This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

September-October 2016

Stop focusing on the future, Canada

We live in the present—and that's where our efforts must remain

Hal Niedzviecki@halpen

ThisMagazine50_coverLores-minFor our special 50th anniversary issue, Canada’s brightest, boldest, and most rebellious thinkers, doers, and creators share their best big ideas. Through ideas macro and micro, radical and everyday, we present 50 essays, think pieces, and calls to action. Picture: plans for sustainable food systems, radical legislation, revolutionary health care, a greener planet, Indigenous self-government, vibrant cities, safe spaces, peaceful collaboration, and more—we encouraged our writers to dream big, to hope, and to courageously share their ideas and wish lists for our collective better future. Here’s to another 50 years!

If we want a future on this planet, we have to kill the future.

The future isn’t fun. It isn’t self-tying sneakers, power shakes that taste like mac and cheese, or hoverboards powered by endless supplies of clean energy. It’s actually a black hole of uncertainty, relentless yet ultimately unknowable. And the more we trumpet “the future” as the latest consumer fetish—the chewing gum of the future, the career of the future, the car of the future—the more we foster the illusion that the present is just a pointless pathway to that what comes next. What’s coming next? Better things. Bigger things. Jump on board, or you’re gong to miss out. Get ready, or what really matters, the future, is going to pass you on by.

Alas we live in the present. Our focus on the future doesn’t just diminish our sense of what we have but actually instills in us a low-grade, perpetual terror. The future is always changing, always moving, always just that much farther away from us. No matter what we try and do, we can’t ever seem to get there. We feel dread but when we flip through our media. We see the Jetsons meets Walden, an image completely disconnected from the working class reality of temp work, rising prices, and increased surveillance of our every move through increasingly degraded environments. So what happens? Angry, frustrated people seek ways to get a different picture on TV.

Case study, The Donald. The Donald is, not at all coincidentally, the anti-future. He is an old-school bully who built an empire out of bricks and mortar. The Donald has a simple solution to complex problems: turn back the clock. Women should stay at home and look pretty. Men should work with their hands building stuff. Make America great (again). The Donald is not slick. He speaks directly and without varnish to people through largely unscripted public appearances and his Real Donald Twitter feed. Though he comes from money, it’s immigrant, noveau riche money, it’s TV star money, it’s get your hands dirty money.

By contrast, fellow Republican Jeb Bush is a nerd neocon who once hailed an Uber to the San Francisco start-up Thumbtack where he praised the digital economy to the skies. In normal times that would have been fine. But the promise of relentless change followed by more change—because that’s the way things have to be—no longer resonates. It’s fear and loathing of the future on the campaign trail. Promise us the past, and we’ll vote for you—even though, as Britain found out and our friends down South might yet discover, beating a path to the mythical past can be just as fraught with uncertainty and insecurity as embracing the future.

The future as a benevolent metaphor for a better present has been co-opted. Silicon Valley’s ever-extending tentacles have turned what was once pleasantly, even quaintly, aspirational into a thinly veiled Skynet veneer. Beneath the gloss lies the Terminator-future, a fate that many have decided is worse than Trump and Brexit, the first of many jolts to the system if the masters of the future continue to hawk a better tomorrow that never seems to arrive.

Hal Niedzviecki is a writer of nonfiction and fiction and the publisher and founder of Broken Pencil. Recent books are Trees On Mars: Our Obsession with the Future (Seven Stories Press) and the just-released novel The Archaeologists (ARP Books).

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