In The Future, Nick Montfort offers a short introduction to the future that embraces lessons from historical examples of ‘future-making’ by an array of artists, writers and scientists. By framing the present as having been shaped by their imaginings, this book grants readers insight into the generative potential of new visions when it comes to constructing the future, finds Ed Jones

The Future. Nick Montfort. MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series. 2018.

Future Wishes are Famously Subverted

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In 1755, the scientific ingenuity and the profound belief in progress of the Enlightenment inspired the French philosophes Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond D’Alembert to create a new type of encyclopaedia, traditionally conceived of as a treasure chest full of historical examples of virtue and folly. Diderot and D’Alembert’s encyclopaedia, by contrast, anticipated what the future would want to know about the past: what a contemporary referred to as ‘a Jerusalem of philosophy that would last more than a thousand years’ (233). In Diderot’s view, the speed of change in the eighteenth century had rendered the canon obsolete, and intellectuals should ‘resolve to work only for the generations to come because our moment passes and hardly will a great enterprise be completed before our generation exists no longer’ (234). However, both philosophers were dogged by concerns about the content of this message in a bottle. How does one summarise contemporary worries about past, present and future in short yet illuminating entries?

Nick Montfort, the author of a new short guide from MIT Press, has recently faced the same question. His text was not designed to be a book for generations to come, but for those already here. Irrespective of your audience, anticipating future trends based on an accelerating present, then as now, remains a difficult intellectual exercise. Recent events around the world have shattered expectations about politics, economics and technology. Climate change is forcing historians, economists and policymakers to reassess their approaches. The 2008 economic crisis, in turn, prompted calls to reconsider the future of economic forecasting. The election of Donald Trump and the UK vote for Brexit have cast profound doubts on the art of polling; dystopian fears about the political effects of Facebook that were once projected onto the future have crashed from the sky into the present. The future on the horizon resembles a UFO – to many, it appears fleeting, seemingly impossible, calls into question the sanity of its believers and more broadly constitutes a source of febrile disagreement among those interested in the subject.

In this context, it is worth considering what the publication of this short guide to the future says about our time. The collection it belongs to, for one, seeks to provide ‘expert overviews’ and ‘a point of access to complex ideas’ by ‘synthesising specialized subject matter for nonspecialists’, and its success is a testament to the demand for information that can be consumed rapidly and that can reach a wide audience.

Montfort’s The Future sidesteps discussions about the art of future prediction to embrace lessons from historical examples of ‘future-making’. Montfort explores the ways artists, writers and scientists have experimented, debated and ultimately created our present – ‘we are living in their future’. The book guides the reader through a clear narrative with an unassuming voice, and deploys endless pithy examples that stimulate the reader’s imagination. Montfort begins by challenging the reader to reimagine familiar spaces – such as the kitchen – and how progress in gender rights and technological development might prompt us to consider the reconfiguration of these sites. According to Montfort, today one may consider installing a Soylent closet that provides nourishment and opens up the space traditionally used by the kitchen to other uses, ‘such as watching Netflix’, but warns that in the next five years this idea may itself seem dated.

Image Credit: (seier+seier CC BY 2.0)

The type of hopeful progress that Enlightenment thinkers envisioned may not stand up to the challenges posed by global warming, but the ‘belief that the future can be different’ is a valuable starting point ‘from which a powerful idea of future-making can develop’. Utopian works provide us with an otherwise forgotten toolbox of ideas to think about the future. The popular, the impossible and the satirical become flying transportation devices to glide over the stultifying traffic jams of today’s news cycles. Montfort presents the reader with instances of artists and thinkers using the technology they wrote about to expand the reach of their ideas, ‘because they saw there were important new connections to be made’. The author explores the intolerant legacies of posterity-oriented movements such as the Italian Futurists as well as the early-twentieth-century world fairs, spaces that opened up the doors to people who sought to engage with material innovations designed in different parts of the world that related to their everyday experience and with debates occurring in the public sphere. Examples of future-making rely on such a combination of personal experience and social engagement. Montfort explores the everyday preoccupations and ingenious concepts that led to the development of the internet and the computer mouse. By framing today’s world as the product of past future-makers, Montfort grants the reader a clear example of how everyone can produce new visions and new futures.

A curious point is the interest in the end of World War Two as a starting point for future-oriented research. Montfort highlights how many building blocks of today’s World Wide Web were formulated in the aftermath of the war by scientists who sought to build on the international cooperation prompted by the conflict. In this context, ideas about a connected web are presented as the opposite of the Manhattan Project, the international project of cooperation that bequeathed the first nuclear weapon. Montfort emphasises the fact that many of these attempts at future-making, particularly those related to the internet, arose out of dark times, and encourages the reader to think of ways to begin laying the basis for more hopeful futures.

Montfort’s comments, and the publication of this book, speak to today’s broader unease with the future. In his seminal work The Past is a Foreign Country, from which this review takes its title, David Lowenthal explored the ways we understand the past, and criticised the prevalence of nostalgia as a means to interact with history. After the liberal consensus froze the future in a framework of predictable teleological progress, today’s publications exhibit the growing pains in the development of a way of thinking about the future that political debates had long forgotten.

All over the political spectrum, there is today a nostalgia for the future. From the right, George Osborne writes of his upcoming book, The Age of Unreason: ‘my book is about the future. I want to apply the lessons I’ve learnt in victory and defeat to the urgent challenge of this age of unreason.’ On the left, Nick Srnicek and Alex William’s Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work seeks to ‘reclaim […] future-oriented possibilities of our society’, and Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists: How We Can Build the Ideal World talks about ‘forgotten’ forms of utopian thought, and ‘the return’ and ‘the recovery’ of utopia. The cynic would see these works, alongside Montfort’s book, in a broader context of the present abuse of the language of time and history for political purposes, whether in Emmanuel Macron’s comments about the need for a new Napoleon, Trump’s appeals to white America or in Boris Johnson’s sanitising nods to England’s imperial glory days. In this light, the focus on past ways of engaging with the future is merely part of a broader manipulation of the language of expectations. Yet, a more hopeful reader might see in this book an empowering attempt to engage the realities of our days; an incipient language drawn from the debris of past projections, predictions and visions of that limitless horizon which we once called the future.

Ed Jones is a graduate of the LSE and a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Cambridge, with a focus on early modern Spain. Read more by Ed Jones.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 

This review was originally published as a comparative piece and was amended on Monday 25 June 2018 to a single-author review. 

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