“In order to improve things, you often need to tear down what’s come before, no matter what the cost.” —Alexander Pierce
The Promised Land
Civilization’s future-forward orientation presents an annoying problem. None of us are able to inhabit the world we imagine we are working for. We’re expected to subsist on the leftover dregs of yesterday’s dreams. We never cross over into the promised land.
Its promise perpetually eludes us.
An old man nears the end of his life. He thinks:
‘Ah! Everything I’ve worked for, given my life’s blood to, now it is to be squandered and recklessly spent by these fools!’
(In fact, his empire is by no means as sound, valuable, efficient, or lovely as he imagines.)
Whereas before, he was filled with ambitious plans and lofty dreams, the future is now a terrifying blank, truly tabula rasa. He grips more tightly the reins of control, the vessels of power.
Youth feel their own destiny press upon them. They have little sympathy for an old man’s fears. The grip of his hand oppresses them. They want to cast off the unwieldy weight of convention and begin anew.
Yet to start fresh each lifetime is to live like an animal. Like steps on a spiral staircase that ascends and ascends (to where we know not) we build upon what comes before us.
The youth are impatient with such ant-like labors. The exuberance of youth is such that those afflicted often fling themselves out of windows and try to fly, so intensely do they feel the furnaces of life roaring within them!
They are tempted ever and anon to abandon the long, tedious upward climb and step out into the surrounding clouds. They are sure they can walk on air. There they will build their castles.
It is only the weight of a dead culture that pins them down.
A History of Futurism
Futurism originated in pre-war Italy in the early 20th century. Simultaneously an affirmation and refutal of modernism, its early adherents expressed a profound distrust of old traditions and yearned to break free from the bounds of culture, as epitomized by museums, libraries, and academies.
“Too long has Italy been a dealer in second hand clothes!” cried Futurist founder Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. His orgiastic Futurist manifesto was an ecstatic rhapsody of youth’s strength and disaffection. It glorified industry, urbanity, technology, and machines.
Though they extolled the industrial apparatus and its paraphernalia as a product of a rational modernism, the first Futurists were atavistic, raiding the primal psyche for potent tropes and forms. Their muses were the noise, speed, grit, and violence of the modern industrial city.
Like many of its contemporary adherents, the early Futurists longed to disrupt the conventions of art, business, language, and morality.
And like others to follow them with a bent for disruption, such as the Dadaists and even today’s Occupy youth, their passion was politically naïve and lacked a definite program. (But as it often turns out, the more witting and wily are always waiting in the wings, to step in with all the details at just the right moment.)
But the movement wasn’t apolitical, either. They were also war-mongering, elitist, and misogynistic. Highly patriotic and militaristic, many of its first disciples died violently in the era’s many conflicts, some became Fascists and still others found their way to officialdom in the Soviet state.
World War I destroyed the Italian art movement—which was really more of a brief but defiant gesture than an organized entity—but not its ideology or momentum. Its instincts and intentions can be traced through to today, in an unbroken arc.
While today’s Futurism has changed in significant ways from its proto-movement, these changes represent a logical progression and evolution rather than a break or counter move to its essential ideological tenants. For example, though still city-centric and elitist, it has become cosmopolitan rather than nationalistic and patriotic, reflecting a radical shift in geopolitical realities.
The city still figures predominantly in the Futurist imagination, as it remains the ideology’s central and most fulfilling metaphor. In many ways, only now is it possible to redesign and re-configure the urban landscape to reflect futurist aspirations.
Likewise, today’s Futurists reject their original anti-authoritarianism orientation, and embrace a radical authoritarianism. This makes sense when you realize it began as a fringe movement with little social or political power and progressed to become the central doctrine of the world’s ruling elite, with tremendous political and social clout.
Its agenda is enacted upon the world not though direct political means but through culture, technology and markets.
From Cars and Trains to Planes and Smartphones
The Italian Futurists were intoxicated with technology and the new power it pressed into man’s hands. Marinetti’s manifesto was a tribute to machine power and hailed the automobile, in particular, as a potent symbol of man’s liberation from nature and even death.
“We want to sing the man at the wheel, the ideal axis of which crosses the earth, itself hurled along its orbit,” he enthused. “A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath … a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.”
The advent of the automobile and the aeroplane was a major game changer. The new speed at which humanity could command locomotion had heady implications and would in fact issue in a new era of neocolonialism (which is only today coming to a close). In addition to the speed and command offered by the automobile, the aeroplane added a third power approaching omnipresence in its ability to wield power from a distance, a power that we are very much still grappling with.
