This is the first in a series of six essays, drawing on interviews with speculative thinkers finding and defining the technologies of the Future-Present.
Near Tappi Saki, Aomori (via Pink Tentacle)
It is the 21st Century, and history has delivered us into a time when aerial swarms of hypertextual futurist essays sling bombshell proclamations down upon us, guided down the invisible path of a laser beam. With each new detonation our grounding worldview shakes with tectonic intensity, as what we have always known as “the future” is driven to critical fission when hitting the present. Behold, this new technology: the “Future-Present”: where our dreams collide with reality. There is no fantastical World of Tomorrow, and there is no reality in which we know the real from the imagined. There is only the waking dream of the categories’ simultaneous coexistence. In this world, cities explode, the network sings like razor wire, a caustic, aerosolized powder rises up from pavement beneath our feet, people wearing masks shout instructions over our heads. The dream is still going on, a double exposure of ideas over impact weapons. It is difficult to say whether we are excited, or terrified, or bored, or confused. But we understand this, don’t we? We must say we understand this. There is no one else that could understand this, other than us. What would it mean, if no one understood the future?
As a writer working in this domain of the future-present, I try to understand and provide some tools to help others understand. What I end up with often seems to be more speculative-fiction travel-writing of the onrushing future, than any specific theory. It may be that there is no specific theory of the future, or the present, or the Future-Present. Would this be so bad? The world and the people who live in it will no doubt get along okay without a theory. And as for myself, there are worse things I could do with my time than selling a bit of tourist pageantry.
It is an ethnographic obsession that causes me to continue trying to push my writing about the Future-Present to crack open that fantasy and expose its inner functions, rather than just collecting gigs of digital images to be slowly leaked to a photo stream, if not archived forever, their pixelated light unviewed. “Understanding” is a 20th Century political goal — the stuff of party platforms and the unidimensional databases of ideology. This desire for the categorical, I reject as futile and debilitating. But there is other work to be done. I see the pieces, and my hands reach out to them upon the table, unable to resist the urge to experiment. The pieces are like divination cards, or other lateral thinking aids. A divination card is cheap, easy to grasp, and recyclable. They can be put down on any surface, flipped, picked back up, and shuffled around. The Future-Present is a series of weak signals, gut reactions, and uncanny fascinations, laid out into sketches and short blurbs, printed on an esoteric deck of cards. Understanding is not what one does with such objects. But the mind wants to make connections, to shuffle, and draw. The reality of not understanding is the necessity of continuing to think.
I don’t have any sibylline proclivities. Hell, I don’t even believe in that sort of thing. But this is not the sort of thing that one needs to believe in to make it functional. One needs networks, words, and a willingness to take notes. I don’t have the skills to channel the Future-Present. But I type fairly fast. And I have access to a network, through which I’ve reached some acquaintances from the nodes, asking their assistance. Not just any acquaintances either, but to my mind, some of the top minds working with the material of the Future-Present today. Their credentials are impressive, but what really drew me to them is their ability to use words. Through their expressed ideas, they provide the raw material of the Future-Present, insofar as we can identify it at all. We conversed, over email and telephony, and I asked them leading questions that I thought might stimulate them to produce the good stuff.
Composite photograph by Andrew Evans via BLDGBLOG
What they gave me was larger than any one particular vision of the Future-Present, or any scenario of human interaction with technology. Through these conversations for which I was the unlikely routing point, a sense of the question itself emerged. The question could be asked in any number of insufficient phrasings, and I stumbled through a great number of them during the process. What is the future? Why are we so interested in the future? How do we plan for what is unpredictable? What is so much more intriguing about particular future scenarios, X, Y, or Z? What are the consequences of the way we pose these questions?
My informants responded to my ramblings, ever fruitful in their diverse and unexpected lines of thought, and a set of archetypes materialized. There is not a theory here, but there is a pattern: in fact, six separate patterns. I came up with six technologies, which represent these six themes of our Future-Present. With their words lingering in my mind, these patterns hum in vivid colors. The present we live in is strange, fraught with confusion and misleading notions, attractive and alluring as holographic Idorus, and perhaps just as hollow. But these archetypes congeal those emotions, distilling the uncanny into wide arcs. I am not convinced that these arcs are wrong.
Given the state of the world, that is real utility worth exploring. And that is what we are going to do. Through this and the next five essays, I will examine these archetypes, and the words of my informants that inspired them. A particular technological artifact as archetype for a pattern of historical perception— it might be provisionally acceptable from a literary perspective. But how long until this analogy begins to fall apart? What is the extent of its utility? These are questions we’ll keep in mind.
The first archetype of the future-present is the light-emitting diode, or LED. These semiconductors release photons via electroluminescence, saving power and producing less heat than incandescent sources. But it took over 40 years from the first demonstration of the concept in 1927 to the first production development of red gallium arsenide phosphide by Monsanto in 1968. These LEDs were used in digital seven-segment displays, not being bright enough for illumination. Indium gallium nitride LEDs, blue in color, were invented in 1994, and white LEDs were made in 2006 by combining these blue lights with yellow. Since that time, LEDs have become ubiquitous as as cheap, low power light source, and small flashlights with bright white LEDs sell for fractions of a US Dollar.
