Go back to article: Moments of danger: photography, institutions and the history of the future

After the future?

Inventing the Future was published in September 2015 – the same month, I have realised, that Revelations closed at the Science Museum. The book, by political economist Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, makes a compelling case for the revived pursuit of utopian futures as a vital step towards combatting hegemonic neoliberalism. Across the twentieth century, ‘on the horizons of the political left a vast assortment of emancipatory visions gathered, often springing from the conjunction of popular political power and the liberating potential of technology’ (2015, p 1). Today, ‘these dreams appear closer than ever’, for the technological infrastructure of the twenty-first century is producing the resources through which a very different political and economic system could be achieved. And yet:

…for all the glossy sheen of our new technological era, we remain bound by an old and obsolete set of social relations. We continue to work long hours, commuting further, to perform tasks that feel increasingly meaningless. Our jobs have become more insecure, our pay has stagnated, and our debt has become overwhelming… Automation renders us unemployed and stagnant wages devastate the middle class, while corporate profits surge to new heights. (Srnicek and Williams, 2015, pp 2–3)

Many on the left, Srnicek and Williams propose, have neglected to mine the possibilities of the present situation, contenting themselves with what is described in terms of ‘folk political thinking’. This involved a ‘fetishisation of local spaces, immediate actions, transient gestures, and particularism of all kind’. This represents ‘a politics of defence, incapable of articulating or building a new world’ (Srnicek and Williams, 2015, p 3).

Inventing the Future attempts to break from that model by positing ‘an ambitious left alternative’, allowing ‘the utopian potentials inherent in twenty-first century technology’ to be ‘liberated from a parochial capitalist imagination’ (2015, p 3). That project is expressed in terms of three clear demands. Firstly, governments should embrace and accelerate the processes of automation, reviving earlier utopian visions in which machines would liberate humanity from toil. Secondly, the length of the working week should be reduced through the creation of three-day weekends. Thirdly, living standards should be maintained by redistributing a greater percentage of corporate wealth, introducing a universal basic income payable to everyone in recognition of the work they undertake to reproduce society (Srnicek and Williams, 2015, pp 107–109). While each can be taken as individual goals, ‘their real power is expressed when they are advanced as an integrated programme’, articulated in terms of the transition to a ‘post-work world’ (Srnicek and Williams, 2015, p 127). That project will necessarily be carried out in the long-term, a matter of ‘decades rather than years, cultural shifts rather than electoral cycles’ (Srnicek and Williams, 2015, p 107).

Revelations used photography to examine the interplay of science and art. Our main concern lay in relationships between humanity and the machines it builds, exploring how artists had utilised the symbolic possibilities of scientific imagery to examine technology’s potential and its limits. Our account of key examples from the twentieth century emphasised the social, political and economic character of those questions, focusing on the ways in which the instrumentalisation of scientific discovery by a US military-industrial complex prompted earlier utopian views to be revised and, eventually, set aside. The situation was put in particularly plain terms by Moholy-Nagy in the introduction to his book, Vision in Motion, published posthumously in 1947. ‘Saturated with old ideologies,’ he explained, society had ‘approached the new dimension with obsolete practices and failed to translate…newly gained experience into…cultural reality.’ The result ‘has been and still is misery and conflict, brutality and anguish, unemployment and war’ (Moholy-Nagy, 1947, p 237).

Contemporary artists looked to the past to make sense of the present. In doing so, they revived and reproduced important elements of a late-modernist sensibility, articulating deep scepticism about the utopian potential of new technology. The perspectives invoked by Inventing the Future highlight the limits of that view and the shortcomings of what I believed Revelations to be about. By rethinking the potential of the present, Srnicek and Williams encourage renewed reflection on the meanings of the past. Such a project has much to gain from the analysis of what helped stifle earlier utopian dreaming. But it also promotes the pursuit of emancipatory horizons today. In other words, it may be the idiosyncratic socialism of someone like the Bauhaus Moholy, with his utopian fusing of technology and culture, which matters as much – if not more – today than the mounting pessimism expressed by some of the artists who followed. The past flashes up in a moment of danger. What present dangers mean for the past, and the past means for the present, must be constantly and critically revised.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170708/007