Power Fantasies at the End of Modernity

The talk below was given at the Teach-In on Techno-Utopianism & the Fate of the Earth, October 25-26, 2014 in The Great Hall of The Cooper Union, New York City.  The spoken version included slides and video of contemporary power fantasies in action, illustrations that were botched in the execution, alas.  This revision has been substantially rewritten in its last half to present the themes and questions in text alone.

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Power Fantasies at the End of Modernity

By: Langdon Winner

As I ponder the issues that this conference has addressed, I wonder why there aren’t masses of people in the streets of every town and city demanding basic change in ways our civilization operates.   Alas, what we see instead is a widespread mood of passivity and inaction often bordering on despair.

While there are many possible explanations for the torpor that surrounds us, I’ll focus briefly on just one.  My guess is that people are having a devil of a time getting used to an increasingly widespread perception: The Future has been cancelled.

Well, you’re probably saying, that’s just absurd.  Surely there will always be a future.  Our clocks keep steadily ticking as we move along the line from past to present to future.

But that is not “The Future” I’m thinking about. 

The Future that has almost certainly been cancelled, one that is thoroughly defunct, is a period of history imagined and partly constructed during the 20th century – “The Future” offered by a collection of ambitious modernists, techno-triumphalists, utopian visionaries, urban planners, industrial designers, Madison Avenue advertisers, and others who projected a better world just over the horizon.

All of us have been fed a steady diet of this “Future” over the years, for example the futures depicted in science fiction from the 1902 movie “A Trip to the Moon” to the recent blockbuster, “Interstellar.”  The skyscrapers, airplanes, rocket ships, robots, sleek and shiny cities, time machines, space stations, and the like depicted the apparatus of tomorrow, of widely shared prosperity, of excitement with the new, of personal wellbeing.  The basic idea of generations of modernists and futurists has been that if you built it, humanity would move in and flourish.   By moving from a dreary paleo-industrial past into a technology-rich future, the world would be vastly improved, ennobled and uplifted. 

Yes, it should be noted, much of science fiction writing and movies dramatized (as stories must) what might go wrong if even the most hopeful visions were fully realized.  But at the level of social planning and promotion, “The Future” was projected as uniformly favorable for humanity as a whole.

Schemes of this kind were exquisitely detailed in a steady stream of architectural drawings, urban plans, science fiction novels and movies, Worlds Fairs, advertising and marketing campaigns in the United States, Europe and around the globe for several decades.  Some of these visions were, one can say, socially progressive, for example, the reformist designs of early Bauhaus modernism that sought to provide agreeable architectures, tools and appliances for everyday working people.  But much of the standard treatment was narcissistic fantasy, presented in ways that left audiences amused and delighted with images of personal helicopters, automated factories, appliance filled homes, energy too cheap to meter, robot servants, and the like.

It seems to me that the basic but often unstated theme here was that ordinary, everyday people of modest means would be emancipated and empowered by participating in “Modernity.” That was, for example, the explicit promise of an ongoing sequence of Worlds Fairs, the one in New York in 1939, for instance.   In the minds of its planners, a society mired in The Great Depression could bootstrap its way to prosperity and by adopting all the new vehicles, household gadgets, super highways, and electrical gear on the drawing boards.   The “Futurama” ride, designed by Normal Bel Geddes, offered the crowds a comfortable flyover of the spectacular landscape of “Tomorrow.”  At another exhibit, adults and children could feel the power by interacting with Electro, the gigantic metal (but entirely fake) talking robot.

Notions of this sort were strongly favored by industrial corporations of the period along with the teams of designers, advertisers and marketers they employed.  One popular format    was that of streamlining, its smooth surfaces embossed on everything from locomotives to toasters from the late 1930s through the 1950s.  Evidently, you needed a streamlined toaster or vacuum cleaner in case you encountered unusual wind turbulence in your suburban home.

Crucial in campaigns of this kind was the conviction that by purchasing and using a new car, washing machine, radio or television, consumers would become full participants in and, in fact, citizens of a world based upon science and technology.
The explicit sales pitch in countless advertising campaigns was the promise of personal power to be gained by joining the Modern World.

A succession of new historical periods or “ages” (or “centuries”) embodied supposed transformations of this sort – the machine age, automobile age, air age, radio age, atomic age, television age, space age, computer age, information age, personal computer age, biotechnology age, nanotechnology age, etc. -- each one heralded in a stream of books, magazine article and movies.  Alas, an unfortunate feature of these “ages” was that they grew old rather quickly, soon to be forgotten, replaced by the next great techno-contender just over the horizon.   

