The Future is not a Solution

Essay by Laura Forlano: “The future is a particular kind of speaker,” explains communication scholar James W. Carey, “who tells us where we are going before we know it ourselves.” But in discussions about the nature of the future, the future as an experience never appears. This is because “the future is always offstage and never quite makes its entrance into history; the future is a time that never arrives but is always awaited.” Perhaps this is why, in the American context, there is a widespread tendency to “discount the present for the future,” and see the “future as a solvent” for existing social problems.

Abstract discussions of the “the future” miss the mark. That is because experience changes us. Anyone that has lived through the last 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic would surely agree. While health experts are well aware of the ongoing global risks posed by pandemics, no one—not even an algorithm—can predict exactly when, where, and how they might come to be. And, yet, since spring 2020, there has been a global desire to understand precisely what is next, how to navigate uncertain futures as well as adapt to long-term changes. The pandemic, according to the writer Arundhati Roy, is “a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”

In order to understand the choices that we are facing, it is necessary to understand the ways in which technologies and futures are often linked—socially, politically, and commercially —through their promises of a better tomorrow, one just beyond our grasp. Computer scientist Paul Dourish and anthropologist Genevieve Bell refer to these as “technovisions” or the stories that technologists and technology companies tell about the role of computational technologies in the future. Technovisions portray technological progress as inevitable—becoming cultural mythologies and self-fulfilling prophecies. They explain that the “proximate future,” a future that is “indefinitely postponed” is a key feature of research and practice in the field of computing that allows technology companies to “absolve themselves of the responsibilities of the present” by assuming that “certain problems will simply disappear of their own accord—questions of usability, regulation, resistance, adoption barriers, sociotechnical backlashes, and other concerns are erased.”…(More)”