The Future Is Here
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"Futureshock" proves that the future really is unevenly distributed

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The other day, we asked whether futureshock still exists — and depending on who you talk to, it's either everywhere or an obsolete idea. One of the people we wrote to didn't get back to us in time for our deadline, but when Mark Dery (inventor of the term "culture jamming" and noted writer about cyberculture) did write back, it was with a mini-essay about fear of the future. Our question for Dery, and his response, are reproduced in full below.


Top image: Maciej for Cyberpunk 2077.

It seems as though a lot of people are uneasy or at sea with how fast things are changing these days — and we just don't call it "futureshock." We identify it as cultural unease or whatever. Do you think this is true? Or is it just that some people have always been more uneasy with modernity?


Let's interrogate the question, as academics like to say. Who are these "some people" who have "always" been "uneasy with modernity"? Luddites, presumably, fighting a rearguard action against the future, as opposed to, say, the forward-looking early adopters — those who Get It, as Wired magazine liked to say, back in the '90s, a phrase whose unfortunate echoes of EST always struck a sour (yet so revealing!) note in the memory of anyone old enough to remember Werner Erhard's human-potential cult.

Backing up, the first question we might want to ask is: what, exactly, is the "cultural unease" you're talking about? Is it the oughties equivalent of hysteria, or neurasthenia, or nervous exhaustion, or any of the other maladies that plagued society around the turn of the 19th century, as the speed of social change seemed to be engaging warp drive?

In his book PR!, Stuart Ewen, the social historian of consumer culture, quotes the sociologist Georg Simmel's 1903 essay, "The Metropolis and Mental Life," in effect arguing that Toffler's "future shock" has been around for a long time. (It could be argued that Simmel's essay was the Future Shock of its day.) Simmel writes, "The psychological basis of the metropolitan type of individuality consists in the intensification of nervous stimulation which results from the swift and uninterrupted change of outer and inner stimuli." He believes that the mechanized, media-mad whirl of the big city—-the crowds, the lights, the semiotic frenzy of signage clamoring for our attention, in short the sheer, unrelenting assault of stimuli—-rocked the "sensory foundations of psychic life."

Note his emphasis on the senses. In the latter half of the 20th century, McLuhan picks up this idea and runs with it. His zany theories about the "auto-amputation" of our senses—-the Faustian decision to delegate to machines many of the tasks once done by our muscles and minds—-are rooted in the assumption that there's an ever-widening gap between our minds and our bodies. For McLuhan, this is the epistemological, even ontological, root of what you call our "cultural unease." He calls it the Narcissus Complex, by which he means the psychic trauma that hits us when we realize we've outsourced many of the physical and mental skills that defined us as human, or which we thought defined us as human, leaving a kind of philosophical vacuum where The Human used to be.


Back in the Enlightenment—-the Golden Age of the centered, bounded, sovereign self, we thought we knew what it meant to be human. Then along came Freud, with his gothic talk of multiple selves—-subterranean selves inaccessible to the conscious mind—-and industrialized, mass-mediated modernity, with the fragmenting effects Simmel talks about, and Existentialism, and postmodernism's adoption of the "anti-Oedipal" schizoid self as its mascot, and we weren't so sure, anymore. The rise of the machines is finishing the job. Animal studies, by the way, is having a similar effect though from a different angle of philosophical attack; cognitive ethology is slowly but surely demolishing claims to human uniqueness, while cognitive neuroscience and evolutionary psychology argue the point that we're as much the product of Darwinian evolution as of social construction. McLuhan was fond of quoting Freud, in Civilization and its Discontents: "Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on to him and they still give him much trouble at times." Again, Freud is juxtaposing our nature with our culture, the bodies and brains bequeathed to us by evolution with the technologies we've created, technologies that as McLuhan points out both enhance us and amputate us, amplify and diminish us. We're cyborgs, creatures of nature and culture, biology and technology—-prosthetic gods whose sleek carapace, like Darth Vader's mask or the Borg's body armor, conceals the increasingly obsolete Darwinian holdover shriveling inside. I think McLuhan and Simmel and even Toffler, with his arm-waving about "information overload," "the overstimulated individual," and "bombardment of the senses," are responding to one of the fundamental cultural dynamics of the industrial and post-industrial ages, namely, the psychological effects of the growing chasm between Darwinian evolution, which moves at glacial pace, and the social and cultural changes brought on by technological innovation, changes that seem to be happening at mind-blurring speed. What you're calling future shock is the sensation, at least in technologically advanced societies, that the Cartesian mind/body split is reaching the breaking point; that our Darwinian legacy is just so much drag coefficient in a society that lives more and more of its life on the other side of the screen, in social networks and virtual worlds. Cognitive neuroscience is providing abundant evidence that this divide is real: scientists talk about the "forebrain bottleneck," the evolutionarily determined limits on our ability to multitask that affect, say, our ability to navigate rush-hour traffic while crossing against the light and texting and listening to our iPods or talking on the cellphone while driving.

Is "some people"'s tendency to succumb to future shock evidence that some of us—-the demographic familiar from TED, the "Big Think" website, John Brockman books—-are better fitted, in the social Darwinian sense, for societal speedup? (Social Darwinism isn't just a poetic trope: the growing income gap, and slowing social mobility, are socioeconomic puzzle pieces that have to be jigsawed into this discussion, too. William Gibson's famous quote that "the future is already here; it's just not very evenly distributed" hints that, more and more, being ultra-rich means having the luxury of not caring about the physical world: holding aging and even death at bay with high-tech cosmetic and medical care; having the means to crawl out from under or avoid altogether the biblical disasters wrought by global warming; routing around the decaying infrastructure and cash-starved public services by operating in the privatized world of gated communities, private schools, private jets. And being poor means being inescapably embodied, consigned to the purgatory of a defunded public sphere where medical care means getting a colonoscopy at your local bodega.) Since Kurzweil's Singularity is turning out to be tent-show evangelism for geeks, and since we've all got bodies (last time I checked), better to ask: What happens when the technosphere accelerates to the point that its leaves its creators in the dust? When the rise of the machines future-shocks all of us, geek and Luddite alike, by rendering us obsolete?


Mark Dery is a cultural critic. His books include The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink and Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century. He edited the anthology Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, which inaugurated the academic interest in "Afrofuturism," a term he coined. As well, Dery popularized the guerrilla media activism known as "culture jamming" through his book-length essay, Culture Jamming: Hacking, Slashing, and Sniping in the Empire of Signs. His latest book is the essay collection I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-By Essays on American Dread, American Dreams.