Perhaps one of the best ways to get a grip on our thoughts about the future is to look at the future as seen in the eyes of the past. This is not supposed to be a Zen koan to cause the reader’s mind to ground to a screeching halt, but a serious suggestion. Looking at how the past saw the future might reveal some things we might not easily see with our nose so close to the glass of contemporary visions of it. A good place to look, I think, would be the artistic and cultural movement of the early 20th century that went under the name of Futurism.
Futurism, was a European movement found especially in Italy but also elsewhere, that took as its focus radical visions of a technologically transformed human future. Futurists were deeply attracted to the dynamic aspects of technology. They loved speed and skyscrapers and the age of the machine. They also hated the past and embraced violence two seemingly unrelated orientations that I think may in fact fit hand in glove.
The best document to understand Futurism is its first: F.T. Marinetti’s The Futurist Manifesto. Here is Marinetti on the Futurist’s stance towards the cultural legacy of the past that also gives some indication of the movement’s positive outlook towards violence:
Let the good incendiaries with charred fingers come! Here they are! Heap up the fire to the shelves of the libraries! Divert the canals to flood the cellars of the museums! Let the glorious canvases swim ashore! Take the picks and hammers! Undermine the foundation of venerable towns!
Given what I think is probably the common modern view that technology, at least in its non-military form, is a benign force that makes human lives better, where better also means less violent, and that technology in the early 21st century is used as often to do things such as digitally scan and make globally available an ancient manuscript such as The Dead Sea Scrolls as to destroy the past, one might ask what gives with Futurism?
Within the context of early 1900s Italy, both Futurisms’ praise of violence and its hatred for the accumulated historical legacy makes some sense. Italy was both a relatively new country having only been established in 1861, and compared to its much more modernized neighbors a backward one. At the same time the sheer weight of the past of pre-unification Italy stretching back to the Etruscans followed by the Romans followed by the age of great Italian city-states such as Florence, not to mention the long history as the seat of the Roman church, was overwhelming.
Italy was a country with too much history, something felt to be holding back its modernization, and the Futurist’s hatred of history and their embrace of violence were dual symptoms of the desire to clear the deck so that modernity could take hold. What we find with Futurism is an acute awareness that the past may be the enemy of the future and an acknowledgement, indeed a full embrace, of the disruptive nature of technology, that technology upends and destroys old social forms and ways of doing things.
We might think such a conflict between past and future is itself a thing of the past, but I think this would be mistaken. At bottom much of the current debates around the question of what the human (or post-human) future should look like are really debates between those who value the past and wish to preserve it and those who want to escape this past and create the world anew.
Bio-conservatives might be thought of as those who hope to preserve evolved human nature and or the evolved biosphere in intact in the face of potentially transformative technology. Transhumanists might be thought of as holding the middle position in the debate between past and future wanting to preserve in varying degrees some aspects of evolved humanity while embracing some new characteristics that they hope technology will soon make widely available. Singularitarians are found on the far end of the future side of the past vs future spectrum, not merely embracing but pursuing the creation of a brand new evolutionary kingdom in an equally new substrate- silicon.
You also find an awareness of this conflict between past and future in the most seeming disparate of thinkers. On the future as destroyer of the past side of the ledger you have a recent mesmerizing speech at the SXSW Conference by the science-fiction author, Bruce Sterling. Part of the point Sterling seems to be making in this multifaceted talk is that technologists need to acknowledge that technology does not always produce the better, just the different. Technology upends the old and creates a new order and we should both lament the loss of what we have destroyed and embrace our role in having been a party to the destruction of the legacy of the past.
On the past as immovable anchor that prevents us from realizing not just the future but the present side of the ledger we have the architect Rem Koolhaas who designed such modern wonders as the CCTV Headquarters in Beijing. Koolhaas thinks the past is currently winning in the fight against the future. He is troubled by the increase in the area human being have declared “preserved”, that is off-limits to human development. This area is surprisingly huge, Koolhaas, claims it is comparable to the space of the entire country of India.
