For any group, or set of interests, to dominate society in the present they must also control the past. That is, they must shape how the public see, know and imagine the past (for an excellent example of this see Adam Curtis’ The Living and the Dead). There is a similar need to control the future, at least in the way that people imagine and anticipate it.
Our popular imagination of the future has stagnated. The ways that we imagine the future or, more accurately, the way that it is imagined for us, limits our imaginations, our possibilities and our politics.
In the recent past there was a bright vision of the future. There was a time when to speak of the ‘future’ was to refer to human progress, the advancement of science and the creation of a more comfortable life for all. It is not possible to say precisely when this vision came to an end but it was profoundly shaken in 1973. The OPEC oil crisis, combined with the currency crisis of 1971, sent a shock wave through western visions of progress. The idea that the west would go forever ‘onward and upward’ no longer held. American and European visions of the ‘future’ now depended palpably on energy and finance that would have to be begged, borrowed or stolen from around the world (for a proper discussion of this see David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity).
Our vision of the future changed. It was no longer about unbridled progress for all but rather a combination of new technologies with a mishmash of global cultures, past and present. Blade Runner as a piece of post-modern, future noir offers a perfect example of the new future. The meaning of the ‘future’ slowly changed from a sunny vision of progress to becoming synonymous with a bleak degraded world with the majority of people living in exclusion, poverty and pollution. Nevertheless, technology continues to advance. In most popular projections of the future, a powerful and unscrupulous minority monopolise political and technological power. They are generally manifested as a corrupt and dominant corporation. This new vision, that humanity’s future is one of collapse and domination, has now become commonplace.
Ironically, many science fiction films, like Robocop, Total Recall, Sky Blue, Children of Men, The Matrix and so on, offer a critique of the corporate domination of the social world. Nevertheless, they offer, and perpetuate, a view that the future is dystopian. This collapse/domination narrative now appears to be consistent across media industries, news, films, video games and so on.
Bleak Futures as Echoes of Dying Ideas
This narrative may legitimate current forms of social organisation. Imagining the future through this lens, the collapse of civilisation, as we know it, and the rise of corporate ‘élites’, becomes an unspoken aspect of common sense. The only future we can visualise is one of social decay and corporate control. Popular culture seems to insistently show us future inevitabilities rather than imagine new possibilities.
Like social theories, vision of the future may act, to some extent, as self-fulfilling prophecies. People may quietly accept that this is the way that things are going. The collapse/domination narrative may ‘inoculate’ us against the shock of current social dysfunctions (things are bad, but at least we’re not at the Soylent Green stage just yet!). So, we may sleepwalk into dystopia. On the other hand, if the decline of civilisation and the rise of corporate overlords seems to be written into every possible vision of the future, what would be the point in trying to fight it? We are less likely to try to create a better world if the dominant vision of the future is bleak.
There is no point, however, in looking back to the sunny visions of progress from before the oil and currency shocks. Today’s visions of collapse and corporate domination are, ironically, the withering continuation of that outdated future. Rather than representing new possibilities, a lot of popular culture simply extrapolates from, and exaggerates, current trends (see Brinkfor example). Popular culture thus recycles an old philosophy. The old sunny future and the new bleak outlook are both utilitarian visions. They both equate human nature with competition and human progress with the acquisition of wealth. Mindful of global warming, peak oil, and rising civil unrest the utilitarian vision is no longer socially or physically sustainable. Escaping a narrative of collapse and domination requires not only imagining new technologies but also re-imagining society and human nature. To build a better future we must be able to imagine it. This means moving beyond popular culture’s bleak visions, which are actually echoes of the utilitarian past.