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An Anthropology of the Future
September 12, 2005 6:17 AM   Subscribe

posted by jefgodesky (43 comments total)

You wouldn't have a computer to post this on.
posted by Dean Keaton at 6:23 AM on September 12, 2005

Maybe. Maybe not. A computer just needs to turn a lot of things on and off really fast. Just because we do that with silicon and transistors doesn't mean that's the only way to do it.
posted by jefgodesky at 6:26 AM on September 12, 2005

Well, I did hear of a computer you could build with paperclips. There was a book about it back in the 70's if i'm not mistaken. But really though, everything that made a computer affordable... though poisonous to the rivers, shipped from another country, people made to suffer for corporate greed... it did make it affordable. This communication we have between us is the culmination of literally years of genius, suffering, good ideas, mass production, we can pretty much thank capitalism for much of that. So it is a double edged sword: We could say that we could build a computer another way, but there would not have had been enough time in our lives to see it happen on this scale.
posted by Dean Keaton at 6:33 AM on September 12, 2005

"There will be a restoration of cultural biodiversity. The Forest People are learning to live as simply as a herd of deer."

uh. I didn't spend the last 100,000 years evolving a brain the size of a cantaloupe to live in the woods like a deer.

So in this future....we're all hippies?

I'm sorry - I've just always been wary of the idea that in order to restore the Earth and our biosphere to harmony, we must abandon showering, cooked food, and video games.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 6:42 AM on September 12, 2005

Sure, which is why I've always liked the "Afterculture" exhibit so much (ha-HA, presto, back to the original topic!). I'm a sucker for syncretism. Taking the good fruits of industrial society, and leaving behind the less palatable portions. Would computers have ever been made by hunter-gatherers? Quipu lines aside, I'd guess probably not--and certainly not so quickly. "Necessity is the mother of invention," and foragers just don't need that kind of thing. But we have it now, and there's nothing inherently wrong with it--in fact, it's really great stuff. So, by all means, keep it!

At the same time, we've got a lot of problems that seem to be pretty fundamental to industrialized society. No need to throw the baby out with the bath water, though. I'm pretty confident that we can wean ourselves off the unsustainable, "non-negotiable" American way of life, and still keep some of those wonderful toys.
posted by jefgodesky at 6:44 AM on September 12, 2005

That's kind of the point, Baby Balrog ... that primitivism needn't include giving up showers or cooked food. (Actually, a lot of Indian tribes were downright obsessive-compulsive with the bathing, they'd bathe several times a day--and cooking is very wide-spread) As for video games ... would you be willing to experiment with the notion?
posted by jefgodesky at 6:46 AM on September 12, 2005

It's not just computers we wouldn't have. It's modern medicine and virtually every technology we depend on every single day. High tech depends on an incredible level of specialization which simply cannot be supported with a hunter-gatherer sort of lifestyle.

I'm not going to give up computers, television, modern medicine, and space flight. Feel free to do it yourself, though.
posted by Justinian at 6:53 AM on September 12, 2005

uh. I didn't spend the last 100,000 years evolving a brain the size of a cantaloupe to live in the woods like a deer.

No, it seems you developed it to play video games ;-)

Ideally I would love to see an afterculture such as this explored. Realistically, never gonna happen.
posted by twistedonion at 6:58 AM on September 12, 2005

I see all the artifacts, but where has the culture gone? All the legends and stories that define our hegemonic society, some of them millennia old, others mere decades? I don't think they'd disappear so easily I'm reminded of the one good scene from the otherwise abominable Reign of Fire, in which two men act out a scene for the entertainment of a bunch of children. They describe the mighty duel between the White Knight and the Black Knight, whose face is hidden inside a terrifying helmet. The Black Knight tells the White Knight that his master never told him the truth about his father, to which the White Knight responds that all he needs to know is that the Black Knight killed him. "No," says the Black Knight. "I am your father."
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:59 AM on September 12, 2005

There is nothing wrong with the notion that we can sustain a natural habitat and keep our technology, but it is a tug of war: One or the other is going to lose ground.
posted by Dean Keaton at 7:02 AM on September 12, 2005

I like this kind of posst-apocalyptic vision, it makes for great science fiction when it's done right. A lot of this is clever, but kind of laughable. High tension towers turned into a kiva? Why? Well, because if the kiva were somewhere else then it would just be culture, not afterculture. A shaman's robe made from something that says Coke on it? Why? Is Coke no longer an ugly brand name in the future? My favorite is the spirit weapons, though. What are they for, exactly?
posted by OmieWise at 7:05 AM on September 12, 2005

To crush the american dream with! Ha ha ha ha ha
posted by Dean Keaton at 7:07 AM on September 12, 2005

twistedonion - You got me. And made me laugh. :)

I've always seen the "good" future as one wherein technology helps us act as shepherds of the Earth. Think giant floating cities that run on solar power or some sort of underground world where life above the surface is allowed to flourish naturally.

