Who Will Buy the Future?
How income inequality destroyed science fiction and the future, and how populism might bring a horrible version of it back.
When I was in my early- to mid-teens, I very much enjoyed reading Wired magazine. This would have been in 2000s, for those trying for a rough chronology.
What I remember liking the most were, oddly, the reviews and advertisements for gadgets. This was not because I was making consumption decisions based on them — nor did I have any illusions on this. I was a kid. I had no money, and my parents were neither wealthy enough nor foolish enough to spend money on a constant stream of pointless hi-tech consumption decisions — and, they were certainly not going to change this based on the urging of their teenage son.
What I enjoyed, rather, was the sense that the future was being built and was available for general consumption. There is a pleasure in knowing this, even if you do not think that you will be immediately included.
The last five years have seen the international rise of illiberal, right-wing governments. The last year and a half have seen massive left-wing protest movements breaking out across the world. Even this, though, feels stunted. The fascist take-overs have not truly been completed anywhere; even the right-wing regimes of Eastern Europe remain with the EU, and thus within the domination of the foreign influence that they loudly claim to despise. The anarchists and communists, meanwhile, seen to be even more overblown. While they have generally won some concessions here and there, they have mostly failed to build the sorts of alternative economic and political institutions that would be necessary to cement their power and victory.
Boris Johnson’s win seems to show a continuation of this — and to a sense of outraged betrayal from leftists across Twitter, there seems to be a strong correlation between a British constituency having more low-wage workers, and that constituency going to the Tories. The left has not only lost, but they’ve lost hardest amongst the people that were supposed to be their core constituency.
My experience with technology, in the 2010s, was almost exactly the opposite of my experience with it in the 2000s. The technology of the 2010s was scary. It was surveilling me, it was tricking me — it felt completely out of control. Obviously, this can be partially put down to growing up and becoming more cynical — but I do think that there is an objective contrast between Occupy Wall Street’s fetishization of transformative and liberatory powers of science (even to the point of technocracy) and the modern radical political scene. I think that that 2000s to 2010s transition might have been a sort-of last gasp, a final attempt to revive something lost and half-remembered.
At the same time, though, it failed to give me a sense of a real future. It wasn’t changing anything important. It was just mildly and continuously innovating.
In the 2000s and the early 2010s, transhumanist SF was common — and I devoured it. By the end of the second decade, as I write this, it had largely disappeared. Dystopian and apocalyptic SF dominates, now. We have gone from believing that the future would arrive and change us, making us wonderful and free, to merely being afraid of it. And, to be honest, even the transhumanist stuff was always a rather marginal view — it attracted me because it showed something interesting, not because it was default and hegemonic.
This is reflected in the rise of fringe and nostalgic politics, as well — on both the right and the left.
On the right, of course, we have the traditionalists and the reactionaries — so on and so forth. More commonly, we have the nationalist nostalgics — the ones who want to make America (or whatever) great again.
On the left, though, we have everyone — both marxists and anarchists — who seems to sincerely wish to return to some updated set of pre-capitalist norms. Or, beyond that, we have all the social democrats — the Bernie Bros and Corbinistas of the world, who long for a disappeared mid-century industrial truce.
When I go out into the streets to fight nazis, I am fighting for the status quo. This is what most radical political action seems to really come down to, nowadays. Even overseas, where conflict is more intense, people often seem to be fighting for a mere stasis — or perhaps a return.
On the right, perhaps, there seems to be little more hope — they defend pointless Jim Crow monuments, they invade and are repelled from cities that have no place for them.
Both Right and Left are somehow in defensive positions, fighting desperately against an oncoming future that they do not want — and yet, it never quite seems to arrive. A frenzied stasis prevails.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Andrew Yang, and Donald Trump each feel like different versions of the same candidate: each advances a core idea, to be a civilizational project to take control over the future. Each wishes to mobilize and redirect vast sections of the economy to deal with an impending problem (real or imagined) and each has built a cult of personality around themselves. None of them, though, seem particularly likely to actually accomplish their goals. Their central policies are only the illusion of policies. When you vote for either, you are not voting for a Green New Deal, a Freedom Dividend, or a wall — you are voting for the spectacle of such. You are voting for the promise of a future that is not simply ‘the present, but more so’.
