Evaluating the narrative of ‘Owning the Future’

As literate human beings we live in the context of past, present and future. Considering the past as well as the future as we live from day to day is a basic skill we try to instill in children so that they can make wise plans that account for cause and effect. The author of Trees on Mars, however, observes that “Future” has become an obsession in the West. In fact, Hal Niedzviecki asserts that the faith of “technological fundamentalism” is increasingly being presented as our only hope.  

In his detailed and well-researched book, Niedzviecki gathers a broad assortment of narratives with respect to the future. For example, he claims that a hybrid narrative of Genesis 1/natural selection has guided modern human history: all change is natural and will be rewarded. He presents other approaches to the future drawn from indigenous people groups, adherents of Singularity (who expect immortality to be attained by merging humans and machines) and from an array of personal interviews.

One intriguing section of the book was an exploration of the use of the term “innovation” in history. While presented today as an unquestionable good, its original use at the time Greek city-states was negative. Innovation was alarming to Aristotle, who saw the potential of small changes to accumulate and destabilize society and culture at large. Later, in medieval Europe, innovations were equated with either heresy or treason. Disruption of the social order would not be tolerated, and any potential revolution was feared by the establishment. Today’s rhetoric of innovation as desirable has also cast the synonyms of upheaval, revolution and disruption in a positive light.

Why does Niedzviecki thunder against the “get to the future first” mentality? The bottom line for him is this: “The future is sabotaging the future.” He cites illustrations that include the way data is being used to invasively monitor human movement and consumption and the degradation wrought by the “consume and move on” pattern. To this, he adds the loss of meaningful jobs and the creation of monopolies that exploit both consumers and employees. He makes a strong case that what technology promises for the future cannot be delivered. Furthermore, the current anxiety epidemic seems to be the price we are paying to normalize unbridled change.

Niedzviecki explores the counter-narrative of innovation by means of the Prepper movement. Such people are not taken in by the promises of technological innovation; they expect some kind of dystopian collapse to occur when items like prized SMART devices will become worthless. They are harnessing low-tech solutions and stockpiling food in order to be prepared when such eventualities arise. The author detects a basic similarity between Preppers and advocates of innovation; they both “have a secular belief system rooted in a sense of superiority over others” that uses products to gain from an uncertain future. 

Niedzviecki is mainly focused on the technological and economic changes that are dominating Western society. However, in the quest for innovation we see all kinds of cultural goods on the chopping block. He refers generally to institutions falling out of favour but does not specifically decry the departure from stabilizing forces like faith communities, marriage or family. However, his premise does include that the basic human need for stability and security cannot be sacrificed indefinitely in order to “own” the future. Over and over, faith in technology to bring a brighter future will hit against the brick wall of reality.

His conclusion, he admits, will be unsatisfying for many readers. He has determined to decouple technology from hope. He does not expect that anything humans do will arrest environmental and cultural decline. It is striking that Niedzviecki looks to his Jewish heritage and the Nazi era of ultimate disruption for an answer. He is inspired by Viktor Frankl, survivor of concentration camps and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, who asserted that we can find meaning in small acts of humanity even when circumstances are out of our control.

The idolatry of seeking hope in technology and the future is not new. C. S. Lewis alludes to such demonic strategy in The Screwtape Letters, when Screwtape encourages “all those schemes of thought such as Creative Evolution, Scientific Humanism, or Communism, which fix men’s affections on the Future, on the very core of temporality. Hence nearly all vices are rooted in the future.” Trees on Mars can help us discern that idol’s modern bent.

  • Harriette Mostert is a teacher and writer who lives in Kitchener, Ontario with her husband, three teenage children and a very special tenant.

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