Why the Future Isn’t What It Used To Be

I think the reason we’re having such a hard time picturing the future—any kind of future—is because this is the first time ever in history where we’ve experienced simultaneous sociopolitical disintegration and technological advancement.

What brought this thought to mind was this article from the BBC: How the near near future became our greatest horror.

[T]he latest piece of dramatic forecasting is perhaps the most fascinating of all: the…new BBC/HBO drama Years and Years imagines the next 15 years of our planet through the eyes of one extended family…living in the North of England…On the one hand, it is an everyday domestic drama that deals, with great warmth and emotional credibility, with timeless, archetypal relationships…And on the other, it sets this against a backdrop of spiralling global catastrophe – not to mention, in Britain, the vertiginous rise of a shamelessly populist politician, Vivienne Rook, played by Emma Thompson.

There are many factors at play behind the shift towards near-near-future science fiction. Technologically, the disorientating, ever-accelerating speed of advancement makes it harder to conceive what a more distant future could look like. “It means that the future is kind of being pulled directly into the present, so it becomes really difficult for us to be able to think beyond a certain period, because it’s just going to be so radically different,” says Luckhurst. “One really key idea is the idea of technological singularity – that point when machines start to invent other machines – and our control of the future completely disappears. By definition, humans can’t imagine what’s that’s going to be like.”

But technology aside, it also comes from the very real sense that human society in the last few years has reached a crisis point. “The world just seems to be madder and hotter and stranger at the moment,” as Davies tells BBC Culture, and that has triggered a grim sense of foreboding about what may lie directly ahead. The election of Donald Trump was the ultimate catalyst for him to start writing Years and Years: “I think when we’re all in our old age we will see this as the greatest event in our history, more than the Twin Towers – a huge turning point in the state of the world,” he says. “Who knows where it’s heading, but right now it’s astonishing what we’re putting up with.” Though he hastens to add, of course, that it’s not just the events themselves, but the way in which they whirr constantly around us thanks to the advent of 24-hour news, allowing a whole new sense of chaos to flourish. “Has [the world] always been like this or it it getting worse? I can’t answer that one but I can be fascinated by it.”

To me, the most striking and salient example is the fact that you can watch slave markets on YouTube! What’s next, watching lions and bears tear apart gladiators in the Colosseum on Amazon Live streaming services? Perhaps you can buy your very own slave with cryptocurrency on your smart phone—there’s an app for that! (some might argue that this already exists thanks to gig economy platforms).

Here are some similar dystopian examples of the “Dark Future”:

1.) Facebook’s auto-generation technology is creating ‘Local Business’ pages for terrorist organisations and creating “celebration” and “memories” videos for violent groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS.

2.) Diseases once thought to be long-vanquished are returning, not because our vaccines don’t work anymore, or even because we don’t have the state capacity for universal vaccination, but because so many people have bought into pseudoscientific conspiracy theories peddled online.

3.) Just about every recent radicalized right-wing mass shooter appears to have spent a considerable amount of time on 4chan and YouTube. These sites are also the primary disseminators of the new “race science” promoted by certain members of the Alt-right and Intellectual Dark Web. Sometimes they e-mail poorly-written “manifestos” filled with “inside jokes” and “memes” to the media to sew further confusion and chaos.

4.) Even China’s explosive growth—constantly trumpeted by Neoliberals—comes joined at the hip with such dystopian features as internment camps for ethnic minorities, an ubiquitous digital surveillance state complete with AI and facial/gait recognition, and a social credit score system designed to squelch criticism and keep citizens in line—i.e. “a digital boot stamping on the human face forever.”

And there are many more examples that I’m sure you can think of. Indeed, in an era in which our buildings turn on the lights, open and close doors as if by magic, and can maintain the same indoor temperature year-round; we have large swaths of major cities where thousands of people live and sleep in makeshift tent cities, and poop on the streets, even in the richest country on earth.

