What makes the future-perfect tense? The future perfect is, of course, a linguistic construction that specifies what will have been the case. As such, it involves the strangest of temporal modalities. By anticipating the past as if it were future, the future-perfect tense looks ahead by looking back and looks back by looking ahead. Locating a past in the future and a future in the past, the future perfect is never present. In this way, the time of language endlessly twists and turns its tenses.
But the future perfect is more than a linguistic construction; it is also an anticipated existential condition. The human imagination seems to be unavoidably obsessed with a future more perfect than the present. As visions unfold, it becomes clear that the imagination implies a temporality that is no less complex than the time of language. The imagination's differentiation between what is and what ought to be makes the present tense. Historical development is the process of mediating the tension between perfections anticipated in the future and the imperfections plaguing the present. Philosophies and theologies of history differ not only in the way they describe the present and imagine the future but also in how they define the interplay of past, present, and future. While from some points of view the future is implicit in the past and thus historical transitions are continuous, from other perspectives, the future erupts in the present in a way that ruptures all lines of continuity. If the rupture is radical , the end will be apocalyptic. For the apocalyptic imagination, darkness and light are inseparable.
Though the time of the end is unpredictable, gathering darkness is a sign of approaching light. When the end arrives, the old passes away and the new emerges. Within this temporal dialectic, creation and destruction are moments in the single process of creative destruction or destructive creation. Nothing escapes this process; it is the interactive medium of all that is and is not.
This tale is ancient and has been told again and again. It is, in fact, as old as history because it is, in an important sense, the story of history itself. Though stories of the future perfect are repeated endlessly in all times and places, they tend to proliferate in times of transition. There is, of course, no time that is not a time of transition. Nevertheless, some eras are more unstable than others. In these moments, it often seems necessary to try to make sense of the muddle of the middle by telling stories that seem to have happy endings. No time more excites the human imagination than the end of an old and beginning of a new millennium. It is important not to forget that the way we mark time is actually an expression of a theological fantasy: B.C./A.D. or B.C.E./A.C.E. The death of Christ issues in the Kingdom of God, which restores or even surpasses the perfection of the Garden. From a religious perspective, this end is only possible if the play of creation is staged under the attentive gaze of a d irector whose knowledge is perfect.
Though theologically designed, many of the most influential variations of this narrative in the twentieth century have not been explicitly religious. With characteristic insight and prescience, Freud, following Nietzsche, long ago realized that God does not simply disappear from the modern imagination. To the contrary, God dies and is reborn in humanity, whose expanding powers seem infinite. Translating a sacred story into secular terms, Freud suggests that technology effectively embodies divine omniscience and omnipotence.
With every tool man is perfecting his own organs, whether motor or sensory, or is removing the limits to their functioning. [...] In the photographic camera, he has created an instrument which retains the fleeting visual impressions, just as a gramophone disc retains the equally fleeting auditory ones; both are at bottom materializations of the power he possesses of recollection, his memory. With the help of the telephone he can hear at distances which would be respected as unattainable even in a fairy tale. [...] These things that, by his science and technology, man has brought about on this earth [...] not only sound like a fairy tale, they are an actual fulfillment of every--or almost every--fairy-tale wish. All these assets he may lay claim to as his cultural acquisition. Long ago he formed an ideal conception of omnipotence and omniscience, which he embodied in his gods. To these gods he attributed everything that seemed unattainable to his wishes, or that was forbidden to him. Today he has come very clo se to the attainment of this ideal, he has almost become a god himself. [...] Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God. When he puts on his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on to him and they still give him much trouble at times. Nevertheless, he is entitled to console himself with the thought that this development will not come to an end precisely with the year 1930 A.D. Future ages will bring with them new and probably unimaginably great advances in this field of civilization and will increase man's likeness to God still more. (37-39)
While admitting cultural progress, Freud is reluctant to declare that the Kingdom has fully arrived. In this context, the insistence on the deferral of the end harbors the prospect of "unimaginably great advances yet to come."
