A Series of Problems for Thought Posed to Our Perpetual Present by the Future
7 April 2023
Problem 1. Power flows through the past, present, and future, but in different ways.
Those looking to conserve power often seek to control the past. Cosmologies, religions, and sovereigns all cast long shadows. The farther back that their symbols of power can span, the more potent they become. So most stake claims on time immemorial. Their symbolic power resides in the bluster of saying that everything has happened before and it will happen again. This is how bombastic stories arise about unbroken chains of succession, chthonic deities who created the earth, and how we have always been technological. This is part of their attempt to convince us that even change is an illusion. Some things are simply eternal, we are made to believe.
Presentism is a bit more peculiar. In its simple variety, presentism takes things to have always been the way that they are now. Its presumed antidote is historicity in which the actuality of some other time so different than our own is thought to dislodge the prejudices of the present. But even among those who brag of their historical prowess, a deeper presentism still persists: that of modern technical thinking.
What of the power of the future? It is a not-yet that is always incomplete. Its time is that of perhaps. If Gil Scott-Heron were alive today, his track “the revolution will not be televised” would perhaps be named “the future will not be computed.” That is because there can be no images of the future, only signals that arrive without warning. This had made it ripe for scammers, grifters, and hoaxers who sell shares in the now to things said to pay off big in the future. But this should not turn us away from the future, just those who pretend speak about it with too much certainty. A consequence is that the only ethical time is in the future – the temporality of those with nothing in either the past or the present. For only in the future could there be a world in which everything is different: inconceivably better, somehow not worse.
Problem 2. The past haunts us by reminding us too much of the present.
For some, the most horrifying image of time is a past that will not pass. The past accumulates in the present as a single block of time, weighing everything down with suffocating force. The collision of the past and present makes up a zone where history is made to hurt. This is where we get the image of the vampire, whose ranks are still dominated by effete aristocrats looking to reestablish their estate after modernity passed them by. Similarly, ghosts appear in places, most often houses, where the past holds on. It is not a coincidence that psychoanalysis was born in the photographic age of spiritualism, with its seances, blinking lights, cryptic symbols, mysterious voices, possession, formless phantoms, and all. For with psychoanalysis, one can understand how the past has a violent relationship with the present through history. Psychoanalysis theorizes how “that which cannot not be repeated” is simultaneously an operation of power and a sickness. And by complement, “that which could not be forgotten” is a traumatic injury in which the past haunts the present.
Dig deep enough, and history is not just filled with greedy men but suppressed folk religions, murdered indigenous people, and wronged wives. Though serving no more than a cheap prop, the supernatural events of Poltergeist are all set in motion by a house being improperly built on unmarked graves. But does not the flickering TV in the film’s signature scene update spirit possession for the media age? The past communicates no longer in the slippery signifiers hiding behind an ink blot but filter and compression artifacts.
The past, however, does not have the power it once had. This is not to say that history and other images of the past have disappeared. Cursed cellphones, unexplained digital artifacts, and other gremlins in the machine persist. But as investment in the past has faded, so has its power to compel belief. Death is history made apparent in stuck pixels or a cracked screen. Which is to say, a temporary defect to be eliminated in the next update.
Problem 3. We now torment the future with images of the present.
The future became a territory to be annexed. This is how the 20th century dedicated itself to prevent the events of the future from coming to pass. With physics no longer able to believe in the determinism of the Age of Reason, statistics becomes the basis for new kind of “objective knowledge.” The inductive rationality of probability incorporates tiny slices of the future into the present. Its greatest consequence is the reduction of the future to a dream of the present with only minor modifications.
On the one hand, one can now desire an aseptic future still ruled by chance but emptied of any unforeseen events. No wonder machine-learning AI is the current fad, as its intelligence is really just an elaborate statistical trick. On the other hand, one can also invest in possible futures that expand the present to new places where it has not yet been.
Recent obsessions over computation in financial capitalism demonstrate the overlap of both: emptying out the future by injecting massive datasets of not-yet-realized permutations of the present. The whole process happens at such a high level of abstraction that it remains shrouded in mystification. But its dark side is much easier to discern because it is felt acutely by so many. Everyday peoples’ investments in the future is experienced as debt, which when it comes down to it, is nothing more than an obligation to future work. And as Nietzsche said, there’s no better police than work.
