Welcome to the Future Nauseous

Venkat writes at Ribbonfarm:

Both science fiction and futurism seem to miss an important piece of how the future actually turns into the present. They fail to capture the way we don’t seem to notice when the future actually arrives.

Sure, we can all see the small clues all around us: cellphones, laptops, Facebook, Prius cars on the street. Yet, somehow, the future always seems like something that is going to happen rather than something that is happening; future perfect rather than present-continuous. Even the nearest of near-term science fiction seems to evolve at some fixed receding-horizon distance from the present.

There is an unexplained cognitive dissonance between changing-reality-as-experienced and change as imagined, and I don’t mean specifics of failed and successful predictions.

My new explanation is this: we live in a continuous state of manufactured normalcy. There are mechanisms that operate — a mix of natural, emergent and designed — that work to prevent us from realizing that the future is actually happening as we speak.  To really understand the world and how it is evolving, you need to break through this manufactured normalcy field. Unfortunately, that leads, as we will see, to a kind of existential nausea.

The Manufactured Normalcy Field

Life as we live it has this familiar sense of being a static, continuous present. Our ongoing time travel (at a velocity of one second per second) never seems to take us to a foreign place. It is always 4 PM; it is always tea-time.

Of course, a quick look back to your own life ten or twenty years back will turn up all sorts of evidence that your life has, in fact, been radically transformed, both at a micro-level and the macro-level. At the micro-level, I now possess a cellphone that works better than Captain Kirk’s communicator, but I don’t feel like I am living in the future I imagined back then, even a tiny bit. For a macro example, back in the eighties, people used to paint scary pictures of the world with a few billion more people and water wars. I think I wrote essays in school about such things.  Yet we’re here now, and I don’t feel all that different, even though the scary predicted things are happening on schedule.  To other people (this is important).

Try and reflect on your life. I guarantee that you won’t be able to feel any big change in your gut, even if you are able to appreciate it intellectually.

The psychology here is actually not that interesting.  A slight generalization of normalcy bias and denial of black-swan futures is sufficient.  What is interesting is how this psychological pre-disposition to believe in an unchanging, normal present doesn’t kill us.

How, as a species, are we able to prepare for, create, and deal with, the future, while managing to effectively deny that it is happening at all?

Futurists, artists and edge-culturists like to take credit for this. They like to pretend that they are the lonely, brave guardians of the species who deal with the “real” future and pre-digest it for the rest of us.

But this explanation falls apart with just a little poking. It turns out that the cultural edge is just as frozen in time as the mainstream. It is just frozen in a different part of the time theater, populated by people who seek more stimulation than the mainstream, and draw on imagined futures to feed their cravings rather than inform actual future-manufacturing.

Read more here.

2 Comments on "Welcome to the Future Nauseous"

  1. BuzzCoastin | Jan 20, 2013 at 8:57 am |

    The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.
    William Gibson

  2. Anarchy Pony | Jan 20, 2013 at 3:18 pm |

    I know exactly what the author means, I mean, I used to use floppy discs for chrissakes.

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