Escape from the Permanent Future
The Problem of Hope
There are two, or maybe three, ways we are trying to escape the future by actively attempting to break out of the perplexingly infinite loop of our new era. The first exit plan is the now mainstream option most of us are caught up in. And that’s to believe in bringing our quest for future to its conclusion by actually reaching the promised end-of-future. Call it the Trees-on-Mars option. Mars is just one of many symbolic stand-ins. It’s a metaphor for the singular moment of arrival when we all will live happily (for)ever after—on colonized Mars, or downloaded into computers, or even on an Earth transformed by platoons of robot servants who do all the work, anticipate our every need and are powered by rechargeable solar batteries. Mars and its many incarnations are the pop/consumer spectacle merging with the forever promise of techno-science that now dominates how we think about the world around us. We all have to be doing our bit to get to the (end of) future, whether that’s going to Mars, helping your wife get to Mars, or investing your millions in putting trees and people on Mars. So that’s option number one for exiting the permanent future: to chase the future until we finally arrive there.
But now, I’d like to introduce the second prevailing way people are currently seeking to exit the era of permanent future. In this less popular, but nevertheless fairly persistent and increasingly predominant scenario, there is no and-we-all-go-to-Mars-and-it’s-great-there! end. For those who embrace option number two, there is the outright rejection of the notion that relentless pursuit of the future is going to bring about the inevitable utopian conclusion to the human project.
Every dominant, mass media broadcast–ready version of reality has a counter to it. At first, perhaps, it’s a zone for defeated drop-outs, a place where the inevitable misfits can go to announce themselves and find a community of similar people who, for whatever reason, found themselves left behind or left out of the prevailing narrative. When celebrity culture held full sway in the age before broadband, I wrote about the zinesters, the collagists, the samplers, the remixers, the underground artist do-it-yourself creatives and even the furries and sci-fi conventioneers who injected themselves into a popular culture they often disdained and desperately craved. They wanted out of the prevailing ideology that rewarded people not for what they did but for how much attention they got for doing it. But they also wanted in—a way to be, a way to acknowledge their shared obsession and develop a sense of ownership over a popular culture that, no matter how much they railed against it, would always remain their only meaningful collective cultural touchstone. We can see a similar progression as the future-first era coalesces into a forceful interlocking ideology. Many of those who feel shut out or left behind are grappling for a new way to be part of the future-present and its imperatives. It’s not a rejection of the prevailing order per se, but rather a different kind of acceptance of the predominant phenomenon, a restating of the terms of the relationship—we’re not the ones going to be left behind; you are.