I have written, extensively, about how one’s imagination and desire spring from one’s material conditions — it’s a major theme of my Primer. I won’t re-argue that same ground here — the prospect bores me.
However, it is crucial that you understand the following:
- technology is invented by people who imagine it
- technology is bought by people who desire it
- people’s imaginations and desires are grounded, largely, in their experiences and the narratives that they are exposed to.
Therefore, in the words of Carl Sagan, “science and science fiction do a kind of dance”. Or, to paraphrase: exposure to current technology and to stories of future technology inspire the creation of both new technology and new (and different) stories of future technology.
However — as so many people have noted, most famously Mark Fisher and David Graeber — the future has stagnated. We are left retreading the same fictional ground, over and over again.
Since the early 1970s, a series of political changes have happened across Europe and North America. We commonly refer to these changes as neo-liberalism. However, the details of them are mostly unimportant for the purposes of this essay.
What is important to understand is there was an end to the ‘industrial peace’ of the post-war era, and that this led to wage stagnation for most workers:
Overall, though, productivity continued to increase:
These charts show a multi-track society: one group experiences essentially stagnant real (inflation-adjusted) incomes. The other experiences massively increasing incomes.
(As a side-note, it should be noted that there are actually three tracks, not two. But, that’s a complicated story that affects essentially nothing, and I’ll be writing something much longer about it at a later date. Don’t worry about it, is my point)
What is technology, in economic terms? Now, there are a number of answers to this, but I'm going to give the crudest - and least controversial - one. Technology, at least in daily life, is measured through increasing (monetarily-measured) standards of living.
By this definition, the reason for the disappearance of the future (in a metaphorical sense - obviously, time continues to advance) becomes obvious. If most people in society are stuck with stagnating incomes, it doesn't really matter (as much) if there are newer technologies available - they can't afford much more/better technology than their parents had.
Now, there are a few rubs on this.
Firstly, if necessities get cheaper (in inflation-adjusted terms) some of the income spent on them can be reassigned to spending on new technologies - and, to an extent, this is exactly what has happened. Well, as long as you don't consider education, housing, and a host of other things that you technically won't die without to not be 'necessities'.
Secondly, if there was a fair amount of gap between pre-stagnation incomes and the availability of pre-stagnation hi-tech goods, some of that cushion can just be eaten up.
And both of these happened - but, still, the overall picture remains.
If most of society isn't noticeably richer than their parents were, there are going to be limits to how much exposure to novel technologies most of society has, regardless of how much technology gets invented. However, the top-track(s) of incomes will still experience a sense of futurity.
So, it's not that the future has been lost - the top 1%, or top 10%, still have it. Sort-of. To paraphrase William Gibson, the future is still here - it's just not evenly distributed.
However, most of the people who invent the future - science fiction writers, scientists, engineers, etc. - come from the top 90% of incomes. So, that loop I talked about before is interrupted: even when new technologies get invented, they can't really reach most people, and so can't inspire them. Therefore, the only thing left to inspire most science fiction writers is pre-existing science fiction, rather than real and lived exposure to new technologies.
It's not at all surprising that science fiction has largely lost the ability to portray something that feels genuinely futuristic - they're not being exposed to much that is genuinely futuristic.
Obviously, there's a feedback effect from this: without new imaginings of the future, it becomes harder to imagine - and thus harder to create - new technologies. Further, even for those engineers who do come from high-income backgrounds (and thus who might have been exposed to futuristic technologies in their daily lives) there is a problem: while the might have experience with a tiny pocket of the future, they don't live in a mass future.
