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Saturday, January 25, 2014

Gizmuddle: Or, Why the Futuristic Is Always Only Perverse

In his marvelous essay on the subject, Daniel Harris identified "the futuristic" with the perverse. While this insight may not be an immediately evident or intuitively obvious one, it is easy enough to grasp why this must be so: Any effort to materialize future forms in the present must fail as such quite simply because the present is never the future. The future is not a destination, Bruce Sterling famously warned us, but of course "the futuristic" vernacular always takes place.

The more important insight here is that "the futuristic" is always a placeholder for a host of fraught ideological assumptions about the likelihood and desirability of progress construed as a matter of amplifying capacities, greater freedoms, richer pleasures, fewer insecurities -- inevitably some and not others, almost inevitably some at the expense of others. And yet in a present lacking these capacities, riches, securities their evocation in that present will always amount most of all to a repudiation of the present as it is. The reason the Harris essay eventually meanders its way to a discussion of the so-called MAYA principle -- that designers are always forced to settle for the Most Advanced Yet Acceptable designs -- is because the principle expresses a quintessentially futuristic ideology that always perversely serves elite-incumbency: The principle manages to invest designers with an avant-gardist superiority even when their designs are merely mediocre, or as I put the point in a Futurological Brickbat, "Design ideology's self-congratulatory MAYA Principle declares "Most Advanced Yet Acceptable" what is usually Merely Adequate Yet Acclaimed."

In Harris's reading, if a round window seems more futuristic than a square one, it is not so much because a round window is a better sort of window than a square one -- even if what one means to evoke through its roundness is a futuristic world of greater efficiency and delight to which we may hope we are heading -- but only because most windows in the present are not round and so the encounter with a round one is a "disruption" with which we invest our sense of "the future" in its relation to our sense of "the present." Likewise, if a smooth door wooshing sideways to disappear into a wall seem more futuristic than a door with a knob that swoops into space on a hinge, it is not so much because the smooth sideways door is a better sort of door than a knobbed hinged one -- even if what one means to evoke through its whoosh is a futuristic world of greater efficiency and delight to which we may hope we are heading -- but only because most doors in the present swoop and so the encounter with a wooshing one is a "disruption" with which we invest our sense of "the future" in its relation to our sense of "the present."

If the curvilinear forms and lilypad supports of Frank Lloyd Wright's Johnson Wax building seem futuristic, it is not so much because these thin supports are more efficient in any sense at supporting a roof or because the massive masonry hulk of a corporate headquarters needs to be more aerodynamic than corporate headquarters usually manage to be in the event that such buildings will ever be required to take flight -- but only because these idiosyncrasies of form in the present cite, without realizing, hopeful associations of the future to which some want to be heading in which air flight is ubiquitous and life on low-gravity extraterrestrial planets and in outer space is commonplace. It is not surprising, given the latter example, how often the futuristic has become by now a conspicuously nostalgic rather than aspirational evocation -- think of molecule-shaped formica table tops and chrome atomic starburst wall clocks and Esquivel-inflected dance-mixes and post-millennial tourists in Disney's Tomorrowland -- of past hopes lost and ironized rather than hopes for the future at all, through the stylistic citation of these sorts of superannuated cynically-uperceded associations with which futuristic progress was once perversely performed in presents past: William Gibson's early story The Gernsback Continuum inaugurated a whole genre of retro-futurist science fiction (of which his work still remains the most vividly virtuosic) forever navigating the ruins of the futuristic.

Today over on Gizmodo (and then predictably, instantly, breathlessly endorsed over at io9), Robert Sorokanich pens a paean to the RYNO which set these thoughts in motion. Let's start with a picture of the thing:

Of this perverse futuristic object, Sorokanich writes,
This sci-fi electric unicycle is the RYNO, a future-badass alternative to the Segway that looks like it got beamed down from the year 2114. But it's here, and it's real, and I got to ride it.
Needless to say, and as my partner Eric did say when he drew my attention to the piece this afternoon, it is far more likely that someone, even many someones, have acted on the rather pointlessly perverse (and probably mostly harmless) inclination to saw a motorcycle in half any number of times over the past half century rather than making forcing humanity to wait until the year 2114 to make this arrant silliness happen. I cannot say it seems to me particularly surprising that this thing is real and really ridable (-ish), though I very much doubt the fact that it's here means it's here to stay. You will forgive my pedantry if I point out this hereness of the thing and all means that it is not fictive and, strictly speaking, therefore not science fictional either. But of course such confusions of science and science-fiction are the enabling sleight-of-hand on which the whole futurological genre of marketing and promotion always depends as such, and one doesn't exactly feel surprise at them anymore even when one still has to shake one's head at them just the same. No doubt it is mostly because this particular perversity still manages to evoke a motorcycle despite its mutilation that it would occur anyone to try to describe the thing as "badass" in the first place -- since for whatever reason many people do unaccountably seem to think motorcycles are badass, I guess, at any rate far more certainly than think Segways are. I daresay the RYNO now does indeed approximate the Segway enough that people will choose the same actual if not exactly "badass" alternatives to it as they already have chosen for the stupid Segway -- another bit of perverse futurological hype, after all: "It will change the way we think of cities!" -- that is to say, they will choose to avoid it at any cost, sticking to the demonstrably better available technologies of walking shoes, bicycles, subway trains, hell, even a clown car would be better than making a spectacle of themselves in a crazily unwieldy motorized unicycle unless you happen to be the sort of person who thinks taking a shower selfie with google glasses on makes you seem cool. Indeed, you need only do an image search on "motorized unicycle" to have sober second thoughts whether the futuristic RYNO has a future -- or whether, like so many futurological novelties, it even manages to be anything but old hat.

