Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Future Is A Fraud

Sometimes it seems that professional futurologists engage in two essential activities: making predictions and scolding people for expecting their predictions to come true.

It has gotten so bad that at least one "professional futurist" -- Jamais Cascio -- is now declaring that the value of futurism is in what it gets "usefully wrong." At this point Cascio has poked so many holes exposing the fraud of conventional futurism (many of which I quite agree with) he really risks exposing the fraud of his own ongoing demand for attention and paychecks as a professional futurist himself.

Of course it is true that we do learn from mistakes -- think how earnestly Popper took Wilde's quip that "Experience is the name we give our mistakes" -- but can you imagine any other legitimate empirical discipline demanding to be taken seriously by concerned citizens and policy makers that would claim its models are all wrong in "interesting" ways? Setting aside the fact that few futurists would admit that they are wrong about everything as Cascio does (or at any rate would be consistent about such an admission), why should we care about the way futurists of all people get things wrong than the ways actual scientists and scholars, say, get things wrong -- especially when at least they aspire and occasionally manage to get things right?

That is to say, Cascio does not seem to be making the useful pragmatic point that all true propositions are never more than the best but still falsifiable propositions on offer for warranted reasons. I would sympathize with such a point, but it would simply change our expectations about the force and security of models and methods that get things right by our lights. Such a recognition would hardly provide grounds to distinguish futurism as a legitimate discipline from other legitimate disciplines. Like Cascio I do also make such a distinction, of course, but for me it is the distinction of con-artistry from policy-making (I leave to the side futurology's occasional inept forays into cultural criticism or -- Angels and ministers of grace defend us! -- philosophy).

To elaborate my point a bit more: No doubt all disciplines along the road to getting things as right as they can for now do also get things wrong in ways the study of which is interesting and useful, but it is the effort to get things right that earns their keep and provides the context in which usefully to assess the ways they err. Every legitimate discipline has a foresight dimension: one solicits agreements from potential collaborators, one insists on accounting for certain expectations, one makes provisional plans in light of one's understanding of the relevant forces and stakeholders at hand on the basis of the warranted descriptions provided by disciplines devoted to understanding them.

The problem is that futurism, futurology, future studies, or what have you, seeks legitimacy as a professional and scholarly discipline while every single method and model and analytic mode it deploys in the service of this goal originates in and is deployed by other social sciences and humanities scholars in an incomparably more rigorous and accountable way. Few futurists have degrees in these legitimate disciplines or could pass muster within their ranks. Futurists proceed instead by pretending their superficial appropriations are an interdisciplinarity when they amount in fact to an anti-disciplinarity.

As for the "methods" that are more characteristic of futurists in particular, few stand up to sustained scrutiny. Not to put too fine a point on it: "The Future" futurists pretend to study does not exist, the openness inhering in diversity of stakeholders to the present is -- if anything -- foreclosed by the parochial projections futurists denominate "The Future." (Futurology's characteristic extrapolations from the necessarily partially imperfectly understood present onto radically contingent developmental dynamisms are just an obvious instance.) The "trends" futurists pretend to discern do not exist -- if anything these are narrative constructions imposed retroactively on contingent vicissitudes to conjure an apparent momentum that can be opportunistically exploited by incumbents for profits. The futurological trend-spotter and the fashion trend-spotter are revealed to be perfectly continuous, then: deceptive hype profitably peddled as objective discovery. The "technology" futurists pretend to be their focus does not exist, the constellation of historical, existing, imagined techniques and artifacts only some of which are corralled together under the heading of "technology" do not in fact share any one characteristic or capacity or developmental trajectory, and their costs, risks, and benefits will also be different to the diversity of their stakeholders -- if anything the futurological pretense that the technological names a dimension of historical change different or separate from social, cultural, or political struggles is a focus that performs an insistent obfuscation of the reality at hand.

The conspicuous embrace of brainstorming and free association by some futurists takes up exercises from acting improvisation workshops which do indeed seem to me to be useful for inculcating habits of creative and flexible thinking for students -- but this is hardly a critical or testable method on its own, and its connection in futurism to corporate workshop cultures of compulsory managerial optimism and self-esteem promotion for bored plutocratic functionaries is hard to miss. So too the frankly ludicrous penchant among futurists for the endless promotion of neologisms might indeed seem to connect to occasionally useful rhetorical and philosophical proposals of novel and useful distinctions to relieve intractable conceptual impasses -- but this practice is hardly the end in itself it seems in futurological circles forever buzzing with buzzwords, and its connection in futurism to corporate advertizing practices of repackaging stale goods as breathless novelties is, again, hard to miss.

