
By T.K. McNeil
“When I pronounce the word future the first syllable already belongs to the past” Wistawa Szmborska
Of all human concepts, the future is among the most pervasive, as well as the most powerful. The basis for the concern around children as well as the justification for some horrendous acts. It is also one of the least certain and most fraught with problems.
“Consensus future” refers to the visions of the future most people agree on. Largely because they are the visions that we have been given through culture. This includes the notion of cloning, first presented in a major way in the 1993 film Jurassic Park. And self-driving cars, have been a common futuristic theme in popular culture since at least the 1960’s. Just think Batman. The majority of technology trends are imagined and created on consensus future.
One of the biggest issues with future forecasting, particularly in terms of technology trends, is the fundamental unpredictability of both people and markets. Even a brief glance at the history of technology trends reveals an essential inability to show where trends are going to go, as well as a strong tendency towards normalization. One of the sharpest observers of this latter trend was the British science fiction author J.G. Ballard. Ballard created future worlds at the height of the future craze of the mid-20th century that were remarkable, mostly for the basic lack of surprise shown by the characters to the technology that surrounded them. Embryonic proof of the consensus future.
One of the lesser known theories in terms of futurism is “manufactured normalcy”. With regard to technology trends, this term refers to the tendency of people to adapt quickly to any new piece of technology. The first period of excitement getting shorter as the turnaround between new models continues to decrease. It has, in fact, been argued that such surprise, or “future shock” as term by sociologist Alvin Toffler in his 1970 book of the same name, has largely subsided, if it ever existed at all. This happens even if the technology in question is not actually boring, or at all commonplace, and tends to apply, especially to things inside the consensus future narrative.
We Want It Yesterday
This failure of consensus future in terms of technology trends and developments is perhaps best exemplified by the frustrations around self-driving cars. Despite the first hype, we are at least a decade away from a commercially available self-driving car. And perhaps another decade away from self-driving cars eliminating the human driver. And that is just in the Western market. A large part of the frustration is because people have grown to expect these developments; and they are ready for them, now. Though to be fair, this is because they were promised the future, yesterday.
Loss of Personality
The idea of self-driving cars has existed in popular culture since at least the early 1960’s, despite how truly far-fetched they were at the time. One interesting element of the self driving car is that the movie and television versions of self-driving vehicles had “bigger than life” personalities. Remember, Herbie the autonomous VW beetle from the Disney’s 1960’s movie franchise. Then later, KITT from the 1980’s TV series, Knight Rider. I wonder if we will have any Herbie moments as we transition into our consensus future?
Up In Flames
On the opposite end of the technology trend failure continuum is the Segway, or personal transportation vehicle. First introduced in the early 2000’s, reactions to the futuristic transports were tepid at best and not because they did not work. Quite the opposite. They worked very well and used a system few had conceived of. An there lies the problem. Because no one had thought of them, they were not a part of the consensus future narrative. We were not told they were coming and we had no idea what to make of them when they arrived. They fizzled out pretty quickly, although you can still buy a version at Sam’s Club.
The Next Generation
A new vision sent the once overlooked transport rig into stratospheric popularity, with kids. The key to the transformation came when they took off the handle-bars and relaunched them as “hover-boards.” A consensus future name that had nothing to do with the real function of the devices. But, was imaginative enough to ignite a craze. The term “hover-board” was first used in 1967 by science fiction author M.K. Joseph. In one of his novels he described a levitating board, similar to a skateboard without wheels, used for personal transportation. However, as most of us know the re-envisioned Segway has shown a nasty tendency to explode and burst into flames. A fitting metaphor for those who try to buck the consensus future trend by cynically joining it.
