*An unabridged version of this essay was originally published as part of the XII Baltic Triennial, Contemporary Art Centre, Vilnius, 2015.
“Prepare for the future”: this is an imperative of everyday life, one that molds a moral and responsible subject, one that promises well-being, at the same time as providing hope and the illusion of control. Whilst short-sightedness is condemned in politics, finance, and in everyday life, economists continue to quote the famous words of John Maynard Keynes, that “In the long run, we are all dead.” The future thus appears to be a utopian horizon forever receding as we draw nearer to it, and yet so many activities are initiated in the name of the future. For instance, the media perpetuates hypotheses about the extinction of the Lithuanian language and nation, the significance of which lies entirely in a sense of future threat. Young women are increasingly being urged to bear children today and not wait until they are in their forties to have them. These pieces of advice or instructions draw upon the logic of the cohort as well as genetics. The rules of grammar for language and behavior are abstract, but need to be enacted in the present, not tomorrow, or the day after. The future brutally breaks into the present, leaving no alternatives available for now.
On the one hand, we are encouraged to seize the day, carpe diem. On the other hand, the popularity of mindfulness suggests a future-oriented moral choice, an expression of pragmatism aimed at ensuring longevity by reducing stress over an uncertain and uncontrollable future.
The future is full of paradoxes. For example: the future that is prepared today does not belong to our generation; a ten-year-old probably possesses at least fifty more years of the future than a sixty-year-old does. Those who will experience more of our future have no say in the decision-making towards their future today. The future is being determined by those who will come to hold the least of it.
While parliamentary committees dedicated to the rights of future generations are being established in EU member states, political theorists reject the very idea as contradictory to the democratic system, but only due to technical difficulties of representation. Even if we can formulate some of the interests of forthcoming generations, such as preservation of the environment and sustainable use of natural resources, it is impossible to hold the political representation of future generations accountable. The argument is simple: because future generations cannot fund their representatives in political parties, they cannot exist in today’s parliaments as subjects able to evaluate the representation of their interests. However, somehow, the situation still appears unfair.
So what can be done about this paradoxical and unavoidable dimension of the future? This question has preoccupied humanity for centuries. In ancient Rome, the future was divined from flights of birds; but the twentieth century saw the emergence of an entirely new area of scientific expertise dedicated to coping with future uncertainty: futures studies, futurology, and scientific forecasting.
Today, futurologists and other experts thrive in insurance companies, investment funds, marketing, and political consulting firms. They use a variety of methods, including statistical forecasts of future trends, alternative scenarios, and computer modeling. The future industry is a large, growing sector with hundreds, if not thousands of think tanks and consulting firms offering their services in this area.
Yet such diversity does not imply competition for what one would presume to be a single really existing future, that one might be able to glimpse and control, thus reaping the benefits in the present. A more realistic way of reading this situation is to acknowledge the cohabitation, or possibility of many different states of futurity co-existing and competing with one another.
Clearly we lack convenient, everyday schemes for thinking about plural futurity, although some philosophers have offered a few useful concepts. An interesting version of plural futurity was proposed by German-born sociologist Barbara Adam, who made a distinction between “present futures” and the “future’s present.”
It may sound vague, but the principle is simple and intuitive to many of us. The idea of present futures is the most straightforward way of conceptualizing futurity, where the key condition is the availability of extensive knowledge of a certain present phenomenon. For instance, this could be the demographics of a city, including its number of people, historical data describing the changes of its population in the past, or factors influencing these changes and the rate at which they change. By describing this changing population in mathematical language, one can more or less precisely forecast the future development of the population over time: quarters, years, decades, and so on. Such statistical forecasts describe the future of the present phenomenon in accordance with a particular time scale. Time scales, on the other hand, are never arbitrary: indeed, a term of five, ten or thirty years is always chosen strategically. Long- and short-term forecasts are embedded in well-institutionalized activities, such as parliamentary elections (a four-year cycle) or infrastructure (approximately thirty years).
Adam’s future present is a fundamentally different concept expressing that there is something completely new and difficult to trace today that will eventually emerge. However, the origin of this unknown future is, in principle, situated in the present. Recognizing the future present is more difficult than discerning the present future. It is even harder to convince somebody that what we observe is the future present. It is precisely this type of doubt about the participation of the future in the present day that is voiced by climate change sceptics. Future presents can also be spotted as known unknowns or weak signals. Some experts of the future have employed rich metaphors to explain this kind of futurity. For instance, the “Black Swan” theory proposed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb – drawing on the biological theory of evolution – states that some contingent phenomena can have a disproportionately large influence in the constitution of the future world. It is precisely such phenomena that statistical time series cannot reveal.