In this, the professional patina of futurologists tracks closely the antics of so much contemporary pop-tech journalism, which indulges in technoscientifically illiterate hyperbole about technology That! Will! Change! Everything! and advertorial promotion of the latest crappy consumer goods and schlocky hagiography for clueless bazillionaire celebrity tech CEOs eager to be told they are the Protagonists of History. The common denominator here is the production of facile and falsifying discourse about technoscientific change paid for by plutocrats who are either flattered or profit by it. That many so-called "tech writers" indulge in this reactionary pseudo-science while congratulating themselves as champions of democracy (as vacuous "openness," predatory "sharing," indifferent "participation," and so on) and science (as unspecified "innovation," anti-democratic "technocracy," and unaccountable "design," and so on) just adds insult to injury. More of the same... but as "The Future"!

As I have said many times, futurology is the quintessential discourse of neoliberalism: a set of essentially promotional promises and rationalizations for plutocracy offered up in the form of science-like predictions. These forms suffuse global corporate-military developmental discourse, across think-tanks and corporatized academic departments and official media outlets, but also the promises of scientistic and techno-fetishistic advertizing imagery, and also the norms and forms of competitive individualism and self-help and relentless "positivity." As I wrote in Futurological Discourses and Posthuman Terrains:
Futurology is caught up in and constitutive of the logic of techno-fixated market futures, while futurisms are technoscience fandoms and sub(cult)ures materializing imagined futures in the fervency of shared belief. Successful mainstream futurology amplifies irrational consumption through marketing hyperbole and makes profitable short term predictions for the benefit of investors, the only finally reliable source for which is insider information. Successful superlative futurism [exemplary versions of which include transhumanism, singularitarianism, techno-immortalism, digital-utopianism, nano-cornucopianism which I often lampoon here and elsewhere] amplifies irrational terror of finitude and mortality through the conjuration of a techno-transcendent vision of The Future peddled as long-term predictions the faithful in which provide unearned attention and money for the benefit of gurus and pseudo-experts, the source for which is science fiction mistaken for science practice and science policy. Something suspiciously akin to fraud would appear to be the common denominator of futurology in both its mainstream and superlative modes. [Emphasis added --d] As against the dreary dream-engineering ad-men of mainstream futurology the adherents of superlative futurism are indulging in outright, and often organized, faith-based initiatives. More than consumers eating up the usual pastry-puff progress, they are infantile wish-fulfillment fantasists who fancy that they will quite literally arrive at a personally techno-transcendentalizing destination denominated The Future.
Although I am stressing the difference between extreme techno-transcendental subcultures of futurism and the more prevalent corporate-militarism of everyday advertizing and elite think-tank discourse, I think it is also right to discern a deranging transcendentalizing denialist aspiration suffusing neoliberal marketing imagery and neoliberal rationalizations for forced global development. One finds in both the same disdain for the aging vulnerable error-prone body of the privileged target of consumer advertizing and the precarious target of violent exploitation alike, certainly.

Of course, yet another way to look at futurism is to regard it is a rather inept genre of science fiction literature, in which plots, themes, characterizations, are all sacrificed for endless scene-setting descriptions (yes, scenery, and hence, the definitive futurological scenario which, even when -- especially when? -- it is offered up as "multiple menu options" is inevitably reductive, mostly distortive, and usually amounts to special pleading on behalf of sponsors) in which hackneyed conceits from the Gernsbackian Golden Age play out (AI, genetic supermen, immortality medicine, cheap gizmo-abundance, reality as a simulation, I'm sorry to say) which are then peddled as if they were Very Serious philosophical thought-experiments or even scientific hypotheses. Speculative fiction has stunningly rich antecedents and ramifying branches, of course, but there is something to be said for the suggestion that futurology and "hard" science fiction as these are currently construed are co-constitutive imaginaries originating in the work of H.G. Wells. I daresay the rampant mistreatment of literary science fiction by the corporate-military mindset as an exploitable prophetic glimpse of the future market/battlefield rather than a critical/figurative engagement with the present (as all literature actually is, very much including sf) was a factor in the emergence as much as a result of popular futurology as the saddest, most impoverished literary genre of all time.

1 comment:

Chad Lott said...

I'm hoping my boss sees the work I "usefully didn't do well" as a reason to give me a raise.