When Hurricane Irene descended on New York the evening of August 27, 2011, I lay in bed with the stomach flu or food poisoning. Every so often I would crawl to the bathroom, where I’d stay for a while and occasionally, when crawling back to bed seemed futile, take a nap. The day before, a friend and fellow Triple Canopy editor had been kind enough to drop me whatever supplies she could procure amid the supermarket’s rapidly emptying shelves—a five-liter bottle of Poland Springs, Saltines, some kind of organic ginger ale, soup in a box, a loaf of sliced bread—in case the storm was as bad as predicted, as bad as so many of us had come to believe it would be. I summoned the energy to move a few valuables to the top of a bookshelf, but otherwise surrendered to being immobilized in a garden apartment with one entirely glass wall. I resigned myself to what was to come.
That year had felt like a series of worsening ills, mostly conveyed to me from a great distance, via a small screen: civil war in Libya; Egypt gone wrong; the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, then the second-worst nuclear disaster of all time; the continued wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The financial crisis that began with the crash of markets three years before was still festering, despite assurances from our leaders: Europe’s sovereign debt crisis was coming to a head, and Standard & Poor’s had recently downgraded the United States’ credit rating. Fear rippled through the stock market: On August 8, now known as Black Monday, the Dow Jones fell by nearly 635 points, or 5.5 percent, the sixth-largest crash in history. The country’s unemployment rate hovered just above 9 percent; only once since the end of World War II, during the recession of the early 1980s, had it been so high. Not since the Great Depression had more than half the unemployed been out of work for six months or longer. And then there was the debt-ceiling mess, a telegenic symbol of the extraordinary pettiness, inertia, and arrogance that would soon doom our civilization. This “once in a generation” storm seemed to double as a news roundup.
I spent much of the year supplementing the narrative of the world’s impending collapse, which I gleaned from newspapers and blogs and Facebook threads, with obscure yet somehow fashionable theory from ultraleft Marxism, insurrectionist anarchism, autonomism, etc. These strands of thought might coalesce around the term communization—a shadowy notion that represents no single thesis, and that I still can’t pretend to fully understand. There are perhaps more distinctions than commonalities among the various texts, but they did share a few central ideas. Foremost among them: The market has permeated all of life; there is no longer an “outside.” This makes it hard to conceive of any replacement for our unjust capitalist system, since anything we do, any action we take, only serves to perpetuate that system. Furthermore, the notion that groups of people might share an identity—whether workers or activists or immigrants—around which to organize is bankrupt; the revolutionary subject is dead. As a result, we can no longer formulate anything like a fifty-year political program that strives for emancipation and equality, or come up with a decent alternative to such a program.
The texts I read were embellished with aphorisms and often had a lyrical quality. I was alternately enthusiastic, dubious, and disparaging, but almost always confused. I tried to render some of the prevailing metaphors concrete: of empire and multitudes; of exodus and withdrawal; of forms-of-life and biopower; of “civil war, desertion, and nomadism.” What to make of it all? If there was no longer anything outside of capitalism, what leverage did would-be resisters possess? And who might they be? Whatever subject had emerged to take the place of the worker—“whatever singularities” or “multitude” or “immaterial workers”—was seductive as language but, as concept, very thin.
Three times in twelve months, in three different reading groups, I read Gopal Balakrishnan’s essay “Speculations on the Stationary State.” Balakrishnan is a classical Marxist and a professor at University of California Santa Cruz, who draws on the history of political theory. The essay posits that our present crisis is not new but originates in the 1970s, and that we’ve unsuccessfully spent the past several decades trying to overcome it. We thought we were doing so by stimulating growth, but that was in fact a fiction organized around debt: real-estate speculation, credit-card consumerism, derivative-asset bubbles, excessive government borrowing (and lending), Ponzi schemes, a manufacturing industry increasingly reliant on interest-bearing loans to make up for sinking income, an education system intent on transforming students into indentured servants.
What distinguished this crisis from previous ones was that in the past, periods of economic contraction eventually gave way to periods of expansion, of genuine economic growth. Not so this time. Balakrishnan foresees only stasis, more of the same: mass unemployment, declining wages, pervasive poverty. The problem is that the various types of left-wing reformism have depended on the system’s ability to rebound, so that it might deliver new jobs and raise living standards. And now we are no longer asking how to make things better, but how to reclaim (or sustain) the status quo; how to roll back the damage or prevent further deterioration. The question of how to make things better is, a priori, understood to be futile.