5 comments:

Dale Carrico said...

I would hate to think I am the only person who still regularly assigns that wonderful and eccentric Harris essay in technoculture courses...

jimf said...

> [I]f a round window seems more futuristic than a square one,
> it is not so much because a round window is a better sort of
> window than a square one. . .

Well, no, those are Hobbit windows. ;->

> Likewise, if a smooth door wooshing sideways to disappear into
> a wall seem more futuristic than a door with a knob that swoops
> into space on a hinge, it is not so much because the smooth sideways
> door is a better sort of door than a knobbed hinged one. . .
> but only because most doors in the present swoop and so the encounter
> with a wooshing one is a "disruption" with which we invest our
> sense of "the future" in its relation to our sense of "the present."

What, you mean Doors of the Future aren't going to look
like this?

http://img80.imageshack.us/img80/9171/krelllabtwolocksmk7.jpg

(Or this:)

http://www.shipbrook.net/jeff/raytrace/graphics/dvega.jpg

Dale Carrico said...

Well, we all know the elves are really Vulcans, maybe hobbits are eloi or something...

jimf said...

> Well, we all know the elves are really Vulcans. . .

Or the Vulcans are Space Elves.
( http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/SpaceElves )

> maybe hobbits are eloi or something...

Actually I think maybe the Eloi are degenerate elves.
And the Morlocks are degenerate Dwarves (or Dwarfs,
to give them the standard non-Tolkienian spelling).

From the trtropes article:

"Some anthropologists have speculated that the tendency
to imagine any foreign intruders who are different from
us as Elves Versus Dwarves is hard-wired, like the theory
that humans are hard-wired to imagine dragons because
of our bad experience with snakes."

jimf said...

Oh, gimme that old time Transhumanism!
It's good enough for me.

From the comment thread of an old Antipope (Charlie Stross)
blog post in appreciation of an article by Dale:

http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2012/05/deconstructing-our-future.html#comment-509078
--------------------
[M]ost futurology is advertising. But we knew that,
right? right? no? . . .

Martin Gardner -- Scientific American's famous columnist -- was
one of the first critics of transhumanism who called it for
what it was: a religious movement. He was intimately familiar
with the splinters and mutations of modern Protestantism in
all their myriad forms, from Dawkins-style atheism to
Bob Jones-style WTF. (Wrote a not-bad novel of ideas on them too,
The Flight of Peter Fromm.) Gardner called the trend correctly
as far back as Moravec's Mind Children [ah, the good old 80's].

From that perspective, it's pretty obvious that the
Transhuman Gospel is a high-tech version of the Prosperity Gospel:
a pyramid scheme that has evolved to gull ignorant IT people
who want to feel special about themselves into supporting
the economic system they work under (e.g., de facto 80-hour
work weeks, race towards the bottom outsourcing, the
glorification of the venture capitalist beyond any true
value-added, etc), in the hopes that they will someday
partake of this wealth and have a shiny eternal robo-body
of their own where they can live the porn lives of their
dreams at will.

So you get hucksters like that blogger-pundit from Tennessee
[a reference, presumably, to Glenn Reynolds, the Instapundit]
who gets freebies from tech companies in order to promote their
products and a far-right political and economic agenda,
but who also believes he too one day will live on in a
robo-body. . .

And it's **tiresome**. We've seen this all before: Millions
now living will never die! Get in on the ground floor! Only
the target has changed. It used to be this sort of religion
preyed upon dislocated rural-to-urban migrants. Now it preys
on dislocated white-collar economic migrants.

No one likes being told they're a sucker, and no one likes being
told they've suckered themselves. So I doubt that the people
who need to understand this will ever do so. Deny or evade
or ignore.
=====

It's my party, and I'll poop on it if I want to.