Futurism

Can an Authoritarian Mind Afford Futurism? 

An authoritarian submissive doesn’t imagine the future – he merely survives the present. The future is of interest only to those who expect to shape their own. 

  • The absence of hope for a better future is a cause for (political) concern.
  • Anxieties about the future must be addressed in order to counter the spread of authoritarian populism and illiberal nostalgia
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The Jetsons – The show that got us excited about the future (1963-65 & 1985-87)

The Hungarian version was the Mézga family (Message from the future – 1969-78)

Futurism used to be positive.

The fact that it isn’t anymore should concern the proponents of peace and liberal democracy. The absence of a positive vision of the future may deserve more attention than the authoritarian bogeymen of the day.

Post-WW2 futurism was thriving. It used to be all about flying cars and smiling women enjoying the mod-cons of ridiculously mechanical kitchens.

The Jet-Smooth Ride feels like this, Chevrolet 1964

The Jet-Smooth Ride feels like this, Chevrolet 1964 – Everything was supposed to fly in the future

The Skyline Express, PROPELLER-DRIVEN TRAIN (Dec, 1958)

Except trains, apparently. They were supposed to hang (The Skyline Express, PROPELLER-DRIVEN TRAIN (Dec, 1958)

Transportation of the Future, 1958

Transportation of the Future, 1958

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Endless excitement at the thought of moving sidewalks – and no doubt someone had a vision of cities full of these

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Actually, flying cars are perfectly possible. They were just stalled by regulation

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Trips to the Moon – 1952

Wagner Aerocar (1965)

Wagner Aerocar (1965)

Copter Cops (Nov, 1958) Source Mechanix Illustrated

Copter Cops (Nov, 1958) Source: Mechanix Illustrated

Rotorway Javelin personal helicopter, 1965

Rotorway Javelin personal helicopter, 1965

It was not just American. Here is a Soviet dream for the future:

Helicopter taxi in Moscow, 1956. Journal “Knowledge is Strength”

Helicopter taxi in Moscow, 1956Journal “Knowledge is Strength”

What 2000 Was Supposed To Look Like (in 1958) 2

What 2000 Was Supposed To Look Like (in 1958)

The Great Transportation Promise of the 1970s

This pitch starts exactly like Uber’s… 

Gizmondo The Great Transportation Promise of the 1970s

…and then offers The Great Transportation Promise of the 1970s (Gizmondo)

Mechanical inventions were everywhere. In real life and in fantasies about the future. Whatever doesn’t fly yet – it will. Whatever is not automatized – it will be. There was no such thing as too much mechanical enhancement and there was no limit to what we can achieve. Man on the Moon? You bet! Olympics on the Moon! And cities underwater, obviously.

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Underwater city (Gizmondo)

The “dream dishwasher” for 1962 from a 1955 ad

The “dream dishwasher” for 1962 from a 1955 ad – The more machines the better!

Rural Living in the Future. 1981

Rural Living in the Future. 1981 – There was no such thing as too much mechanical enhancement…

olution for school overcrowding problem

Solution for school overcrowding problem: Mechanical school in your home.

Old Age Rejuvenator Centrifuge, 1930s

Old Age Rejuvenator Centrifuge, 1930s – Even ageing reversal is mechanic

1930s

Utilize your sleep! 1930s

Images of the bright future depicted fathers commuting to work in innovative ways and robot arms serving up breakfast in automatized kitchens for the delight of smiling housewives.

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Mechanical inventions are easy to understand. They are what they are – no hidden cameras or internet-connected spyware. They are tangible. Once you paid for them, they are yours. The old ideas of private property, privacy, and who is the boss (the human) are not challenged by robotic arms, no matter how many you get installed in your home. With digital homes and inventions, all these old notions became challenged, disrupted, and you are no longer the owner of your software, driver of your car, or even the boss of your digital butler.

Some if these inventions have since materialised, others have proved to be superfluous. Some never happened because of regulatory objections, like flying cars. Governments were glowing with pride by making themselves the superheros without whom planes could never fly, nuclear energy would never be safe and roads, long, flat stretches of asphalt, could never be made. Governments in the 60s were just as futuristic as the arts and the culture.

Other aspects of futurism, such as human futurism have never taken root. Social progress was not part of the mechanical dreams of the future – leaving the powerful unchallenged, and thus allowing the improvements to be made.*

At some point we have stopped dreaming about the future as a society. 

