The Baltic Notebooks of Anthony Blunt
Loops of Future
‘Prepare for the future’: this is the imperative of everyday life that moulds a moral and responsible subject, one that promises wellbeing, at the same time providing hope and illusion of control. Short-sightedness is condemned in politics, finance and everyday life, yet economists still quote the famous saying of John Maynard Keynes, ‘In the long run, we are all dead’. The future thus appears as a utopian horizon, receding as we get closer, but still so many activities are initiated in the name of the future. For instance, media perpetuates the hypothesis of extinction of Lithuanian nation and language, the significance of which lies entirely in its character of a future threat. Young women are urged to bear children today, not in their forties, an advice or even instruction that draws upon a logic of the cohort as well as genetics. The rules of grammar are also effective immediately and daily, not tomorrow or the day after. Future breaks brutally into the present, leaving no alternatives available for now.
On the other hand, we are also encouraged to seize the day, carpe diem. However, even the popularity of mindfulness is basically a future-oriented moral choice, an expression of pragmatism aiming to ensure longevity by reducing stress over uncertain and uncontrollable future.
Future is full of paradoxes. Just think about it: the future that we prepare for today does not belong to us. Whereas those who hold more future have no right of decision today: current ten-year-olds possess at least fifty more years of future than current sixty-year-olds. Future is determined by those who hold the least of it.
While parliamentary committees dedicated to the rights of future generations are being established in EU member states, political theorists reject their very idea as contradictory to the democratic system, but only due to technical difficulties of representation: even if we can formulate some of the interests of forthcoming generations, such as preservation of the environment and sustainable use of natural resources, it is impossible to hold the political representation of future generations accountable. The argument is simple: because the future generations cannot fund their representatives in political parties they cannot exist in today’s parliaments as subjects able to evaluate the representation of their interests. And yet, somehow, the situation still looks unfair.
So what is there to do with this paradoxical and unavoidable dimension of life, future? This question has titillated humanity for centuries. But while in ancient Rome future was divined from flights of birds, the twentieth century saw the emergence of an entire new area of scientific expertise dedicated to this exact investigation: futures studies, futurology, and scientific forecasting.
Today different experts of future thrive in insurance companies, investment funds, marketing and political consulting firms. They use a variety of methods, such as statistical forecasts of future trends, alternative scenarios and computer modelling. Future industry is large and growing: hundreds, if not thousands of think tanks and consulting firms offer their services in this area.
Yet such manifoldness does not imply a competition for a presumably single ‘really’ existing future, that one could glimpse into and control, thus reaping the benefits in the present. In contrast to this, a more realistic way of reading this situation is to acknowledge the cohabitation of many different states of futurity that can actually coexist and compete with each other.
One thing is clear: we do lack convenient, everyday schemes of thinking about plural futurity, although philosophers did propose a few useful concepts. For instance, an interesting version of plural futurity was proposed by German-born sociologist Barbara Adam, who made a distinction between the present futures and future’s present.
It may sound a little vague, but the principle is actually quite simple and intuitively familiar to many of us. The idea of present futures is the most straightforward way of conceptualizing futurity, where the key condition is the availability of extensive knowledge on a certain present phenomenon. This could be anything, for instance, the number of the population of a city, the historical data describing the changes of this population in the past, factors influencing these changes and rate of change. By describing this changing population in a mathematical language, one can more or less precisely forecast the future development of the population over time: quarters, years, decades. Such statistical forecasts describe the future of the present phenomenon in accordance with a particular time scale. Time scales, on the other hand, are never arbitrary, indeed, the term of five, ten or thirty years is always chosen strategically. Long and short term forecasts are embedded in well-institutionalised activities, such as parliamentary elections (a four-year cycle) or infrastructure (approximately thirty years).
Adam’s future present is a fundamentally different concept, expressing that there is something completely new, something that is difficult to trace today will eventually emerge. However, the origins of such unknown future are in principle situated in the present. Recognising future present is more difficult than discerning present future. It is even harder to convince somebody that what we observe is the future present. It is precisely this type of participation of future in present day that climate change sceptics voice their doubt now and again. Future presents can also be spotted as known unknowns or weak signals. Some experts of future employed rich metaphors to explain this kind of futurity, for instance, as the Black Swan theory proposed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who popularised the biological theory of evolution, which states that some contingent phenomena can have disproportionately large influence in the constitution of the future world. It is precisely such phenomena that statistical time series cannot reveal.