While I found these unflinching descriptions of malaise useful and was sympathetic to their learned pessimism, I was also disappointed to find that, no matter what, the future was going to be a heap of crap: either grindingly familiar, with society doomed to reproduce itself; or, perhaps worse (at least from my perspective), a fixed trajectory toward a galvanizing collapse that could only yield additional suffering. Why would I “hope” for such a scenario? Retreating further into interpretation, I joined more reading groups.
On the night of Irene, the glass wall rattled. Between fever dreams, I watched the purple-leaf plum tree in the yard bend and bow, envisioned the moment it would snap in two or uproot entirely, and, defying the laws of physics, crash through the glass and obliterate me. But the glass wall only rattled. When I awoke, I found a small puddle of water that had pooled near the back door, but otherwise the apartment was dry. I was feeling well enough to prepare and eat a slice of toast, then venture outside to confirm that the city was intact. The worst of the storm had bypassed New York.
A few weeks later, after what I expected to be a run-of-the-mill Saturday afternoon march against income inequality, foreclosures, the impunity of Wall Street, and so on, a few teens and twentysomethings set up camp in a park in Manhattan’s financial district, beginning what would become a months-long, nationwide protest. With a few other Triple Canopy editors, I began going to Zuccotti Park with some regularity. Soon I joined up with some friends and the editors of another small magazine, n+1, to produce a series of broadsheets chronicling the protests. My cynicism began to dissipate. For months, nothing was more important. I knew we weren’t changing the world, but for once I felt like there was something to be won or lost that was larger than my own personal ambitions. Within the limits of Occupy Wall Street’s tent city, I and the other protesters had agency. The year’s reading assumed new resonance. Behold, in Zuccotti Park, prefiguration, immanence, the modeling of a new society! The debates within those texts came alive. But then, after two months, the encampment was trampled and trashed and, in fairly short order, things went back to normal—back to stasis.
2. The Long Small Steps
The dream of utopia, of a social world where personal gratification and the collective good are aligned, where scarcity is eradicated and wealth distributed, belongs to the twentieth century—as does its abject failure, its eclipse by social transformations achieved through oppression, exploitation, war, and genocide. By the end of the century, anyone with a glint of thoughtfulness could not but doubt that utopia is dangerous, bound to deliver totalizing systems and prescriptions for the many on behalf of the few. Francis Fukuyama, reflecting in 1989 on the end of the Cold War and the emergence of “peace” in many parts of the world, famously pronounced the “end of history” and the triumph of the West, or of Western ideals, and thus the demise of the utopian spirit.
Of course, history did not end, liberal democracy did not triumph everywhere, politics still exists. But Fukuyama’s description of the end of utopian thinking resonates. “The end of history will be a very sad time,” he writes in the essay that he later transformed into the landmark The End of History and the Last Man (1992). “The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands.” Many others followed Fukuyama in denouncing the prospect that the future could surpass the present, that it contained possibilities for freedom scarcely glimpsed, that remaking the world according to ideals of justice and equality was anything but a totalitarian fantasy. Immanuel Wallerstein, the critic of global capitalism, opens his book Utopistics (2000) with the assertion, “Utopias are breeders of illusions and therefore, inevitably, of disillusions. They can be used, and have been used for terrible wrongs. The last thing we really need is still more utopian visions.” He proposes a rational assessment of practical alternatives to our present system. What the world might become is a hub of nonprofits working to make our class-based society marginally less unequal and to make polluters pay for damaging the environment. Novelist and critic Doris Lessing, who once believed that communism would transform the postwar world into a “perfect place” without injustice and racial discrimination, said in 2001 that anyone who still believes in utopia is “a bit deranged.” Grand notions of justice, progress, universal education, and women’s liberation were, to her mind, nothing but a “game,” and the only kind of change worth attempting was the kind that involved “small things that are achievable.”
Art historian T. J. Clark, in a widely read 2012 essay called “For a Left with No Future,” asserts that the Left is unable to envision an alternative to the ruling elite or to marshal the disparate forces of protest and dissent, because of its tendency to exhaustively analyze the present and search for signs of salvation or catastrophe. “Utopias reassure modernity as to its infinite potential,” he writes. “But why? It should learn—be taught—to look failure in the face.” Clark argues that pessimism is appropriate, even necessary, given the absence of any desirable future, the inevitability of persistent war, poverty, suffering, and so on. The Left must admit that there is no future and acquiesce to the politics of moderation, of “small steps” toward slight improvement. For Clark, reform is the new revolution: “To move even the least distance out of the cycle of horror and failure . . . will entail a piece-by-piece, assumption-by-assumption dismantling of the politics we have.”
