At a time when technology is changing fast and its consequences are hard to predict, Asher Kessler, a PhD researcher in LSE’s Department of Media & Communications, explains how we can assess and rethink the visions of the future presented to us by big technology companies.
Over the past six months, it has sometimes felt as if we’re entering a science fiction film. Whether it is Apple promising a future in which we’ll all be navigating the world through Augmented Reality (AR) headsets, or the plethora of Big Tech companies racing to create Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), we have been confronted with visions of a radically transformed future. And these futures come just two years after Meta’s big push to convince the world that we were entering a new social reality: the metaverse.
The dizzying whiplash of flinging from one supposedly inevitable future to another makes this a good moment to pause and question why Big Tech might be so intent on selling us these visions of the future. Doing so helps us recognise how the futures we anticipate or imagine shape how we navigate our present day, as well as how we come to remember the past. But it also might point us towards imagining the future in alternative ways.
To begin, I find it helpful to borrow the perspective of historian Jenny Andersson who, in her history of post war futurism and futurology, argues that the future is best thought of as a “field of struggle”. From this perspective, visions and predictions of the future are suffused with power. Imagined futures are often instilled with narratives of directionality and inevitability, and this shapes how people act in the present. For example, in launching their Vision Pro headset, Apple is not just selling a product but a vision of the future that they hope to convince us is just around the corner. If we are already heading towards this future, then we might as well prepare for it. To take another example, when graduates imagine a future increasingly filled with AI technology, they may reassess what career path to follow now.
But a vision of the future doesn’t just reshape how we come to navigate the present, it can also remould how we retell the past so that it better fits a narrative of directionality towards this imagined future. Proponents of AI argue that we are on the verge of not simply a technological development but an unprecedented transformational shift. For example, Demis Hassabis, who runs Google’s AI team, argues that the most important moment in human history lies just ahead of us. Against this looming future of unprecedented historical change, past events come to be reassessed. For example, Nick Bostrom, an Oxford philosopher, feels able to re-evaluate past catastrophic events, such as the Holocaust, as “mere ripples on the surface of the great sea of life”, compared to the future threats he envisions from technologies such as nanotechnology or AGI.
The power of imagined futures to reshape our present and our retelling of the past can help explain why our expectations of the future are so fought over. Through reshaping what we imagine to be possible or even expected, actors such as Meta, Apple or Open AI attempt to reshape how we understand our interests, so that they better align with their own interests. It is in Apple’s interests to convince people that AR is the next step in computer-human interaction not only to sell their products, or convince developers to work on AR, but so that wider audiences believe that the best way to not be ‘left behind’ is to prepare for the future Apple seeks to construct.
Yet, the experience of the past six months, of being encouraged to imagine one seemingly-inevitable future then the next can begin to feel, dare I say it, a little repetitive. This might be because, as different as these technological visions of the future first appear, all of them follow the same core logic: the future is the next imagined technological breakthrough.
To make sense of this, I find it useful to go back and draw upon the work of political philosopher Hannah Arendt. In the 1950s, against the backdrop of space exploration and an emerging nuclear arms race, Arendt warned that society was handing over their imaginings of the future to science and technology. In Between Past and Future, Arendt argued that if we simply equate the future with the next scientific or technological breakthrough, we find ourselves closing a future that was once envisaged as open. The future becomes closed in that it is always the same, always the next scientific breakthrough or technology product, rather than a collective decision to reshape political or social life towards an ideal or betterment.
How then might we imagine the future outside of this temporal cycle of the next technological breakthrough? Perhaps a useful place to start is not trying to look ahead but instead look back. If we can recover the different, and often largely forgotten, ways in which the future has been imagined, and reassemble them into a new contemporary context, we might find alternative ways of imagining the future now. For example, we could reconsider how historical figures and movements, such as messianic religious groups, imagined alternative visions of radical transformation. How might reassembling fragments of these visions into our contemporary help us reimagine the future as unprecedented? More than just finding alternative ways of imagining the future, through these actions of recovery and reassembly, we resist the ways in which ‘Big Tech’ is reshaping our expectations for the future, as well as the way we navigate the present, and remember the past.
This post represents the views of the author and not the position of the Media@LSE blog nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.