How do black swans tie into this? At this exact moment of writing I begin to worry about my exceedingly technical description of futurity. Everybody cares about future in some way, but the available conceptual techniques to think about futurity appear formal and off-putting, too far removed from common sense. For many seek comfort in the habitual grammatical forms, is, was, will be, and their possible modifications or negations. Plural futurity strikes like an unnecessary complication of our sorted temporary order. It is probably by seeking to capture the popular attention, that scientists resort to marketing strategies, turning to unusual metaphors to brand their ideas. Black swans are accidental occurrences that can strongly affect the established order (the belief that all swans are white).
On the other hand, future presents can be completely unnoticeable in the present, existing as unknown unknowns. An even more interesting alternative is proposed in the evolution theory of catastrophic change through bifurcation, stating that a system can assume a completely new state, losing all memory of its previous states in this process. It is impossible to either know or act upon such a future. What is most striking is that such a future may have no past at all.
These are not new ideas, but just a brief summary of some of the key views, established in futures studies and systems theory since the 1940s. Although future thinking has longer than half-a-century career, the principles of plural futurity tend to be confined to rather narrow professional circles. Majority of individuals are interested in knowing present futures, and so they visit fortune-tellers, health and financial institutions. It is the most profitable and psychologically acceptable area. Indeed, religious models are grounded in foretelling present futures, but this area also encompasses the financial market predictions, forecasts of natural energy resources and climate changes. Experts speculate just how long and under what conditions current phenomena will last and change. This conceptual model is also applied to artistic investments, e.g. by guessing which current artistic tendencies are ‘the most promising’.
Having researched the history of future-thinking over the last three years, I am intrigued by the daily lack of literacy skills regarding the future. In everyday and professional life future is observed from Cassandra’s position, as if future existed on its own, could be seen through a keyhole or shaped like a dough into a doughnut. As if future was finite, determined by today’s efforts, or at least genetics. Even Hollywood movies depicting time travel often ignore the complexity of futurity, preferring to resort to the model of present future and present past (i.e., traveling through chronologic stages).
But future is not an empty, autonomous shape. We are living in loops of future, or, more accurately, futures, or multi-futures. Future is being created every moment: every story, every bit of information on future is already shaping it. A good example of such a performative power of engagement with the future is George Soros’s theory of reflexivity adapted for financial markets. According to Soros, belief in the existence of objective information presumably enabling a trader to predict and control future prices is not just foolish, but is also dangerous, leading to boom and bust cycle, driven by self-fulfilling prophecy. Similar to this is a strive to discover what the future of today’s art will be, or what future art will be like. Decisions like these, however, launch nonlinear processes, the outcomes of which will certainly diverge from expectations.
I think the concept of plural futurity can be useful for interpreting some of artistic projects presented in the XII Baltic Triennial in Contemporary Art Centre, Vilnius. Some works do relate to the postulates discussed above. For instance, STRUCTOR-5, a project by Erki Kasemets, attempts to define the shapes of future which is presently completely unknown. This Estonian artist assembles geometric figures that do not represent anything today but might eventually attain important meanings in the future. Another artist, Zofia Rydet is interested in the future of present phenomena. The Polish artist photographs artists in their studios as representatives of what she believes to be a vanishing profession, which brings me back to the problem that experts of future had been concerned since the 1950s: how computerisation and automation is going to transform the future structure of professional occupations and job markets? In turn, what professions should mass educational systems promote? In the context of a cautious and concerned futurism, the documentation of mundane, familiar present becomes a completely justifiable gesture.
Other exhibits expose the performativity of future in an intriguing way, revealing how even a well-orchestrated and short-term future can suddenly recede, thus forcing its designers to unexpectedly improvise and generate new forms of present. This is exactly how I would interpret Waiting, the film by Vitalijus Strigunkovas, which shows the US vice-president being late to disembark from his plane at Vilnius Airport, thus disrupting the schedule of a live TV broadcast. Strigunkovas’ film documents the incremental production of a new, improvised presence as an attempt to compensate for the anticipated future that would not commence.
And indeed, exciting innovation probably happens as a side effect in the process of conscious preparation for both future present and present future. Barbara Adam grows peonies in Wales. Bruno Latour is mobilising scientists and artists to re-design the institutional loops in which the present of global climate future circulate. Personally, I am inspired by the cybernetic principle: the more reflexively we will cast our loops of futurity, the more future we can eventually hold.
The essay was first published in Lithuanian in the cultural weekly ‘7 meno dienos’ in September 2015 on occasion of the opening of the XII Baltic Triennial.