future

Umbrellas in Hong Kong

Given the Netlab's work for the Uneven Growth show at MoMA, the unfolding events in Hong Kong demand comment. Although they events are dramatic and their immediate outcome is entirely unclear at the moment, they aren't anything we should be surprised about. Last spring I posted a scenario that we developed for the show titled Hong Kong, 2047. It's worth taking a look at if you haven't had a chance to do so yet. Essentially, our point is that the sort of crisis being played out in Hong Kong is evidence of a growing tension between the mainland and the coastal cities. The mainland has two routes it can follow: a humiliating capitulation along the route toward losing power and a crackdown that will make the eventual lose power exponentially greater.

Simply put, the demographic bubble in the PRC will collapse over the next couple of decades. As it does so, coastal cities like Shanghai, Guangdong, Hangzhou, and Nanjing will grow in both population and power. Such coastal cities will be closer to New York or Tokyo in outlook than to the declining inland of the PRC. If the CPC has any sense, they understand that this is coming their way and that the situation in Hong Kong is a precussor to broader tensions between the mainland and emerging coastal cities (or city-states) in the next forty years. The sort of controls that China places over the Internet today will be harder to exercise in the future as technology will allow ways to route around restrictions to proliferate: the new emphasis on unbreakable security protection in the iPhone 6 is an example of this new condition.    

Undoubtedly members of the CPC—and certainly the PLA—will want to crack down hard on the protestors in Hong Kong. If this will bring temporary relief, it will also make the inevitable process of dissociating the rising coastal city-states from the mainland more difficult. 

Now again, we're talking about a process that will take decades, not something with immediate and obvious consequences so don't look for independence flags to fly over Guangzhou anytime soon. More geriatric forces in the CPC will be tempted to go for the quick fix since they won't be around to see the consequences, but the tensions we outlined in our document seem to be ever more real today. What happens in the next few days may just decide the tenor of future negotiations when the PRC can no longer act with such impunity.     

The Decade Ahead

It's time for my promised set of predictions for the coming decade. It has been a transgression of disciplinary norms for historians to predict the future, but its also quite common among bloggers. So let's treat this as a blogosphere game, nothing more. It'll be interesting to see just how wildly wrong I am a decade from now.

In many respects, the next decade is likely to seem like a hangover after the party of the 2000s (yes, I said party). The good times of the boom were little more than a lie perpetrated by finance, utterly ungrounded in any economy reality, and were not based on any sustainable economic thought. Honestly, it's unclear to me how much players like Alan Greenspan, Ben Bernanke, Hank Paulson, and Larry Summers were duplicitous and how much they were just duped. Perhaps they thought they would get out in time or drop dead before the bubbly stopped flowing. Or maybe they were just stupid. Either way, we start a decade with national and global economies in ruins. A generation that grew up believing that the world was their oyster is now faced with the same reality that my generation knew growing up: that we would likely be worse off than our parents. I see little to correct this condition and much to be worried about.

Gopal Balakshrishan predicts that the future global economy will be a stationary state, a long-term stagnation akin to that which we experienced in the 1970s and 1980s. China will start slowing. The United States, EU, the Mideast and East Asia will all make up a low growth block, a slowly decaying imperium. India, together with parts of Africa and South America, will be on the rise. To be clear: the very worst thing that could happen is that we would see otherwise. If another bubble forms—in carbon trading or infrastructure for example—watch out. Under network culture, capitalism and finance have parted ways. Hardt and Negri are right: our economy is immaterial now, but that immateriality is not the immateriality of Apple Computer, Google, or Facebook, it's the immateriality of Goldman Sachs and AIG. Whereas under traditional forms of capitalism the stock market was meant to produce returns on investment, a relationship summed up in Marx's equation M-C-M' (where M is money, C is a commodity produced with the money, and M' is money plus surplus value), the financial market now seems to operate under the scheme of M-M' (see Jeffrey Nealon's brilliant Foucault Beyond Foucault). Surplus value is the product of speculation.

