> This future has, in fact, already been described – it’s E.M. Forster’s 1909 science-fiction story The Machine Stops. Here, all of humanity lives in tiny cells within the body of the vast subterranean Machine. The Machine produces all their consumer goods, it provides them with anything they might want or need at a moment’s notice, it speaks to them, and allows them to speak to each other through video-messaging. People tend not to leave their cells; it’s not forbidden, but it’s certainly not encouraged. Full automation. Universal basic income. A networked society. In the end the Machine starts to slowly disintegrate. Billions die, and Forster, who had something of a reactionary streak, can only see this as a good thing. Who owns the Machine? The Machine does.
The abolition of work is a worthwhile project – and, what might be more important, an effective slogan – but depending on other factors, it could have any number of consequences. As Srnicek and Williams point out, the automation of production under neoliberalism is not liberatory but merely disposessive; without the guaranteed basic income it becomes a plague rather than a cure. But the compensatory effects of UBI might not be as great as they imagine, and the proposals in Inventing the Future are not themselves intended to amount to communism. Its authors might argue that they only place the working classes in a better position from which to dismantle the existing state of things. I’m not so sure. While the workplace was never the only place where workers have historically struggled, it has always been an important site of radical agitation – it is here that the working classes exercise tremendous power and great capacity to disrupt production. While recent struggles have demonstrated the disruptive potentials of blockades, I’m skeptical that the disappearance of longshoremen or warehouse workers will necessarily advance our position. What forms could resistance take once the workplace is safely cleared on all human flesh, yet private property still remains firmly in the hands of the capitalists? One: nihilist terrorism. Two: protest marches, boycotts, and online activism. Or, in other words, folk politics.
The notion of “folk politics” is based on that of “folk psychology,” a borrowed concept from the philosophy of mind, so I’ll borrow one myself. Gilbert Ryle used the notion of a “category error” to help disentangle some of the confusion in the mind-brain problem: he gives the example of someone visiting Oxford, being shown around the colleges and libraries, and eventually turning to their host and asking, “but where is the University?” Similarly a neurologist will spend all day sticking his fingers in people’s brains, and at the end of it ask, “but where is the mind?” And Srnicek and Williams, trudging along with the rest of us in another fruitless anti-neoliberal street protest, ask: “where is the counter-hegemony?”
It’s hard to find a precise date, but chances are that the future was first invented some time between 1627 and 1770. This indeterminate era, in which ordinary time ended and something very different took over, is nicely bracketed by two important books. In 1627, Francis Bacon published his New Atlantis, a vision of a Utopian society hidden somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. In 1770, Louis-Sébastien Mercier published L’An 2440 (translated into English, confusingly, as Memoirs of the Year 2500), a vision of a Utopian society hidden somewhere in the twenty-fifth century. Somewhere, space turned into time.
But the future has always been several: how could it be otherwise, when it hasn’t happened yet? The millennial or apocalyptic future, the future that abolishes time itself, is not the same as the prophetic future of a possible or desired outcome, which is not the same as speculative future of science fiction, which is not the same as the future envisaged by a calendar or a to-do list, which is not the same as the future of the high-yield bond, which is not the same as the future which will involve you reading the next sentence, or deciding not to. But what all these have in common with the phenomenological future – the one involved in the direct sensation of time passing, the thing that draws further out of reach the closer you get to it – is their slipperiness. Futures can never be touched or experienced, only imagined; this is why they’re as diverse as the human psyche, and why they tend to be so dreamlike: at turns ludic, libidinal, or monstrous.
via Rob Jackson
"The Machine Stops" by E.M. Forster (1909): http://archive.ncsa.illinois.edu/prajlich/forster.html