Defuturing the image of the future ⊗ An interview with McKenzie Wark ⊗ The curse of white oil — No.154

This week → Defuturing the image of the future ⊗ An interview with McKenzie Wark ⊗ The curse of ‘white oil’: electric vehicles’ dirty secret ⊗ Countdown clocks, zines, and an imagined website from 2001 ⊗ City-states are back

A year ago → The most clicked link in issue No.109 was The empty promises of Marie Kondo and the craze for minimalism by Kyle Chayka.

Read the Sentiers newsletter on technology in society, signals of change, and prospective futures.

Defuturing the Image of the Future

Quite a lot packed into this piece by Andrew Blauvelt, connecting to a number of articles shared over the last few months. He looks at how inventions of futures are often extensions of the present, how acts of design are small acts of future-making, how the “world’s fair prototyped the future as a marketplace, first as a stockpiling of goods (a consumer’s paradise) and later as a showcase of the newest technologies (a technophilic utopia).” How these creations colonize the future by removing the possibilities of others’ to create different ones, and how the 20th century’s negative futures (citing Fred Polak) lead to a decay in culture.

Calling for a “defuturing of the future” (re-opening all possibilities), Blauvelt closes with Brand’s pace layers, wondering if affecting the upper pace layers in a such a way could affect the slower moving ones positively.

All acts of design are themselves small acts of future-making. In the process of illustrating ideas, fabricating models, drafting plans, or prototyping solutions, designers shape what does not yet exist. In this way design is both propositional and prospective—it offers renderings and mock-ups, schematics and drawings, and instructions and code in the hope of instantiating a future. Design attempts to script the future by projecting its desires (and those of others) forward in time. As Susan Yelavich has declared, “Design is always future-making.” […]

[T]he static exposition of otherness “defutured” these cultures, not only in the minds of most visitors, but also in the imagination of many of the colonized, vanquishing possibility and agency over their future. […]

“We need to remind ourselves that the future is never empty, never a blank space to be filled with the output of human activity. It is already colonised by what the past and present have sent to it. Without this comprehension, without an understanding of what is finite, what limits reign and what directions are already set in place, we have little knowledge of futures, either of those we need to destroy or those we need to create.” […]

As long as a society’s image of the future is positive and flourishing, the flower of culture is in full blossom. Once the image of the future begins to decay and lose its vitality, however, the culture cannot long survive. […]

Our images of the future are, perhaps appropriately, post-human and post-nature. They are by turns pessimistic and optimistic, fateful and fanciful. Although decidedly futuristic, such images of the future are survivalist strategies and presumptive forecasts. They are the future posing as today’s speculative solutions to yesterday’s wicked problems.

An Interview with McKenzie Wark

Excellent interview with McKenzie Wark, partly about her new book Sensoria: Thinkers for the 21st Century but also about her work, hackers and vectoralists, education, transdisciplinarity, and how “[t]o understand the Anthropocene is to begin untangling the way this new economic mode is shaping our societies and planet, how algorithms and other-than-human processes are co-producing a reality we set into motion but have little control over.”

Note the part on the “other-than-human” vision where Wark explains her inclusion in Sensoria of chapters specifically to “point out that there are other parts of modernity [coming] out of indigenous and non-metropolitan cultures,” which I find especially open-minded and highlights an important challenge; finding “a way of reconnecting the technical infrastructures the world runs on to a world that perceives nature as more [than from] which to extract.”

Class, she argued, is now being organized through relationships with intellectual property, divvying up “hackers” who produce that intellectual property and the “vectoralists” who eventually own it. In 2019 Wark continued this line of thought with Capital is Dead: Is This Something Worse? further delineating how a new ruling class, without owning the means of production, have come to dominate the world through data harvesting, patents, brands, and copyrights. […]

It’s kind of this massive privatization of knowledge, culture, feeling, and it’s not just Google. Everything you interact with now is extracting that in one way or another. […]

[W]e don’t have a way of reconnecting the technical infrastructures the world runs on to a world that perceives nature as more [than from] which to extract. But there could be other forms of organization than this one we ended up in.

The curse of ‘white oil’: electric vehicles’ dirty secret

Good piece on lithium, where it’s produced, the impacts on those communities, and the two forms in which it’s found in nature. One of the most frustrating things about this is that there is no systemic thinking, other than trying to understand how to make more money. If there was a global, sustained project to lower massively the number of cars, then perhaps lithium mining could be seen as a net-positive, but the way it’s going now, with a race for more profit and the idea shared by many that simply replacing cars with electric cars will work, we are just, again, shovelling our problems forward.

“So much destruction,” she said. “And for what? So eco-minded urbanites in Paris and Berlin can feel good about driving around in zero-emission cars.” […]

The weight of their evidence – shrinking pasturelands, failing crops, disappearing flora and fauna – all point towards a process of desertification which they believe is exacerbated by lithium extraction. The impact of disturbing a “huge, complex hydrological system” is not visible from one day to the next, said Balcázar. “But the two are interlinked, without any doubt.” […]

As Thea Riofrancos at Providence College pointed out, if everyone were to adopt “rational forms of transport” – such as trains, trams, e-buses, cycling and car-sharing – then demand for passenger vehicles of all kinds would shrink overnight.

Countdown clocks, zines, and an imagined website from 2001

Matt Webb keeps cranking out a dizzying number of smart posts on his blog. I mean, blogging a few times a week is one thing, but such diverse and thought-provoking ideas? Damn! This one, on automated collaborative zines, stuck with me and I’d love to do something like that soon. Perhaps the next quarterly project? I haven’t dug into yet but I’m pretty sure and would do the job, and could work with something like a light version of how CLOG does submissions.

But what I’d like more of is the ability for those groups to produce something together. Barn raising. And the artefacts of those collective efforts… zines, videos, visual art, screenplays: things which are finished. Complete. Not posts in Facebook groups. Websites. […]

A Slack workspace that has a special \#links channel, and every Friday it gets compiled into a newsletter, sent to whoever is online for a quick review, and posted out to all subscribers. Emailed replies to the newsletter are directed back into Slack, where they appear like messages in bottles. […]

A drag-and-drop Figma canvas that a design group drops and arranges inspiration image into, and every couple of weeks it all gets printed with Newspaper Club.

City-states are back

Are they? In a number of countries there’s definitely a big divide between urban centres and non-metropolitan regions, considering the benefits of each and how they could function separately, can perhaps provide new insights on how a better balance between the needs of each can be achieved.

“For two generations, America has celebrated globalization with iconic intensity, when, as any working man or woman can see, it’s nothing more than capital on the prowl in search of ever cheaper sources of labour.” […]

Community currencies, from Bristol to Bavaria, make money a form of resistance against multinationals’ gutting of city centres. National initiatives often face problems of ‘deliverability’, but that’s rarely an issue when activism is inspired by, and bespoke to, the immediate topography. […]

A city, not a country, is where we’re able to enunciate not just rights but responsibilities, and where it’s possible to measure both the needs and the contributions of newcomers.


Header image: Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67 for Universal Exposition Expo 67 (see first piece), photo by Matias Garabedian.