While there are still strong boosters for nuclear power even today, nobody talks about coming of the Atomic Age any more and for obvious reasons.  The words “Chernobyl” and “Fukushima” come to mind.  Similarly, there is no longer any mention about the glorious arrival of “The Space Age.”  Once the U.S. had flown its astronauts to the Moon, a notable victory in the Cold War standoff between the U.S.A. and U.S.S. R., there was little public enthusiasm for spending money on space rockets, space stations, or manned missions to distant planets.

Eventually, incessant proclamation of one visionary “Future” after another began to seem rather like an elaborated con game in which the public was the rube.  The point of exhaustion seems to have arrived with the approach of the year 2000 when one might have expected a fresh batch of futures to come rolling out.  But that didn’t happen, at least not to any great extent.  Much of the chatter that accompanied the approach of the “new millennium” centered upon worries about a “Y2K bug,” a technical glitch that seemed to threaten all the world’s computers and communications systems.

For better or worse, the extravagant futurism of earlier decades is by now thoroughly exhausted.  There are for example, no plans for any new World’s Fairs to show us the new gadgets of tomorrow.   Although planning continues on ambitious metroplexes like that in Dubai, their construction  has less to do with modernist hopes for universal human improvement than the risible vanities of a few dozen billionaires.  And while there are still dewy-eyed dreams of trans-humanism, the “singularity” and of massively robotized society, prophecies of this generation are little more that pet schemes of isolated technophiles hoping to attract funding from the Silicon Valley nouveau riche.

Taking note of the demise of genuine technological utopias of yesteryear, Neil Degrasse Tyson, eloquent spokesman for the accomplishments of science and technology, recently launched a TV mini-series lamenting the fact that “We have stopped dreaming.”  By this he meant that Americans now seem incapable of the visionary Space Age enthusiasms like those that followed Sputnik.  Thus, Tyson argued, the U.S. has gradually defunded NASA and no longer seems willing to recruit, inspire and educate a new generation of space scientists and engineers. 

Well, what has happened to the visionary enthusiasms of decades gone by?  

The answer is fairly clear.  When people today, especially Americans, think seriously about times to come they typically avoid idle speculation about a New Space Age or any heroic World of Tomorrow, but instead attend to a set of obvious, immediate, urgent, challenging, often unhappy realities.  Among these are:

Global climate crisis and its highly visible consequences;

The end of the era of cheap fossil fuels;

Ocean acidification;

The rapid decline of world wildlife populations;

Huge and growing inequalities of wealth, income and political power;  
Destruction of well-paying jobs;  

Demise of the middle class, etc.

In brief, my argument is that what came to be known as
“The Future” -- the technology saturated tomorrow of twentieth century utopian visions -- has already been cancelled and that in down-to-earth, practical terms a great many people fully understand this is the case and are prepared to face the situation squarely.  Some of the most intelligent voices of this kind have spoken – creatively and persuasively -- at this gathering.

But, as the old adage has it, dreams die hard.   Despite what the best of our knowledge tells us about climate change, environmental crises, the end of the era of cheap fossil fuels, the increasingly oligarchic  character of our “economy” and “democracy,” there remain within the most common representations of the world and its possibilities, a collection of increasingly exaggerated, absurd residues of “The Future” from the recent past.   As one might expect, the basic vision still derives from the massive sales campaigns that enticed consumers/citizens with illusions of empowerment, with participation in power itself.  But the message has shifted its focus.  Sorry, folks, it’s no longer possible to offer you decent jobs at high wages; to offer comfortable, affordable apartments in clear, sleek urban wonderlands; to offer cheap, speedy transportation around the globe even for those of modest means; to offer a wonderfully favorable relationship between Nature and Artifice that uplifts and dignifies the Earth and its species.  No, alas, all of that is now beyond our reach.  But what we still have on offer is a never-ending, multi-faceted array of power fantasies that will delight and beguile you, perhaps even more thoroughly than in our earlier versions.

A comprehensive list of categories within the production of today’s power fantasies would be a lengthy catalogue indeed.  It would include much of what passes for political communication, product advertising, national security propaganda, entertainment, sports, fashion, social media, and even education in our time.