There's every chance that I have little idea to what lengths the financial powers will go to continue this condition. After all, I would have said that we should have had a lengthy recession following the dot.com boom and we didn't. Still, the Dow Jones, NASDAQ, house prices (measured in real dollars), and salaries all went down over the course of the decade, so it's plausible to say that for the most part, the economy was a shambles.

Climate change will become more widely accepted as corporations realize that it can lead to consumption and profits when little else can. If we are unlucky, the green "movement" will become a boom. We will finally realize that peak oil has past, perhaps around 2006. Climate change will be very real. It will not be as apocalyptic as some have predicted, but major changes will be in the works. We should expect more major natural disasters, including a tragic toll on human life.   

Populations will be aging worldwide during the next decade and baby boomers will be pulling more money out of their retirement accounts to cover their expenses. At the same time, younger people will find it harder to get a job as the de facto retirement age rises well into the seventies, even the eighties. A greater divide will open up between three classes. At the top, the super-rich will continue controlling national policies and will have the luxury of living in late Roman splendor. A new "upper middle" class will emerge among those who were lucky enough to accumulate some serious cash during the glory days. Below that will come the masses, impossibly in debt from credit cards, college educations, medical bills and nursing home bills for their parents but unable to find jobs that can do anything to pull them out of the mire. The rifts between all three classes will grow, but it's the one between the upper middle class (notice there is no lower middle class anymore) and the new proles that will be the greatest. This is where social unrest will come from, but right now it seems more likely to be from the Right than the Left. Still, there's always hope.

Speaking of hope, if things go right, governments will turn away from get-rich-quick schemes like "creative cities" or speculative financial schemes and instead find ways to build long-term strategies for resurrecting manufacturing. It will be a painful period of restructuring for the creative industries. Old media, the arts, finance, law, advertising, and so on will suffer greatly. Digital media will continue to be a relatively smart choice for a career, even as it becomes more mainstreamed into other professions. For example, it will become as common in schools of architecture to study the design of media environments as it is now to study housing. We will see a rise of cottage industries in developing nations as individuals in their garages will realize that they can produce things with the means of production at hand. Think of eBay and Etsy, but on a greater scale. National health insurance in the US will help in this respect, as it will remove individuals from the need to work for large corporations. But all will not be roses in the world of desktop manufacture. Toxicity caused by garage operations will be a matter of contention in many communities.

Some cities are simply doomed, but if we're lucky, some leaders will turn to intelligent ways of dealing with this condition. To me, the idea of building the world's largest urban farm in Detroit sounds smart. Look for some of these cities—Buffalo maybe?—to follow Berlin's path and become some of the most interesting places to live in the country. If artists and bohemians are finding it impossible to live in places like New York, San Francisco or Los Angeles anymore, they may well turn elsewhere, to the boon of cities formerly in decline. The hippest places to live will no longer be New York or Los Angeles or San Francisco. The move toward smaller cities—remember Athens, Georgia, Austin, Texas and Seattle?—will explode in this decade as the over-capitalized major cities will face crises. But to be clear, this is an inversion from the model of the creative city. These cities will not see real estate values increase greatly. The new classes populating them will not be rich, but rather will turn to a of new DIY bohemianism, cultivating gardens, joining with neighbors communally and building vibrant cultural scenes.

With the death of creative cities, planners will also have to turn toward regions. As jobs continue to empty out, city cores will also see a decline in their fortunes. Eventually, this may resurrect places like New York and San Francisco as interesting places to live in again, but for now, it will cause a crisis. Smart city leaders will form alliances with heads of suburban communities to force greater regional planning than ever before. This will be the decade of the suburbs. We began the last decade with over 50% of the world's population living in urban areas. I predict that by the end of the next decade over 50% of the world's population will live in suburban areas. This isn't just Westchester and Rancho Palos Verdes but rather Garfield, New Jersey and East Los Angeles. Worldwide, it will include the banlieues and the shantytowns. Ending the anti-suburban rhetoric is critical for planners. Instead, we'll be asking how to make suburbs better while boosting the city core. Suburbs may become the models for cities as the focus turns toward devolving government toward local levels, even as tax revenue will be shared across broad regions.