My friend works in a biology department at the University I attend - and he and his colleagues are developing different "no-till" gardens where the plants help each other grow. No maintenance plots of land that naturally grow food. I see that as an awesome prospective future-world type...thing.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 7:13 AM on September 12, 2005

[This is good]

Gorgeous. Interesting. Best of the web - politics and belief systems put nicely aside.

Would computers have ever been made by hunter-gatherers? Quipu lines aside, I'd guess probably not--and certainly not so quickly. "Necessity is the mother of invention," and foragers just don't need that kind of thing.

With a life so full and simple and devoted simply to living, certainly not.

I've always seen the "good" future as one wherein technology helps us act as shepherds of the Earth. Think giant floating cities that run on solar power or some sort of underground world where life above the surface is allowed to flourish naturally.

Amen to that. And such floating cities could be built - on the ocean or even on the air.

Build a geodesic sphere large enough and seal it well enough, allow the sun and the internal heat of modern life to heat it and it'll float like a balloon. No fancy engines or fictional antigravity technology needed. Get your pressure differential high enough and ventilation isn't a problem, either. But then again, at the size of sphere we're talking about here you could mostly seal it and grow a forest inside and have your clean air needs met from within. Float high or low. Utilize solar power. Build a city orders of magnitude larger than any known on earth today - one that floats from place to place like a spore, with ever-changing views and locales, all self contained. Not my idea, R. Buckminster Fuller's, I believe.

The American Dream is a sociological, ecological and spiritual nightmare.
posted by loquacious at 7:33 AM on September 12, 2005

loquacious, is there something I'm missing about the floating-sphere proposal? It seems to me that any huge object floating via hot air would be too hot to live inside.
posted by Faint of Butt at 7:41 AM on September 12, 2005

I've always seen the "good" future as one wherein technology helps us act as shepherds of the Earth.

That would be so nice.... but I'm a pessimist (not trying to change topic with that link, just an illustration of how the bad technology will probably fuck us over way before the good saves us.)
posted by twistedonion at 7:42 AM on September 12, 2005

Faint of Butt: At the volumes of air Fuller talked about, it only needs to be marginally warmer inside than it is outside, even to lift megatons. Note that air is generally much cooler at altitude within the troposphere. So a balmy tropical-to-subtropical temp would be more than enough. At night you would either store enough heat, store enough energy to be released as heat, or rise high enough in the troposphere before sundown to stay aloft until dawn.
posted by loquacious at 7:58 AM on September 12, 2005

Okay, that makes sense. Still warmer than I'd like, though.
posted by Faint of Butt at 8:07 AM on September 12, 2005

And imagine if that seal were to break.
posted by Dean Keaton at 8:50 AM on September 12, 2005

Heh, please. If anything it'll look like India crca 1500. But with Meth Labs.
posted by delmoi at 9:15 AM on September 12, 2005

Well I'm a European and I can't see any of this happening right now as claimed, nor do I see many Lakota coming round my way with their tribal guff and wanting to make me a Native American. Are they disguising themselves as Jehovah's Witnesses?

Will they be able to make a razor with five blades?
posted by biffa at 9:20 AM on September 12, 2005

.... picture yourself planting radishes and seed potatoes on the fifteenth green of a forgotten golf course. You'll hunt elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center, and dig clams next to the skeleton of the Space Needle leaning at a forty-five degree angle. We'll paint the skyscrapers with huge totem faces and goblin tikis, and every evening what's left of mankind will retreat to empty zoos and lock itself in cages as protection against the bears and big cats and wolves that pace and watch us from outside the cage bars at night.
posted by ToasT at 9:25 AM on September 12, 2005

This really reminds me of Ursula LeGuin's Always Coming Home. Some of the images in Afterculture could almost be used as illustrations.
posted by solipse at 10:06 AM on September 12, 2005

Where are the casinos?
posted by barjo at 10:21 AM on September 12, 2005

I'm reminded of Marge Percy's Woman on the Edge of Time.

