Unevenly-distributed futures considered harmful

Here's a typically chewy, dense, thought-provoking essay from Venkatesh Rao, ruminating on the nature of the future and futurism. Rao describes the future as arriving through a "manufactured normalcy field" that prevents us from perceiving it, and proceeds from there to indict futurism as focusing on the part of the future where it is not yet "technologically boring," which is the point at which the future becomes commercially exciting. Also, Rao thinks we're still living in the 15th century. Sort of.

Engineering is about finding excitement by figuring out how human behavior could change. Marketing is about finding money by making sure it doesn’t. The future arrives along a least-cognitive-effort path.

This actually suggests a different, subtler reading of Gibson’s unevenly-distributed line.

It isn’t that what is patchily distributed today will become widespread tomorrow. The mainstream never ends up looking like the edge of today. Not even close. The mainstream seeks placidity while the edge seeks stimulation.

Instead, what is unevenly distributed are isolated windows into the un-normalized future that exist as weak spots in the Field. When the windows start to become larger and more common, economics kicks in and the Field maintenance industry quickly moves to create specialists, codified knowledge and normalcy-preserving design patterns.

Time is actually a meaningless organizing variable here. Is gene-hacking more or less futuristic than pod-cities or bionic chips?...

...We aren’t being hit by Future Shock. We are going to be hit by Future Nausea. You’re not going to be knocked out cold. You’re just going to throw up in some existential sense of the word. I’d like to prepare. I wish some science fiction writers would write a few nauseating stories.

Here's some other Rao posts from our archives.

Welcome to the Future Nauseous


  1. “Throw up” has an existential sense? This whole essay sounds like a meaningless jumble of words.

    1. While there seems to be a layer of throwaway sophistication in the article, the idea that the future never happens because its rough edges gets polished down to something more familiar to us is a interesting one. The examples of comparing air travel with what a modern jumbo could really do (tho it would require that everyone wore pressure suits and oxygen masks), or a smart”phone” with the first phones (hell, the even the number pad that a smartphone present you with is more recent than the phone concept itself, yet we still talk about it as phones) illustrates what i think is the core of the article.

      1.  You’re tempting me to give the article another chance, and maybe I will. I just wish I didn’t feel like I was wading through a swamp as I try to figure out what the author was trying to say. The nonsensical jargon adds a strong psuedo-intellectual whiff to the article, and that sort of thing nauseates me in the non-existential sense of the term.

        1. In essence, what the article seem to try for is that the future never really hits us in the sense of something going mach 4+. Before it reaches us, marketing and such takes sands it down and presents it in terms of something familiar with a little extra. The rough bits are handled by experts and such in the background so that you and i can go on without really taking in the kinds of changes that happens continuously. If we did, it would not be like riding the proverbial NASA vomit comet more than any kind of future shock that the scifi authors and futurists like to throw about. It is a interesting viewpoint to toy with, even if the details are questionable in various places. Heh, i honestly has had my fair share of “wft am i really doing” moments lately. Especially when sitting down with a cup of coffee in one hand and a tablet in the other to read something as if it was a freshly delivered newspaper article.

  2. uneven distribution has been known to cause some significant cognitive dissonance when you’ve got the larger share. 

  3. I have a nauseating SF story that’s been on the back burner for a while. Perhaps it’s time to finally finish it.

    1. Would explain the popularity of Philip K. Dick.

      And Charles Schulz. I’m pretty sure I learned the word “nausea” from Schulz.

  4. Its worth persevering through the babble; it gets good. This is my take on the ideas:

    Old metaphors are employed to comprehend new technologies, a process that helps us normalise the new. This helps us to experience change without letting it change us. The metaphors form a normalcy field that renders the present manageable and relatively banal. 

    Where the field is weak, we are exposed to the full impact of innovations, and experience anxiety about change. This anxiety gives rise to moral panics when innovation occurs. Innovations can be in any domain (political, economic, artistic etc), but those borne of science are probably the most far reaching in their ability to make us feel dislocated if we give ourselves time to take in their implications.

    What does it really mean for us to know the age of the universe or the code that makes a human being? What does it mean to be able to build or design practically any object we want to – and to know that if we can’t make it, a few years of R&D will probably mean that we can? Or to fill the air with an ocean of invisible signals that we can send or receive with little effort?

    If Jung is right, and we all have some concept of divine entities wired into us, perhaps its fair to say that we’re experiencing the world as gods living in a pantheon (with some gods, of course, being much more powerful than others). Its hard to think of a metaphor that does more justice to the totality of innovations acquired since the stone age, and what they mean for the human condition (whatever that is).

  5. It is our sense of time (grammatically coded – but grammatically recodable) as passing from the past through the present to the future which determines hierarchical organisation and which prevents us from fully embracing the future/present.

  6. It is our sense of time (grammatically coded – but grammatically recodable) as passing from the past through the present to the future which determines hierarchical organisation and which prevents us from fully embracing the future/present.