How do black swans tie into this? At this exact moment of writing I begin to worry about my exceedingly technical description of futurity. Everybody cares about the future in some way, but the conceptual techniques available to think about futurity appear formal and off-putting and too far removed from common sense. For many, they seek comfort in the habitual grammatical forms, is, was, will be, and their possible modifications or negations. Plural futurity strikes like an unnecessary complication to our grammaticized temporal order. It is probable that in seeking to gain popular attention, scientists resort to marketing strategies, using unusual metaphors to brand their ideas. Black swans are accidental occurrences that can strongly affect the established order (the belief that all swans are white).
On the other hand, future presents can be completely unnoticeable in the present, existing as unknown unknowns. An even more interesting alternative is proposed in the evolutionary theory of catastrophic change through bifurcation, stating that a system can assume a completely new state, losing all memory of its previous states in the process. It is impossible to know or act upon such a future. What is most striking is that this type of future may have no past at all.
These are not new ideas, just a brief summary of some of the key views established in future studies and systems theory since the 1940s. Although future studies has been around for longer than half a century, engagement with the idea of plural futurity tends to be confined to a rather narrow circle of professionals. Many individuals interested in knowing their present futures visit fortune-tellers and experts at health and financial institutions. Consulting on present futures is the most profitable and psychologically acceptable practice. Many religion models are grounded in the foretelling of present futures, but so are financial market predictions, forecasts of natural energy resources, and climate change. Experts speculate just how long and under what conditions current phenomena will last and change. This conceptual model is also applied to artistic investments, guessing which current artistic tendencies are the most promising.
Having spent three years researching the history of future thinking, I am intrigued by the lack of literacy skills, involving vocabulary, but also intellectual models, that most people possess regarding the future. In everyday and professional life, the future is observed from the position of the mythological Cassandra, as if the future existed on its own and could be seen through a keyhole. The future appears finite, determined by today’s efforts, or genetics at least. Even Hollywood movies depicting time travel often ignore the complexity of futurity, preferring to resort to the model of present future and present past (i.e., traveling through chronological stages).
But the future is not an empty, autonomous shape. We are living in future loops which one could more accurately call futures or multi-futures. The future is being created every moment: every story or bit of information on the future is already shaping it. A good example of the performative power of engagement with the future is George Soros’ theory of reflexivity adapted for financial markets. According to Soros, belief in the existence of objective information – presumably enabling a trader to predict and control future prices – is not just foolish, but is also dangerous, leading to a boom and bust cycle driven by self-fulfilling prophecy. Striving to discover what the future of today’s art will be, or what future art might be like, is similar to this. Decisions like these launch nonlinear processes, the outcomes of which certainly diverge from their expectations.
I think the concept of plural futurity can be useful for interpreting some of the artistic projects presented in the XII Baltic Triennial in Vilnius Contemporary Art Centre. Some artwork does relate to the postulations discussed above. This is exactly how I would interpret Waiting, the film by Vitalij Strigunkov, which shows the US vice president being late to disembark from his plane at Vilnius Airport, disrupting the schedule of a live TV broadcast. Strigunkov’s film documents the incremental production of a new, improvised presence as an attempt to compensate for an anticipated future that did not commence.
And indeed, exciting innovation probably happens as a side effect in the process of conscious preparation for both future present and present future. Barbara Adam grows peonies in Wales. Bruno Latour is mobilizing scientists and artists to re-design the institutional loops in which the present of global climate futures circulate. Personally, I am inspired by the cybernetic principle: the more reflexive we are when casting our loops of futurity, the more future we can eventually hold.
Egle Rindzevičiūtė is senior lecturer in criminology and sociology at Kingston University, London. Prior to that she taught at the Paris Institute of Political Studies. Her initial training was in art history, management, and political science having studied at the Vilnius Academy of Arts, the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences, and the Central European University in Budapest, before completing her PhD in Culture Studies at Linköping University in Sweden.
Following her PhD she taught and did research at De Montfort University in Leicester, the Gothenburg Research Institute, Gothenburg University, Sweden, the Department for Studies of Culture & Social Change, Linköping University, and Sciences Po in Paris, France.
She has held visiting research fellowships at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI), Bremen University, Humboldt University of Berlin, and Gothenburg University.
Her last book, The Power of Systems: How Policy Sciences Opened Up the Cold War World (Cornell University Press, 2016) explores how East-West scientists used transnational social networks and computer technologies to create an intellectual and institutional framework for global governance. She is currently working on a monograph "Predicting Russia: The Politics of Anticipatory Governance."
* Cover photo: landslide of Gediminas' hill after an earlier tree clearance, Vilnius. Photo from 5th November 2017. Author: Vitalij Strigunkov. Courtesy of the artist.