Similarly, space exploration, the Internet, robotics, AI, and data science inflame the imagination of today’s Futurists. “We are shrinking time and space with our tools!” they cry, and wax eloquent on intelligent clouds, the Internet of Things, and the near-certainty (Coming soon!) of a new, more powerful and wise intelligence that can guide us into Utopia (the Promised Land) at long last.
The Coming Ascendency of Machines
Beyond all the lofty rhetoric of celestial evolution and galactic destiny, one may wonder what all these data scientists and analysts are really up to.
You never have to but scratch the surface of most machine ascendency movements to find doctrines of cultural and racial superiority. Naturally, these are not the crude formulations of past eras, but finer and higher calculations! It’s no surprise that science is being evoked again to aid in making these “unfortunate but necessary” distinctions.
After all, someone has to move the levers, push the buttons and write the algorithms, deciding who will have, what they will have, and who will have not. The insecurity brought on by the senescence of empire fuels this quest with a new fervent urgency.
One important way that actuarial science and information technology performs this function is via the insurance industry. The insurance industry mitigates risk, making the world safe for financial services, so it’s of utmost importance to preservers of the status quo to save this vital institution. And to boot, the industry sets social norms, defends class position, and builds all kinds of preferences and mandates into its models. Its power to dictate what most people still consider to be a matters of personal choice is growing rapidly, as well as its ability, together with its affiliates, to conduct digital “pogroms” that can very effectively disfranchise those it deems a threat to its survival.
And, in addition to diminishing choice and autonomy for many of us, some people have decided that they should never die.
Like the alchemists before them, today’s Futurists hunger for a materialist immortality. As Woody Allen said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve immortality by not dying.”
Google recently announced its own epic quest against death, and a slew of bio-tech start ups are looking at ways extend, enhance, and preserve life.
Medical science has forsaken general care to apply its best knowledge, tools and minds to the project. But its not clear that living longer will make people any better or wiser, or that they will be more willing than now to face the serious problems that confront our global village.
Goethe’s Faust, an alchemist also, had devoted his life to science and the quest for knowledge and spiritual attainments. And yet when Mephistopheles stood at last to do his bidding, Faust’s concern quickly became how to rid himself of his grey beard to go carousing.
Safety is Everything
In any case, in such a world safety is obviously the primary concern. Hyper-control of the individual and containment of volatile populations is absolutely essential. And so machines, surveillance, and smart devices are being pressed into service to this end. And yet, this agenda is beset with difficulties and by no means is its success assured. Like the philosophy of the alchemists, their science is tangled up in a lot of magical thinking and mystical ideation.
Futurists justify their program of Orwellian control by claiming they are actually saving the world, and even the Cosmos, but a careful examination of their plans and models reveals what can only be described as reactionary hysterics. What is being preserved is a way of life that no longer responds to the conditions of life, but attempts to shut or gate itself off and leave nothing to chance.
The big threats to such a system are culture and language, thus more and more control is wielded over their production and use. But language will never be made into a code, and culture too can never be completely controlled.
A Clash of Cultures
Different cultures are always in different stages of development, and an ongoing exchange of ideas, keeps them alive and flourishing. There is no doubt that the British Empire was renewed by its fusion with Indian culture, and today’s Europe is a product of a similar Germanization of Roman culture. Yet at times, too, there is a “falling off” and certain aspects or cultures disappear or change radically.
This hyper-controlled, technocratic vision is a West-centric one, culturally solipsist to the extreme. To the extent that it realizes a cultural transfusion is necessary to its health, it imports the necessary materials, but dreads a true “Renaissance,” which will essentially destroy what the West sentimentally values most about itself. So this synthesis occurs in careful, almost lab-like conditions. However, it is impossible to control and contain culture, and even in the most careful, sterile constructions there is something, as Edward Said wryly remarked in Civilization and Imperialism, “not entirely useful” to the makers of culture.
Other cultures and subcultures have their own imagination and destinies, and they will inevitability borrow from this one. Technology, computers, space-exploration, and other facets of the Futurist imagination with certainly have some role to play on our collective future here on Earth, and beyond, in shaping future imaginations and ideations.
If nothing else, technological advances like the Internet and social media have profoundly impacted consciousness and the human mind, shaping and changing the way we function and interact.