In other words, we’re seeing a profound social disintegration spanning the entire globe at the same time as our science/technological knowledge continues to advance. No wonder we’re so troubled and confused. Every day brings more articles about new developments in genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, renewable energy, space travel, and so forth. Yet in most wealthy countries, most people’s lives are getting progressively, measurably worse every year, as exemplified by the endemic “deaths of despair” across the U.S. and the U.K., and the Gillet Jaunes riots across France (among other things).

This has never happened before, I don’t think, ever before in history. And so we’re fumbling in the dark, as the BBC article describes. Beyond the “next five minutes”, what, if anything at all?

Now, you might say, what about the Fascist and Authoritarian regimes of the twentieth century? Certainly Germany in the 1930’s was a regression? Certainly abominations like the Cultural Revolution and the Killing Fields qualify as going backwards towards barabarism?

But what I would argue is that, as bad as these things were at the time, they were either localized or temporary aberrations. You may disagree with that assessment, but even during those dark times when those despotic regimes took center stage, we had overall social progress globally in the long-term.

Think of it as a cloud passing over the rising sun versus the sunset.

Consider that the Industrial Revolution unfolded simultaneously with:

1.) Democratic, representative governments accountable to citizens supplanted monarchies, landed aristocracies, and various warlords. There was an end to absolutism and the establishment of the universal rule of law for all citizens, including the ruling class.

2.) Professionally-trained civil servants and organized bureaucracies replaced patrimonialism, sinecures, and arbitrary customary laws.

3.) The extension of voting rights to all adult citizens (including women, minorities, and those without landed wealth).

4.) Slavery was abolished everywhere as a legal institution, along with child labor. Unions and worker safety laws were enacted. Debtor’s prisons and indentured servitude went away (Technology played a huge role here).

5.) Leisure time expanded (as compared with the early phase of the Industrial Revolution).

6.) There was a growing acceptance of minority groups and alternative lifestyles (civil rights, gay marriage, anti-discrimination laws, etc.)

7.) There was a slow decline in the most strident religious fundamentalism, and a concomitant  increase in religious tolerance (even towards open atheism).

8.) Women were liberated from absolute financial dependency on their husbands and siblings, and gained increasing control over their own occupational choices and reproductive rights.

9.) Mass education and near-universal literacy became widespread. States provided free primary schooling, often along with free secondary schooling (outside of the United States and Asia). There was the establishment of land-grant colleges and universities in the United States and the G.I. Bill after World War 2.

10.) The welfare state was founded and expanded, providing basic security in old-age, relief to the poor and destitute, and universal healthcare (outside of the United States).

11.) From the Great Depression up until the 1970’s, there was increasing citizen equality, sometimes referred to as “The Great Compression.” (Professional economists came up with something called the “Kuznets curve” which argued that inequality follows a “natural” progression of rapidly increasing, and then steadily declining over time. This has been shown to be false, like so much of 20th century economic theory. As Scheidel, Piketty and others have demonstrated, absent extraordinary events, economic inequality simply increases forever without bound).

11.) Advanced infrastructure was built by central governments: roads, bridges, canals, highways, passenger rail (outside the United States), and air travel infrastructure. Not to mention the global ocean trade enabled by impossibly massive cargo ships, cranes, pallets, barcodes, SKUs and the computerization of supply chains.

The Industrial Revolutions fed into the Enlightenment, and, in turn, the Enlightenment fed into increasing technological capabilities (powered by fossil fuels), creating a positive feedback loop. This loop spiraled ever upward—admittedly with a few significant setbacks—throughout the last few centuries of human history.

But no more.

Every single one of those things is under assault right now! And it’s not just localized like before—it’s everyplace on earth!

Even during the grim days of European Fascism, one could point to the United States under the New Deal as a beacon of hope. During the dark days of Stalinism and Maoism, one could look at Western Europe and North America during the “three glorious decades,” when British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan could tell his people that, “You’ve never had it so good,” and Lyndon Johnson could usher in Civil Rights and the “Great Society.” A spirit of optimism pervaded society and drove things like the moon shot.

Today, even the very notion of the nation-state is disintegrating before our very eyes! Some things that were just considered basic human rights–at least in aspiration if not in actual practice for much of the last 200 years—are no longer considered attainable, or even desirable anymore by large numbers of people, including thought leaders. Instead than the Enlightenment, we are now entering the Endarkenment.

