The Future Is Already Here, It’s Just Not Evenly Distributed and Also It Sucks
How ‘the future’ reveals our inequalities, divisions, and ingenuity, one electric unicycle at a time
There is someone from the future who lives in my city. I know because I see him sometimes at night if I’m out on my stoop. He dresses all in black, and I can catch just a glimpse of his neck and face tattoos as he zooms down the middle of the empty street on an electric unicycle that glows green in the dark. I’d say I’ve seen him vaping too, but that seems like a detail my imagination could have added. That’s all I know about him, or them. They’re like a glitch from another timeline, from a 20th century version of 2020 that includes space tourism and self-driving cars and nutritionally complex gruel shakes.
Except, we do have those things, don’t we? The shakes exist, and it’s hard to keep track of the state of automobile automation and pay-to-play space travel. Yet for most of us it doesn’t matter whether they exist or not. Our cars don’t drive themselves and probably never will. We’re less likely to buy a Soylent than a SlimFast. We’re not going to space. There’s not much evidence William Gibson ever said his famous quote (“The future has arrived — it’s just not evenly distributed yet.”), but it’s a good one. It fits with Leon Trotsky’s idea of “combined and uneven development” or Ernst Bloch’s “nonsychronism” — all three hold that there is more than one epoch going on at any given moment. I look at the man on the unicycle across a gap not in time, but in era.
In typical depictions of “the future,” whether it’s sci-fi or tech pitch decks or ambitious policy platforms, everyone lives there at the same time. There’s a certain world building logic to that: If you’re a writer who wants to introduce a new way people get around, it’s easier to have one Wall-E-style floating recliner system than a dozen different modes of urban transit that correspond to someone’s region, job, schedule, mobility, and position in the class structure. The flattening is also part of the prediction: The last word of the faux-Gibson quote is “yet,” as if there were an inherent leveling tendency to economic development and an inherent economic development tendency to time. The cultural hegemony of the…