Who owns the future?

by André Dao

THE FUTURE IS always arriving, in one form or another. There is no no future. It’s an absurdly simple point, like saying that one plus one equals two. But despite its apparent simplicity, it bears remembering because its corollary has far-reaching consequences: that the future will come regardless of our capacity to imagine and articulate a vision for it. Which in turn leads to another obvious but easily missed point: that any failure of the imagination vis-à-vis the future does not prevent the future arriving, but only leaves it susceptible to the visions of others. Or, to put it another way: the future belongs to those who dare to imagine it.

I first learnt the truth of that maxim in the spring of 2015, when I was invited to the nation’s capital for the inaugural Junket, an ‘un-conference’ where two hundred of Australia’s ‘best and brightest young minds’, its ‘game-changers’ and future leaders, would gather to ‘share ideas, get advice, be inspired, innovate, teach, learn, network and have fun – all with the (suitably ambitious) aim of helping set the agenda for Australia’s future’.

In keeping with the spirit of innovation, the content of the un-conference was crowd-sourced. Rather than producing a program, the audience was ‘curated’ by Jess Scully, creative industries expert and now a councillor for the City of Sydney. At the first event of the weekend, delegates were invited on stage to pitch for the following days’ sessions – to lay our claims on the future. The format was fundamentally competitive: those with the most compelling visions would not only lead the following days’ conversations, but because there would be ten parallel sessions running at any one time, these pitches also served as previews for the main event. A further incentive to nail those pitches was added by the organisers’ injunction for delegates to vote with their feet if any session failed to hold their attention.

To kick things off, Scully – a whirling, brightly coloured bundle of energy – took to the stage to whip us into a frenzy of positivity. ‘This is a safe space for optimism,’ she said. ‘This is a safe space for altruism.’ Of the two hundred participants, more than a hundred duly got in line to offer up hope and assurance and conviction; seated as we were in a generic conference room space, windowless and blue carpeted, the atmosphere took on the evangelical fervour of a Hillsong gathering, punctuated as it was by enthusiastic call and response and jazz hands of appreciation. It was a room full of starry-eyed believers – tech entrepreneurs and inventors, founders of charities and sex-toy companies, astrophysicists and professional skateboarders – all intent on selling disruption and innovation.

The presentations that followed were pure TED Talks: everything was narrative (‘let me tell you a story’), the audience was engaged (‘raise your hands if you’ve ever…’) and solutions were not only achievable but inevitable – just a theory of change and a couple of measurable outcomes away. Better yet, positive change wouldn’t require any unpleasantness: progress was frictionless, they said, just a matter of better technology, increased efficiency and greater connectivity. And throughout it all was the unspoken assumption that the future belonged to them – the techno-dreamers – and that great change was possible if only they, the smart, super-networked elite, dreamed big, and dreamed together.

 

THE UN-CONFERENCE WAS organised by Junkee Media, whose flagship publication is the youth-orientated culture website of the same name that strategically deploys politics of a soft-progressive bent (think gay marriage, pop feminism and laughing at the uncanny resemblance between Peter Dutton’s head and the common, garden-variety spud) to cultivate a tribal audience that supports the main game: a sector-leading approach to ‘native’ advertising, which forms innovative partnerships with big corporates to sell their products to statistically ad-wary millennials. True to form, Junket often felt like a weekend-long market-research exercise, as blue T-shirted Junkee employees with clipboards hovered around our conversations, mining data for their own content production and no doubt for feeding back to their corporate sponsors, which included a ‘big-four’ bank, Australia’s largest airline and biggest telco, a Group of Eight university, the Canberra tourism body and a hip new hotel chain that employs ‘directors of chaos’ rather than concierges, and which recently recruited for its Melbourne franchise by asking prospective employees to audition via a Zoolander-style walk-off.

Among the delegates, corporate sponsorship was met not with wariness, but with a zeal exemplified by Dan Nolan, a small businessman and software developer, who, in a post-Junket reflection for The Guardian, wrote: ‘I left with a sense of hope that there are diverse young people toiling away in their own silos on their own worthwhile passions… With corporate sponsorship we don’t have to rely on other generations getting out of the way, or to beg the government to have our ideas recognised. We can actually organise this shit ourselves and get to work.’