Freud is not, of course, the only one to have rewritten the Judeo-Christian tale of creation, fall, and redemption in ostensibly non-religious terms. Since the end of the eighteenth century, artists have appropriated religious visions to define the mission of art. As art displaces religion, the artist becomes the savior who leads his followers into the Promised Land, which now is represented as an aesthetic utopia. Far from otherworldly, this Kingdom becomes real as the world itself is transformed into a work of art. Many leading members of the avant-garde insist that this dream cannot be brought to life apart from a wedding of art and technology, From the initiatives of the Russian Constructivists to the experiments at the Bauhaus, artists, industrial designers, engineers, investors, and politicians collaborated to create a new world. For some, this alliance signaled the full realization of art, while for others, it spelled the unavoidable end of art. In 1921, Rodchenko went so far as to declare:
Art is dead! [...] Art is as dangerous as religion as an escapist activity. [...] Let us cease our speculative activity and take over the healthy bases of art--color, line, materials and forms--into the field of reality, of practical production. (quoted in Gray 249)
For Rodchenko, the move from "speculative activity" to "practical construction" entails a commitment to create socially useful products. As "pure art" becomes "production art," Rodchenko and his followers turn from painting and sculpture to graphic design--advertising posters, books, and magazines--furniture design information centers (i.e., kiosks), interior design, theater sets, and eventually film. Though not immediately obvious, these developments express longings that are implicitly religious. The Russian experiment can, of course, be traced to Marx, whose entire project presupposes precisely the three-part structure of salvation history that runs throughout the Judeo-Christian tradition. In a rarely noticed footnote in The Communist Manifesto, Marx comments:
In 1847, the pre-history of society, the social organization existing previous to recorded history, was all but unknown. Since then, Haxthuasen discovered common ownership of land in Russia, Maurer proved it to be the social foundation from which all Teutonic races started in history, and by and by village communities were found to be, or to have been, the primitive form of society everywhere from India to Ireland. The inner organization of this primitive Communistic society was laid bare, in its typical form, by Morgan's crowning discovery of the true nature of the gens in relation to the tribe. With the dissolution of these primeval communities, society begins to be differentiated into separate and finally antagonistic classes. I have attempted to retrace this process of dissolution in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. (473n)
This seemingly insignificant supplement lays bare the theological structure of Marx's dialectic. The edenic condition of primitive communism dissolves with the rise of private property, which eventually leads to the historical class struggle characteristic of capitalism. This fall into history is overcome by the recovery of the "inner organization" of communist society in a new socialist utopia. The imperfections of capitalism will be negated in the future perfections of socialism. Rodchenko, as well as many other artists, attempts to contribute to the realization of this dream by leaving studio and gallery and taking art into the streets and factories. In the catalog accompanying the 1922 exhibition entitled The Constructivists: K. K. Medunetskii, G.A. Strenberg, G.A. Strenberg, the featured artists state "unequivocally that all artists should now 'go into the factory, where the real body of life is made,' and asserted that 'this route is called Constructivism."' These artists, Christiana Lodder explains,
wrote of Constructivism as "the highest springboard for the leap into universal human culture" and juxtaposed it to art and aestheticism which they considered corrupting: "The Constructivists declare art and its priests to be outlaws." In a rather vague form this declaration gave expression to the most basic principles that were developed by Constructivism: the call for the artist to go into the factory; the recognition that the factory is the real creative force in the world; the impediment that conventional concepts of art and practicing artists represent to such a link between art and life, and therefore the call for their banishment; and the identification with a new political and social order. The artists' declaration that "Constructivism will lead humanity to master a maximum of cultural values with a minimum of energy" shows that Constructivism was seen to represent the culture of the future. (1)
With the benefit of hindsight, however, it now is clear that this "culture of the future" harbored dreadful darkness.
This darkness not only engulfed Russia and the Soviet Union but haunted all of Europe during the first half of this century. The struggle to realize a future that was supposed to be perfect resulted in a nightmare from which, as Joyce averred, it long seemed impossible to awaken. One of the places that the seeds of this nightmare were sown was in the unholy alliance between art and technology. In his 1909 First Futurist Manifesto, Filippo Marinetti provocatively declared:
We affirm that the world's magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty; the beauty of speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned by great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath--a roaring car that seems to run on shrapnel--is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.