To recap, what we’re experiencing right now is simultanously:

a.) Increasing technological and scientific advancement: artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, facial recognition, “deep fakes”, virtual reality, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, genetic engineering, new materials, solar energy, etc., and:

b.) Profound sociopolitical disintegration across all sectors of society: austerity policies, falling life expectancy (in the U.S.), financialization, debt servitude, unemployment, extreme inequality, political corruption, terrorism, religious fundamentalism, mass migration, mass incarceration, separatist political moments, and perhaps most disturbingly of all, the recrudescence of the greatest hits of the 1930’s: ethno-nationalism, institutionalized racism, eugenics, and extreme right-wing reactionary governments taking the reins of power all over the globe (Brazil, Russia, Poland, Hungary, The Philippines, Estonia, etc.). Similarly-oriented crypto-fascist political parties are taking center-stage in many other countries all around the world as well: The United States, India, Italy, Austria, the Netherlands, Greece, Australia, and many, many more.

I think that’s the reason why predictions of the near-near future can be so wildly divergent. Thus you have both the so-called “Neoliberal Optimism Industry,” described as “the ideological project of telling both those in the West and the Global South over and over and over again, that things are, in fact, improving if not already really great,” preaching to the hedge fund managers at Davos on the one hand. While on the other hand, you have these exact same hedge fund managers nervously asking futurist Douglas Rushkoff how to control their servile workforce after they’ve fled to their bolt-holes in New Zealand and Wyoming as the world collapses into chaos around them and money becomes worthless. Even the normally-optimistic Jared Diamond’s has recently claimed that, “There’s a 49 percent chance the world as We Know It Will End by 2050.”

And that’s what makes future predictions so hard (and so radically different). To my knowledge, we’ve never had this kind of situation before in history, and so there’s no precedent to draw upon. As the BBC article says of the show Years and Years, set in the very near future, it provides “a nuanced portrait of a world simultaneously advancing and crumbling.”

One of the most provocative ideas in the BBC piece is the suggestion that the recently concluded television show Game of Thrones may be more indicative of our near future then of our distant past:

[W]hile Black Mirror reflects our collective anxiety about the speed of technological change – a concept often referred to as ‘future shock’ – these other narratives play on a contrary fear that’s perhaps even more pressing and primordial – the looming possibility that we’ve peaked as a race. As a character in Years and Years says, “it’s like we went too far, we imagined too much… and then pop, whatever we had, we punctured it.” In that way, from one angle, a show that could perhaps be viewed as the ultimate near-future narrative is, rather terrifyingly, Game of Thrones. “It’s based on all of these ancient myths, but it’s obviously so successful because it’s dealing with a post-democratic, extremely hierarchical, violent, but also non-digital world,” says Luckhurst, “which is why it’s so it’s brilliant that people got upset about the Starbucks cup [that accidentally featured in a recent episode] … actually that intrusion is wonderful, because [the show] is about now.”

I’ve written about this before: it’s a system I’ve referred to as Neofeudalism. I haven’t talked much about Neofeudalism for a while, but the concept is more relevant than ever, and proceeding, to be honest, even faster than I had imagined! I’ll have more to say about that in my next post.

For now, I’ll just refer you to this article from a few years ago called “The Twin Insurgency”. It argues that the modern democratic nation-state is under dual assault from both “above” and from “below.” From above come the global .01 percent cosmopolitan plutocrats and their intellectual toadies (yes, I actually know what that word means), who increasingly see themselves as disconnected from any particular nation-state (the so-called “Davos crowd” or “Superclass”). With the absolute globalization of capital, these people have loyalty only to other fellow global plutocrats, and feel no solidarity with the average parochial member of their respective societies. They argue for “open borders,” and see nation-states as an outdated anachronism, destined to be replaced by the anarchic global Marketplace (which they see as a good thing).