Today, even reform hardly seems viable, and the notion that the average citizen could demand a different kind of life seems more effective as a facade for plutocracy than as a political strategy. “We are entering into a period of inconclusive struggles between a weakened capitalism and dispersed agencies of opposition, within delegitimated and insolvent political orders,” Balakrishnan writes, echoing Fukuyama. “The end of history could be thought to begin when no project of global scope is left standing, and a new kind of ‘worldlessness’ and drift begins.”
In the past decade, this current of thinking—let’s call it no-futurism—has dominated the discourse of the Left, at least inasmuch as it’s represented in tracts by French communization theorists and Italian autonomists, in the pages of the New Left Review, in the proclamations of social democrats like Fukuyama, and in the polemics of queer theorists such as Lee Edelman, whose book No Future condemns “politics” of any kind as conservative, insofar as politics always relies on “reproductive futurism”—i.e., the child yet to be born—and by default excludes gender-nonconforming people. Even outside the purview of the leftist political and economic theory that I and many others were reading around the time of Occupy Wall Street, there seemed to be a consensus that we should give ourselves over to the coming catastrophe, whatever Hollywood-inspired form it may take—cartoonish inequality, with 1 percent living as royalty (perhaps on another planet) and 99 percent as slaves; earthquakes and/or hurricanes and/or desertification and/or tundrafication; an apocalyptic war of all against all. Technology always featured in these fantasies as a symbol of hubris, of our foolhardy obsession with dominating nature. Characters often revealed outlooks suffused with a kind of vague nihilism, as demonstrated by Rust Cohle, the protagonist of the television show True Detective, whose views were informed by Eugene Thacker’s In the Dust of This Planet (2011). The slender volume of critical theory describes how the anxiety provoked by natural disasters, pandemics, and looming extinction makes existence increasingly “unthinkable.” (An image of the book’s cover later appeared on a leather jacket worn by Jay-Z in a video for his 2014 tour, and soon after Glenn Beck denounced Thacker for his contribution to the surge in “pop nihilism.”) But how to act without a future to look toward?
3. Silicon Valley Is Winning
Even as I absorbed the fatalism of the Left and struggled to find an upside to no-futurism, I noticed that, on the opposite end of the country, in Silicon Valley, utopian thinking was thriving: Private rockets were launching into space, fleets of self-driving cars were readied to serve as a personalized public-transportation system, plants were mysteriously transformed into meat, milk, and eggs. It seemed that every day my Google Reader feed presented yet another surge of trenchant optimism spouting forth from the Valley—a striking contrast to my own milieu. With other Triple Canopy editors, especially Sam Frank, I began to think and talk about these visions: Might they actually impact the world as their creators assured they would, or were they merely the products of self-serving and self-aggrandizing rhetoric?
In Silicon Valley, as far as I could tell, the notion that life on earth was only getting better was a given. Optimistic visions of the future proliferated, courtesy of the denizens and courtiers of start-ups established to solve problems that no one had previously recognized as such and by venture capitalists whose successful bets had turned them into visionaries. Each of the world’s problems, they intimated, could be tackled so long as the problem could be broken down into data; if the solution were not supplied by new technologies, it would come from the economic growth engendered by them. Whatever problems were beyond our abilities would eventually be addressed through higher-level artificial intelligence; the machines would either outsmart us (good for them!) or forge a hive mind or world consciousness that harnessed the intelligence of millions of brains. I scanned start-up pitches, conference descriptions, and TED talks to find visions of self-tracking and personalized medicine as antidotes to the failing health-care system (never mind the end of aging); customizable just-in-time delivery of everything from guns to food; 3-D printers as a means of distributing production and circumventing manufacturing protocols; MOOCs and entrepreneurial models for “extreme learning” as alternatives, and eventual replacements, for the terminal education system; unregulated zones of experimentation (Google Island) and autonomous floating islands; robot-driven cars as the low-energy savior of cities; Bitcoin as the escape hatch from conventional financial exchanges. Even the most apocalyptic visions could be discarded. Cataclysmic climate change? More like clean tech and geoengineering (or, at worst, colonizing Mars). There seemed to be a consensus around these visions that bred a belief in their accuracy. The tools for changing the world—for opting out of our regulatory miasma—were already at hand.
