Saturday, April 06, 2013

The problem with "the future"

Bruce Sterling's 2013 SXSW benediction has been talked about over the course of the last month or so, as is usually the case with his contributions to the conference. Cory Doctorow clearly got a kick out of it.

I thought it was great, thought-provoking stuff. The piece still hasn't been transcribed anywhere, so I ended up listening to it on my phone while I took a walk around the neighborhood. This made his discussion of the disruption of long form text by short form always-on media all the more cogent.

I particularly liked the part where cranky old Bruce really lets fly about the state of things to his audience of boosters and entrepreneurs and tech wizards. "Everything is getting worse," he yells at them, almost to the point of his voice breaking. Despite all their talk of "making the world a better place" through "disruptive technology," the climate, politics, the economy, all are in decline. "Where's the betterness?" He asks.

Thus, I was a little confused by his ending, which sounded what seemed to be a triumphalist note. He encourages his argument to take responsibility for "killing the past" and then to "kill it and eat it" anyway. The future (I'm paraphrasing here because digging the exact language out of the audio in the clunky soundstream format the piece is being shared in is a pain) will be and must be built on the ruins of the past.

In retrospect, I think I understand what Sterling is going for. He wants to avoid what he perceives as a sort of guilt-laden retreat from movement and experimentation. The tendency that makes young people enamored of home-pickling and infatuated with the futile notion of returning to subsistence farming. An attempt to return to a romanticized past (as perhaps I am engaged in as I attempt to revive this blog in a weekend of manic posting!).

But the language of "The Future" and "The Past," so common to this sort of discourse, shifts Sterling's argument in a way that partially erases his careful critique of disruption-as-progress from only moments before. In a sense the language is similar to that used by RIP: A Remix Manifesto when it argues that the fight over Copyright is one in which "the past" (in the form of big media companies) attempts to control "the future"  (in the form of Girl Talk, mostly).

I would suggest that rather than exhorting people to take up the cause of building "The Future," despite the cost, we might more acutely need to focus on the idea (which Sterling motions to) of thinking about taking responsibility for the future we build. Given that creation is indeed, always creative destruction, shouldn't we make sure that what we build balances what has been lost?

And moreover, the discussion of a monolithic "Future" conceals the fact that that future will be experienced differently by different people. We have a responsibility to build our futures in a way that does not immiserate the futures of others. This is something that the young, rich, powerful future builders at places like SXSW seem increasingly blind to. We need a future for everyone, not just the best and brightest and most innovative.

To talk about "a future" rather than "the future" might at least move us in the direction of understanding that while future change is indeed inevitable, the direction of that change is not.

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