The Youth Are Coming
Sigmund Freud posited that civilization began when the young men ganged up on the leader and killed him. Freud insisted on this beginning as an actual historical moment ,which was internalized in the psyche and thereafter passed down the generations. Though this resembles closely the theological idea of original sin, many have pointed out that Freud reached this conclusion by merely following the science of his day, a reminder that science too can lead us astray.
Most people now believe that it is simply this murderous urge that drives the complex. In a functional civilization, the transfer of power is largely amiable and cooperative, and the aggressive impulse is sublimated into a helpful competitiveness. When the leader refuses to let go, we don’t usually gang up on the leader and kill him. We find other ways to depose him of his authority.
Playwright Henrik Ibsen understood very well this potent impulse, and the perversity of a nature which resists it. He dramatized this dynamic with extreme lucidity and humanity in his fin de siècle masterpiece, The Master Builder.
The play debuted in Berlin in 1893, and was performed later that same year in London. Seven years later in New York, the play kicked off the 20th century. Ibsen was explicitly critiquing the same senescence that the Italian Futurists would so passionately decry a few years later.
The play’s protagonist is architect Halvard Solness, the Master Builder. Solness has built up a small empire which he rules absolutely, leaving nothing to chance. His success is built on the inauspicious event of a fire which destroyed his wife’s ancestral home and killed his children. Later we learn that he had wished for this accident, if he didn’t cause it.
From this event grew his commercial success. He divided the land into parcels and built on them, slowly driving out all competition. He holds his household in thrall and oppresses the talented son of his old competitor, the ailing Knut Brovik, whom Solness ruthlessly crushed in his turn. Though he is no longer interested in the community, and won’t even start the building plans for an eager young couple’s home, he refuses to let Ragnar work independently.
When old Brovik approaches Solness, with hopes of seeing his son’s advance before he dies, Solness denies him this single solace.
BROVIK: Why, good heavens! there is surely room for more than one single man–
SOLNESS. Oh, there’s not so very much room to spare either. But, be that as it may—I will never retire! I will never give way to anybody! Never of my own free will. Never in this world will I do that!
He and his wife live unhappily in the home he built, with its three empty nurseries, and though he has no hope for further children, he is building a new home for himself with additional nurseries. In a conversation with the family doctor and friend, Doctor Herdal notes that his wife Aline is surely made very unhappy by the close proximity Solness keeps to his young office assistant, Kaia. Solness agrees that it is too bad, but cannot be helped. He needs the young girl, who harbors an infatuation for him, to keep the young Ragnar in his place, for the young man’s mathematical calculations are vital to Solness’s work.
Solness confides to the doctor that he fears “the youth”, who will certainly “come knocking” and eventually push him out, but he acknowledges a certain longing, too. This twin dread and fascination are personified in the young Hilda Wangel, who comes knocking, exactly as Solness had foresaw. But he seems not to see his destiny in her.
Instead, he mistakes her for a confidant. Young Hilda does not plead or demand like the others, but uses mastery and manipulation to bring Solness to desire and achieve his own downfall. She plays on his pride and goads Solness, who has grown to fear heights, into climbing the steeple of his new home to place a wreath on it. Her mastery over him is almost complete in following exchange. Hilda has just learned from Aline that Solness is afraid to climb the steeple.
Hilda: [Looks intently at him.] Is it so, or is it not?
Solness: That I turn dizzy?
Hilda: That my master builder dares not —cannot—climb as high as he builds?
Solness: Is that the way you look at it?
Solness: I believe there is scarcely a corner in me that is safe from you.
Solness’s fatal plunge from the steeple—for Hilda does convince him to climb—becomes a renewal of life for the community. By pushing him to climb as high as he can build, Hilda forces Solness to confront his limits. He submits to her because she, unlike the others, has the will and ability to master him. She is his worthy adversary, and so there is no shame.
The Future is Now
William Gibson remarked that, “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.” It’s true that technological advances and the material advantages that they bring can never be spread out evenly, and development is always jagged. However, when a doctrine of Futurism is leveraged to preserve and extend a status quo that is actually life-defeating and future-defeating, it deserves our attention and criticism.
There have always been futurists: seers, prophets, and other gazers who saw what was far off, but as through a mirror dimly and never with perfect clarity. In 2003, Wired ran a piece announcing that professional futurism was dead. “Now we have proven actuarial science to guide us.”
It’s worth remembering all of the places science has taken us. Of all of the tools that evolution has bequeathed us, the human mind might be the most useful one after all.