This version of the future arrived through the crosshairs during World War II, a discovery of wild mathematician Norbert Wiener. Then, he was trying to devise a way to predict the flight of enemy pilots so as to direct automatic fire-control systems. Although his gun was never put into production, his avatar of the future (as an enemy bomber) was. The name he gave to the worldview is “cybernetics,” and it came to define behavioral psychology, microeconomics, the Cold War psyche, cyber culture, and so much more. Even the dynamics of postmodern urban design can be traced back to it, from city planning from the sights of an enemy bomb to development initiatives modeled to neutralize race riots.
Seen crudely from the perspective of the present, then, the future is a threat to be predicted and then neutralized or exploited.
Problem 4. The paradigmatic modern thinker of the present is the engineer.
The most modern thinker is the engineer, who sees the world as nothing but a collection of problems to be solved. The engineer knows only one style of question, a Whiggish concern over what something “is good for.” In that way, thought is treated as the technical means for growing the power of the present. In the disenchanted mind of the engineer, power is a crudely material thing to be measured, managed, and accumulated. In the clock-time of the engineer, all other times are mythic illusion. The past becomes the realm of the dead and the future, the not-yet alive. Especially greedy engineers treat the past as a resource, as something to be exploited from the perspective of the present – containing lessons to be learned and improved upon, mistakes that can be profitably corrected, and traps into which overly-sentimental competitors fall. In turn, thinking too far in the future is futile, John Maynard Keynes argues, as “in the long run we’re all dead.” But when presentists do address the future, it is something for them to plan, which is to say, treated as a number of specified paths to be selected like options packages for a new car.
The engineer’s favorite building is the Pompidou Centre. For them, facades are irrelevant. Why not make the wrapper the infrastructure of the building? So much the better that everything is color-coded, as one could then trace the plumbing, HVAC, and electrical systems. After reading McLuhan, they took him to be saying that “the ornamental dimension of anything functional is always another function.” The future, to them, is a marginally better version of our current world. The lifespan of the end-user has already been imagined from product launch to planned obsolescence. Their life a little bit easier due to fewer barriers, more screens, smoother interfaces, quicker transitions, and softer hardware. The comforts of a world we already know, but with a few technical obstacles overcome.
Problem 5. To our detriment, our time is that of a perpetual present.
The defining problem of our era is: no matter how much things change, the more they stay the same. Advertising still tries to sell “inventive” products, art continues its search for the “new,” and emails beg patience due to “unprecedented” events. But no one believes that any of them will truly upend the world – certainly not the disease, toil, and cruelty that defines the present. Anti-Black policing continues to violently put people in their place, so-called essential workers are forced to help the economy hum along even as millions hemorrhage money, and a fair portion of the American population eagerly spread a deadly disease they publicly denounce as a hoax.
No recent event has achieved the symbolic force necessary to topple the present. Perhaps the planes that flew through the Twin Towers once threatened to puncture the great fabric of American empire. But who can even recall their message anymore, which was that modern technology had softened the whole western world into a target? In a grotesque union of form and content, they transformed the commonplace technology of consumer airplanes into a weapon. But rather than forcing a reckoning, the nation hardened in response. It, and so many other possible moments for genuine reflection, have all been rapidly foreclosed as events. Declaring police-involved shootings non-events, the information-hungry criminologists of the FBI barely even tracks them. Other mass death was routinization at Columbine and Pulse, in Sandy Hook and Parkland, and abroad in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is no wonder that so much of the country has reacted with such indifference to a pandemic. We should not doubt that every proper name (the site of a massacre, the name of a victim, or the slogan of a campaign) has the capacity to provoke. But so far, the defining feature of our world is how stubbornly it remains the same.
For a moment in the 1990s, events verged on an eruption. When the Berlin Wall fell, it seemed like something new might appear. But all the future held for the former Soviets were knock-offs derivative of what already existed. At the same time, ever-shrinking technology was now finally small enough to launch a new generation of consumer microtechnology. With microprocessors connecting through the world wide web, everyday people began sharing media previously controlled by big businesses and the government.
Seizing the opportunity to create something new, an “alter” globalization movement reached for the coat-tails of capitalism as it fled into newly-accessible spaces and markets. “Another World is Possible!” was their rallying cry, “a world where many worlds are possible.” Fresh approaches to gender, race, economics, government burst onto the global scene. But instead of catapulting the world into a thousand different futures, the capitalist world-market used them all to freshen up old hierarchies.