As Evgeny Morozov points out in To Save Everything, Click Here (2013), one might easily deconstruct and dismiss each of these visions of the future, and yet some number of them are likely to come to pass. “Perhaps [Silicon Valley] won’t overthrow the North Korean regime with tweets,” he writes, “but it could still accomplish a lot. This is where the debate ought to shift to a different register: instead of ridiculing the efficacy of their means, we also need to question the adequacy of the innovators’ ends.” Who has access to the futures posited by Silicon Valley, and who benefits from their realization?
I regarded Silicon Valley as a wellspring of trickle-down utopias: A vanguard introduces new technologies, which become broadly accessible, which they will because economies scale and prices go down. Last June, Marc Andreessen, Netscape cofounder and venture capitalist extraordinaire (Facebook, Twitter, Airbnb, Skype, etc.), wrote a series of Twitter essays that nicely distill this techno-optimism. In one, he “extrapolat[es] capitalism to the nth degree,” describing a utopian world “in which all material needs”—housing, energy, health care, food, transportation—“are provided for free, by robots and material synthesizers”and “all human time, labor, energy, ambition, and goals reorient to the intangibles: the big questions, the deep needs . . . culture, arts, sciences, creativity, philosophy, experimentation, exploration, adventure.” The path to such a world? Unfettered innovation, of course. By “letting markets work,” capital and labor “can rapidly reallocate to create new fields and jobs” that will employ those who have been made obsolete by technological changes. Increased productivity will lead to economic growth, making it easy to fund the “social safety net.” The poor will finally be granted access to what was “previously only affordable to the rich.”
Much about Andreessen’s utopia appeals. Who wouldn’t want free everything, a life devoted to creative exploration? Who doesn’t want to see technology working toward emancipation? But the prospect of an equal and just world derived from the liberation of market forces, and of a social safety net absent any regulation (or taxes!), seemed implausible—unless all the start-up aristocrats pool their money into a redistribution fund (and the bubble never bursts). The history of Reaganomics suggests that the population of Andreessen’s world will be minuscule.
Regardless, would I want a utopia foisted on me by Andreessen and his fellow founders? I had no interest in pathologizing technology or innovation, which struck me as yet another form of resignation, but I was bothered by the notion that the future was being designed by a small subset of the population, dominated by recent graduates of elite engineering programs, that seemed to harbor little interest in the potential contributions of the rest of us. They employed a specialized language to describe their future, which excluded anyone who isn’t an engineer or coder. (As a friend and former Google director recently told me via email, a software engineer who has successfully solved one or several difficult technical problems and experienced the thrill of having done so tends “only to see those phenomena in the world which lend themselves to being solved by engineering—much as in the old joke of the man searching under the lamp for his keys, because that is where the light is best—to the neglect of the vast expanse of human experience which is not properly conceived of in those ways.”) I read these elated tweets and the blogs congratulating their authors and felt disempowered. At the same time, surveying Silicon Valley’s reveries suggested that constructing images of alternative worlds has an essential social function, and that it can symbolize—even determine—the agency of the constructors.
4. However Dark, However Bright
Soon enough, another portentous storm was in the offing, this one Hurricane Sandy. A few weeks after much of New York City was inundated, and coastal enclaves from the Rockaways to Hoboken to Red Hook were devastated, Triple Canopy was invited by MoMA PS1 to commandeer part of the museum for a summer-long exhibition called “EXPO 1: New York,” which was to consider “ecology, economy, and revolution,” as curator Klaus Biesenbach told us at early meetings, referring to a triangle with each term occupying one point. In addition to an exhibition of artwork, “EXPO 1” was to consist of various experiences of various durations, including a makeshift commune where experiments with collective living might be undertaken (all courtesy of Volkswagen). Triple Canopy was invited to establish a school, which would operate more or less continuously for three months—not so much an alternative model for education that could profitably occupy a museum as an opportunity to spend an extended period of time with many friends, collaborators, and strangers, and, together, learn to think somewhat differently, ask how a novel intellectual orientation might enable us to act somewhat differently. We soon returned to the insoluble contradiction that had animated so many of us at the end of 2011: What to do about the future?
