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Start A walk in the future that never was
28 January 2014

A walk in the future that never was

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There is a ride in the oldest of all Disneylands in Anaheim, CA, called “Futureland” that I find to be of particular historical interest, so much so indeed that I believe it should be renamed, together with the entire park perhaps, into “Futureland of the Past”—for it beautifully stages the future that the world expected to emerge in the mid-1950, when Disneyland first opened its doors. This ride features small, two-seated cars that leave no freedom of choice or any individual agency to their drivers. Instead, each car is supposed to “find” the way through a relatively complex itinerary of curves, hills, and intersections “all by itself,” thus producing an impression of “automatic driving” within a powerful traffic system that takes care of all human needs of movement and locomotion. Such dreams of “automatic” life have always and inevitably implied the imagination of a State that—benignly—overpowers, absorbs, and determines all individual life, much like an optimistic version (it is Disneyland after all) of Orwell’s 1984. Other rides are inspired—until the present day and this somehow means: counterfactually—by the past utopia of space traveling: they give you the illusion of very shaky and at some point even precarious flights to remote galaxies—or the scary impression of fast movements and sharp turns within the absolute darkness of the Universe. Finally and thirdly, the old Disneyland is filled with leftovers of our former belief in “robots” as more or less humanly shaped machines (their smaller versions tend to look like vacuum cleaners) who were supposed to do all the menial work that human laziness has always hoped to get rid of—and that the predominantly social-democratic spirit of the twentieth century has indeed declared to be unworthy of human beings.

Credit: Patrick McGarvey (Intamin10) in flickr

The old Disneyland is filled with leftovers of our former belief in “robots” as more or less humanly shaped machines

Now, I think it is remarkable that none of these three dominant dimensions from the now historical future of the mid-1950 has become either real in our present nor by any means probable for the future that we imagine. The overpowering ideas of the “total” State, “total” also in the sense of claiming to take care of the totality of human wishes and needs, the ideas whose hyperbolic version inspired Orwell’s novel, have vanished with the demise of the Communist governments in Eastern Europe after 1989, regardless of whether one hails or regrets this development. The obvious new and general tendency is a reduction and even an active withdrawal of State power, as it is reflected by the new concept of “governance” that describes informal orientations for interactive behavior, which, rather than being imposed by State law, are emerging between national States and (often multinational) corporations. We might then well say that we dispose of much more freedom (we are much more “left alone” and much less “automatically” guided) than the drivers in Disney’s “Futureland”—and that this sometimes confuses us. After all, the navigation systems that we so like to use today react very flexibly to our input and even to our errors.

We might then well say that we dispose of much more freedom than the drivers in Disney’s “Futureland”

Likewise and even more evidently, our high-flying imaginations of space traveling and of inhabiting “foreign” planets or perhaps even other galaxies have all but disappeared (and, quite remarkably, they have done so to the same degree that we have stopped to worry about demographic growth). Once again, more definitely perhaps than ever during the past few centuries, the Earth defines the limits of our concerns and projects—and this may well be the least frequently mentioned core condition of globalization (which somehow still cultivates a self-image and a rhetoric of aggressive expansion). Collectively and ideologically, we care more about the Earth than we used to do when we were still nurturing the dream of leaving it behind ourselves; at the same time and from an individual perspective, the power to cover the planet, quite literally, with our acts of communication has exponentially increased.

Finally, instead of creating battalions of “robots” to do work for us, we have developed, above all during the past three decades, a convergence of our mind with electronic devices that, rather than a master/slave relationship, looks like an extension and increase of our mental (and sometimes even of our physical) efficiency, based on a coupling or on a prosthetic integration of our bodies with those electronic machines.

For with each e-mail that we send and with each visit to a website that we make, we add to the complexity and to the intensity of the technical network within which we are communicating and this means, increasingly, in which we are simply existing

Nobody uses electronics without working for himself or herself, and at the same time we inevitably also work for others. At first glance, the world of computers produces the impression that we have gained enormous amounts of individual independence and agency—but such a blatantly positive view ignores the addictive nature of these couplings, and it may also belittle the growth of a collective exterior brain that is developing as the accumulated consequence of our computer usage, ending up with more blind power over us than any totalitarian State could ever have programmatically aimed at. For with each e-mail that we send and with each visit to a website that we make, we add to the complexity and to the intensity of the technical network within which we are communicating and this means, increasingly, in which we are simply existing.

Read more about this issue in Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’ article “A Negative Anthropology of Globalization”

 Knowledge Window

by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht

 

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