  7. It is our sense of time (grammatically coded – but grammatically recodable) as passing from the past through the present to the future which determines hierarchical organisation and which prevents us from fully embracing the future/present.

  8. This is interesting, but written in a confusing way. What I don’t understand is why this frames the “field” as a distant past, rather than what the portion of the present that has been contextualized as normal. He says it expands, and a little thought would show it might also contract; so why do we talk yearbooks as if they were a metaphor from the 1500s?

  9. Ha! Someplace in the middle, he points out that all times are times of crisis or near-crisis (at the time). And then he falls right into the trap he earlier pointed out! 

    I also think there is an implied Agency which is unwarranted. We all have our little fields which are constantly changing (though we do our best not to notice).  Maybe the Field is nothing but some kind of vector sum over all the little fields. 

    But interesting and entertaining.

  10. “Future may not be available as shown.  Future not available in parts of India, Africa, Central and South America. Individual fates may vary.”  – Tom Servo


    I am reminded of this passage from John Brunner’s “The Shockwave Rider” — a dialog between captured renegade genius Nickie Freeman and his high-tech government interrogator:

    [Nickie Haflinger]: “If you believed [in official dogma] you wouldn’t be working so hard to universalize the new conformity.”

    [Paul Freeman]: “Is that a term you coined yourself?”

    “No, I borrowed it from someone whose writings aren’t particularly loved at Tarnover: Angus Porter.”

    “Well, it’s a resounding phrase. But does it mean anything?”

    “I wouldn’t bother to answer except that it’s better to be talking in present time than sitting back inside my head while you interrogate my memory . . . because you know damned well what it means. Look at yourself. You’re part of it. It’s a century old. It began when for the first time people in a wealthy country started tailoring other cultures to their own lowest common denominator: people with money to spendwho were afraid of strange food, who told the restaurateur to serve hamburgers instead of enchiladas or fish and chips instead of couscous, who wanted something pretty to hang on the wall at home and not what some local artist had sunk his heart and soul in, who found it too hot in Rio and too cold in Zermatt and insisted on going there anyhow.”

    “We’re to be blamed because that’s how people reacted long before Tarnover was founded?” Freeman shook his head. “I remain unconvinced.”

    “But this is the concept you started with, the one you’ve clung to! You walked straight into a trap with no way out. You wanted to develop a generalized model of mankind, and this was the handiest to build on: more general than pre-World War I European royalty despite the fact that that was genuinely cosmopolitan, and more homogeneous than the archetypal peasant culture, which is universal but individualized. What you’ve wound up with is a schema where the people who obey those ancient evolutionary principles you cite so freely — as for example by striking roots in one place that will last a lifetime — are regarded by their fellows as ‘rather odd.’ It won’t be long before they’re persecuted. And then how will you justify your claim that the message in the genes overrides consciously directed modernchange?”

    “Are you talking about the so-called economists, who won’t take advantage of the facilities our technology offers? More fool them; they choose to be stunted.”

    “No, I’m talking about the people who are surrounded by such a plethora of opportunity they dither and lapse into anxiety neurosis. Friends and neighbors rally round to help them out, explain the marvels of today and show them how, and go away feeling virtuous. But if tomorrow they have to repeat the process, the day after, and the day after that . . . ? No, from the patronizing stage to the persecuting stage has always been a very short step.”

    After a brief silence Freeman said, “But it’s easy to reconcile the views I really hold, as distinct from the distorted versions you’re offering. Mankind originated as a nomadic species, following game herds and moving from one pasture to another with the seasons. Mobility of similar order has been reintegrated into our culture, at least in the wealthy nations. Yet there are advantages to living in an urban society, like sanitation, easy communications, tolerably cheap transportation . . . And thanks to our ingenuity with computers, we haven’t had to sacrifice these conveniences.”

    “One might as well claim that the tide which rubs pebbles smooth on a beach is doing the pebbles a service because being round is prettier than being jagged. It’s of no concern to a pebble what shape it is. But it’s very important to a person. And every surge of your tide is reducing the variety of shapes a human being can adopt.”

    “Your extended metaphors do you credit,” Freeman said. “But I detect, and so do my monitors, that you’re straining after them like a man at a party who’s desperately pretending that he’s not quite drunk. Today’s session is due to end in a few minutes; I’ll cut it short and renew the interrogation in the morning.”

  12. My response there:

    “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?”

    You just answered your own question.

    You just answered your own question…

    On a more serious note:

    You make some interesting points, and it’s a fascinating way to think about the future. There are, however, some issues that I think it’s worth pointing out before hashing out the usefulness of your theory.

