Throughout this guide I’ve tried to isolate the patterns of how we think about the Future-Present, as symbolized by particular evocative technology. By engaging five, extraordinarily knowledgeable informants, I’ve traced their thoughts into directional arcs that don’t necessarily nail down this swirling cloud of future-forward ideas, but at least give us sense of the difficulty of the terrain.
The archetypes are stories, each one about us, our ideas, and our material world. The excitement of the future is represented by the LED. Neodymium magnets tell a story about the the allure of technological magic interacting with our everyday life. The fable of the cyborg explains a bit about our interface with our own history. The theology of our technologically advanced commodities are explained to us through drones. And our maps tendency to glitch is a cautionary tale about our minds’ inherent difficulties in navigating all of these different idea structures at the same time.
I like to think of these archetypes as stories, because there is something harmless in allegory. A meaning is intended, but if it doesn’t particular stick, or if as storyteller I trip in my delivery, the stakes are low. These are not actually designs for massive structures, harnessing dangerous physical forces to be constrained within conduits wrapped around us while we sleep at night. If these narratives become unpleasant, we can simply wake up, dispelling them like a dream, returning to the safe world of consistent reality that is not fraught with loops of meaning and pitfalls of symbolism. We can clear the slate easily, claiming the fallibility of narratives, and returning to the kernel of “simple” material things, ignoring the implications of our ideas. And then the next night, we have a chance to dream again.
But what I have come to realize is that stories are not a low impact art. True, any particular essay about the future might be ignored, deemed to be of little use or effect, and sent to join the vast quantities of cultural product that collect upon the roadsides of the networks, like so many bottles and cans without even as much value as a token deposit. But the effect that a narrative can have is extraordinarily real. Those roadsides are not only avenues of amusement, but also the pathways of history. What is the worth of a narrative when the climate of the world is at stake? What is its value when could a commonly told story result in the use of a catastrophic weapon, as opposed to only its development? What is its currency, when an implicitly understood fable forms the boundaries of a person’s lifelong torment, or pleasure?
We have a limited time to shape these potentially-valuable/potentially-worthless stories because our technological history is unfolding, not in the future, but immediately. And we have very few means for judging history’s effectiveness. As much as we think about the strengths and functions of any particular narrative, there is no way to be aware of every vulnerability. There is no such thing as surety, when it comes to narratives. There is only ever our best guess, and our endless capacity for second-guessing it.