A few decades on, innovation fell out of love with mechanical improvements – and turned digital. And we fell out of love with the future altogether. Was it the looming threat of the ever-growing debt countries have amassed while ‘stimulating’ the economy and ‘creating’ jobs? Was it the past-worshipping nationalism that has taken root under unassuming, harmless-sounding names? Was it the degeneration of our political class from statesmen who put aside tribal egos to never let war happen again into the-devil-may-care populists, who have only scorn for their voters and whose only reason for going into politics was to get to the honeypot of taxpayer money? That we were told to focus on who promises a 16th month pension or free money for all because there is really nothing else we can hope from life (that is still allowed)? Perhaps all of these things.

In the meantime, social progress has upset the social hierarchy – that used to be unchallenged by mechanical inventions. Uncertainty about employment and social status in the digitalised world has made society (both ‘left’ and ‘right’) recoil from whatever else this unpredictable future might bring.

One of the reasons we don’t regard the digital future with such starry-eyed optimism is that governments aren’t propagating it. Politicians were not present at the birth of the digital economy, they didn’t cut its ribbons, and didn’t pose as digital ‘job creators’. So they didn’t spend taxpayer resources on propagating it. If it were up to politicians, we were still using dial phones and idly dream about a wristwatch that has a calendar in it.

But the digital economy happened anyway – and with time, it became successfully colonized by said politicians. National boundaries went up all over the internet, not just in the shape of firewalls, surveillance and censorship, but in national IP addresses, country-bound payment cards, location-based services (and other ways that make internet browsing a frustrating and limited experience today).

But the state’s heavy hands on the digital economy is not the only thing that made us give up on the future. It is also the way we perceive ourselves in the world. Specifically, how much we feel we can control and influence our own lives. If we feel empowered to shape our future and strong enough to react to whatever the future brings, we don’t dread what the future may bring: we look for opportunities in it.

If, however, we feel helpless regarding our own future, if we are not in control of what happens to us, not in control of how much resources we dispose over, we have a reason to dread the future. Call it the economic situation, even though the reasons are more complex. The real state of the economy (how it allows an individual to flourish, not what the aggregate statistics show) is a very good proxy of the mental state of society, how much it gave in to authoritarian submission or how resilient people are to the overgrowth of power. And if we look at the economy, if we look at the jungle of regulation, if we look at the calcified state of innovation, it is not hard to see the reason why people give up on shaping their own future. Because wherever they reach, it is already forbidden.

Digital futurism is altogether missing from mainstream thinking – unlike mechanical futurism. It is limited to blockchain-enthusiasts and high priests of artificial intelligence (AI) – both alienating and seemingly out-of-touch. Before these inventions could even go mainstream, their prophets become self-satisfied and exclusive.

Digital futurists appear elitist and exclusive – and proponents of digital innovations just a bit too self-congratulatory for being intellectually superior (basically, knowing how to code). Engineers (as always) are more preoccupied with the complexity of the engineering problems than the human consequences of their inventions. They appear willfully blind to the potential risks – especially the political and social challenges these new innovations may bring – because they already invested so much time and their entire identity into their invention-babies. Their attempts at addressing the emerging social challenges are disastrous as well as strikingly authoritarian. Ranging from the establishment of the church of AI, to creating lists of naysayers, and massive surveillance and military nightmares powered by these inventions, the adoption of digital technology appears to be strikingly authoritarian in its nature: giving the impression that the individual is helpless and the overlords are out of our control and out of touch.

Common fears of the future now include the rapid changes of the labour markets, economic anxieties, fear of the complexity of the new technology – as well as dystopian nightmares of a machine uprising. Not only are people pessimistic about their political futures (unlike the post-war years), they don’t see their digital future as bright – let alone their social status.

The absence of a positive view of the future is a cause for concern

Many are aware of the fallacy of this thinking. There is nothing wrong with technology – there is everything wrong with people who wield power these days. And of course, there is something wrong with the economy, that makes everyone feel supremely helpless and thus receptive to authoritarian messages of both left and right.

An authoritarian mind cannot afford to think about the future

An authoritarian submissive doesn’t imagine the future – he merely survives the present. The future is of interest only to those who expect to shape their own.

  • For those who feel powerless, changes in the future are yet another uncertainty (or threat) that will have to be survived.
  • As a consequence, a strongman is very desirable to help deal with it and shelter us from the change.
  • A reactive mind (a staple characteristic of authoritarian thinking) doesn’t feel comfortable with the uncertain and unknown, and the future is both – by definition.
  • A mind in survivalist mode doesn’t concern itself with philosophical and operational ‘luxuries’, such as the future and what it might be like, because it regards it as a first world problem, a luxury topic, right from the top of the (deeply misleading) Maslow-pyramid. (Read here why our view of the hierarchy of needs is deeply self-defeating.)
  • Apart from the deep-seated dislike of uncertainty, an authoritarian mind is also trapped by its submissiveness to authority – and when that authority doesn’t push for visions for the future, a crippled, helpless mind will certainly not begin.
  • This is where we fall prey to the phoniness of the previous futuristic drive: All those futuristic industries in the 1960s were state-financed and state-promoted.*
  • Hierarchical and status quo thinking are also no friends of disruptive novelties. They will upset the current order, where one feels they know whom to follow and whom to defer to.
  • Zero-sum thinking is not a friend of innovation either. Those worries about loss of jobs and machines replacing humans are prime examples in a non-qualitative, zero-sum thinking.