Speculations (“The future is ______”) was Triple Canopy’s exhortation to artists, economists, novelists, biologists, activists, coders, poets, lawyers, sociologists, and musicians to bet on the future. We asked these people to describe, as clearly as possible, the futures they want to see realized, while considering what demands these futures make on the present. To standardize the format, and clarify our own concerns, we requested that each participant submit answers to a four-part questionnaire, which were meant to form the first draft of her speculation. Rather than thinking in terms of utopia, dystopia, apocalypse—totalizing scenarios with preconceived conditions and plot lines—we proposed a continuum of overlapping moods ranging from optimism (however dark) to pessimism (however bright). The speculations took the form of lectures, plays, performances, fictions, debates, and conversations. They took place, alternately, in a structure created by artist José León Cerrillo (with whom we worked closely), which featured geometric forms made from intersecting steel bars, which, like the speculations being made, exceeded the boundaries of the galleries allotted to Triple Canopy, puncturing the museum’s walls; and across the hall, in a postapocalyptic clay-and-concrete amphitheater by artist Adrián Villar Rojas (whose work was commissioned by the museum and made for a grandiose, uncomfortable, and dusty—if also picturesque—environment for schooling). Sometimes five people showed up, sometimes one hundred; sometimes we got a crystalline description of a future, sometimes we got a litany of complaints about the present. We confirmed that imagining the future is a formidable task, but, happily, we also confirmed that the cultivation of utopian aspirations, and of a common language with which to articulate them, can provide a respite—if not an exit—from resignation.
5. Mars in Queens Online
Speculations (“The future is ______”) lives on Triple Canopy’s website as a collection of audio files, an archive of fifty days of wagers on the future. (The videos are available via Livestream.) The speculations, which have been organized into thematic series, will be published over the coming weeks and form the cornerstone of this issue, the Long Tomorrow. The trove of material is rich but also daunting: sixty hours of recordings, too much for anyone who is not completely obsessed to absorb. Speculations overwhelms in its length and breadth. And although many participants are luminaries of one kind or another, many more are hardly known beyond their fields—which is not to diminish their ideas, but rather to say how unlikely one is to chance upon them otherwise (which was often our intention in making such invitations). Arriving at such an archive, where to begin?
This issue of the magazine, which features a book alongside several digital projects, is neither an attempt at synthesis nor at interpretation alone; rather, it is both a finding aid and portal: The archive of speculations might be where you arrive or the point from which you depart on your journey to the center of, say, nano-prometheanism. The book, also titled Speculations (“The future is ______”), is a lexicon of the project’s central terms and a guide to the discussions that took place at MoMA PS1; it provides an artful and imperfect representation of what is contained in the archive. Like a dictionary or encyclopedia, the book is not meant to be read cover to cover and instead encourages a form of browsing—of search and discovery—that is particular to the form. Readers may eventually navigate to Triple Canopy’s website to listen to speculations that in the book have piqued their interests.
The visual projects, essays, analyses, and interviews that make up the rest of the magazine issue relate to the lectures more obliquely. If the book approximates an experience of the way the mind processes novel intellectual terrain—assimilating new language, recognizing patterns, making associations between disparate ideas—the contributions to the issue might imbue the mundane with original insight or even achieve, within a circumscribed realm, a kind of free play; they might capture a fleeting notion or image or query and transform it into a vehicle for reverie and imaginative projection, for experimentation and obsessive elaboration.
Some of the speculations adopt a rigorous, scholarly approach, while others assume forms and investigate genres that traditionally have been used to ponder the future, contemplating how and by what means we speculate. They borrow from the manifesto, as in Anna Della Subin’s heroic treatise on sleeping through revolution and the production in Cairo in 1935 of Tawfiq al-Hakim’s play The People of the Cave; from the DIY publication, as in Mary Mattingly’s appropriation of the Whole Earth Catalog to hawk her own designs for individualized survival in a post-collapse world; from the science-fiction serial, as in Frank Heath’s videos that mine apocalypse narratives as they consider the role of technology in our incessant fantasies of the end times; and from the radio drama, as in Martine Syms’s lyrical documentary on Altadena, California, as a site of encounter between radical politics and black imagination.
Each contribution is a testament to the agency of its creator. This issue as a whole, in presenting multiple visions at varying scales, eschews any singular blueprint for the future. Instead, it charts the relationship between imagination and action, and works to understand how visions of alternative societies can vitalize social, creative, and political projects, what work we must do in order to form such visions, and how they might change us.