By 'a mass future', I mean not just little bits and pieces of the future scattered about a home, but instead the experience of living in an entire civilization grappling with the effects of new technologies. To quote Isaac Asimov, in Social Science Fiction from the collection 'Modern Science Fiction':
Writer X spends most of his time describing how the machine would run, explaining the workings of an internal-combustion engine, painting a word-picture of the struggles of the inventor, who after numerous failures, comes up with a successful model. The climax of the yarn is the drama of the machine, chugging its way along at the gigantic speed of twenty miles an hour, possibly beating a horse and carriage which have been challenged to a race. This is gadget science fiction. (Asimov, "Social Science Fiction")
Writer Y invents the automobile in a hurry, but now there is a gang of ruthless crooks intent on stealing this valuable invention. First they steal the inventor's beautiful daughter, whom they threaten with every dire eventuality but rape (in these adventure stories, girls exist to be rescued and have no other uses). The inventor's young assistant goes to the rescue. He can accomplish his purpose only by the use of the newly perfected automobile. He dashes into the desert at an unheard-of speed of twenty miles an hour to pick up the girl who otherwise would have died of thirst if he had relied on a horse, however rapid and sustained the horse's gallop. This is adventure science fiction. (ibid.)
Writer Z has the automobile already perfected. A society exists in which it is already a problem. Because of the automobile, a gigantic oil industry has grown up, highways have been paved across the nation, America has become a land of travelers, cities have spread into the suburbs - and what do we do about automobile accidents? Men, women, and children are being killed by automobiles faster than by artillery shells or airplane bombs. What can be done? What is the solution? This is social science fiction. (ibid.)
Gadget, adventure, and social science fictions must be understood as more than different genres of science fiction — they should be seen as different levels of the imagination, different levels of the fullness of a technology. Technology-as-physical-machine versus technology-as-enabler-of-personal-capabilities versus technological-system-as-social-relation.
A mass future is what social science fiction looks like when it’s actually and really happening, and it catalyzes the imagination of further social relations. What the rich have now is something more like the real-world manifestation of gadget science fiction — and so it catalyzes only the imagining of further pointless machines, decontextualized from anything larger. The future arrives as the absence of headphone jacks, when what everyone really wanted was longer battery lives.
Who could possibly predict the traffic jam from examining the first car? Without seeing people’s social relationships to technological systems, the imagination is still limited — and so the products of the imaginations of even the rich are lopsided and stunted.
The strangling of democratized access to the future — in the form of income inequality — is what has been killing our collective, civilizational-level ability to create futures.
So, then, what does this all have to do with our politics?
Quite a lot, I think — though, I admit, what follows is much more speculative than what I have said previously in this essay.
People are tired of stagnating incomes. They are tired of seeing other people grasp a future, and of seeing the future grow less and less grand with each passing day. They want change, and they are willing to follow and root for anyone who might possibly promise them a story of it.
Most of the population has been deprived by capitalism of the ability to access the future through the market. Therefore, they — on both the Right and the Left — are turning towards the state as their best (perceived) alternative avenue forwards. Those who understand why this is unlikely to be particularly viable, like myself, are attempting to form third ways forward — ways around both capitalism and the state.
But most people, of course, are not anarchists — most people believe that the government might possibly help them. As such, the dream is — for so many — that a shake-up will occur. Confused and disappointed, they are robbed by their circumstances of the ability to imagine a real way out — they are caught in an impossibility, asked to dream themselves up by their bootstraps. Many of the world’s voters simply want a change, any change, Left or Right — all that they can really be sure of is that this is not working, and so they will choose whoever promises them the future that they have been denied.
Absent any hints from new technologies, or visions from new fictions, they are left only with the bombastic promises of new demagogues. And, of course, this is mostly a losing proposition for the Left-demagogues — it is the wealthy who have the money and the imagination, and it is the Right-demagogues who will most benefit the wealthy; and so, it is to the Right-demagogues that the money and support goes.