One could begin with the exotic power fantasies that carried the United States into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan following the 9/11 attack.  This would surely include the spectacular video of “Shock and Awe” during the bombardment of Baghdad in 2003, broadcast in prime time for an audience promised that the war would be short, cheap and easy.  All of those colorful bombs, deafening blasts, carefully scripted rockets suggested that victory was at hand, that “we will be greeted as liberators.”  Feel the power!

In much the same mode came the fabulous “Mission Accomplished” episode, a TV reality show produced shortly after the attack on Iraq in which President George W. Bush, dressed in Air Force gear with a noticeable codpiece, landed in a fighter jet on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, greeted by an enthusiastic group of military stand ins, to proclaim that “the United States and its allies have prevailed.”  Feel the power!

As the conflict continues (now more than a decade along) an enduring, highly marketable genre of combat fantasies combines images of warfare – battlefield shootouts, fiery explosions, cruise missile launches, drone aircraft strikes, and the like – within television news segments, Hollywood films and, most notably, the first person shooter video games that are now the most profitable and fastest growing segment of the entertainment industry.  Here the hideous realities of war blend seamlessly with ghastly on screen imaginaries that occupy much of the leisure time of the world’s youth, especially young men and boys.  Aware of the indelible attraction that violent video and computer games have for their target generation, the Pentagon now uses video games at all stages of their soldiers’ careers – to recruit them into the “service,” to train them for combat in foreign lands, and finally as therapy to help the troops recover from post-traumatic stress disorder when they return home. 

Evidence that everyday Americans are completely enthralled by the vicarious experience of watching and hearing explosions, planes and cars moving at dangerously vertiginous speeds, high velocity crashes, and mega-force collisions of all kinds is evident in the daily fare of advertising, feature films, television serials, and two of the nation’s most popular sports – NASCAR racing and NFL football.  As news slowly leaks out about the long term brain damage caused to thousands of high school, college and professional football players by repeated bashing and crashing on the field, the nation ponders (but seems eager to reject) the possibility that the game will have to be modified to make it less lethal to body and brain.

Certainly the most significant “innovation” in recent decades that has helped spawn the riotous spread of power fantasies within our central institutions and troubled ways of living is the exquisite perfection of Computer Graphic Imagery – CGI –
within every corner of the new digital realm.  Where earlier modes for the production of fake imagery were clunky and far too costly, today’s methods of computer programming make them easy to fashion and replicate.  What this means is that the expensive, risky, or destructive realities of warfare, hand-to-hand combat, space travel, and other ambitious undertakings can be conveniently sold to today’s consumers as CGI marvels on the screen. 

Exactly the same “big magic” depicts speed and explosive power has become standard coin of the realm in advertising, especially in television ads for automobiles where CGI helps cars appear to “fly” from place to place.   In fact, it may be that the most thoroughly satisfying and marketable experiences of the adventures of today’s technological civilization are likely those realized within CGI and nowhere else.  The most widely engaging, personally fulfilling accomplishments of the nation’s space program were not those of, say, the Apollo moon missions or even of today’s robot vehicles scratching around on Mars, but rather the CGI filled extravaganzas of Hollywood films and TV series such as “Avatar” and “Battlestar Galactica.” By the same token, the most gratifying representations America’s otherwise forlorn military encounters in recent years are those fought everyday on Xbox, Play Station in homes and dorm rooms across the nation.  Feel the Power!

For those averse to the sheer violence that characterizes much of this domain, there is another focus of technology-centered fantasies that has an irresistible allure.  At long last our civilization has designed a splendid, affordable little implement that anybody can hold in one hand, a gadget that combines telephone, camera, texting, video screen, video recorder, and GPS, along with countless thousand of “apps” that enable a person to read the daily news, handle one’s social media contacts, schedule one’s appointments, monitor one’s diet and exercise, guide one’s zen meditation routines, etc.  It is, of course, the iPhone or, alternately, the smart phone – what many consider the signature accomplishment of the 21st century.   Surely (we tell ourselves), no emperor, king, or pope has ever commanded such magnificent power.  And because (we confidently imagine) every-man and every-woman now has this device at his/her fingertips, a more perfect democracy must be just around the corner.   Thus, we happily gaze at the little black mirror, seldom looking up to notice the troubling realities on every side.  

Oh oh.  I’d like to offer you a little more help on these matters, but, damn, my Android is ringing.

Never mind….