For all of the optimism for a movement “from below” whose plurality was touted as its greatest strength, structural domination expanded into micro and multiple dimensions – the explosion of boring old feminism into many new feminisms allowed boss girls to head tech companies and high positions within government, while the poor continued to get poorer and gender-based violence kept marching on. Hope now arrives wrapped in pessimism. “Another End of the World Is Possible,” the new iteration of the slogan goes.
Problem 6. The future terrifies us by not looking different enough.
The present tries to smuggle itself into the future to keep it from coming true. Every advancement in computation, for instance, produces a new type of abstraction to hide the gendered labor of what came before it. At every step along the way, the gendered violence of work has been concealed by cotton mills, counting machines, vacuum tubes, fire control systems, telephone switches, washing machine-like hard drives, personal computers, server farms, and smart phones. Propagandists of the present try to sell each as the future. But as Marx argues, history advances by its bad side. Glamorous techno-fixes are an advertising pitch for the brutal march of the present, not the future.
Science fiction is set in the future to better address the present. By dramatizing what is already present by taking it to the extreme, it provides a different vantage point to what has been taken for granted. The trouble is that science fiction has been around long enough that much of it has already come true. Inventions conjured to make audiences fear futuristic dystopias now enrapture the popular imagination. To give a small example, much of the speculative movie-magic technology of Minority Report now exists, such as self-driving cars, touch-screen interfaces, biometric identification, personalized advertising, and crime-prediction software – with manufacturers promoting them “as seen on the big screen!” Presumably, few would dispute that the film was a dystopia, which is to say, a grim world viewers are meant to dread. How did it shift from mirror to laboratory? A dystopia to be sabotaged rather than a future to be manufactured? Are the horrors of the future already so commonplace that they have become banal? Perhaps Baudrillard was right to see simulation as the defeat of critique. Somewhere along the way, science fiction’s critical function was transformed by engineers to feed-forward the dangers of the present into the future.
Apocalypse is similarly popular. But unfortunately, in a twist of that popular phrase from the 1970s, it is now easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of the present. Authors, unintentionally revealing their presentism, tend to set post-apocalyptic stories in worlds that remain eerily like the one we already live in, only worse. The only breakdown that seems to concern them are technical systems (the electrical grid) and social formations that have been made technical (government, military). They eagerly fill the void with racism, sexism, and capitalism. Such stories fail to live up to the label “apocalypse,” as the drama revolves then around how much of the present characters are able to bear. And it is hardly apocalyptic to suffer from too much of the present rather than too little. To live up to the name, then, what needs to take center stage is a cataclysm so significant as to dislodge what defines the present. Only then, with the world as we know it has disappeared, would a new form of life emerge and the future truly arrive.
Problem 7. The potential of the future lies with the terror of the unknown, which is to say, an event that undoes the present.
The future is a radical event. It is an intrusion. Its life can be measured in the length of an interruption, with its end commencing in the imposition of the new. These are the three temporalities of the future: intrusion, interruption, imposition. Their existence attests to the failures of the past and present whose time they overtake. The confrontation between these conflicting times takes on a number of faces: first, brash attempts to prevent the event; second, denial over the incapacity to extend the present forever; and third, resignation to the arrival of the new. Perhaps each encounter bears an affect, such as shock, bewilderment, and finally, submission.
Though the future bears no images, we have imagined it in at least two ways, with the monstrous and the alien. Whether they know it or not, most people are more comfortable with the monstrous. That is because the monstrous begins with the familiar, mutating indiscernibly until the well-known becomes strange. When seen retrospectively through evolutionary success stories, such monstrosity appears elegant if not comfortably predestined. From the perspective of the present, however, the monstrous is experienced through the terror of the uncanny, disastrous mistakes, or cancerous growth. The alien, by contrast, is the unfamiliar as it makes contact with the known. These encounters are necessarily unsettling. They are less about cruelty, which bears too much intention, than the brutal indifference of the unknown.
There is nothing about the future that ensures it will be better than the present. For those who believe that we already live in the best of all possible worlds, it will certainly be worse. But that is the old avant-garde gamble of blowing up the sun to upend convention and destroy the past. What could be more boring, they would say, than what we already have now?
The image above is from the artwork L'Ete '67 by S. H. Raza.