Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The End of the Future (1991)

In his 1991 book, Facing Tomorrow, author Thomas Hine opens with a decidedly pessimistic tone. The first chapter, "The End of the Future," expresses a feeling of betrayal that the world did not provide the future humanity was promised. An excerpt from that chapter appears below.
For at least two decades, no compelling, comprehensive vision of the future has captured the American imagination. Our culture is like a child raised without adults: We have no idea what we will be when we grow up. We don't know what to tell our own children, though we dimly suspect we are setting a bad example. We condescend to past visions of the future - the progressivist utopias of the turn of the previous century, the streamlined dreams of the 1930s, the jet age exuberance of the 1950s. But we have nothing to take their place.

Instead, our popular culture is filled with tainted dreams, manipulated horrific fantasies planted in the minds of innocents, which come true when Freddy Krueger, the sleep-invading slasher from the endless Nightmare on Elm Street movie cycle, comes to eviscerate the dreamer and most of her friends, relatives and neighbors. Today, we know all about what was wrong with the visions of the past and are, we tell ourselves, more realistic. But we are more limited, too. Besides, there's no evidence, outside of the movies, that a refusal to dream prevents nightmares from coming true.

When the world does not seem to be going your way, it is worth finding out which way the world is going. If progress seems self-defeating, it is time to come up with a new definition of progress. It's time for a new future, one that will enable us [to] make sense of the present and judge how the actions we take each day will shape tomorrow. We need to understand our past ideas of the future, in part so that we can understand the ways in which we have gone wrong. But we can't slap a new coat of paint on our old tomorrows. We need to conceive of our future new and whole, from the ground up. We have to examine our fears, to see if they are real, and our desires, to understand what we really want and what we can hope to get. Today, people become angry at the future because it is not going to provide what was once expected. We need a clearer idea of what we can anticipate, what we can achieve, what we can create, so that we can once again feel the exaltation of moving toward something we want rather than the bitterness of settling for less.

Progress to Counter Catastrophe Theory? (1975)
Going Backward into 2000 (1966)
Technology and Man's Future (1972)


Cory Gross said...

There is plenty of progress going on, along with some reasonably well-defined ideas of what the future should be. The difference is just that they're not the flashy techno-fantasies of the 30's through the 60's (70's... 80's...).

I think it's safe to say that part of the reason we don't have the techno-fantasies en masse anymore is because we've seen the future not deliver on the goods... As in your last post, robot workers were supposed to give us loads of leisure time, not loads of unemployment. The advancement of technology can no longer be credibly argued as progress in itself. Progress has to happen before the technology can be useful. Otherwise it becomes just one more yoke people have to bear.

Hense the new dreams for the future. I see them all the time with the people I do human, social, economic and environmental justice work alongside. They're looking forward to a world that is livable and sustainable, to the end of warfare and oppression, to economic equality and opportunity, to the preservation of the environment and new and better ways to live on this planet.

I know I got hounded on this sentiment before, but I'll risk it again. Honestly, I love paleo-futuristic kitsch... of course, or else I wouldn't be here... but I think an actual progressive vision of a just, equitable and sustainable future is ultimately more satisfying than pithy ambitions about blasting off into outer space. I don't mind losing the techno-fantasies in order to gain that.

Mark Plus said...

Regarding the economic aspects of "the future," back in the go-go '90's I recall seeing articles all the time about the roles of intellectual capital, cognitive elites, college education and so forth in creating boundless wealth in the so-called New Economy. I don't see nearly as much emphasis on human intelligence as the key to progress these days. The hordes of unemployed or mis-employed (e.g., at Wal-Mart) Americans with college degrees in science, IT, engineering and mathematics tend to belie these notions from just a decade ago.

Anonymous said...

Geez, what a pessimist! I mean the book. Societies and the future are such liquid things. Nothing is truly predictable outside a laboratory. Even then, things just happen and you can't go back. All of society doesn't have the same wonderful vision of the future, everyone has sees the world through their own (somewhat selfish) eyes.

Think of all the freakin' wonderful advances that have been made in the last century! Someone from 1907 wouldn't even believe it's only been 100 years. It's only been 230 years since a bunch of guys with muskets decided to take on the biggest empire in the world and won their freedom. That's practically yesterday in recorded history.

Sorry, I just really hate pessimists I guess.


Anonymous said...

A staff writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer , Hine...

Ahhh... He's from Philly, he doesn't know how to do anything but criticise everything. It's what they do. I spent enough time there to know that much.

That and the Eagles will never win anything.


Unknown said...

We must come to understand that we have to work as fast and hard as the computers that we created in order to succeed in today's world. If we do not succeed, then the computers will replace us. It is happening all around us. This is the age to be a programmer/analyst. Companies are looking at reducing head count through automation. If you can create a program that can do what a human does, but much faster, then good for you...more money for you and goodbye lesser human. Unless you can create something artistic, or create computer programs, beware...the end may be near.

Garrett Sawyer said...

I'm not worried about the future, I think visions are great and everything but they usually never come full circle. I think the future will be what people want it to be and made possible by the things people are willing to sacrafice.

About no real visions of the future for decades, I beg to differ...I think lots of people are now wanting a sustainable techno future. A green future with similar technology that we already have now but just a tad more improved, nothing extravegant.