We will glorify war--the world's only hygiene [...].
We will sing of great crowds excited by work, by pleasure, and by riot; we will sing of the multicoloured, polyphonic tides of revolution in the modern capitals [...]. (43)
It is obviously a small step from Marinetti's Futurism to Mussolini's Fascism and Hitler's National Socialism. As art was becoming political, politics was being aestheticized. Long before others, Walter Benjamin realized the disastrous implications of these developments. "All efforts to render politics aesthetic," he observed, "culminate in one thing: war"(217-51).
The ashes of Europe did not, remarkably enough, put an end to the quest for a perfect future. To the contrary, as yet another millennium approaches, the desire for the future perfect burns ever brighter. Marinetti's "hygienic" wars continue in today's campaigns of ethnic cleansing. The current search for the future perfect, however, is not limited to wars but takes a variety of forms that are less obvious but no less important. In many cases, technology once again seems to prepare the way for a New Age. Analysts and commentators from a broad range of critical perspectives agree that we are in the midst of a major social, cultural, political, and economic transition. While some describe these changes in terms of the shift from modernism to postmodernism, others maintain that we are moving from an industrial to a post-industrial society. It is becoming increasingly obvious that however this transition is described, it is being driven by the explosion of information and telematic technologies. What is emerging is a new media society, which is made possible by network culture. The network in question is not merely Internet or the World Wide Web but is a complex network of networks that is creating a completely new infrastructure for social, cultural, political, and economic interactions and transactions. Circulating throughout these networks, information is morphing in unpredictable ways. As we shall see, it is no longer clear what information is or how it operates. A better understanding of information will enable us to develop a measured assessment of emerging media society and network culture.
The responses to these changes have been predictable: on the one hand, technophiles proclaim new technologies as the harbinger of a New Age in which the imperfections of life as we know it will be overcome; on the other hand, technophobics warn of the dire consequences of a world in which technology seems to be out of control. As has often been the case throughout history, one group's utopia is another group's dystopia.
For true believers, new technologies promise to fulfill the ancient dream of creating a perfect future in which need is overcome and lack erased. No longer a zero-sum game, "the new rules for the new economy" anticipate a world in which everybody is a winner and there are no losers. "Plenitude, not scarcity," declares techno-guru Kevin Kelly, "governs the network economy" (39). Promises of abundance echo from the outrageous pages of Wired and Mondo 2000 to the seemingly more staid pages of Time, Newsweek, and the Wall Street Journal, as well as the screens of the nightly news. In a world where networks are inextricably interrelated, such prophecies tend to be self-fulfilling. When media and publishing companies own technology companies and vice versa, what appears to be analysis and commentary is actually free advertising. Reporting fuels investment, which fuels reporting to create positive feedback loops that accelerate the circulation of everything passing through networks. The frenzy generated by this spe ed is transforming economic conditions by creating a virtual economy that in record time is generating unprecedented wealth for some. This economy is, of course, completely immaterial. Many of those fearful of being left behind, however, believe that the immaterial economy offers material pleasures.
For technophiles who are less interested in the material pleasures of life, the immaterial is an end in itself. One of the most ancient versions of the dream of the future perfect is the image of a realm that transcends the limits of time and space. Since bodily existence and material reality weigh us down, they must be left behind if we are to ascend to "higher" realms (for suggestive journalistic accounts of these issues see Dery; see also Davis). Though escape from the "meat" world is a recurrent theme in cyber-punk fiction, it is not merely a popular fantasy but inspires some of the most sophisticated explorers of cyberspace. Hypertext inventor Ted Nelson, for example, speculates:
Once we leave behind "two-dimensionality" (virtual paper) and even "three-dimensionality" (virtual stacks), we step off the edge into another world, into the presentation of the true structure and interconnectedness of information. To represent this true structure, we need to indicate multidimensional connection and multiple connections between entities. (241)
This world of hypertext is not limited to the space of the terminal screen. In media society, it is increasingly difficult to know where the screen begins and ends. Returning to Freud's prosthetic metaphor, it is no longer possible to be certain whether the machine is the prosthesis of the person or the person is the prosthesis of the machine. As the line between the human and the mechanical becomes obscure, man, in fact, seems to have become "a kind of prosthetic God."