    First of all, whatever field we’re describing for time also has to take into account space. And not in a Newtonian sense, but in  political/state/cultural/economic sense. When we say the future is unevenly distributed, what we mean (I think, at the most prosaic level) is that some people are experiencing recent inventions more fully than others. That’s not just simple and prosaic, it’s frankly not very interesting. Some people got cars before others did. For some, the lack of good, modern, paved roads made even the getting of cars less useful. A future filled with “horseless carriages, unbound by rails of steel,” was “real” the moment the first car was invented. So what? If people in my [country] [economic slice] can’t afford a car or don’t have roads… I don’t experience “that future.” Does that make my present more of someone else’s past? Maybe… but then my field is as much about where/how I live as when.

    The second thing I’d point out is that field variations based on activities and environment vary in time for us regardless of technological futures; there are a variety of futures we imagine and then ingest or reject having to do with jobs, mates, living arrangements, etc. So my idea of my movement through past/present/future may have as little or less to do with the future as it does with when I first got laid, stopped smoking, moved to Ohio or lost a finger in a band-saw accident.

    And, in some cases, we can also see how early adopters of technology aren’t envied or even cared about. I was reading ebooks on a Palm pilot in 1996. This is the response I received 97% of the time when that topic came up: “How can you read on such a little screen? I could never do that.” Now the same people are reading on their little screens. The adoption didn’t have to do with technology, but with the socialization of a set of tools and ideas about how we interact with technology. In 1996, there was no YouTube, no blogs, no twitter, no texting, barely any email. So the idea of doing something different on a little computer was, well… not just odd… but unremarkably odd. Like someone who only eats blue food. You might think, “That’s strange,” but not, “That’s what I’d like to do,” or “There must be a fascinating reason behind that choice.”

    So while the field through which we view the future is interesting, I think it’s more warped by other gravities than technology. 

  13. Rao’s posts are disappointing. It sounds like a guy with a doctorate in engineering, who has read exactly four elementary books on the future, and philosophy and then expounds endlessly on his own thoughts. 

    Anything and everything he’s said in his post has been said, and better, by people who he references in his post. Both MacLuhan and Toffler have way more to offer. But instead of going into their thought, which I can only assume he’s read and enjoyed, Rao recycles ideas and applies his own names to them with the truly foreboding line what I like to call. After a while on the internet, the phrase “What I like to call” starts to make you cringe. Bringing up existentialism in this context is just silly, as is any reference to Platonism. Both don’t need to be said except that they are very muscular words, used to display. Peacock philosophy. And for a guy who’s pretty contemptuous of artists and thinkers roles in making culture, and dismissive of their field, he certainly references them enough.

    Quick tip from an old humanities MA. History is populated with genius writers who have already said what you are thinking. There is no reason for you to ever have to make up a term. It simply means you a) haven’t read enough, or b) are talking to hear yourself talk.

    And his idea of “manufactured normalcy” is actually the basic condition of being human. Any first-year literature or classics or psychology or theatre student could tell you that. The idea that we mythologize our own lives? That we live in a state of semi-fiction when it comes to ourselves and our culture? That’s really not new. The first instance of recorded human literature is a story about a king who deludes himself out of pride and self-regard.

    1. History is populated with genius writers who have already said what you are thinking. There is no reason for you to ever have to make up a term. It simply means you a) haven’t read enough, or b) are talking to hear yourself talk.

      I’m not sure that this will always be correct. Independently re-deriving a concept or framework that has already been derived can be useful (to others – it’s always useful to oneself) if it is grounded in a sufficiently different set of assumptions or observations. Through the connections to these new assumptions/observations, the concept/framework can now be used in different contexts. As such, while disputes over who thought of what first are relevant in an intellectual equivalent of a “my dick is bigger than yours” contest, and while reading a lot can save one the effort of having to figure some things out for oneself, the greater the diversity of independent derivations of the same concept, the more flexibly and creatively the concept can be applied in the future.

      1. Independently re-deriving a concept or framework that has already been derived can be useful (to others – it’s always useful to oneself) if it is grounded in a sufficiently different set of assumptions or observations.

        Re-deriving things is only great as a personal exercise. If you can figure out something that Rousseau figured out – good on you. You should feel proud. But the only reason to ever “invent a term” is because that thought isn’t represented in our lexicon. And frankly,  our lexicon is huge. There are only one or two people in every generation who are good enough at thinking to do this. 

        Knowing the heritage of thinking isn’t dick-waving. It’s ANTI-dick-waving. Understanding that you likely won’t ever contribute a single thing to the thought of humanity should feel liberating. You can pursue whatever you like, think whatever you like and you aren’t motivated by vanity.

        If you are motivated by achievement, then you have the obligation to your own self to make sure your work is impeccable, that you might actually be saying something new, or synthesizing a new idea.

        But if you are just motivated by basic vanity you will do what is being done in the above post – you’ll take some really basic thoughts, not bother to find out if anybody has said them before, and then apply your own “term” to them, in order to proclaim yourself ‘pretty gosh darned great at this whole philosophy schtick’. 

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