How this happens in terms of technology trends is really very simple; and was laid out by Marshall McLuhan in the 1960’s. McLuhan was a Canadian philosopher and communication theorist. In 1969, in response to the moon landing McLuhan wrote: “Because of the invisibility of any environment during the period of its innovation, humans are only consciously aware of the environment that has preceded it. In other words, an environment becomes fully visible only when it has been superseded by a new environment. Thus, we are always one step behind in our view of the world. The present is always invisible because it’s environmental and saturates the whole field of attention so overwhelmingly thus everyone is alive in an earlier day.” Or, slightly less verbosely: “We look at the present day through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.”
There is a way out of consensus technology particularly in terms of superficial technology trends, towards a clearer view of the present day and what is really going on. Look up. See the people with devices the size of a pack of gum with hundreds of songs stored on them. See the news reports about NASA launching satellites the size of coffee mugs that can be controlled by a smart phone app, or the physicists who have photographed the shadow of a single atom.
Or, you could look at your phone. That small, slim glowing window of glass, metal and plastic, more powerful than the computers that launched and monitored the Apollo 11 mission, able to link to the most extensive communications network in the history of the world. Capable, when used in certain ways, of finding a single flag in the middle of the desert, or when used in coordination, toppling, or at least destabilizing, dictatorships. All by pointing at the thing like we are all-powerful wizards using an arcane foci. Steve Jobs was only being partly metaphorical when he described the iPhone as “magical.”
But many people do not see this. After years of disappointment, compounded by the new Millennium arriving with a pop and not a bang, they have started to look back. Still looking, increasingly desperately, for the future they were promised that has already failed. Unable to see the one that they live in. One way that this has manifested itself in recent years is the election of anachronistic populists as national leaders. Most demonstratively by Donald Trump, and his rehashing of a Reagan campaign phrase, “Make America Great Again.” This time, retro-populism will be forever commemorated by red baseball caps.
Good It’s Gone
“MAGA” indicates a past tense of greatness and a promise of renewed greatness. Greatness is of course in the eye of the beholder, and that is the point. There are some that yearn to impose immigration policies from the 1900’s. Mind you this is at the same time that H.G. Wells was predicting war with airplanes in his story, The War In the Air. There are many who wish to limit the rights of people of color and imagine days of segregation and lynchings. So, it is important to remember that a broad swaths people in this country do not look toward the past as something great and worth repeating. In fact, the past for many is a reminder to limited opportunities and daily humiliations. Returning to a false and mythic past is not where greatness exists. Greatness is what we are reaching for, not what we have outlived.
Jetpacks and Interplanetary Settlements
The lies politicians use to ascend to power often involve creating a mythic romanticism surrounding a dead, or imagined past. Or, another manipulative narrative is to heighten fear of “others” those from another tribe. Trump seems to have mastered both techniques. Manufacturing is dead as a human endeavor, but no one wants to believe it. Pretending that the robots and AI don’t exist, is denial at its most extreme. Rhetoric, down right lies and red caps will only work so long before people finally catch on.
Gone But Not Forgotten
There is nothing that will boost manufacturing jobs, which by the way have been in a downward spiral since the 1980’s. The warning signs have flashed for forty years. And we as a society have ignored the truth, supported by phony politicians who have stoked the belief that “those illegal aliens (Mexicans)” are taking the white man’s jobs. A huge lie. Manufacturing jobs are being taken by machines. Wake up, America, you are being played for a patsy.
Have The Wake, Already
Digital watches were a pretty neat idea back in the 80’s, but not such a big deal today.There are less than 50,000 coal miners in the whole country, I think it is time to have the Wake, bury the body, and move on. Politicians, like Donald Trump need to stop promising to bring back the dead. It is also time for the government to step-up and begin training for the jobs that are coming; not promoting a coal revival. Since the 1960’s, the Reader’s Digest has published cover stories about the “world of the future”, showing flying cars, jet-packs and settlements on Mars. Many right-wing politicians, are living in the past and want to take us all back there with them. Many of us ignoring the future we are in, still marching backwards towards the future we never got. Which is beginning to look increasingly like a perilous cliff.