My piece applied some of my previous conceptual work around the politics of anticipation to my current interests in the stories that are told about automation. I argue that automation exists as much in the imaginations as in practice. This means that a lot of how automation is articulated is in terms of what is to come, not what is present. Nevertheless, particular imaginaries of possible worlds are lent credibility through particular ways of addressing a future as the future. This, I suggest, is the distinction in address between “present futures” and “future presents” (following Adam and Groves 2007).
“Future presents” are efforts to bring a ‘future’ into ‘the present’ to make it happen. “Present futures” are a way to hold a future at a distance in order to form the idea of a threatening risk or an attractive utopian goal.
I work through a quick example about how the ‘fact’ of a particular future state of affairs becomes concrete, through reiteration and reworking. I trace a story from a Guardian news article back through several layers of sources.
This matters, I argue, because:
The formulation of a future as the future, as argued in the first editorial of Futures of Work, does political work – it enables certain forms of powerful rhetoric, for example around a fourth industrial revolution. Rhetorically constructed as the “present future”, it possesses a discursive power over what is considered ‘common sense’ and elides the persistent contradictions of capitalism. Meanwhile, it allows management consultancies and others to propose the proximity of a “future present” as a problem for which there is a solution to be sold, as Sturdy and Morgan argue.
All too often arguments around automation and futures of work accept narratives of displacement or replacement of jobs as their premise. This renders them common sense, rather than calling them into question. How we construct and receive ‘truths’ about possible futures of work is political and demands political action. We must pay attention to how particular futures become ‘facts’ and how well those ‘facts’ travel and take on a life of their own.