IEET > Vision > Fellows > Futurism
From Future Shock to Future Fatigue
Dale Carrico   Jan 12, 2008   Amor Mundi  

Some futurists are nervous about the prevalence of fictional narratives at the heart of an awful lot of bioethics discussion.  After all, Frankenstein, the golem, designer super-babies, clone armies, genetically superhumanized abilities, genetically subhumanized slaves, human-animal hybrids and so on don’t actually exist despite their frequent appearances in discussions influencing actual health policies impacting people.

Perhaps it might also relate to the recent relinquishment of the far-futural imaginary for a more near-futural focus one discerns in many key science fiction authors.  This move doesn’t make much sense to me inasmuch as science fiction has always seemed to me to be about the present more than the future anyway: It is the literature for a present culture reverberating more in the stresses of what it is ambivalently and painfully and clumsily aspiring after more than than the stresses of the ambivalent and painful and clumsy legacies of its past. 

Maybe the relinquishment of the far-future by speculative fiction reflects (to the extent that it is really happening at all) the appalled recognition in the privileged North of the price in bloodshed and environmental devastation our unearned privileges have actually cost, a recognition that either makes us doubt the inevitability of progress or makes us doubt the breadth of its benefits (or, one hopes, both), a recognition facilitated by our sudden and revolutionary immersion in peer-to-peer formations that confront us viscerally with truths and consequences and voices we’ve been hiding from or that have been hidden from us for too long.

Anyway, about this recent repudiation of science fiction as a serious space for thinking through the complexities of technodevelopmental change in our lives and deliberating about its directions, Jim, a reader of my blog, writes: This is exactly the reverse of the party line among some of those same folks 10 years ago. I suspect there might be a bit of sour grapes in this tack—the pre-eminent SF authors today have
tended not to take the (“serious”) futurists as seriously as they no doubt expected to be taken.

To these suspicions I will add two of my own:

First: There is an inevitable transition from future-shock to future-fatigue that thinking persons (even the fanboys) caught up for a time in the sensawunda and hype of the superlative futurological imaginary inevitably fall prey to as the magical toypile, the tourist moonbases, the wish-granting everything-boxes, the better-than-actual-reality virtual realities, the immortality pills, the energy too cheap to meter and so on fail to materialize (as they always do fail).  The impact of this inevitable future-fatigue has normally been muted by the fact that bourgeois societies keep whomping up new generations of naive consumerist techno-enthusiasts year after year whose noise making spectacle tends to drown out the skeptical war-weary voices of hard-won experience as they emerge.  This muting is less likely to happen, though, in eras like our own when many educated people who would otherwise expect to benefit (unfairly) from industrial-model elite technoculture are instead economically insecure, when the mass-mediation of corporate-militarist technocracy and inevitable progress is displaced by p2p formations peopled with victims of unregulated, undemocratic technoscientific change and subversive technodevelopmental analyses, when widespread worries about energy and resource descent give the lie to such hype, and so on.

Second: Popular futurists are actually competing with science fiction authors for much the same readership at this point.  The hostility of some would-be “professional” futurological prognosticators to speculative fiction writers might well arise from the fact that futurists are almost always just such worse writers than the sf fiction-writers are with whom they are competing for attention.  How often, after all, do futurist scenarios amount to science fiction but, you know,  without characters to solicit our imaginative identification, without the twists and turns of plot to engage our attention through the conjuration of suspense, without the pleasures of the selective and mounting revelation of information, without the construction of dramatic rhythms, confrontations, and climaxes, and so on?  In the absence of plot, character, literary conventions and so on futurological fabulists often seem to want to deny they are writing fiction at all and try to pretend to be social scientists of some kind instead… which is such a fantastic and embarrassing gambit it can’t help but make some of them resentful after all. 

PS: For those who are curious, by the way, one of the reasons I like my favorite professional futurist, Jamais Cascio, so much is that I think he is aware of these limitations in many of his colleagues and circumvents them in his own work through his insistence on multiple scenarios that are never specifically predictive but always only foresightful, and only in aggregate.  To the extent that it is true, as he says, that the business and occupational hazard of the futurist is TATF (“thinking about the future”), it seems to me Cascio is not finally a futurist at all, because I think there is something deeply and even definitively different between TATF and TAOF (“thinking about open futures”).  But that is a matter for a future discussion.

Dale Carrico Ph.D. was a fellow of the IEET from 2004 to 2008 and is a lecturer in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California at Berkeley.

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