I’ve been fascinated for the past few years with the idea of the future, especially the way that technology is imagined as part of utopian or dystopian futures. The Virtual Futures conference at Warwick University gave me some interesting food for thought. It’s actually an anniversary of a series of conferences held in the mid-1990s, and many of the original participants were invited to return and to talk about the process of their careers in the interim.
The idea of revisiting past futures is fascinating. It acts as a corrective to the sense that our, or any age, is distinctive. It also reminds us of how different kinds of technology drive different forms of speculation – especially when they are new. A few of the speakers referred to the excitement of virtual worlds and to the idea that internet communication could allow people to collectively imagine a shared world through text. Others described the response to the radical ideas of the time, like actor-network theory and the theory of assemblages. Many of the questions had to do with ideas of ‘what does it mean to be human; what does it mean to be alive?’ For example, Rachel Armstrong has been experimenting with ‘protocells’ made of liquid and minerals, which demonstrate some emergent properties such as clustering and ‘evolution’ despite not being alive. In this context, what does ‘liveness’ mean? Are the properties that scientists describe as life merely virtual? Performance artist Stelarc also explores the possible disconnect between life, body, and individual. He argues that what is important is not the individual body, nor even the individual’s sense of self, but what relationships are being made – socially and politically.
Over the past fifteen years, there has been a very significant shift in the kind of relationships being made, particularly between the ‘virtual’ and the social. Mark Fisher (aka blogger/teacher k-punk) pointed out how the cyberspace of the 1990s promised a kind of trance-like escape from reality, in which you could get lost, find yourself, or find others. This has been replaced with the current layering of technologies, interactions, and demands, which Fisher likens to parasites (following Michel Serres). These demand our attention, and our time. As Sherry Turkle has argued, each tiny demand for attention provides a hit of dopamine, providing a tiny moment of satisfaction, despite the fact that multitasking is actually far less effective than concentrating fully on a task.
This lack of control of time amplifies the strain of neoliberalism, according to Fisher. Precarity of labour, which initally had positive connotations, is exacerbated by the persistent demands of media. Heather Menzies, in a 2005 book No Time, examines this trend even more broadly, arguing that the crisis of attention threatens not just our sense of self, but the accountability of our society. We are asked to be consistently present and responsive. So instead of precarity providing more control over what time is spent in work, and in what way, our ‘virtual present’ is typified by persistent interruption, persistent response, persistent communication and diminished reflection.
Not only that, but neoliberalism, the ideology that promised emancipation through individual competition and resulted in the automation and speculation of managerial capitalism, has collapsed. Since 2008, it’s been clear that the existing system, and its ideology, no longer functions. Yet no credible alternative has replaced it. Essentially, we have been experiencing an age in which we are informed that everything is changing, yet things have remained mostly the same.
Richard Barbrook also explores the futures of the past, tracing the connection between American cold war ideologies and imperialist projects and the visions of networked society as providing liberation from space and time. His 2007 book, Imaginary Futures, traces the pre-history of the internet and its links to the American investment in science, cybernetics and military command and control systems. Like Fisher, he thinks that we have been getting the same vision of the neoliberal, cybernetic future for the past 30 years. He concludes, as well, that we need to actually imagine new futures, but doesn’t necessarily have a sense of what they might be – although he cheekily proposes ‘communalist cybernetics’ that draw on the fact that the internet is based on sharing, not on selling.
I am not sure that merely focusing on the opportunities to share is a convincing future. After all, the sharing economy is behind much of what Fisher sees as the amplification of parasitic demands on attention. Furthermore, despite the press about the decline of subscriptions to Facebook, the links between the social graph created by commenting and responding online are increasingly underpinning the media economy. All of this is the direct result of a social shift towards media as being based on sharing and contribution – often filtered, enfolded, or enclosed within structures of traditional media. It’s not possible, in this case, to definitively locate an ‘alternative’ like Barbrook’s communalist cybernetics.
I have been thinking recently that one way of considering alternatives, and even, “futures” is to take seriously the idea of failure. Barbrook’s research on the history of the internet reiterates how for decades, the same arguments about the primacy of managerial capitalism have been put forward. This reiteration left no place for the ideology to fail. Similarly, neoliberalism and managerial capitalism have overstayed their welcome, but their institutions have been proclaimed ‘too big to fail’. The past future (now our present) is Fukayama’s ‘end of history’ – the final triumph of managed systems over complexity.
At the conference, Stelarc pointed out that the artist’s role is not to outline a particular future, but to experiment with contingencies – to explore a number of possible futures. Some will not come to pass. Some will be demostrated as completely ridiculous. And most will ‘fail’ in that they will or can not be sustained. Reintroducing failure into our cultural imaginary may help us past what Fisher sees as the most dangerous political issue of our time – the sense that there is no alternative to neoliberalism. Failure is evidence of complexity. There a thousand ways for something to go wrong. Developing a culture in which failure is possible is also a means of revealing the artistry in a process (social, creative, political) that can otherwise be concealed.
And maybe, permitting failure might also release us from the kind of precarity in which we are required to always be present, available for work, and successful.