What do we talk about when we talk about “the future”?
By Phil Gillen
What do you know about the future? When you look ahead, what do you see? Self-driving cars, electric cars, artificial intelligence, vast collections of data, space travel? Where did you learn about this future?
It seems like more than a coincidence that most of the ways we conceptualize “the future” have to do with technology, and more specifically, technology that is being actively developed by specific companies, who will use them for profit. It seems like more than a coincidence that after the advent of personal computing, “the future” became heavily defined by the latest lines of personal computing products of various companies, and that we felt obligated to scrap our perfectly good machines and go buy the new one, perhaps even waiting in line or staying up late for a chance to do so.
Self-driving cars are being actively developed by companies like Google and Uber, both of whom have vested profit interests in seeing the technology take off. However, the self-driving car is a patently absurd concept that attempts to replicate the benefits of century-old institutions like public transit by investing headlong in a vastly inefficient system of personal vehicles. There’s little profit in expanding and strengthening systems of public transit, while the profits of selling innumerable personal vehicles are sky-high. Why would the future do this? Isn’t “the future” just some inevitable advance of technology that will naturally occur, and one can either stubbornly ignore and be dragged along by, or eagerly embrace and be carried in the arms of?
Artificial intelligence is another “futuristic” concept that has become omnipresent in popular discourse. Where do you see artificial intelligence the most? In the break room at my work, there’s a television that plays local broadcast stations all day. There’s an advertisement for some application of artificial intelligence on probably five times a day. Each advertisement proclaims that their product is “the future,” and invites you to join them. These products are sold by companies like IBM, Amazon, and Apple, who have been playing similar advertisements for years. News articles about the technology will mention their company names and products. But wide-scale adoption of these technologies would only benefit those companies themselves, their executives, and other businesses. IBM’s technology is only designed to help businesses extract more profit out of their industry, Amazon and Apple’s only to collect more personal data that can in turn be used to more effectively sell products to you.
The advertising, consciously, and the news coverage, unconsciously, intends to convince us that all this is “the future,” and even if we may not like it, we have to get used to it — because there’s no changing a natural force.
In these and other areas, the future has become totally dominated by those with profit motives. As a result, it can no longer really function as an expression of time to come, but merely invoked as an expression of fealty to our corporate overlords, a sigh of resignation to whatever fate they have in mind for us.
In areas of culture, the effect is the same. In cinema, if a film festival tries to curtail the influence of emergent streaming platforms like Netflix, they are decried as “standing in the way of the future.” What they are really standing in the way of is the profit margin of Netflix, and the tendency of a business to drain profit out of every possible arena, including those designed to promote art for our own enrichment. “The future” functions here as a way for executives of technology companies to justify pursuing monopoly, and to disrupt the social and cultural benefits of cinema.
The future no longer belongs to the people. It has become the sole domain, the playground of the ruling class, our oppressors. When we think about the time to come, we can’t think of it as “the future,” some inevitable place defined by dubious technological domination. “Well, this is the future,” is a death knell, not a battle cry. We have to set our own terms, and reject those of the enemy.
Above all, we can’t let “the future” rob us of the present. We should try to make gains for our communities now, try to improve our lives now, try to express ourselves and enrich each other culturally now, and not allow ourselves to be cowed by any capitalist’s idea of how that should be done.