TL;DR: A fairly short read about how we think about the future, however disappointing. The read, not necessarily the future.
I read The Future by Nick Montfort because I’m trying to determine how we can create an alternative to the horrid place the world is in right now. I’m unhappy about the world and want to be a part of the solution. One of the ways I think I can contribute is to create space for an alternative imagination of the world, a utopia if you’d like, but a utopia that works for everyone.
I was hoping this book would be a guide for how to build my imagination hub. And in a way, it was. The book’s tagline is “How the future has been imagined and made, through the work of writers, artists, inventors, and designers.” That sounded like exactly what I needed to know. Alas, there are ten pages in the book dedicated to Literary Utopias, plus sixteen pages on the Fascist “Italian Futurism” movement whose members were, in strict terms, artists. The other ninety pages are devoted to various technological advancements, from highways to the laptop computer.
Now. There are, of course, useful general things in the beginning and the end. But on those, I feel like there’s no critical engagement with the subject, which is disappointing when the author is an MIT professor. I mean, what’s the point of academia if not a critical engagement with the topic? For instance, nearly all the future-makers mentioned in the book are men, with the exception of the Oracle of frigging Delphi and a perfunctory discussion of Herland by Gilman (not a utopia, clearly, as it has no men). How is it possible that in the whole history of the human race, women had nothing to say about the future? Apparently, we are too busy making the future generation of men.
Another example. Montfort writes about how, until the Enlightenment, people believed that the future could not be predicted or changed, as it was determined by the God(s). Then, after the Enlightenment, we begin to see progress. It seems the author believes that as soon as we judge something to be good enough, we stop progressing. But doesn’t nature strive for homeostasis? How, then, do we reconcile nature’s tendency towards homeostasis and the human (masculine) need for progress? And also, is progress for progress’s sake something we want to do? For instance, if we say Democracy is the best governing method, are we no longer progressing? Or do we have to change Democracy to “progress”? Is there an endpoint for cultural development that isn’t hurtling off a cliff?
The book also depressed me because almost all progress reviewed in it began as some kind of military advancement. Is there no way to “progress” that isn’t militant? Can’t we invent stuff unless we’re motivated by killing or controlling other people?
Now, I’m sure this isn’t the case. I’m sure of it because, underneath thick layers of cynicism, I’m an optimist at heart. One thing I took away from this book is that there aren’t many significant inclusive non-military imagination hubs, so I may have found my niche.
Favourite quote: “While the present looks more dire…than it did a year ago, the future is still unwritten. There is still space and time to imagine it and pursue it intentionally, to actively construct better social opportunities and a better build environment.”