Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Can A Place Be the Future?

In a January 26th New York Times op-ed, "25 Years of Digital Vandalism," William Gibson reflects on the Stuxnet attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.  As a genuine futurist, Gibson looks to Stuxnet as a sign of the times--and a bellwether for the future.  He confesses, "I briefly thought that here, finally, was the real thing: a cyberweapon purpose-built by one state actor to strategically interfere with the business of another."  But he's disappointed in the end, to find that Stuxnet is really just another virus--albeit one perhaps appropriated by one government against another.  He is ambivalent about the meaning of this for the future of nuclear security. 

One of Gibson's strengths is his restless, global search for sites of the future.  Here, he looks to Iran, but he is best known for his (highly selective) evocations of Japanese postmodernity.  But this is a never-ending quest--the future proves elusively peripatetic.  As he commented in a 1989 interview, “I think that at one time the world believed that America was the future, but now the future’s gone somewhere else, perhaps to Japan, it’s probably on its way to Singapore soon but I don’t think we’re it” anymore."

But is this an ultimately pointless quest?  To what extent is it useful to think of the future as another place?  On the one hand, in an era of globalization, there's a certain temporal relativism at work.  One way of thinking of financial arbitrage (and other financial instruments) is precisely that: the exploitation of pricing irregularities that are a function of temporal distance.  After a relatively short time, these differences will disappear in a more homogeneous time of globalized capital.  But those are short, and necessarily fleeting, temporal distortions.   

In a sense, thinking of Iran, Japan or Singapore as "the future"is no more credible than looking to other places as representative of the past, a familiar tactic in 19th century anthropology, and still part of racist, ethnocentric depictions of non-Western peoples as "caught" in the "primitive past."  Here, we're just reversing the gaze--now, because of culture, politics or economy, the other place is thought to exist in an accelerated time horizon; looking at their "present" is said to grant us some insight int our future.  

But our more quotidian moments are more obdurately Netwonian or, perhaps the better way to think of it is "more Taylorist."  That is, after the work of F.W. Taylor, time for us is parsed out according to a unified, commodified form, ultimately synchronized into the monolithic, mechanical timepiece of global capital.  

Still, there is a real point to looking past the U.S. or Europe for the future.  And not because it opens up onto some magic window onto the next, big thing.  Call it "cultural arbitrage"--the gap that opens up between global modernity and the kind of hopes and expectations people have for their lives.  Looking somewhere else doesn't mean that our life will become more like their life.   But it does open up the possibility for reflecting on similar conditions in the US.  That is, the "gap" opens up onto our contradictory experiences and expectations and forces us to question the course of our own futures.

We'll be doing this in August of this year with our study abroad course in Seoul, South korea:   Harmony of Modernity and TraditionWe'll be reflecting on exactly those tensions that open up between people's lives and the modernity that we all share.  We'll be visiting temples, shrines, factories, shopping meccas, nightclubs.  Along the way to making sense of it all, we'll reflect on what it means for us as well.  Seoul not as a window onto the future, but as a means for thinking about our mutual futures.


Gibson, William (1989).  Interview (February) with Terry Gross on "Fresh Air."  Washington, D.C.: National Public Radio.