A Review of The Future

By Michael Blum

Michael Blum (ITP 2019) is a designer working across various forms and media—from augmented and virtual reality to data visualization, game development, and experiences for the web.

Issue issue 03

The future is and has been, for seemingly the whole of the modern era, an endless source of fascination, hope, anxiety, and outright fear. It’s a topic we have yet to tire of speaking about. In the narrow moment of the present, however, “the future”—at a time when it seems ever more uncertain, harder to foretell or even to imagine at all—is more often than not a pretext for the discussion of “technology”: its advancement, novelty, and repercussions, as well as its benefits and boons, its equivocal or unambiguously troubling effects. Although some might consider this techno-centric perspective nearsighted or myopic, it can’t entirely be faulted. The world we (again this “we”—who?) inhabit is one that has been made and remade, both for better and for worse, by technological means. Next to nothing between nature and culture remains untouched by this dynamic. “The future,” technologically speaking, therefore has vast social consequences as well, considerably impacting how we will communicate, what we will think, the way we will think, why, and where, as well as the constitution of this “we” who speaks and even the possibility of there being any “we” or “they” at all.

The future, of course, also overflows any consideration for technology and its discontents. “Future,” seen in a somewhat philosophical light, can be understood as another word for potentiality as such. Potentiality indicates something undecided or undetermined. This quality of undecidedness compels us to make decisions. In this way, inherent in the concept of the future are notions of agency, responsibility, and self-determination: what kind of future, and for whom?

The future is also a repository for representations of daydreams and nightmares, rendered fantastically or with some degree of realism. These renderings of the future almost invariably fall into one of two categories: utopian (“perhaps something different might be possible after all”) or dystopian (“it can/will only get worse”).

The future is a question of justice and imperatives, entailing an evaluation of what is and what ought to be. In this vein, the future could also be considered a sort of battlegrounds—it is something to be defended or won, seized from a course of things hellbent on catastrophe, or forcibly set on a less destructive, and possibly even salutary path.

The future, as history has shown, doesn’t happen everywhere all at once. It is meted out and made at acutely uneven speeds and scales. At the same moment some are working towards realizing interstellar travel and the colonization of the celestial expanse, things as rudimentary as reliable, clean water or fresh, affordable produce might be lacking mere miles away.

Speaking about the future, thus, can be a fraught undertaking. But it’s also big business—everything from conferences, moonshot IPOs, and hit Netflix series all draw decisively from the future: it’s energy, appeal, and the rapt curiosity it almost never fails to provoke. Thought of in this light, speaking about the future can oftentimes be empty, insincere, driven by self-interest, and awfully mundane, or still worse. As Benjamin Bratton has pointed out:

“In our culture speaking about ‘the future’ is a way of saying things about the present… but too often it is an alibi for saying nothing at all. ‘The future’ is that place where skateboards hover and ambient fields of graphical user-interfaces are slightly more elysian; it is a rhetorical sink where half-baked marketing plans usurp the place where actual ideas are supposed to go.”


In The Future, a book recently published by MIT Press, poet and programmer Nick Montfort sets forth an approach to thinking about the future that, after Bratton’s phrase, is conceived with a view to “actual ideas.” In it, Montfort skirts some of the familiar travails of talking about the future. Not only does he disavow the ponderousness of the oracle-scholar, who, perched on high, gazes off into the horizon, pointing out developments and trends near and far, one by one. He also forgoes the gesture, not uncommon on the TED circuit, of offering oversimplified promises (or warnings) about what is to come.

Unsurprising given Montfort’s background, The Future’s primary focus hovers around computing and media technologies. Montfort is especially interested how these technologies have been bound up with the idea of the future over the decades: how these ideas have reciprocally both been informed by and themselves inspired developments in computing and media. To this end, The Future offers an abbreviated history of this feedback loop of technological advancement and philosophical vision, and moves through the contributions and processes of several pathfinders in this space. Montfort hits upon Vannevar Bush’s memex—a sort of conceptual, spiritual predecessor of what, decades later, would become the World Wide Web—as articulated in Bush’s landmark 1945 article “As We May Think”; Douglas C. Engelbart and his “mother of all demos,” in which he presented the oN-Line System (NLS), which pioneered the computer mouse, hypertext, a precursor to the graphical user interface, and many other firsts; as well as several other figures and inventions.

In the course of relating these brief histories, The Future lays out a brisk, generalized pedagogy, one that could be summed up in a phrase that crops up every few or so of its pages: future-making. Future-making entails a more empirical and practically-minded approach, one that sets its sights on the wider context of human activity and ability, and essays to bring about a future condition that at once respects that context and exceeds it by improving (upon) it. Future-making is characterized as active, rather than reactive: “The future is not something to be predicted, but to be made.” In a turn of phrase that almost sounds like a prompt for meditation, future-making is defined as the “act of imagining a particular future and consciously trying to contribute to it.”