What is strikingly archetypal about the history of the LED is how its function characterizes the bizarre, relativistic pace of change so inimical to our understanding of the future. In the early 90s, predicting the present-day saturation of LEDs would have been near impossible. And now, it is impossible to imagine things any other way. This explosion of a technology into the market is only noticable by comparison, by the relativistic creation of a “before” and “after” the onset of the era of LEDs. As if with a flashlight, we peer into history, and what we see there is, for all intents and purposes, what exists.
The pace of change might be a complete illusion. What we may actually be seeing is a relativistic sense of change. As you grow up, you bake in an idea of “how the world works”. It may be that the pace isn’t changing, but every time we evaluate a change to the world, we evaluate it not according to a objective place, but to that worldview of “how things work”. Because change keeps hitting further and further out from that worldview, it seems harder to understand, and even “more” different. If you are person who tracks change closely, it may actually seem that the world is “moving more slowly”, because you are altering your worldview much more dynamically. The perceptual pace of change might depend on who you are. If you are a hacker, the world probably seems like it changes more slowly than it does for others. Humans, at some level, are bad at forgetting our gestalts.
- Eleanor Saitta
What Eleanor suggests to me in these comments is that the Future-Present is never an isolated thing. Not only does it change over time, but to each individual, it is entirely different. This is given in the notion of “relativistic” change, but it is an insurmountable reality to the process of how we can even begin to talk about the Future-Present. What I worry about is not just the effort of having to perceive change, but how to record it in a way that will continue to be intelligible. Forgetting is necessary to invention, but the difficulty of forgetting makes me take pause. If I suggest that LEDs are somehow archetypal of our understanding of the pace of change, how long with that archetype hold? It won’t be permanent, but will it even be effective in a transitory sense? Unfortunately, there is only one way to find out.
Strictly from the standpoint of narrative and writing, there’s a huge interest in the fast pace of how things are going. Things that used to seem outlandish are now possible: for instance, a recent story on the BBC about a paralyzed woman controlling a robotic arm with her brain. Ten years ago that would have been science-fiction, but now it’s a top story. Speculating about what might be coming next is a mythology for dealing with the future. Using narrative to speculate is a tool to navigate that.
Of course, every generation thinks it’s in a time frame when “things are occurring”. On a nation-state level, it seems like things are happening rapidly, but every generation has its nation-state opera, and so perhaps this is an illusion. But on a technical level however, we’re on a level of special effects exchanging places with real technology very rapidly.
But there is something about networked communication that adds to this effect. Some nights you go out with your friends, and it didn’t really click, things were kind of boring. Other nights you go out, and holy shit: it feels like something really exciting is coming out of the conversation. It’s the reason you have friends. On the internet, with blogs, it’s easier to search out the people through which you can make those conversations happen. There’s a way to sustain those conversations outside of having a conversation at a bar about 3D printers. The temporary enthusiasms result in something that can be archived and we can look at it again tomorrow. We leave traces, through these capturing devices that allows us to bring things into the world. We can go back to these conversations, like receipts, and interact with them. The ability to discuss these things has accelerated. It’s not just that tech is going faster--we’re also better positioned than ever to discuss them, and leave media artifacts behind. We don’t have the re-invent the wheel over and over, and people are aware of that in a way that they would have been 10 years ago. I think the pace of tech is real, but also our ability to document that is also faster.
- Geoff Manaugh
Geoff reminds me that perceiving change isn’t simply a solipsistic matter. Perception is critical, but perception is done in the context of the tools we make and use to populate our workbenches. Visualizing the Future-Present in such a way that we can even begin to interrogate it is a coordination of headspace and toolspace. In my case, this is internal thought and exterior written words— both consciousness and discourse. For others, it will encompass other technologies. What is the limit? Well, what can you stick an LED on? This is not simply a catalog of commodities, either. We aren’t often privileged with the choice of the machinery we work within. There are tools flying at us, thick and fast. It would help we had a light by which we might see them coming.
Choosing the right evocative images from the swarm helps the mind think laterally and make connections, by presenting the raw material of creativity. By scattering cheap, energy-efficient indicators across the visible surfaces of our technology, we not only evoke the future, but we can can come back and see if it is functioning as expected. We illuminate small spaces that we never could have before. But most of the time, these lights are simply on or off. They lack specificity, despite their ubiquity. The LED, in this way, functions analogously to the Internet, making anything capable of giving us detectable feedback, giving us vision where we never had it before. But how much do most platforms say about the way the world really works? With well-designed networks, we give our creativity the guidance of a framework, to help its creativity flow through those channels.
Subjectively, it still feels a bit magical. It is wondrous, but not exact. With the right metaphorical structure, perhaps we won’t understand the Future-Present completely, but we could at least start to see it in the dark. Let’s press ahead.
The author deeply appreciates the informants’ participation, without which this Guide would not exist: