Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Future is a Foreign Country: locating tomorrow’s world in the world of the Other

It has been almost thirty years since Johannes Fabian published Time and the Other (1983), a scathing critique of the ways anthropologists have slotted the Other into “other” times—the “savages” or “primitives” said to resemble the West’s history.  In many ways, his critique is still relevant today; the same kinds of discourse are used to explain contemporary politics in the Middle East with reference to supposedly ancient ethnic conflicts.  But there are other temporal machinations at work these days as well.  A fairly typical, recent example: a February 22 New York Times article on South Korea’s ubiquitous computing (“ For South Korea, Internet at Blazing Speeds is Still Not Fast Enough”)—years ahead of the United States.  Instead of being slotted into the past, here Korea appears as the future—underscoring US fears of being overtaken by Asian economies.  In this way, US futures are invoked in comparisons with the demographics, educational institutions, health care and environmental concerns of other nations, and there are other axes of comparison as well, with people in South Korea looking to Singapore or Japan (rather than the United States) for clues to its own future.               
In an era of globalization, these “future states” proliferate, part of a perpetual state of crisis that constantly compares self to others, agitating for restructuring, free-market reforms, retraining, mobility.  Comparisons and rankings regularly contrast multiple indexes of neo-liberal development.  Conditions at home are critiqued, and the warning is clear: we may be overtaken by global futures that continue without us.  But unlike other forms of allochronism, these future states are multidirectional and stochastic.  While the West represented a privileged modernity at one time, now a diffuse, unsettled capitalism locates the ”the future” in several places simultaneously, along networked lines of flight that link, for example, Asia and the West together at different points.  In an age of neo-liberal globalization, images of the future travel along flows of capital, migrants and media, generating representations and desires that are at once diffuse and ecumenical, simultaneously critical and complicit with the present.
Of course, thinking of Iran, South Korea or Singapore as the “the future” is no more credible than looking to other places as representative of the past.  Here, we’re just reversing the gaze, while leaving the orientalist architecture in place—fear of “yellow hordes” updated for the age of the smart phone.  But there more positive possibilities here as well—call it a “cultural arbitrage” that highlights gaps between people’s expectations for modernity and its unequal realities; that gap can open a window onto contradictory experiences and force us to question the course of our futures.  Ultimately, we might question inevitability of neo-liberal globalization itself.   
I’m planning to compare discourses on “future states” in the United States, South Korea and Singapore.  Through anthropological research on state reports , media, future-oriented events and expos, together with interviews with informants (parents, educators, employers, state technocrats), I plan to explore moments when the future is displaced onto the Other, with particular emphasis on technology, education, multicultural policy and health.
Ultimately, I believe my findings will tell us much about how a relentlessly networked globalization works to colonize future imaginaries.  But I also hope it will open up the possibility for alternative futures.  That is, in the gap created by what is perceived to be the present and the future purportedly located in another place may constitute what Ernst Bloch called a “utopian surplus”: the possibility for a different global future altogether.