The absence of hope for a better future is a cause for (political) concern.

The state of futurism and the worrisome lack of enthusiasm about it are worrying symptoms of something wrong with the world.

But can a positive vision of the future distract from the authoritarian mind shackles of today?

A bogeyman is only as powerful as much attention it gets. And only on those who give it their attention. From the memetic point of view, a very practical question emerges:

Can the future (and futurism) act as a distraction from today’s mental downward spiral and intellectual disintegration?

Attacking the vicious and self-reinforcing cycle of authoritarian thinking head-on cannot tackle it (hence its resistance to pro-freedom challenges). What works instead is crowding out attention from the (real or perceived) threats – combined with individual empowerment. In other words, turning attention to potential avenues where the individual might be empowered to improve his or her own life – technology.

Turning the image of the future positive would provide crowding out effect from authoritarian backsliding. It would lessen the attention bandwidth available for fearmongering and disempowerment to thrive on. The alternative to positive futurism is an uninterrupted backsliding to eventually hit the civilisatory bottom with no alternative vision of the world to embrace and follow.

A more balanced take on new technologies (predominantly blockchain and AI) is needed, as well as creating a positive vision of the future of humanity in it – while also acknowledging the potential problems, but in a more manageable, less apocalyptic manner. New technologies provide a range of possibilities that could lower the barriers to entry to entrepreneurship, lower forbidding transaction costs, and circumvent incumbents that managed to shut down competition in the pre-digital economies – and increasingly in the digital economy as well. They also have their unique ethical challenges – some are the same as always (Will you let a politician use it for war or to oppress his peasants?), some are completely new (Whom should an autonomous car hit? The person insured by his parent company, or a person insured by another one?)

The Hungarian version of The Jetsons was the Mézga Family (A message from the future), a series that ran between 1969-78, where a distant, future relative, MZ/X, provides the Mézga family with all sorts of fantastic adventures. Despite the international success of the cartoon, futurism failed to create a generation of future-dreamers.

The sarcastic manifesto of the Hungaro-futurism movement clearly states that it has more members than people who heard about it – and that might as well be correct. There is no future-thinking in the intellectual mainstream. Day-to-day politics and issues of survival and how-to-get-by dominate every conversation, no matter where one looks. Not even the economic future is discussed beyond a gloomy remark about no pensions. Maybe our oligarchs are busy plotting plans of new private jets and all those things they need to buy in the future.

It is perhaps understandable that the Hungaro-futurism movement has a very modest goal: “to restore trust in the future that maybe never was“. How far is it from the 1909 Futurist Manifesto of Marinetti: “We intend to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and fearlessness. / Courage, audacity, and revolt will be essential elements of our poetry.”

 

1962 - AT&T Archives - World_s Fair tour
1962 – World’s Fair tour. Source: AT&T Archives 

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* It is also worth noting how the same story looked like from the leaders’ point of view. Politicians have also figured out how to make money on the back on these mechanical improvements. Flying, especially, became a thing of fascination – and everyone was made to believe that only the governments can “do” it safely. Things that fly were a symbol of national status. Airlines were national gems and money sinks, and politicians have successfully kept the industry closed from competitors and too expensive for most people – yet paid for by every taxpayer. The car industry and the massive highway-building bonanza proved to be just as profitable as the railway boom a century before, with ample opportunities to siphon off public funds, hire favored contractors and architects, while also leaving their little marks on the world, leaving their paw prints everywhere in the shape of concrete buildings and roads. They used (and still use) the car industry as a political tool of employment, labor manipulation, and status symbol. 

We will never know how much would have been invented organically, if all were left to ingenuity and engineers attention weren’t spinned by cushy government jobs to build whatever the politician could imagine (which was roads and ugly buildings). Decades went by with politician-induced programs – not just in air travel but in the nuclear industry and mining, and pretty much everywhere where ever-growing heaps of money could keep the status quo. What logic would have dictated didn’t matter. Populations were conditioned (on state TV) to applaud like baby seals to money poured into industries, be proud for some reason of national airlines. And it sounded paramount to “keep them alive”. They should have call it “zombifying” for clarity. Central planning gobbled up all industries until they all became calcified and loss-making. We will never know what we missed out on because it felt like things were evolving, and the consequences weren’t immediate. 

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