The notion of corporate sponsorship as a source for hope is dependant on an ideology of benign capitalism. But it shouldn’t take a radical Marxist to recognise the untenable contradictions at the heart of Junket: that sessions on how to address climate change were being sponsored by a new joint venture between Junkee Media and Qantas to create a travel website encouraging millennials to fly more; that a presentation on food waste was followed up by a catered lunch providing enough food for the sort of engorgement typically associated with Ancient Rome; that talk of exploitative internships was being hosted by a hotel chain that prided itself on the extra, affective labour – the production and manipulation of affects such as joy or validation – it required its young employees to perform for the privilege of having a job.

Unsurprisingly, the ideas being pitched tended to work with the market, rather than with politics: making 3D-printing more accessible, fixing the missing-persons system, making science cool, increasing diversity in video games. But towards the end of the pitch session, our curator intervened with a request delivered in the tones of a slightly disappointed mother: for all the incredible ideas we’d heard so far, none had addressed what is arguably our most pressing moral concern – Australia’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. Surely, asked Scully, with such a bunch of talented people together in one place, we can think of something?

Cue a nodding of heads and concerned faces. Fuelled partly by all the furious agreement, by the suggestion that if only we talked it over for a day or two the whole question of boat people could be solved, and finally by the knowledge that I had been invited to Junket on the strength of my work in this very area, I found myself on stage – against my better judgment – saying: ‘There are some problems we can’t just innovate our way out of…’

 

FOR ALL THEIR irritating effervescence, and wilful blindness to internal contradictions, the techno-dreamers at Junket at least recognised the old adage: nothing ventured, nothing gained. When my own opportunity came to imagine the future, I fell back instead on the sanctity of history, and the insurmountable problems of the present.

I had no solutions, no vision for the future of migration. My work with refugees and asylum seekers focused exclusively on the past, on the recording of testimony: long interviews with the men, women and children who have been, and in many cases still are, imprisoned in detention centres in our suburbs and deserts, and on remote Pacific islands; conversations in which the narrators traverse all manner of subjects – death and love, family and freedom, hope and despair. The stories are collected in a book, They Cannot Take the Sky (Allen & Unwin, 2017), and I am prouder of it, and the chorus of humanity that emerges through it, than of anything else I have done. But there is no getting away from its essential character as a work bearing witness to suffering. And as such, it has nothing to say about the hereafter, except that which all works of testimony have to say: never again.

That falls some way short of being a positive vision of tomorrow. Yet, despite that shortcoming, my intervention had an odd, and quite unexpected, result. It turned out that the optimism was not universal, and that my public expression of pessimism had been a kind of rallying cry, because over the next two days a motley assortment of the unenthused approached me. My new friends were invariably from a social-justice background: domestic violence campaigners, disability workers, gay rights activists, social policy academics. And every time, we would agree that there was something…irksome about the rosy prognostications of our peers, as well as something disingenuous, or at least naive, about their forecasts of great change free from any upheaval or inconvenience. For here we were at a time of epochal crisis – the ongoing economic crisis following the GFC, the political crisis of democracy in the West, and the first rumblings of the ecological crisis that threatens to overwhelm everything else – and yet their great, ambitious dreams seemed more like rearranging deck chairs than enacting transformative change.

And yet, what did our cynicism amount to? What visions could we point to of the future? I think of us – the coalition of the despairing – as the pessimistic sidekick against whom the hero appears all the more heroic, Cameron Frye to the techno-dreamers’ Ferris Bueller, slinking around in the background as our bolder peers bounded across the un-conference stages.

 

WHO OWNS THE future? In the year that followed Junket – 2016, an annus horribilis by any measure – that question took on ever-greater urgency. Whose imagination will determine the contours and boundaries of what is possible? Not the left, however defined; not ‘progressives’; certainly not that band of cynics that coalesced around me at Junket. We are too mired in the past, either preoccupied with the witnessing and righting of past injustices, or defending the hard-fought gains of previous generations. Think of the way those on the left side of politics have been forced to defend broken institutions, rather than calling for radical change: the mid-century welfare state, Enlightenment-era representative democracy, the postwar network of international borders. Where the Junket optimists were free to dream unencumbered by history, the rest of us were weighed down by the past, by the enormity of the preceding struggles that won the eight-hour day and women’s right to vote and the 1967 referendum. At Junket, Matthew Ng, deputy national director of Interns Australia, finished his pitch by yelling, half-jokingly, ‘Join ya fucking unions, ya scabs!’ The delegates laughed obligingly – but the real joke was that we really were all scabs, of a kind. For the majority of delegates, unions were an outdated mechanism, a form of social and political organisation made obsolete by the emergence of new technologies and new forms of work. Who ever heard of solidarity among entrepreneurs, inventors and the self-employed – a union for the techno-dreamers?