Urban farming will come to the fore and community-supported agriculture will become widespread. This won't just be a movement among the hipster rich. It will spread to the immigrant poor who will realize that they can eat better, healthier, and cheaper by working with members of their immigrant community running farms inside and outside the city instead of shopping at the local supermarket. A few smart mayors will realize that cities in decline need community gardens and these will thrive. The rising cost of long-distance transportation due to the continued decline of infrastructure and peak oil will go a long way toward fostering this new localism.

The divisions in politics will grow. By the end of the decade, the polarization within countries will drive toward hyper-localism. Nonpartisan commissions will study the devolution of power to local governments in areas of education, individual rights (abortion will be illegal in many states, guns in many others), the environment, and so on. In many states gay rights will become accepted, in others, homosexuality may become illegal again. Slowly talk will start on both sides about the US moving toward the model of the EU. Conservatives may drive this initially and the Left will pick it up. In that case, I'm moving to Vermont, no question.

Architects will turn away from starchitecture. Thoughtful books, videos, and Web sites on the field will grow. Parametric modeling will go urban, looking toward GIS. Some of those results will be worth talking about. Responsive architecture will become accepted into the profession as will the idea of architects incorporating interfaces—and interface design—into their work.

In technology, the introduction of the Apple iSlate will make a huge difference in how we view tablets. It will not save media, but it will allow us to interface with it in a new way. eBooks will take hold, as will eBook piracy. Apple itself will suffer as its attempts to make the iSlate a closed platform like the iPhone will lead first to hacks and later to a successful challenge on the basis of unfair restraint of trade. A few years after the introduction of the iSlate, an interface between tablets and keyboards will essentially replace notebook computers. Wine will advance to such a point that the distinction between operating systems will begin to blur. In a move that will initially seem puzzling but will then be brilliant, Microsoft will embrace Wine and encourage its production. By the end of the decade, operating systems will be mere flavors.

The Internet of Things will take hold. An open-source based interface will be the default for televisions, refrigerators, cars and so on. Geolocative, augmented-reality games will become popular. Kevin Slavin will be the Time Web site's Man of the Year in 2018. As mobile network usage continues to grow, network neutrality will become more of an issue until a challenger (maybe Google, maybe not) comes to the scene with a huge amount of bandwidth at its disposal. Fears about Google will rise and by the end of the decade, antitrust hearings will be well-advanced.

We will see substantive steps toward artificial intelligence during the decade. HAL won't be talking to us yet, but the advances in computation will make the technology of 2019 seem far, far ahead of where it is now. The laws of physics will take a toll on Moore's Law, slowing the rate of advance but programmers will turn back toward more elegant, efficient code to get more out of existing hardware.

Manned spaceflight will end in the United States, but the EU, China, and Russia will continue to run the International Space Station, even after one or two life- and station-threatening crises onboard. Eventually there will be a world space consortium established, even as commercial suborbital flights go up a few dozen times a year and unmanned probes to Pluto, Mars, Venus and Europa deliver fantastic results. Earth-like planets will be found in other solar systems and there will be tantalizing hints of microscopic life elsewhere in the solar system even as the mystery of why we have found nobody else in the universe grows.

Toward the end of the decade, there will be signs of the end of network culture. It'll have had a good run of 30 years: the length of one generation. It's at that stage that everything solid will melt into air again, but just how, I have no idea.

As I stated at the outset, this is just a game on the blogosphere, something fun to do after a day of skiing with the family. Do pitch in and offer your own suggestions. I'm eager to hear them.

william gibson interview on amazon

One of the basic principles of Network Culture is that fiction is being replaced by reality. Recently I thoroughly enjoyed reading (albeit a couple of years late), William Gibson's Pattern Recognition and am on the list at my local bookstore to get Spook Country when it comes into the store on Monday.

