Lost and Found

This piece was originally published as a bonus issue of the Nothing Here newsletter.

I don’t know that this piece is entirely ready – it’s very much a case of writing to work something out, rather than writing something I’ve already worked out.

But, I am in NYC, and I will be very busy, so it’s either send this now, or probably not send it for a week, and I didn’t want to keep you waiting.

The accumulated detritus of lost futures piles up around us. At this current point in time, most of these futures are neon-tinged and haunted by an analog synth soundtrack. Old futures. Safe futures that would not have looked out of place at any point in the past 35 years. My entire life has been lived under the neonoir-black shadow of these 80s visions.

Hollywood is weaponising this nostalgia. Think Ready Player One – an otaku obsessive’s ode to the video games and films of the 1980s. As pointed out by Cuck Philosophy, it uses state of the art CGI to render a perfect simulacrum of a comfortably safe retrofuture. It reinforces the (frankly toxic) notion that your fandoms will one day matter, that you aren’t wasting your money, time, energy, and life on these trivial pieces of pop-culture ephemera. That you are right to place too much of your identity into these corporate properties. Or Blade Runner 2049, a chronological continuation of the most iconic lost 80s future. The entire film an apparent attempt to check Ouroboros’ gag reflex.

In the Black Mirror episode San Junipero, the gorgeous 80s simulation is literally used for palliative care. This begs the question: Is our mainstream culture dying? Are these the last neon soaked moments of collective engagement before Vangelis plays us off to the great beyond? I truly hope not.

I can’t think of 80s futures without also thinking of cyberpunk, and there too is a resurgence. All across the zeitgeist is cyberpunk imagery, (again) drenched in nostalgia but often lacking the sociopolitical undercurrent that gave the subgenre its suffix. As futuristic as it still appears, cyberpunk represents another retro future, one stripped of vital parts and presented as pure artifice; aesthetics divorced of context. (Whatever else people might say about Repo Virtual, they can’t claim it’s drenched in nostalgia – it was my attempt at writing a cyberpunk of the now.)

Cyberpunk 2077 is stepping on those the mainstream has cast underfoot, when trans people are the closest thing we have in real life to the extreme body modification popularized by cyberpunk stories (Stellarc notwithstanding). We’ll know more as the release date of Cyberpunk 2077 approaches, but the recent battles for the rights of trans people within the gaming industry and gaming spaces (and certain tweets from CDPR’s marketing team) mean we are right to be wary. We need new futures, we need queer futures, trans futures, non-Western futures. Any retrofuture that stands in the way must be discarded.

All these 80s futures loom so large in the collective unconscious that maybe I can’t see the forest for the trees. They are not the first lost futures, they will not be the last. The Gernsback vision of a Jetsons future with robotic maids and flying sedans seems as distant (or as close) as it did when Hugo was first publishing Amazing Stories. We have Alexa, Siri, and all the rest in our homes, and UberAir plans to launch a flight service in the next couple of years, but in the way of our reality, as these fantastic possibilities tumble down the funnel of possible futures and manifest in the real, they coalesce into something both incredible, and boringly commonplace. Your robot maid can order cornflakes when you’re running low, but she can’t dust the mantelpiece (and, of course, she’s still a she by default). UberAir might take you on carefully planned routes to designated landing spots, but we won’t have breathtaking aerial highways carving through the air in synthetic migratory routes. We can only render the fantastic with the tools of reality, crushing impossible 4th dimensional geometries into something ever disappointing in its actuality.

(The exception is, of course, nuclear war. The Cold War obsession with atomic holocaust – countless novels, stories, and films; the Mad Max vision of the desolate wasteland – can seem quaint in moments of global stability, but if that lost future is ever found, the reality of it will be anything but mundane.)

And what of found futures? Think Jules Verne and his startlingly accurate calculations/predictions for the future of space flight – the way that his fictional future was rendered through the work of engineers and scientists decades later. The way our space future was found, and subsequently lost, currently existing in a technocapital limbo, waiting to be resurrected for a plutocratic exit strategy, or a brand new frontier on which to wage war.

Or consider the SR-71 Blackbird. This plane was used by the US Air Force from 1964 to 1998, but for the first 27 years of use, the aircraft remained classified – a slice of the future rendered real but hidden from view. It was the fastest and highest flying aircraft of the time, its pilots needing to wear spacesuits to cope with the conditions high up in the stratosphere. It “could map terrain using a side-scanning sonar, aim a radar up to 45 degrees to the side, and interrupt enemy communication and radar signals.” As Jay says at the above link:

Imagine being Joe Schmo on main street in 1964… Sitting outside a drug store (not a Starbucks) […] It’s a time before ‘real’ commercial airline travel — the first flight of a 747 is still 5 years away. The closest thing Joe has to the idea of air travel is a 1st generation airliner like a De Havilland Comet and only then because he heard about it on the radio […] and Black and White TVs are still sold more than colour.

Meanwhile, you tell him this: there exists a separate world of classified technology and just one of those things is a Mach 3 Stealth Plane that can fly to the edge of space.

Do you think you could tell Ol’ Joe this without his hackles being raised? Do you think he’d believe you? There would be much shaking of heads and remonstration. I’m not sure Mr Schmo would accept it at all. It would just bounce off the carefully constructed bubble of Red Reality that he’s unknowingly internalised. At the time it would be indistinguishable to him from UFO reports.

And that brings me neatly to another potential found future – the fervent hope embedded in today’s talk of UFO disclosure. For all we know UFOs exist in a similarly hidden space, waiting for declassification to reveal the secrets of alien existence or a “new” old type of science lost since the time of Edison and Tesla. That might be an extreme example, and some of you are probably rolling your eyes, but the Blackbird is a perfect case study – a look at the ways the future could already be here, weaponized and classified, kept exclusive to the military and elite until the rest of us catch up enough to be worthy of their truths.

Or another example. Recently the NSA gifted two spy satellites to NASA. Each of these satellites was equivalent to the famous Hubble telescope, but instead of being used to further scientific understanding of space for all of mankind, these were pointed down at the Earth to track our movements. Now, just think: these were hand-me-down satellites, meaning that the NSA no longer needed them because they had something even better in place. If once our technological advancements were made with a view to look outside the Earth, to vaster possible futures, now instead our best hardware and software is being made for relentless ubiquitous surveillance, advanced exoskeletons and robots are being designed to increase the military capability of the already-dominant global forces, and AI engineers are working to make Wall Street richer.

This is why we need new futures, wherever and whenever we’re able to generate them. They can’t be sequestered away for the purpose of keeping us content in the status quo. Our lost futures should be forgotten, cast aside in the search for the new. We need new futures to challenge us, stretch us beyond our horizons.

Let a thousand futures bloom. Let the warehouses of the elite be plundered, let hidden and lost futures be found and spread to every corner of the globe so that we can begin to imagine the truly new.