But what would it mean for man to become God? If God becomes man through a process of incarnation, then perhaps man could become God through a process of disincarnation. Though such a prospect sounds utterly absurd, it might be no more absurd than the incarnation itself. Respected scientists are now insisting that consciousness and even self-consciousness can survive without bodies. Disincarnation can occur in at least two ways: first, human consciousness and self-consciousness might become a machine, and, second, a machine might become conscious and self-conscious. Both prospects imply that the process of evolution does not end with human being as we know it. As machines become more lifelike and life becomes more machinelike, evolution shifts from the organic to the informational and thus from carbon to silicon. Hans Moravec, founder of the robotics program at Carnegie Mellon University, predicts that it will soon be possible to download the contents of the human mind into a computer.
Picture a "brain in a vat," sustained by life-support machinery, connected by wonderful electronic links to a series of artificial rent-a-bodies in remote locations and to simulated bodies in virtual realities. Although it may be nudged far beyond its natural life span by an optimal physical environment, a biological brain evolved to operate for a human lifetime is unlikely to function effectively forever. Why not use advanced neurological electronics, like that which links it with the external world, to replace the gray matter as it begins to fail? Bit by bit our failing brain may be replaced by superior electronic equivalents, leaving our personality and thoughts clearer than ever, though, in time, no vestige of our original body or brain remains. The vat, like the harness before it, will have been rendered obsolete, while our thoughts and awareness continue. Our mind will have been transplanted from our original biological brain into artificial hardware.
Once freed from the constraints of the body, minds are regulated by different algorithmic processes. Entering into Nelson's "true structure and interconnection of information," minds interact in ways that allow them to evolve by themselves.
Moravec is not the only one who is making such fantastic predictions. Ray Kurzweil, professor of computer science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and award-winning scientist, audaciously concludes his recent book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, with a time line stretching from the birth of the universe to the end of the next millennium. By 2099, he predicts:
There is a strong trend toward a merger of human thinking with the world of machine intelligence that the human species initially created.
There is no longer any clear distinction between humans and computers.
Most conscious entities do not have a permanent physical presence.
Machine-based intelligences derived from extended models of human intelligence claim to be human, although their brains are not based on carbon-based cellular processes, but rather electronic and photonic equivalents. Most of these intelligences are not tied to a specific computational processing unit. The number of software-based humans vastly exceeds those still using native neuron-cell-based computation. [. . .] Life expectancy is no longer a viable term in relation to intelligent beings. (280)
While such prophecies are wildly speculative, Kurzweil has demonstrated an uncanny ability to read technological trajectories accurately. If even a fraction of his predictions prove correct, the so-called "human condition" will have been forever altered. If immortality is the mark of divinity, then perhaps by 2099 "we" will have become gods. But, of course, the price of divinity will have been the loss of our humanity.
As we have suggested, one person's dream is another person's nightmare. For many people, contemporary media society and network culture do not hold the promise of a perfect future but portend a future that makes them tense. Some of the reasons for this uneasiness are easily to understand and hard to dismiss. For example, the rapid spread of information technologies raises profound questions of social equality and economic justice. On both the individual and social level, network culture threatens to create new classes of haves and have-nots. While difficult to overcome, these problems are not, in principle, insurmountable. More interesting and more intractable problems are raised by the very capacities that make information and telematic technologies so powerful and effective. Technophiles dream of a world in which total information is instantly accessible anywhere any time. If such a world were possible, it would, contrary to expectation, result in a condition that is simultaneously perfectly transparent an d completely opaque. It is undeniable that the spread of information networks exposes more and more until there seems be nothing left to hide. If data banks were to become exhaustive, omniscience would be transferred from heaven to earth. More than the locus of omniscience would change with this technology transfer. While everything as well as everybody might be on display, no one would be watching. Divine omniscience is constituted by the projection of centered selfconsciousness, which, if it ever existed, surely is passing away in network culture. Rather than a centered structure of hierarchical links, today's media and information networks are acentric and distributed. This means, among other things, that no one controls the networks that govern life and regulate its flows. Furthermore, since networks are non-linear and distributed, information cannot be centralized or definitively organized. In the absence of centralized control, it is not clear who has access to what information. Though not immediately e vident, this uncertainty implies the inseparability of transparency and opacity. Paradoxically, as things become more transparent, they also become more opaque.