In this interview at Amazon, Gibson reflects on why, in these two novels, he has abandoned writing science fiction set in the far future:

Well, I thought that writing about the world today as I perceive it would probably be more challenging, in the real sense of science fiction, than continuing just to make things up. And I found that to absolutely be the case. If I'm going to write fiction set in an imaginary future now, I'm going to need a yardstick that gives me some accurate sense of how weird things are now. 'Cause I'm going to have to go beyond that. And I think definitely over the course of these last two books--I don't think I'm done yet--I've been getting a yardstick together. But I don't know if I'll be able to do it again. I don't know if I'll be able to make up an imaginary future in the same way. In the '80s and '90s, as strange as it may seem to say this, we had such luxury of stability. Things weren't changing quite so quickly in the '80s and '90s. And when things are changing too quickly, as one of the characters in Pattern Recognition says, you don't have any place to stand from which to imagine a very elaborate future.

I found the link to the interview via Nicolas Nova's great blog Pasta & Vinegar where Nicolas noted the following section:

Amazon.com: How do you research? If you want to write about, say, GPS, like you do in your new book, do you actively research it and seek out experts, or do you just perceive what's out there and make it your own?

Gibson: Well, I google it and get it wrong [laughter]. Or if I'm lucky, Cory Doctorow tells me I'm wrong but gives me a good fix for it. One of the things I discovered while I was writing Pattern Recognition is that I now think that any contemporary novel today has a kind of Google novel aura around it, where somebody's going to google everything in the text. So people--and this happened to me with Pattern Recognition--would find my footprints so to speak: well, he got this from here, and this information is on this site.

Amazon.com: You're annotated out there.

Gibson: Yeah it's sort of like there's this nebulous extended text. Everything is hyperlinked now. Some of it you actually have to type it in to get it, but it's all hyperlinked. It really changes things. I'm sure a lot of writers haven't yet realized how it changes things, but I find myself googling everything that goes into the text, and sometimes being led off in a completely different direction.

What interests me about these snippets of interview is first, how the radical present has thoroughly overcome any future we can conceive and second, how even fiction comes already hyperlinked—thoroughly inextricable from contemporary network culture. Gibson's comment suggests to me that we are at a point of singularity—not the full blown Vernor Vinge version, but still, at a point in which we cannot imagine the future. In part, this is not only because of the radical instability of the world, but I would argue, also due to our exhaustion with the modernist tradition of futurism. Given this condition, however, what about Utopia? I have to admit that I haven't cracked the new Jameson tome on this, but since many of my colleagues are advocates of reimaginging Utopia, I wonder how these two points can be resolved or if they can.

As a historian, another question arises…what will future scholars do when these links no longer exist? In researching Ulysses you could look through various records about Dublin in the early twentieth century, but the Web is unstable enough that the world Gibson describes will be gone within a couple of years. To some degree, I think this is moot in his case as—especially now that he has made the suggestion—chapter-by-chapter if not line-by-line guides to Gibson's text may well appear rapidly. But what if the author in question was less well known when his or her book was written? What then?

goodbye to the proximate future

In his insightful blog Pasta and Vinegar, Nicholas Nova posts today on the need to get over proximate futures. Nicholas is actually referring to an article by Geneviene Bell and Paul Dourish, "Yesterday’s Tomorrows: Notes on Ubiquitous Computing’s Dominant Vision." I have just downloaded the paper and look forward to reading it, but in the meantime, I couldn't resist commenting on this deadly lure that Bell, Dourish, Nova, and I agree on and respond with regard to the Netlab's relation to this question.

As a field that has recently been re-invigorated by technology and neo-modernism, architecture is also susceptible to the temptations of an endlessly deferred future. Whether it be leakproof flat roofs or mass production of carbon nanotubes, architecture has an inherent drive toward futurology that gets in the way of seeing the real and massive potential within the contemporary, both as it already is and as it could be, with some tweaking. We've lived through 1984, 2000, and 2001. So now what? The Netlab sets out to look at the contemporary condition.

To be sure, however, visionary, utopian, and dystopian projects do have a role, as for example, Superstudio's Continuous Monument or Archizoom's No-Stop-City. Yet these are most useful when they don't rely on a proximate future but rather suspend the question of their nearness, thereby being both already present and objects of contemplation.

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