There’s no doubt that the work of remembering and protecting the past is absolutely vital. But the past is not a sufficient foundation for progressive politics, for politics concerned with equality and liberty and universal well-being, because those values are not – despite the doctrine of natural rights – a natural phenomena to be uncovered by subsequent generations. They are created anew by forward-looking societies that decide they are values worth striving for. Progressives must seize on humankind’s orientation towards the future. In other eras, progressives have been acutely aware of the forward march of time – it was, after all, the French revolutionaries who inaugurated the sense of the future under which we moderns now labour, the idea that history does not repeat but rather progresses. This is why progressives have historically offered up dreams and visions to give form to the conviction that the shores further down the river of time are greener and more inviting than the banks we see now. And underlying such dreams was an unashamedly utopian maxim: another world is possible.

But those who work for social justice no longer dare to dream. We are unable to sufficiently project ourselves into the future. Why is this the case, when progressives were once criticised for over-dreaming?

Anthropologist and social theorist Ghassan Hage draws a useful distinction between two strands of progressive politics: anti- and alter-politics. The former characterised by opposition – opposition to colonialism, to capitalism, to racism, to sexism and so on – the latter concerned with creating alternatives to power structures. That the politics of resistance, as opposed to transformation, is entrenched in the thinking of the left is readily understandable given the rolling sense of crisis that has accompanied the rise and establishment of neoliberalism: a constant state of exceptionalism that no longer presents itself as opportunity (of the ‘never waste a good crisis’ kind) but as opportunity’s end. Indeed, the failures of globalisation have led not to progressive change, but to an ugly, right-wing populism. And as the world jerks from crisis to crisis, without giving way to structural change, the result is a lowering of horizons  – activists and thinkers preoccupied with responding to each crisis, rather than working on transformative projects.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the refusal by the Occupy movement to make concrete demands, preferring instead to argue that demands themselves were un-radical. But this was privileging the present over the future, and mistaking paralysis for radicalism. So too my gloomy Junket pitch: even if I was never going to go in for the techno-dreaming, why didn’t I go big – call, for example, for the free movement of people across all borders?

This reluctance to make bold claims flies in the face of history. In the middle of the twentieth century, as the welfare state reigned supreme, Milton Friedman’s ideas about the achievement of individual liberty through unchecked capitalism were not only unorthodox but seemingly little more than wishful thinking. Yet he retained the belief that a time would come when the prevailing hegemony would prove insufficient, and when that time came – as it did following the economic crises of the 1970s – he and his fellow neoliberals would be waiting in the wings, with an ideology at the ready that both made sense of the catastrophe, and offered an alternative vision. As he put it in the 1982 preface, written twenty years after Capitalism and Freedom (University of Chicago Press) was first published: ‘Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.’

Contrast Friedman’s patience – and confidence in his vision – with Bill Shorten, who a week after Donald Trump won the US election and in an effort to ‘learn the lessons of Michigan and Ohio’, fell back on anti-immigrant populism: ‘Now is the time,’ Shorten said, ‘to prioritise Australian jobs.’ Meanwhile, in the UK, Jeremy Corbyn, announced that the Labour Party was ‘not wedded to freedom of movement…as a point of principle’. Even Bernie Sanders slapped down a question about open borders by declaring it a ‘Koch brothers proposal’. ‘It would make everybody in America poorer. You’re doing away with the concept of the nation state.’

Sanders was right – the idea of open borders is susceptible to a right-wing interpretation. Yet the basic principle that social and economic wellbeing should not be determined by the chance of birthplace is fundamentally progressive – even utopian. By falling back on old ideas of protectionism and nationalism, Sanders, Shorten and Corbyn misstep twice. First, they can never defeat their conservative opponents on matters xenophobic – it is, after all, their home turf – and second, they cede the future to the techno-dreamers, who are more than happy to take bold, utopian – but still contested – concepts like open borders and fill them in according to their own politics.

