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Between Futurism and Dark Euphoria

Dark Euphoria is what the twenty-teens feels like. Things are just falling apart, you can’t believe the possibilities, it’s like anything is possible, but you never realized you’re going to have to dread it so much.”

-Bruce Sterling

The short twentieth century began in 1914 but the spiritual twentieth century started six years earlier when Filippo Marinetti lost control of his Fiat and plunged it into a muddy ditch outside of Milan, forging the Futurist manifesto’s introductory myth and launching the movement of the same name. Futurism, a pivotal moment in design modernism, celebrated the raw power of the car that Marinetti crashed and the many other fruits of the industrialism then transforming Italy, its adherents eager to discard the past and all its limitations. As Reyner Banham described Futurism, “the poet, painter, intellectual, was no longer a passive recipient of technological experience, but could create it for himself,” and Boccioni later proclaimed their cohort “the primitives of a sensibility that has been completely overhauled.” A new type of person was being born amid the roaring engines and factories.

Futurism, for all its shortcomings, was an admirable moment of raw exuberance about the potential of technology to make the world more interesting. The futurists celebrated machinery for its romantic possibilities and “universal dynamism” and rightly saw that it could be beautiful, not merely functional. You can imagine the ways this attitude (and the technology it celebrated) can and did eventually go wrong, but the Futurists dared to demand more from machines than economic production or convenience and in that sense their movement was a human triumph and an example to future generations.


       Boccioni, The City Rises (link)

A century later, the affluent, well-educated, city-dwelling beneficiaries of the information economy—now more easily grouped by the recent election’s fault lines—enjoy a more cautious, productive optimism about the technological progress of the internet age. Or did until recently. That broad optimism, so solid even a year ago, is one of the reliable constants that 2016 has upended. The list of reasons for growing wariness about today’s digital landscape includes almost nothing new: Twitter has become a snakepit of harassment and unchecked hate speech. Facebook blurs the line between biased truth and outright falsehood. Almost anything connected to the internet can and will be hacked. The platforms and apps we use the most have evolved into the most effective surveillance infrastructure imaginable, perfectly gift-wrapped instruments for a totalitarian regime. Most of our jobs will be automated out of existence just as America dismantles its remaining safety nets. And even the exponentially-growing internet has an insatiable appetite for fossil fuels that could make everything else irrelevant by submerging us all underwater.

Somehow, the past year—the election in particular—revealed how each of those risks could potentially blow up. And some of them did blow up. The internet doesn’t feel as fun today as it did when we first applied an Instagram filter or read a @Horse_ebooks tweet. To those of us too old to get it, Snapchat looks like fiddling while Rome burns rather than another platform for unbridled 2011-style internet frivolity. The technological progress that’s still capturing popular enthusiasm is largely either the residue of mid-century speculation (space travel, self-driving cars) or the consumer-facing tips of foreboding icebergs like AI and automation (Alexa, Amazon Prime).

The digital foundation onto which civilization has migrated, we’re finally acknowledging, is more fragile than we thought, though it continues to bring us countless real benefits. Even Jane Jacobs predicted an imminent dark age and, surveying our recent cultural shift and its causes, it’s getting easier to see how formerly unthinkable dark ages set in. Again, the election solidified the narratives and camps: Some were already in revolt against the so-called cutting edge of technology and its eagerness to automate everything. Today more people are, for many of the above reasons. We thought we’d arrived at the end of history but now worry we’re just at another inflection point of its eternal cycle. In a year when something called a phishing attack is one of the major stories from a presidential election, it’s at least certain that things are getting weirder.

So we’ve trapped ourselves in a technological stack that unsettles us, but just as bad, we’ve built one that’s boring and prosaic and even cowardly, one that becomes most exciting when it fails. I came across a perfect statement of where we’ve ended up, by Geoff Manaugh, in the comments of a Kazys Varnelis blog post:

“(T)he people today most concerned with building flexible, just-in-time, climate-controlled interiors in which You Can Do Anything™ are less often swinging nightclub owners and far more likely Big Box retailers, with their clip-on ornaments and infinitely rearrangeable modular shelves and their themes of the week. There are already Christmas decorations up at Ikea. Similarly, the people building instant cities today aren’t the Balkan ravers of the 1990s (at least no more); it’s Camp Bondsteel and the logistics support teams of Bechtel. Or, for that matter, it’s the “megaslums.” Either way, it’s not a leisure class of hi-fi-owning Jimi Hendrix aficianados.”

If anything, the Silicon Valley version of technology and progress is too bland and too conservative, because it needs to scale, optimize, add value—buzzwords as dull as the results they produce. There’s a tech industry aphorism that companies ship their org chart (a version of Conway’s Law), a more concrete way of saying people recreate the milieu in which they live and work—which in this domain involves a lot of Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoints. We’re thus experts at extracting convenience and consumer value from technology but worse than we should be at using it to explore unknown territory, have an adventure, understand ourselves, or even throw a better party.

David Graeber famously complained that his generation was promised flying cars, as well as force fields, teleportation pads, Mars colonies, and every other exciting sci-fi trapping, but instead got bureaucratic tedium and screens to stare at. A popular counterargument is that iPhones and the internet are, in fact, more amazing than flying cars, but that rebuttal sidesteps Graeber’s broader point that poetic technologies, “the use of rational and technical means to bring wild fantasies to reality” (the Futurists’ bread and butter) are becoming increasingly difficult to pursue. Not because we don’t know how, but due to a failure of culture and will. The Steve Jobs dictum that customers don’t know what they want until you show them reflects a belief that individuals don’t achieve their full potential until they become customers. One of Apple’s most masterful accomplishments was concealing that bait-and-switch.

Our society continues to lose the thread: Not only are we not building flying cars, we’re instead building hardware and software that increase our fragility, anxiety, and dissolution, even if they do streamline shopping and get our laundry picked up faster. We could use a new Futurism, a recalibration of the ultimate purpose of all this work we’re doing, something better than convenience and efficiency. Give the Balkan ravers a shot. We’re more technically capable than ever and can build whatever we want, supposedly, so if we’re going to keep trying let’s build something that’s beautiful or weird or something that increases our collective freedom.

One example of such an alternate reality, already 50 years old, is New Babylon, the Situationist utopian city/megastructure. It’s the kind of model we should keep creating to remind ourselves of the futures we could be pursuing but aren’t. Acts of imagination like this, fantastical as they may be, represent a step toward realizing the poetic technology we’re currently missing, as McKenzie Wark writes:

“Owning property affords someone a house in which to be at home, at the price of being homeless in the world. Dispense with property, dispense with separation, and the feeling of being merely thrown into the world goes with them. Our species-being can give vent to its wanderlust, at home in a house-like world. Constant thought modernity was already accelerating a return to a nomadic existence. New Babylon is nomadic life fully realized. It is an architecture of duration, of thresholds, of collaborative place-making, writ large. Freed from the fixity and uniformity of property, space could again have its qualities. A short trip in New Babylon should offer more variety than the most interminable journeys through the concentrated city of spectacular society. “Life is an endless journey across a world that is changing so rapidly that it seems forever another.” The New Babylonians could wander over the whole surface of a world that was in flux. “New Babylon ends nowhere (the earth is round).”

Flying cars are probably a bad idea, and megacities cantilevered above the earth probably are too, but there are a thousand other desirable and already-possible technological outcomes that we’re failing to imagine or seek, beyond the pale of what we already have.

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