‘The Future’ by Nick Montfort

While I was living in Singapore in 2008, I lost my job. While on most days I would optimistically cart my large portfolio from one office to another in the clammy Singapore humidity; however, every once in a while I would stay-in, in my beautiful condiminium in the centre, and wallow in self-pity. On one such day, my Chinese -Dutch flat-mate with his customary sense of humour thought it would be fun to have me watch a Korean film to raise my spirits, which was called ‘A Sad Story’. I did not dwell on its name – a rose by any other name is apparently just as sweet. It surpassed the level of sadness indicated in its name. To be fair, it began in a mild unpleasant sadness but ended in heart-wrenching hopelessness. For relief, somewhere towards the middle of the film there was a sliver of hope, which was brutally and unequivocally quashed.

It in inconceivable for us to believe that the future could be much worse than the present or the past. It would make living pointless. Progress, Potential and Possibilities are the prerequisites of our modern era. Since the Enlightenment, the future is imagined as a designable object backed by technological, legal, and scientific advancements. The future is synonymous with progress, civilisation, growth, development…

This is the starting point of Montfort’s rather short history of ‘The Future’ which, surveys designs, inventions, and writing that does what he calls ‘future-making’ – an active act of constructing or envisioning a future for mankind that while  using facts is imaginative enough not to problem-solve but rather question and challenge existing parameters. A world of aeroplanes and not faster horses.

While the premise of the book is interesting – the future as an object of design – the examples that the author chooses to articulate this act as a deliberate way of thinking, though provoking, deserves far more space than the author gives it. This is rather unfortunate and it is because he is simply trying to do too much in an incredibly small space –  defining and distinguishing between terms, identifying lessons to learn and historicising ‘the future’ as a design object. Each one of these would quite easily require a book that is much longer than the current one.

On reading the book it feels as if one is trying to understand, for example, the meaning of the Sanskrit word ‘karma’ from a Wikipedia entry or an entry in the encyclopaedia Britannica. I assume that most people, Indians included do so, which explains their flippant use of the word. While an encyclopedic entry  cannot sustain a discussion on a topic it does opens doors for the curious and allows for a shallow wading for the dilletante. However at the price of £12.00 it is not an inexpensive ice-breaker.

Nick Monfort, The Future, MIT knowledge series, MIT Press, 2017.

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