 

AT JUNKET, THE entrepreneurial vision for the future was on display in the Telstra Imaginarium project, which included both a mentorship program for young social-entrepreneur types (Telstra’s ‘Imaginauts’) and a sixty-second elevator pitch competition filmed in an actual elevator. Technological solutions abounded: an app to streamline educational feedback from teachers to parents; an Airbnb-style app for victims of domestic violence in need of emergency shelter; a resource app providing guidance on how to be a better ally for people of colour; an online platform matching up career ‘coaches’ with young people needing career advice; a virtual-reality app to help people better visualise the consequences of climate change.

There’s nothing particularly reprehensible about any of these ideas. But there is a yawning chasm between the language used to describe their importance (‘the solutions to the problems of tomorrow’, ‘the next big thing’ and, always, ‘the future’) and the limitations of the tech-design paradigm, which is good at user experience and efficiency, and less good at dealing with, say, systematic discrimination or the appropriation of the common wealth by the financial elite. At best, these ‘solutions’ can help streamline existing services and programs – there’s not much point having domestic violence shelters if victims can’t access them – but cannot address the wider context. That hardly matches the dramatic rhetoric of change and innovation used to sell these projects.

At worst, techno-dreaming can lead to a bullish refusal to engage with the structures underpinning injustice.

At Junket, this was most apparent when it came to the asylum-seeker question. One well-meaning delegate suggested to me that we ask Telstra to provide a free phone to each detainee on Nauru and Manus Island; never mind that at that time mobile phones were considered contraband in the detention centres, and would be confiscated on sight, nor that it was unlikely in the extreme that Telstra, or any telco, would place its government contracts at risk by brazenly undermining the very purpose of offshore processing – to render detainees invisible and voiceless. That wilful blindness to structural problems was perfectly encapsulated when, midway through the session on refugees, one of the delegates identified herself as a member of the Australian Federal Police – and suggested that we refugee advocates get in touch with the AFP about ways to make the soon-to-be-arriving cohort of Syrian refugees feel more welcome. That is, the same organisation that conducts surveillance on journalists reporting on border protection measures, and is responsible for prosecuting whistleblowers within the detention system. While that incident left me feeling paranoid, the techno-dreamers seemed unperturbed – their futures are untroubled by contradiction or conspiracies.

 

WHAT THE TECHNO-DREAMERS fail to appreciate is that new technologies, including radical new ideas, create new wielders of that technology. It is now commonplace to say that we are entering a new, technology-driven epoch – that we’re going to get to work faster, be more networked, more productive. But on closer inspection, these visions are all surprisingly devoid of critical imagination. To borrow again from Ghassan Hage, to engage in critical thinking is to be able to move outside ourselves, to start seeing ourselves and our society anew. This is precisely what techno-dreamers do not do: think reflexively about how new technologies might (and should) change us as people and as societies. We see this at work in contemporary debates around automation and universal basic income, for example: new world, same people – whereas such developments have the potential to radically transform human relations.

It is essential to ask questions of technology and its users that are based on an understanding that human nature and human societies are highly mutable. To ask such questions, and to begin to sketch out answers, reveals the gap between what is and what ought to be – and it is that gap which is the basis for all meaningful social change. Who can say what a society of human beings, unencumbered by enforced labour, might look like? What kind of person would be produced by a system that valued domestic work, volunteer work, political engagement, and the time taken to engage in communities and to care for family? Are our societies only viable because of armed borders? Or can we imagine new people, undefined by the borders they have and haven’t crossed?

In the year and a half since Junket, my news feeds have been increasingly swamped by sponsored content about the inevitability of change. The articles are given titles like, ‘The future of work – how will you adapt?’ and illustrated with casual photos of smiling young people in cafés, laptops open – exactly the sort of young ‘change-makers’ I met at Junket. The pieces quote liberally from futurists with names like Faith Popcorn, and are anchored on reports prepared by firms like Deloitte and Morgan Stanley, with the emphasis on tech-driven change. The sponsors are banks, tech companies, global management companies. The message is clear: the future is unsettling, but if you stick with us – the big corporate techno-dreamers – then you’ll be able to harness all that disruption to your own gain.

But while I reject that message, I find myself agreeing with the analysts at Deloitte and Morgan Stanley – the future is coming. The question for those interested in social justice is: whose future?


From Griffith Review Edition 56: Millennials Strike Back © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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