They make the future sound so boring.
Futurology's a strange sport. A bunch of futurologists recently got together in Shoreditch Town Hall (yup), for FutureFest 2013. There, the organisers identified ten archetypes of future-human who will apparently be birthed by trends that will become increasingly visible in urban Britain in the next ten years. Suffice to say, these people they've come up with are a right old bunch.
For example, one of them is a Chinese arms dealer who lives in Battersea Power Station. One lives on a houseboat, off-grid, and experiments with growing illegal strains of GM food. One is a pregnant reverse-commuting financial analyst. One of them is an old woman who sells clothes on eBay. More 4 are probably road-testing them for a new sitcom right now. Archetypes: With Ardal O'Hanlon And Zoe Wannamaker.
Another has built a thriving business sending busy City office workers lunch on drones. This seems like the most believable part of it all: the endless human thirst for novelty in lunch was one of Douglas Adams' hobbyhorses, and the endless wave of nouvelles cuisines that involve pistachios and wasabi has shown that all City workers really crave is something different to eat. When they have exhausted all the cuisines of the world (presently estimated for 2019), the only novelty that remains will be determined by packaging or delivery mechanism. Imagine a gorillagram Peruvian delicatessen and you are imagining London's all-too-real future.
I once went to a futurologists' offices in East London where they all wore white lab coats whenever they did presentations for clients – beer companies, toiletry concerns, sportswear retailers. They were like The Blue Man Group of futurology. A gang of egghead trendies coming to your offices, getting out their awesome Powerpoints, donning industrial garments made for working with HazChem, and then trying to convince Beck's, or BMW, or Lloyds that some word they'd made up – "empty nestification", "staycation", "Libservatives" – would somehow help these companies sell beer, or posh cars, or Payment Protection Insurance.
A Chinese man who lives in Battersea Power Station selling guns in 2023
After you've cut-n-shut the English language into awkward portmanteaux, the next trick is to put a face on your newfangled Libservatives and staycationers, to bring them to life. “Your average staycationer lives in Wakefield," they'd tell you. "He works in glazing, but the recession has knocked the wind out of those sorts of cosmetic home improvements, so rather than take the kids to Greece this year, they will all be going to Skegness." Right, OK. That you can understand. It seems anchored in reality. But then futurologists always have to take it too far. "He is 49," they'd continue, warming to the task. "He has a history of high blood pressure. His favourite Beatle is Ringo. He has a small scar on his upper forearm. He has sex lethargically, like a puffin pushing an egg up a hill. This is connected to his blood pressure issues.”
The bullshit didn't stop there. It didn't really stop anywhere. “We like to say the future's here already, it's just unevenly distributed,” they'd announce to me, directly lifting William Gibson quotes without the merest hint of irony. Another thing you'd notice is that everything is always the X of Y with these guys: like "the gamification of news", or "the gamification of war", or "the gamification of sex". (There was a lot of gamification round them parts, let me tell ya.) The one trend they never seemed to identify, though, was the one already manifesting in their own unevenly-distributed present: the priestification of expertise, whereby a few gadget loving geeks can be converted into cultural high priests of tomorrow. All you need is a few lab coats and some jargon.
Predicting the future is always fun, but sometimes it seems that the sole role of futurologists is to generate ideas that we can all laugh at as woefully naïve linear extrapolations of the present, set 20 years from now. If you'd been futurologising in 1993, you probably would've pointed to how the internet would one day allow ordinary people to post messages on Usenet-style messageboards, thereby exchanging ideas and help for the betterment of mankind. But no one ever predicted the troll. No one in 1993 ever said: “Alan, 55, former public servant, now on early retirement. Spends four hours a day writing inflammatory comments under news articles about David Cameron's latest holiday, and methodically upvoting the ones that support his latest crazed whinge.” The future is premised upon a model of human beings as good, upstanding little drones. It's seldom spiced with the spite, laziness and sexual avarice that drive our wants. Life goes on: it's just that our turpitude gets ever more toys to play with.
Liam, the twat of the future
Another future-person devised by this crack squad of futurologists at FutureFest 2013 is 32-year-old Liam. Liam probably says as much about futurologists as he does about the future. He ticks all their boxes: he uses technology to create street culture in a sort of semi-legal cyber-punk way that would've seemed dated in the 1995 film Hackers. He is a "biotech lab assistant and body modification artist". He is the twat of the future. Just as over the past decade Hollywood has storied the rise of the nerd from "guy who needed to take revenge in a series of increasingly poor films" into the lionised under-30 dotcom millionaire who took revenge in The Social Network, so too the next generation will see the rise of the crusty from lame figure of fun to hip body modification artist. Liam will apparently “create digital installations... moved around in 'week camps' as a focal point evening entertainment”. This sounds vaguely interesting in the air-conditioned climes of a futurology conference, but in 2023, you will be cornered by real-life Liam at a party and he will tell you about his “really sweet culture-jamming events company. I'm kinda blessed, really. Maybe you've heard of us: BlazeSpace?” And you will try to suss out whether his Google Glasses are alerting him to the murder plots and sense of panic forming in your mind.
On the other side of the economic chasm is Nicki – a 19-year-old zero hours contract worker, who "has to bid for micro-jobs online, often working at retailers for an hour at a time". She lives with Mum 'n Dad. In Wanstead. Nicki apparently “Rarely uses social networks after her parents were priced out of broadband.” Eh? Broadband? Surely Liam will have come up with a way to culture-jam the shit out of the internet to the point where you no longer have to pay for it by then?
Finally, we meet Li Yong, an arms dealer who lives in revamped des res Battersea Power Station, where "80 percent of the residents are now Chinese". It's a small side-prediction they've popped in glibly, but that one line illustrates the sole essential fact of the 21st century. In truth, all you really need to know about futurology, for business or pleasure, is that THE CHINESE ARE GOING TO COME AND FUCK US INSIDE OUT AND MAKE OUR HOLLOW CORPSES THEIR JIGGING MARIONETTES.
So, welcome to the future: the shittest party of all time, devised by people who are full of shit.
Follow Gavin on Twitter: @hurtgavinhaynes
Illustrations by Cei Willis
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