With the recognition of the opacity created by transparency, information morphs. Far from leading to greater clarity and knowledge, the explosion of information engenders confusion and uncertainty. When we suffer information overload, we begin to realize that information is at the same time noise. This insight repeats the conclusion of Claude Shannon, who first developed a mathematical theory of information. According to Shannon, information is inversely proportional to predictability. The more predictable something is, the less information it conveys. While initially somewhat puzzling, Shannon's point can be expressed simply by saying that information is news-it is that which is new and hence unexpected. If carried to its logical conclusion, this association of information with improbabilty implies that information is directly proportional to randomness. This conclusion is counter-intuitive because randomness is indistinguishable from noise. If information is random and randomness is noise, then information is, in some sense, noise.
For noise to do anything other than disrupt or interfere with lines of communication, it must be processed. There can be no information without processing. The processing of information expands knowledge by translating noise into recognizable patterns. Since noise provides the occasion for the processing of information, interference is what makes the expansion of knowledge possible. As patterns first emerge and then change, something is inevitably left out. Processing is an editing that screens knowledge. The excluded, however, is not extraneous but is a condition of the possibility of whatever knowledge is possible.
The inescapability of noise means that the future can never be truly perfect. Perfect transparency is an idle dream because there can be no harmony without dissonance and the tension it creates. When tension is released, life gives way to death. "Organization, life, and intelligent thought," as Michel Serres points out, "live between order and noise, between disorder and perfect harmony" (127). Noise, in other words, is the static that keeps everything in motion. In the end, the future is never perfect but always remains tense. That is what makes it almost perfect.
Mark C. Taylor is the Cluett Professor of Humanities at Williams College. His recent books include Hiding, About Religion: Economies of Faith in Virtual Culture, and The Picture in Question: Mark Tansey and the Ends of Representation. He is also co-author with Jose Marquez of a CD-ROM entitled, The Real-Las Vegas, NA.
Benjamin, Walter. "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken, 1969. 217-51.
Davis, Eric. Techgnosis: Myth, Magic & Mysticism in the Age of Information. New York: Harmony, 1998.
Dery, Mark. Escape Velocity: Cyberculture and the End of the Century. New York: Grove, 1996.
Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and its Discontents. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1962.
Gray, Camilla. The Russian Experiment in Art, 1863-1922. New York: Henry Abrams, 1962.
Kelly, Kevin. New Rules for the New Economy: 10 Radical Strategies for a Connected World. New York: Viking, 1998.
Kurzweil, Ray. The Age of Spiritual Machines. New York: Viking, 1999.
Lodder, Christina. Russian Constructivism. New Haven: Yale UP, 1987.
Marinetti, Filippo Tommaso. "First Futurist Manifesto." LeFigaro. 1909. Quoted in The Shock of the New. Ed. Robert Hughes. New York: Knopf, 1980. 43.
Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. "Manifesto of the Communist Party." The MarxEngels Reader. Ed. Robert C. Tucker. New York: Norton, 1978. 469-500.
Moravec, Hans. Robot: Mere Machines to Transcendency Mind. New York: Oxford UP, 1999.
Nelson, Ted. "The Right Way to Think About Software Design." The Art of Human-Computer Interface. Ed. Brenda Laurel. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1990. 235-43.
Serres, Michel. The Parasite. Trans. Lawrence R. Schehr. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1982.
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|Author:||Taylor, Mark C.|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1999|
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