Thursday, March 29, 2012

Futurology as bourgeois ideology: from the Cold War to now

Imaginings about the future, whether driven by technological projection, science fiction, or questions of political and social organization, don't have a specific starting point in time. Obviously, with the massive political and scientific-technological change in the 19th century, avant-garde projections about the future became the order of the day, coinciding with the birth of real science fiction. But the century of futuristic imagination is the 20th century.

I can only speak about it personally from the standpoint of the United States. Outside of the genre of utopian/dystopian fiction, the prototypes of which mostly originated in Europe, most imaginative projections of the future I encountered growing up were technological in nature. The prospect of space exploration was part of this scenario. Naturally science fiction ran ahead of reality, but science fiction authors were also advocates of space exploration, and the prospect of eventual colonization of other planets was one futuristic scenario.

Of course the 1950s and '60s were an era in which, the dangers notwithstanding, there seemed to be unlimited vistas for the future. The Club of Rome's report on the limits of growth and the first Earth Day in 1970 rained on this parade somewhat, but could not wash it out.  We live in a very different time now: we know we're doomed, but deny it.

In the '70s I became wary of futurology as a quasi-scientific endeavor. I endured a few three-hour lectures by Buckminster Fuller, then all the rage, and I got disgusted with him. I checked out some of the literature. I remember The Futurist magazine. It became clearer to me that this intellectual discipline was highly selective in its methodology, interests, and purposes, and that it was fundamentally ideological in nature. Here is one "in" to the field:

Futures studies - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

One place to get a contrary perspective, with a mixture of critique and mystification, was the Soviet Union, the USA's arch-enemy. I vaguely recall seeing a title or two critical of the futurology racket. The web site aims to list and digitize Soviet publications in English translation. Two or three titles here are relevant.

Probably the most important, as it is cited elsewhere, is not available online, but here is the reference:

Shakhnazarov, G. K. [Georgi Khosroevich] Futurology Fiasco: A Critical Study of Non-Marxist Concepts of How Society Develops. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1982.

This book is available online:

The Future of Society: A Critique of Modern Bourgeois Philosophical and Socio-political Conceptions, edited by Murad Saifulin. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1973.

This book traces ideas about the future from far back in the past. As for critique of bourgeois futurology, the entire argument is predicated on the premises of the Cold War, obsessed with the role of anti-communism in bourgeois thought. Whatever criticism of western conceptions might be fruitful is drowned in ideological propaganda for the Soviet system. Even by reasonable standards of the time this aspect of the argument is a botched batch of verbiage. But now that the Soviet Union has been extinct for two decades, the argument looks even more ridiculous. This is a shame, because there was really a critique to be had, irrespective of any apologia for the USSR.

Another book is included in this web site. The first 99 pages are supposed to be available, but the link to the PDF is not working now:

Streltsova, N[inel]. Looking into the Future. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1987.

Whether there is anything of a methodological nature beyond specific forecasting for the 21st century I do not know.

While I have not researched the matter, obviously one need not be dependent on anything the Soviets produced to construct a critique. And of course now neoliberalism has conquered the world, which changes the priorities of the ideological struggle over the future. While there is no effective institutional competition for the neoliberal technocratic vision for the future, the ideological delusion of the glories of a technological future is more self-deceiving than ever.

While technologies can be imagined which well could be developed over the coming half-century, the gap between reality and the frontiers of imagination has narrowed. A telling symptom is the banality and lack of imagination in the premises of the science fiction and fantasy television and film entertainment presented to us. Thanks to the advanced technology of real life and visual production, the special effects that can now be produced are more spectacular than ever, effectively distracting from the thematic poverty and uncritical nature of what is being produced and consumed. Surface sophistication effectively occludes underlying philosophical insipidity.

The elephant in the room was always the capitalist system, a critique of which was always tacitly censored, and now globalized capitalism, even without an imminent threat of thermonuclear war, which once loomed so large (and perhaps will again), is on the verge of destroying the whole world. Of course our popular culture is full of disaster scenarios, and the environmental crisis is no secret. Still, glorious fantasies about the technological future are promulgated and eagerly lapped up by devotees of science and technology, oblivious to the inconvenient truth that bourgeois reason is at the end of its rope.

No comments: