The ‘tomorrow’ of 1991

Tacita Dean - Disappearance at Sea

Image taken from Tacita Dean – Disappearance at Sea

In September 1991 Scientific American had a special issue focussing on ‘Communications, Computers and Networks’. An impressive array of articles were collected in this issue, including Mark Weiser’sThe Computer for the 21st Century‘, which is often referred to as the foundational article for ‘Ubiquitous Computing‘. An article later in the issue, simply entitled ‘Networks’ by Vint Cerf, expertly charted the issues that were to arise in the exponential growth of the internet. Also in the special issue was an article by Alan Kay about ‘Computers, Networks and Education’, expounding the ideals he set forth in his proposal of the ‘dynabook‘ to think about how technologies can be allies not hindrances in education. In the introduction to this special issue of Scientific American, Michael L. Dertouzos suggests that:

“the authors in this issue share a hopeful vision of a future built on information infrastructure that will enrich our lives by reliving us of mundane tasks, by improving the ways we live, learn and work and by unlocking new personal and social freedoms”.

Weiser’s article had long been known to me, through my doctoral research, but I had not appreciated, until I tracked down a print copy of the September 1991 issue, quite what a remarkable context of visionary rhetoric it sat within. The content of this September 1991 issue is explicitly about the envisioning of a future, as Dertouzos states in his introduction:

“As we lay the bricks for the information age, trying to envision the ultimate edifice and its uses is as challenging to us as it would have been for writers in the late 1700s to anticipate the automobile, the helicopter… and the myriad of other modern engines along with all that we do with these machines.”

Dertouzos frequently refers to the technologies discussed as somehow separate from, or alien to, the human – they are either to be embraced or to be feared as an external force:

“The opportunities along with the problems that may well arise with on tomorrow’s computers and networks will be new, different, unpredictable and worthy of our continual vigilance. Harnessing the electronic agents that will emerge from this infrastructure to support humanity may be our ultimate challenge.”

Arguments around ‘technological determinism’ are well rehearsed – technology is drawn out in an unproblematic and stable distinction from society and/or nature, with technology assumed to ‘impact’ on either of that latter (see Nick Bingham’s chapter on the ‘socio-technical‘). As Anne Galloway has highlighted there is a tendency for those involved in technological innovation “to refer to some sort of autonomous (hardware) technology that exists before them, and without them, and yet requires activation by them”. This assertion of technology as an external factor by which progress can be measured, appeals to a ‘calculative’ means of addressing the future. It is the same logic by which plans are constructed, indeed by which futures are, in some sense, governmentalised. As Foucault suggests (2007, p. 120) this calculative logic is a ‘general technology of power that assured its [the modern state] mutations, development and functioning’. It is this assurance that placates Dertouzos, and may others, who are hopeful for technology development: “even some of the promises that we seek will turn out to be mirages, so, too, some of the problems will evaporate like bad dreams”. Yet, there is no obvious ‘good’ or ‘bad’ nature to the assurances derived about the futures of technology, just as problems might evaporate; so do many of these grand visions.

Anticipation has a politics but I would argue it is not an unproblematic politics of the future, rather in this politics we are concerned with futurity and its production. Visions of the future are tied to the present in which they were created and they have a duration. I am inclined to agree with Brian Massumi when he states that “A past anticipation is still an anticipation, and will remain having been an anticipation for all of time”. Following Andrew Barry’s excellent “Political Machines“, I suggest we can understand a politics of anticipation as a way of marking and coding an array of practices rationalised through anticipatory ‘logics’. I am currently preparing a journal article on this theme.

Why do I blog this? I am inspired and troubled by the various ways in which ‘technology’, and Ubicomp particularly, is and has been envisioned. It is not difficult to see how envisioning can become monolithic and ‘governmentalised’ or deterministic – but I think there is a space for nuance and dissent that leads to a departure from such concerns. The possibility of difference inherent to the fact that visions are constructed in the present and operate on never actualised, ‘proximate futures’ (see Bell and Dourish’s paper) leaves available the extraordinary open potential of ‘future presents’. It is struggling with this politics of anticipation that I currently find exciting about my research.

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