The concept of calling an event Improving Reality is one of those great science fiction ideas. Twenty five years ago, you’d have gone right along with the story that, in 2012, people will come to a tech-centric town to talk about how to improve reality. Being able to locally adjust the brightness of the sky. Why wouldn’t you? That’s the stuff of the consensus future, right there. The stories we agree upon. Like how in old science fiction stories Venus was always a “green hell” of alien jungle, and Mars was always an exotic red desert crisscrossed by canals.
In reality, of course, Venus is a high-pressure shithole that we’re technologically a thousand years away from being able to walk on, and there’s bugger all on Mars. Welcome to JG Ballard’s future, fast becoming a consensus of its own, wherein the future is intrinsically banal. It is, essentially, the sensible position to take right now.
A writer called Ventakesh Rao recently used the term “manufactured normalcy” to describe this. The idea is that things are designed to activate a psychological predisposition to believe that we’re in a static and dull continuous present. Atemporality, considered to be the condition of the early 21stcentury. Of course Venus isn’t a green hell – that would be too interesting, right? Of course things like Google Glass and Google Gloves look like props from ill-received science fiction film and tv from the 90s and 2000’s. Of course getting on a plane to jump halfway across the planet isn’t a wildly different experience from getting on a train from London to Scotland in the 1920s – aside from the radiation and groping.
We hold up iPhones and, if we’re relatively conscious of history, we point out that this is an amazing device that contains a live map of the world and the biggest libraries imaginable and that it’s an absolute paradigm shift in personal communication and empowerment. And then some knob says that it looks like something from Star Trek Next Generation, and then someone else says that it doesn’t even look as cool as Captain Kirk’s communicator in the original and then someone else says no but you can buy a case for it to make it look like one and you’re off to the manufactured normalcy races, where nobody wins because everyone goes to fucking sleep.
And reality does not get improved, does it?
But I’ll suggest to you something. The theories of atemporality and manufactured normalcy and zero history can be short-circuited by just one thing.
Ballardian banality comes from not getting the future that we were promised, or getting it too late to make the promised difference.
This is because we look at the present day through a rear-view mirror. This is something Marshall McLuhan said back in the Sixties, when the world was in the grip of authentic-seeming future narratives. He said, “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.”
He went on to say this, in 1969, the year of the crewed Moon landing: “Because of the invisibility of any environment during the period of its innovation, man is only consciously aware of the environment that has preceded it; in other words, an environment becomes fully visible only when it has been superseded by a new environment; thus we are always one step behind in our view of the world. The present is always invisible because it’s environmental and saturates the whole field of attention so overwhelmingly; thus everyone is alive in an earlier day.”
Three years earlier, Philip K Dick wrote a book called Now Wait For Last Year.
Let me try this on you:
The Olympus Mons mountain on Mars is so tall and yet so gently sloped that, were you suited and supplied correctly, ascending it would allow you to walk most of the way to space. Mars has a big, puffy atmosphere, taller than ours, but there’s barely anything to it at that level. 30 Pascals of pressure, which is what we get in an industrial vacuum furnace here on Earth. You may as well be in space. Imagine that. Imagine a world where you could quite literally walk to space.
That’s actually got a bit more going for it, as an idea, than exotic red deserts and canals. Imagine living in a Martian culture for a moment, where this thing is a presence in the existence of an entire sentient species. A mountain that you cannot see the top of, because it’s a small world and the summit wraps behind the horizon. Imagine settlements creeping up the side of Olympus Mons. Imagine battles fought over sections of slope. Generations upon generations of explorers dying further and further up its height, technologies iterated and expended upon being able to walk to within leaping distance of orbital space. Manufactured normalcy would suggest that, if we were the Martians, we would find this completely dull within ten years and bitch about not being able to simply fart our way into space.