Montfort’s view, by no means unique, is nevertheless a salient one, and demands repeating. This is largely owing to the fact that the opposing perspective has predominated since the beginning of recorded human culture: that the future is something inevitable, dictated by the fates, or something that descends upon us from above, like an alien aircraft, divine mandate, Mayan prophecy, or some foggy condition (singularity, say). A similar tenor can even be clearly heard in more contemporary appraisals of the topic of the future, from Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock to Kevin Kelly’s more recent The Inevitable.

Future-making is distinguished not only from the above passive or spectatorial relation to the future, but from “certain academic activities and business practices” often deployed in engaging with the future, such as future studies, futurology, and scenario planning. “To those who find these endeavors useful: very well,” Montfort writes, “[t]his book is not about them… The most essential approach to the future, from my perspective, is found in future-making.” Montfort’s insistence on “making,” in this sense, is of a kindred spirit with the early Marxian injunction from the last of the Theses on Feuerbach—that the point is not to “interpret the world, but to change it.” While Montfort’s prioritization of activity and active imagination is understandable, much of the analysis and interpretation that such pursuits as scenario planning yield are indispensable for sizing up where possible interventions in the contemporary state of things might be made, and how.

However critical grappling with systems and scenarios might be for these kinds of interventions, it’s a pursuit that indeed could be said to lag in one not insignificant respect. That is, in precipitating or bringing about the expansion of the scope of what is thinkable, as well as the widening of the horizon of what is considered possible—overall, a regard for an imaginable future or unthought futures. Montfort prescribes design fiction as a sort of laboratory for conjuring these novel visions, arrangements, and scenarios. And fiction perfectly affords the kind of tabula rasa that Montfort’s rapprochement with future-making seems to call for: “…uncomposed and unimagined, yet to be built. This is the concept of the future I select.” This quasi-virginal quality, of approaching the future afresh, allows for consideration of everything from the “specific rearrangement of elements that allow for new types of social life” to the planning toward “a world in which exploration and building connections with other cultures is at least as important as military action.” Such glimpses of an altogether different future can act as a heady salve against the seemingly intractable course of things, summed up by the Thatcherian mantra, TINA (There Is No Alternative), which has prevailed as a lens through which to perceive both the present and the future since the 1980s.

Design fictions and similar experiments need not be bound by reason or realistic proportion, or offer actionable prescriptions or anything of that sort. As Montfort reminds us, “one lesson in future-making that can be seen here is that utopian ideas don’t have to be entirely serious to have some bite to them, and to be effective in provoking people to change their thinking and move toward a better future.” Provocation, exaggeration, and other excesses can very well be, in a variety of ways, highly generative for developing perspectives from which future-making might draw inspiration. Montfort brings up the Italian futurist movement of the early 20th century as exemplary of this. The Italian futurists were an aesthetic movement that privileged speed and novelty, prioritizing all modes of life that enabled a hurtling toward the future at as breakneck a speed as possible, and denigrating anything that maintained the past. They declared war on everything from memorialization to museums and various other “pastisms.” “Against everything past and passé, the Future,” reads one of their pamphlets. While the Italian futurists did indeed deploy artistic exaggeration in order to fashion and conjure the future, they’re also a questionable inclusion here, for reasons Montfort fully discloses and is obviously sensitive to (namely, their avowed fascism and faithfulness to Mussolini’s program, notwithstanding some disagreement here and there). But maybe more disqualifying than the futurists’ repellant political program is the simple fact that there are far apter and more instructive examples, and ones far nearer at hand as well. From various accelerationist movements to afrofuturism and xenofeminism, there seems to be no shortage of more contemporary intellectual and artistic trends from which to draw. Xenofeminism provides a particularly fruitful example, as it overwrites the futurists’ embrace of speed with an emphasis on generative alienation and perspectival displacement.

If The Future could be said to be guilty of shying away from more contemporary radical avenues such as that pursued by xenofeminism, it’s largely owing to the fact that the book was commissioned for MIT Press’s “Essential Knowledge” series, whose various entries provide an introductory survey to various topics from Blockchain to Big Data to a general readership. So while The Future is without doubt lacking some of the more adventurous stylings of the author’s previous writing, its overall message—that “the future” does not only present a challenge to innovate upon artifacts, but also upon organization, the relations between things, and indeed our very standpoints from which any future might be imagined—is a salutary one. Striking a balance between planning and poetry, The Future is a sober, tight account of what “the future” is and has been, as well as how to think and make it.