“Disciplining the Future” – Chris Julien
Our relationships to those times called the future are fraught with presents. As Felicitas Macgilchrist, Heidrun Allert & Anne Bruch’s paper and presentation on scenario-building for education point out, our futures are entangled with “indeterminate sociotechnical configurations” (Macgilchrist et al. 2020, 76). Yet, their interesting and nuanced exploration of scenario building helps to point out how we usually tend to take for granted as inevitable and concrete many parameters of the future, as what I’d like to explore to be a ‘disciplining of the future’.
In most cases, these relationships are so commonplace that the complexity of their operation escapes notice. As Donna Haraway cautions us: “[i]n urgent times, many of us are tempted to address trouble in terms of making an imagined future safe, of stopping something from happening that looms in the future, of clearing away the present and the past in order to make futures for coming generations” (Haraway 2016, 1). However, such a mode of address usually serves to efface agencies of the present and reiterate extant power structures as ways of projecting a relation of ourselves and our environments into the future that is ostensibly progressive, optimistic, and open.
In many cases where so-called technological phenomena are at play, the portraits of their futures with us are actively painted, showing us smooth futures of automated work and optimised leisure. Succeeding the Smart City with its driverless cars and ubiquitous IoT helpers (not to mention blanked surveillance and pervasive nudging mechanisms) as guarantors of “an aesthetic of smoothness and predictability that lulled users into agreeable, smoothed personas” (Macgilchrist et al. 2020, 79). Today, the development of Artificial Intelligence systems has become a placeholder for our aspirations and sensibilities (and a new site of complex and adversarial data negotiations) in which the conformity to outcomes prescribed in datasets is tantamount.
In other cases, the future is simply a tacit understanding of things staying the same, thereby filling up possible futures with a barely visible template to which it must conform. Such is the case with economic growth, where possible futures are constrained by an imperative to maintain a percentage-point growth in net productivity expressed in monetary value. The same could even be said to go for that other great 19th-century invention, liberal democracy, which equally fills up our futures with ‘an eternal return’, that is, to the voting booth, where we reinscribe our faith in our system of governance as an optimal and essential arrangement.
Whether overt narratives of technological salvation or implicit injunctions attesting to our expulsion from paradise, relationships to the future are anything but neutral. Quite the opposite, I would argue that such relationships to the future show how our modern sensibility of control and containment is a condition operating such relationships in the first place, a sensibility that Walter Benjamin captured a century ago in what he called “homogenous empty time”. The critical caveat of any scenario built is that in making relationships with the future, only what its authors deem pertinent is incorporated, and the environment is assumed to otherwise remain constant. This calls to mind Jean Baudrillard’s remark in an essay titled Objects in this Mirror that “every photographed object is merely the trace left by the disappearance of everything else” (Baudrillard  2008, 87), and highlight the question raised by Macgilchrist et al. “how this embedding configures the contours of what is thought to be a desirable future student-subject” (Macgilchrist et al. 2020, 76).
In closing, let me underscore the urgency of raising this issue of the nature of scenarios and our relationships to the future. This interplay of aspirations and selective inclusion is nowhere more evident than in our collective effort to tackle the climate- and ecological crisis. In our approach to this crisis, as exemplified by the IPCC climate accord of Paris in 2015, both the overt and tacit modes of modern capture of our futures as faithful to Nietzsche’s an eternal return to the same’ are in full operation. Such scenarios combine the tacit assumption of continued growth (with an adjusted colour scheme) and governance while inserting massive assumptions about technological capacities to contain the adverse effects of these modes in the form of ‘Carbon Capture Storage’, or CCS. (McLaren & Markusson 2020). Heeding Haraway’s advice, if we want to wield future scenarios with any critical and emancipatory capacity, we will do well to understand them primarily as political tools of account, bringing forward our present as it is shaped by implicit commitments and explicit aspirations about what our world should be.
- Baudrillard, Jean.  2008. The Perfect Crime. London & New York: Verso.
- Haraway, Donna. 2016. Staying With the Trouble, Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press.
- Felicitas Macgilchrist, Heidrun Allert & Anne Bruch (2020) Students and society in the 2020s. Three future ‘histories’ of education and technology, Learning, Media and Technology, 45:1, 76-89,
- McLaren, D., Markusson, N. 2020. The co-evolution of technological promises, modelling, policies and climate change targets. Nat. Clim. Chang. 10, 392–397.