whose future?

You’re not alone in worrying about the future.

In fact, we are not alone in our profession-wide agonizing over “the future of ___,” nor are we alone in chasing a sunny version of that future. That’s the theme of Trees on Mars by Hal Niedzviecki (Seven Stories Press, 2015), which takes on the international project of “owning the future” and what such a societal obsession looks like in practice. What are the opportunities involved? What are the costs, particularly the human costs for those excluded, made vulnerable, or even used up by the process? The book was recommended to me by an archivist acquaintance and yes, there are archival implications. It also has me wondering, is it possible to believe in a bright future for libraries while feeling mostly anxious about everything else?

Broadly, Niedzviecki argues that rhetoric and thinking around the future have shifted away from the notion of a collective enterprise steered by institutions and towards an individual “race” to “own the future.” Today, organizations from businesses to schools to the federal government emphasize the need to “compete” and “win,” stress the urgency with which intangible skills like creativity and leadership are universally needed, and call for future-winners to perform at an ever-accelerating pace.

As we (libraries, archives, and the people who make them work) move ever onward into our own bright future, let’s consider carefully what ethics and values tag along when we adopt certain ways of speaking about what comes next. For example: To whom, exactly, is it important that we “stay relevant”? The history of the American public library is all about providing “useful information” (and public spaces, and stories) but pretty often the information and services fit some outside authority’s idea of “useful” rather than what the public actually wanted or needed. I suspect we’re still in that space when it comes to “owning the future,” more or less at the mercy of those with more money and power than information institutions. Many of the communities left behind by “the future” are communities we have traditionally had a responsibility to serve. No doubt some of the decisions libraries make to “stay relevant” and fit a borrowed vision of the future move resources away from helping these people, however indirectly.

It’s not just our communities of users for whom we might be concerned. People power the services we use, from Internet Archive third-shift book scanners to vendors’ customer service and IT support staff to warehouse workers of whom libraries make use to order and ship goods like any other consumer. After interviewing warehouse workers serving major e-commerce companies, Niedzviecki wonders, “Has organizing our lives around the perpetual arrival of the future made their lives better?” They work long hours in terrible conditions for terrible pay and face every conceivable obstacle in their efforts to organize. Draw your own conclusions.

If considering the welfare of minimum-wage-earning human “infrastructure” is too distant, consider a poignant set of interviews with nine college graduates in their twenties, all living in Toronto around 2011. Each of them is steeped in future-owning rhetoric, and each embodies the kind of independence, enterprise, curiosity, and eagerness to learn that many librarians work hard to foster in young library users. Despite all of this, their primary concerns are for immediate financial, professional, and personal security based on their current needs. Niedzviecki concludes: “The case against the future comes down to our inability to care about or see the actual future” (p. 215). Very few of these young people can envision a future at all, and those who try don’t seem confident in the pictures they paint. Anxiety suffuses their attitudes towards both present and future. It’s today’s version of “future shock,” apparently.

A few pages later, Niedzviecki continues on the topic of anxiety::

“Like the Tofflers, I believe we live in a steady state of fear and anxiety with its roots in technologically enabled social change. But our ‘shock’ isn’t about our resistance to change in the form of new technologies, even those technologies that radically destabilize what has gone before. What we are most anxious about, most fearful of, is our failure to take advantage of change … We don’t need to learn how to ride the crest of technological change. We’re so good at it, we’ve even found ways to normalize the anxiety and desperation we feel while trying to stay on and at the top of each and every transformation” (p. 237)

The book does falter from time to time, in both style and substance. The author draws an artificially straight line from prehistoric societies to today — but then so do a lot of writers when trying to explain “our brains” to a general audience. In building his argument about conceptual shifts in “future,” he often relies on broadly stereotyped takes on past eras of American history as evidence, rather than looking at primary sources or scholarship. More than a few times, he reports asking startup founders for definitive research on their products, seemingly just to make a point. Constantly demanding evidence isn’t the same as understanding what research can and can’t do.

Some archivists have “What are archives?” elevator pitches, just as many librarians no doubt have “Why libraries?” and “Why library school?” statements honed over time and many Thanksgiving dinners. Archives pitches often center on the past when conveying value: accountability for the past actions of institutions, telling stories about the past, and so on. I learned on the fly this summer that my pitch is: Archives save the present for the future. Trees on Mars is forcing me to think long and hard about what that means. I had been focusing on “whose present,” but now… whose future?

— Amy Wickner | @amelish

Bristlecone Fir via Wikimedia Commons

The Bristlecone Fir, an actual tree growing on Mount Mars in California.

Abies bracteata from Plate 5 volume 1 of “L’Illustration Horticole Journal Special des Serres et des Jardins” (1854) By Guillaume Severeyns (http://www.botanicus.org/bibliography/b11764600) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Categories: Reviews

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1 reply

  1. An amazingly thoughtful exploration of the role of archives – and information – in the future we might hope for. I’ve never looked at archives work this way, but will never think of it again without this broader perspective. Thank you, Amy!


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