Or how to stop worrying and love dystopia
by Manuel Sepulveda
‘Face the future, is it now? You can’t stop it anyhow!’
— Visage, Frequency 7
It’s 1984 — the real one. On my way home from school I pass a large, three-dimensional IBM logo that’s more statement than sign, a gleaming reminder that on the outskirts of the historic town of Winchester the software of tomorrow is being designed at IBM’s research lab. Further into town, I steam up the window of the Apple retailer, ogling the newly launched Macintosh, its advertising already having convinced me that ‘1984 won’t be like Nineteen Eighty-Four’. Once home, I sit in my room and imagine the future; Concorde and the Space Shuttle are in the air, leaving contrails of the past in their wake; progress and optimism are pouring out of my screen courtesy of Tomorrow’s World and Horizon; and in my hands, the pages of Omni point to fantastical futures that are mere years away from becoming realities, transforming our lives for the better. George Orwell’s dystopian warning gathers dust on my bookshelf, a sincere but specious prediction of what my generation would have to face.
Naturally, it wasn’t long before my naive enthusiasm gave way to teenage cynicism, and 30 years after Ridley Scott’s Big Brother-smashing commercial for the Macintosh was first shown, our lives feel steadily more Orwellian. The past couple of years in particular have seen both the good and bad futures predicted in my youth finally arrive. The infringements of privacy from both governments and corporations have made us question the motives behind any new service. Horrors and ‘lolz’ are stacked one after the other on our news feeds, cancelling each other out, dulling our responses. We are served the illusion of choice whilst the opt-out is made harder to find, if it exists at all. Meanwhile, it’s Concorde and the Space Shuttle that gather dust, both increasingly distant relics of what now seems like a golden age in technological ambition.
There’s a witticism originating from a 1937 correspondence between the writers Robert Graves and Laura Riding — ‘The future is not what it used to be’ — that seems perfect for the uncertainty about our times. But the pessimism of their argument is disheartening, suggesting that we will capitulate to technology,
The human mind has reached the end of temporal progress… The future contains nothing but scientific development. It is an involuntary spending and manipulation of physical forces, empty of consciousness: it no longer matters.
The idea that our intellect is incapable of keeping pace with science’s achievements does, however, resonate with the inevitability of artificial intelligence surpassing us. More immediately, it also brings to my mind the widely held view that the Internet has rewired our brains, changing the way we think.
We have long been fascinated by dystopian scenarios, particularly those in which so many of our freedoms have been taken away that not even our thoughts can be called our own. A lot of speculative fiction is, like George Lucas’s THX 1138, a reading of the present taken to a logical extreme. We get older, and these stories take on increased relevancy, with the shortening distance between fact and fiction starting to look like an oncoming event horizon. But maybe this closing of the gap is simply a failure of the imagination on the part of writers, who play it safe by using well-worn motifs. Being shown the same horrors over and over desensitizes us, and we may recycle the warnings without actually doing anything to prevent them from coming to pass. Passive alarmists, we’re destined to become told-you-so ghosts to haunt future generations.
If the real world seems to be moving faster than our storytellers can keep up with, then it is because science advances too quickly for us to be able to make sense of it. Lately, many new inventions and techniques have seemed like magic, beyond most people’s understanding. The multiple levels at which things change can be bewildering, and science risks leaving society behind. When people misunderstand or mistrust a technology, perceiving it to be irrelevant to their needs or just plain creepy, then that technology has failed to capitalize on its potential. Perhaps worst of all, our laws are slow to adapt to new modes of opportunism, often failing to protect us when we need them to. A lack of confidence in the future can exacerbate the feeling of insecurity, making it hard to foresee how we can adjust to constantly shifting parameters.