From below come criminal gangs, terrorists, and other assorted violent groups excluded from participation in the legal global economy for various reasons:

From below comes a series of interconnected criminal insurgencies in which the global disenfranchised resist, coopt, and route around states as they seek ways to empower and enrich themselves in the shadows of the global economy. Drug cartels, human traffickers, computer hackers, counterfeiters, arms dealers, and others exploit the loopholes, exceptions, and failures of governance institutions to build global commercial empires. These empires then deploy their resources to corrupt, coopt, or challenge incumbent political actors.

From above comes the plutocratic insurgency, in which globalized elites seek to disengage from traditional national obligations and responsibilities. From libertarian activists to tax-haven lawyers to currency speculators to mineral-extraction magnates, the new global super-rich and their hired help are waging a broad-based campaign to limit the reach and capacity of government tax-collectors and regulators, or to manipulate these functions as a tool in their own cut-throat business competition.

Unlike classic 20th-century insurgents, who sought control over the state apparatus in order to implement social reforms, criminal and plutocratic insurgents do not seek to take over the state. Nor do they wish to destroy the state, since they rely parasitically on it to provide the legacy goods of social welfare: health, education, infrastructure, and so on. Rather, their aim is simpler: to carve out de facto zones of autonomy for themselves by crippling the state’s ability to constrain their freedom of (economic) action.

What this leads to is something political scientists have termed the Hollow State. The Hollow State still maintains all the outer trappings of the post-Westphalian nation-state: a flag, an army, a capital city, a bureaucracy, foreign embassies, a civil service, tax collection (for non-elites), and a veneer of order. But underneath it all, the Hollow State can provide only nonexistent or threadbare services to increasing numbers of its own citizens, even basics like education, health care, medicine, infrastructure, housing, financial security in old age, and personal safety.

And so, citizens are entirely on their own, dependent upon the whims and the largesse of wealthy individuals and assorted NGO’s who now control more global wealth than do democratic nation-states. In other words–Neofeudalism.

I’m reminded of Ran Prieur’s prediction from a few years ago, which also argued for increasing technological sophistication alongside continuing social disintegration:

…Extreme poverty will cause political upheavals, but not such a deep political collapse that you won’t have to pay taxes. And I expect little or no technological collapse. Even energy-intensive technologies like cars will not disappear, just shrink to serve the elite. And I think information technology will continue its present course, so people with gadgets out of Star Trek will be digging up cattail roots for food…My latest thinking is that the global economy will have a series of stairstep collapses, and nation-states are at risk, but high tech will survive and get weirder.

In conclusion, most future scenarios tend to fall into a few stereotypical categories:

The Kunstlerian “fast collapse” scenario of returning to a localized world of small, independent farming villages, with nary a touch-screen or internal combustion engine, or even light-bulb to found anywhere.

…Or the even more extreme Guy McPherson scenario where humans go extinct in a climatic Götterdämmerung where runaway methane feedback loops turn the earth into Venus and the oceans boil away. (not exactly a good backdrop for science-fiction BTW).

Or else the Kurzweilian “singularity” scenario of post-human cyborgs acquiring immortality and superhuman powers, and spreading out across the galaxy alongside our artificial lifeform “children”, or else uploading our consciousness into computers à la The Martix.

But, of course, none of the above scenarios are very likely to occur. What is likely to occur is something we’ve never seen before, because we’ve never been here before. And that’s why nobody has any idea, as the BBC article points out:

To get doomier still, there’s also the pertinent question of whether, given current ecological speculation, the human race will even survive beyond the next century or so – an uncertainty which makes applying one’s imagination to a 22nd or 23rd Century rather academic. Certainly, as Luckhurst suggests, thinking of the far future “can only result in a kind of catastrophe so if you want a human-scale drama, it has to be much more immediate and focused on the immediate future.”

Davies, for his part, has chosen to end Years and Years 15 years on, in the year 2034, a decision resulting from a number of considerations – including the simple fact that ageing the characters any more would have required a recasting of the actors. But one key factor was that his mind boggled at the thought of what might have happened to our climate beyond that point. Climate change is certainly an issue that features as an element of the show, but “if there was ever a second series, I think that it would have to be the spine of the series,” he says. “How we survive that, and whether we have any answers to that. Good lord!”