In a hypothetical plan to deal with the “crisis” of historic preservation in Beijing Koolhaas proposed mapping a grid over the city with areas to be preserved and those where development was unconstrained established at random. Koolhaas thinks that the process should be random to avoid cultural fights over what should be preserved and what should not, which end up reflecting the current realities of power more than any “real” historical significance. A version of “history is written by the victors”. But the very randomness of the process not only leaves me at least with the impression of being both historically illiterate and somewhat crazy, it is based, I think, on a distorted picture of the very facts of preservation themselves.
Koolhaas combines the area preserved for historic reasons with those preserved for natural ones. Thus, his numbers would include the vast amounts of space countries have set and hope to set aside as natural preserves. It’s not quite clear to me that these are areas that most human beings would really want to live in anyway, so it remains uncertain whether the fact that these areas prohibited from being developed indeed somehow hold back development in the aggregate. Koolhaas thinks we need a “theory” of preservation as a guide to what we should preserve and what we should allow to be preserved in the name of something new. A theory suggests that the conflict between past and future is something that can or should be resolved, yet I do not think resolution is the goal we should seek. To my lights what is really required is a discussion and a debate that acknowledges what we are in fact really arguing about. What we are arguing about is how much we should preserve the past vs how much we should allow the past to be destroyed in the name of the future.
What seems to me a new development, something that sets us off from the early 20th century Futurism with which this post began, is that technology, rather than by default being the force that destroys the past and gives rise to the future as was seen in Sterling’s speech is becoming neutral in the conflict between past and future. You can see some of this new neutrality not only in efforts to use technology to preserve and spread engagement with the past as was seen in the creation of a digital version of The Dead Sea Scrolls, you can see it in the current project of the eternal outsider, Stewart Brand, which hopes to bring back into existence extinct species such as the Passenger Pigeon through a combination of reverse genetic engineering and breeding.
For de-extinct species to be viable in the wild will probably require the resurrection of ecosystems and co-dependent species that have also been gone for quite some time such as Chestnut forests for the Passenger Pigeon. Thus, what is not in the present and in front of us- the future- in Brand’s vision will be the lost past. We are probably likely to see more of this past/future neutrality of technology going forward and therefore might do well to stop assuming that technological advancement of necessity lead to the victory of the new.
Because we can never fully determine whether we have not at least secondarily been responsible for a species extinction does that mean we should never allow another species to go extinct, if we can prevent it? This would constitute not an old world, but in fact a very new one, a world in which evolution does not occur, at least the type of evolution in large creatures that leads to extinction. When combined with the aim of ending human biological death this world has a strong resemblance to the mythical Garden of Eden, perhaps something that should call the goal itself into question. Are we merely trying to realize these deeply held religious ideas that are so enmeshed in our thought patterns they have become invisible?
Advances in synthetic biology could lead as Freeman Dyson believes to life itself soon becoming part- software part- art with brand new species invented with the ease and frequency that new software is written or songs composed today. Or, it could lead to projects to reverse the damage humankind has done to the world and return it to the state of the pre-human past such as those of Brand. Perhaps the two can live side by side perhaps not. Yet, what does seem clear is that the choice of one takes time and talent away from the other. Time spent resurrecting the Passenger Pigeon or any other extinct species is time and intellectual capacity spent inventing species never seen.
Once one begins seeing technological advancement as neutral in the contest between the past and future a number of aspirations that seem futuristic because of their technological dependence become perhaps less so. A world where people live “forever” seems like a very futuristic vision, but if one assumes that this will require less people being born it is perhaps the ultimate victory of the old vs the new. We might tend to think that genetic engineering will be used to “advance” humankind, but might it not be seen as an alternative to more radical versions of the future, cyborg-technologies or AI, that, unlike genetic engineering go beyond merely reaching biological potential that human beings have had since they emerged on the African savanna long ago?
There is no lasting solution to the conflict of past vs future nor is it a condition we should in someway lament. Rather, it is merely a reflection of our nature as creatures in time.If we do not hold onto at least something from our past, and that includes both our individual and collective past, we become creatures or societies without identity. At the same time, if we put all of our efforts into preserving what was and never attempt the new we are in a sense already dead frozen in amber inside a world of what was. The sooner we acknowledge this conflict is at the root of many of our debates the more likely we are to come up with goals to shoot for that neither aim to destroy the deep legacy of the past, both human and biological, nor prevent us from ever crossing into the frontier of the new.