Trees on Mars

By Hal Niedzviecki

In humanity’s never-ending struggle to control all of nature and bring it under our dominion there is one final frontier.

The future.

In this forceful and fascinating new book, culture critic Hal Niedzviecki sees the future as ground zero for the latest round of ideological struggle. Pundits and politicians alike ask: Who will own the future? Who will “get there first” and control it?

In chasing the future we have made a fetish not so much of progress, though that’s an idea that still receives lip service, as of change. A “disruptive futurism” is our new faith, one that “rejects stability, continuity, even community,” and offers up a complete restatement “of what we should desire and aspire to, what we should believe in and live for.”

That may sound very broad, but it’s an argument with many different moving parts intriguingly linked together.

The keynote is struck by the mantra of “innovation,” a rhetorical trademark of today’s most successful tech firms (firms whose success has had little to do with either innovation or foresight, but that’s another story). Today’s entrepreneurs want to change the world — and not incidentally make a killing doing so — planting their corporate flags on the shores of tomorrow.

From here the story broadens to take in subjects like education (universities being re-branded as tech centres and innovation incubators), the science of forecasting, and the myth of the libertarian superman. Futurist ideology champions these latter types as being the proper end of history. As the world continues to divide into fewer winners and many more losers, it won’t be the losers who inherit the earth.

Niedzviecki is critical of these developments, countering them with evidence of our basic human need for security and stability, and the anxiety we suffer when faced with so much disruption and relentless change. An obsession with the future is also a reflection of our despair over where we are now, and provides an excuse for not having to think about things like environmental and economic collapse.

A forward gaze that’s concentrated on the bottom line exacerbates current problems while selling us utopian dreams of the coming Singularity, or of running away to live on Mars. Only by abandoning such false hopes can we get on with the serious work of building a meaningful present.

Review first published online June 27, 2016.

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