21 Jul 2017

A Future That Never Came

Adi Robertson’s recent piece for the Verge, “I Hacked My Body For A Future That Never Came”, really seems to have nailed the zeitgeist, at least among people I’m around. That’s not to say I agree with everything she expresses in the article, exactly, but it feels like she’s onto something that I hadn’t quite realized was out there.

Robertson writes:

The magnet [implant] was a little piece of the future, and its slow loss coincides with a period of pessimism that’s much bigger than me. […] “Really it just comes down to people that are excited about the future in a very basic sense,” [Dangerous Things founder Amal Graafstra] says now. “I think one way or another, people lost faith in humanity, and in a sense lost faith in the future. And had much more pressing current concerns than, ‘What am I going to do with this cool implant?’”

I think the decline in sales and general interest in ‘biohacking’ is actually a trailing, rather than leading, indicator. The folks invested in biohacking as a hobby or lifestyle were probably pretty solidly sold on the bright, shining future (as opposed to the grim meathook future) and as a result were probably understandably reluctant to relinquish the dream, compared to those who never thought it was attainable. It would be easy to retreat into cynicism and make fun of their apparent naiveté, but we shouldn’t: their earnestness is the only thing that even got us close, and produced the cultural high-water-mark (“oh, those crazy days back in the 2000s!”) that DIY sensory implants will probably seem like for quite a while.

But outside of that subculture, I think the public’s perception of the future soured much earlier than the 2016 Presidential election, which Graafstra notes as a turning point for sales of NFC implants. In fact, I think that election was a product, at least in part, of the same underlying process, and the actual inflection point was probably back around 2007 or 2008.

At first glance that might seem to be an odd claim, since 2007-2008 was (according to Robertson’s article) the peak of DIY biohacking, and biohacking is basically the optimistic futurists’ manifest destiny, but at the same time that Robertson was getting a magnet implant, the bottom was falling out of the economy, and with it the public’s trust in big financial instutions and Wall Street generally.

Though the economy has (mostly) recovered, Americans’ confidence in both their leaders and institutions, and perhaps in the post-Cold-War status quo’s ability to deliver prosperity domestically (as opposed to delivering it abroad, which it undeniably seems to have done) in general, has not. And it may not for a while, because it’s self-sustaining: the public’s lack of confidence that an institution can accomplish a significant task or mission, in many cases (particularly in the public sector) can guarantee that the institution in fact really can’t do it, thus justifying the lack of confidence and empowering further cynicism.

An engineer might call this a positive feedback loop; a more lurid term might be “death spiral”.

How exactly you pull out of that spiral is an open question. (The 20th Century’s popular solution was “start a really big war”, which is obviously not desirable, for a lot of reasons.) Absent some existential threat, it seems difficult to get a population to rally behind institutions that they have previously lost confidence in. I suspect the textbook solution involves the creation of new institutions, with sufficient resources and power to allow them a few solid, quick wins – but that’s a tall order in a democratic political environment; there’s a sort of chicken-and-egg problem at work. But maybe there are other ways that just aren’t clear yet.

In the meantime, I’m glad Robertson got her magnet; like old logfiles I still hang onto from early-90s BBS conversations about what the future would be like, it’s an artifact of a time when, for a few short moments, earnestness seemed more reasonable than cynicism.