In 1925, the philosopher A.N. Whitehead stated in his ‘Requisites for Social Progress’ (the last of a series of lectures published as Science and the Modern World) that instability was necessary and unavoidable,
It is the business of the future to be dangerous; and it is among the merits of science that it equips the future for its duties… The middle class pessimism over the future of the world comes from a confusion between civilisation and security. In the immediate future there will be less security than in the immediate past… On the whole, the great ages have been unstable ages.
But stability doesn’t have to mean standing still, it should be more about confidence in the ability to adapt to change. Science should be free of the burden of having to hold our hands, but it’s important to balance the hunger for knowledge and innovation with at least an awareness of potential problems, and an appreciation that society needs an additional set of answers.
And so we turn to the arts, as they can play a large part in demystifying the future for us. Every major new technology brings with it people who claim that it will destroy our humanity. One of the problems Whitehead identifies in his lecture is that because most people specialise in one profession, they don’t have sufficient knowledge in other fields to be able to comprehend and trust the advances being made outside of their profession — and it’s this distrust that creates a block on progress. Artists can help bridge that knowledge gap by illuminating the unknown, humanising the inhuman, and turning what seems like dystopia into a relatable evolution of the world we live in. By becoming an intrinsic part of all areas of technology, art can help people feel better prepared for whatever may come. And perhaps more crucially, artists can teach technology companies how to have more empathy towards the people their ideas will affect, shifting the emphasis towards a kind of social futurism, where technological advances equate to societal advancement.
László Moholy-Nagy, untitled photogram, 1939
A lot of the books I’ve been buying recently focus on the collaborative projects between the arts and sciences that, arguably, first truly succeeded in their aims from the 20s onwards at the Bauhaus, with artists like László Moholy-Nagy, and which continued with renewed fervour during the 60s and 70s as computer technology began to offer more opportunities for experimentation. These periods when art and science joined forces seem to coincide with times when artists also had a political drive, earnestly commentating on and confronting the world that they saw around them. Many modernist art movements of the early 20th century were activist in nature (see the poet Ezra Pound’s 1934 battle cry, ‘Make it new!’), and similarly, the revolutionary years around 1968 saw a closeness between art and politics that resurrected that confrontational energy and belief in the transformative power of provocation.
Everything arrives in waves, and like the 50s, the 80s saw technology increasingly concern itself with the entertainment and advertising industries. Simultaneously, art during the 80s became commodified and more business-minded, with artists keen to capitalise on their brand. Generally speaking, artists no longer seemed to have the same kind of convictions as their activist predecessors and started to look inwardly for inspiration. We are due a new wave.
In the past few years it’s been encouraging to see so many projects that bring artists, coders and engineers together to explore new forms of expression, and seeing these fields work together has restored my excitement about the future (it’s one of the main reasons why I’ve started After Us). These projects rekindle the spirit of the ICA’s seminal 1968 exhibition, Cybernetic Serendipity, aiming to deliver experiences that could not have been achieved a few years ago.
If there’s one element that’s missing it’s that much of the work lacks truly deep concerns — I would love to see these new processes applied to more radical ideas concerning how our lives are lived, rather than simply offering Instagrammable moments. It’s not enough for an artist to create a laser show and then claim that it will make you ‘question reality’ — that’s just hyperbole. On the other hand, it’s frustrating when work cloaks itself in so much conceptual pretension that it renders itself incomprehensible, and therefore ineffective. In the same way that science needs to embrace art, art needs to recapture some of the political ambition of previous generations. Art is incredibly powerful but most of it is hemmed in by curated spaces, with many cross-discipline projects only being seen by a select few; hopefully, deep-rooted collaboration with other fields can provide a wider range of platforms, helping to build fruitful dialogues between all aspects of society.
Nobody (except perhaps naive children of the 80s) expects a perfect future, but a joined-up culture of art, science and politics can give us greater insight and bring into focus how we can and should move forward. It’s worth pointing out that art is almost entirely absent from the fabric of societies in dystopian fictions — maybe that’s the real warning.
Manuel Sepulveda is editor and art director of After Us.