What astounds me most about a lot of the standard responses to post-Western/American culture isn't the "OMG FUNNY" comments, it's the inherent underlying statement that Western/American culture is somehow indestructible and for forever and ever.

Of all the current cultures and empires, the United States seems least forward thinking and planning, and the most predisposed to failure, collapse and ruin.

Empires rise, Empires fall. Culture changes - for better and worse. But nothing that I know of is permanent.
posted by loquacious at 10:42 AM on September 12, 2005

solipse, you beat me to the LeGuin reference!

I'm not going to give up computers, television, modern medicine, and space flight. Feel free to do it yourself, though.

If sufficiently many people decide to give them up, you might have to anyway. our current mode of living means that each of us takes up far more than our individual share in resources, and usually get most of our consumer goods thanks to the coerced cheap labour of whole populations and the wholesale destruction of natural habitats - all of which destabilizes society and the environment and tends to make the hypnotic embrace of technology all the more appealing.

how much of that stuff do we really need? how much of "modern" medicine is actually just responding to ills (physical, emotional, psychosomatic) that result from the technological society that created modern medicine? what about iatrogenic conditions, or conditions resulting from our copious intake of synthetics?

would you honestly need television and video games if you lived in a vibrant, varied environment, and weren't compelled to work and put up with any number of inane and absurd bureaucratic tribulations or the stresses of overcrowded poorly designed cities? are you happy, or just distracted? i'm not presuming what your answer would be - just something to think about.
posted by poweredbybeard at 10:53 AM on September 12, 2005

[This is good]
Thanks for this, jefgodesky. Best link on here in ages!

What loqacious said, too. Marge Piercy is way cool.

It's interesting/sad that so many people's immediate reaction is "uh, I don't wanna" without even reading the site!

When modern, educated people form temporary autonomous zones, without the influence of governments and corporations, tribal cultures like those in Afterculture spontaneously tend to happen. Ask anyone who's been to Glastonbury or Burning Man, or any the big global protest carnivals (this is a funny ha ha article - how often do I link to Capitalism magazine?).

So assuming the corporate/fascist nightmare implodes, as it seems to be doing, this type of local, high-education, low-energy-consumption society is where we'll probably go next. I certainly hope so, it looks like more fun than office work!

I think we'll still have computers, too. Once the technology stabilises, Geek tribes will build environmentally acceptable machines designed to last a lifetime with recyclable components. The development of software, along with music and other forms of information, art, science, games, and entertaining clever stuff we haven't thought of yet, will doubtless continue apace.

After all the doom and gloom recently, it's good to remember that there is life beyond peak oil - and a better life, too, one can hope. Thanks again jefgodesky.
posted by cleardawn at 11:42 AM on September 12, 2005

At the volumes of air Fuller talked about, it only needs to be marginally warmer inside than it is outside, even to lift megatons. Note that air is generally much cooler at altitude within the troposphere. So a balmy tropical-to-subtropical temp would be more than enough. At night you would either store enough heat, store enough energy to be released as heat, or rise high enough in the troposphere before sundown to stay aloft until dawn.
posted by loquacious at 10:58 AM EST on September 12 [!]

Massive lighter-than-air structures have a poor history with weather phenomenon, not to mention being really susceptible to all kinds of turbulence. Prior to the Hindenberg disaster that ended commercial interest in airships in the U.S., a number of tragic crashes in Europe due to boundary layer turbulence had caused significant loss of passenger revenue for the Zeppelin Company. Even today, maneuvering airships at takeoff and landing continues to be a tricky, error prone business.

Scale up a zeppelin to sizes Bucky imagined, and turn the structure loose in the real atmosphere of Earth, and you might have something with a lifetime measured in hours.
posted by paulsc at 12:08 PM on September 12, 2005

I see sea people.
posted by dontoine at 12:28 PM on September 12, 2005

If this is paradise, I wish I had a lawnmower.

Good link though :)
posted by Dormant Gorilla at 12:59 PM on September 12, 2005

cleardawn writes "It's interesting/sad that so many people's immediate reaction is 'uh, I don't wanna' without even reading the site!"

You mean the site that's a bunch of artist renderings of imagination? I'm all for thinking about alternatives to the present world, and flights of fancy are a part of doing that, but not much is served by the kind of blithe faith-based statements that you seem to want to substitute for evidence. We're gonna have computers in the future? They're gonna last forever and not pollute? Great. Where is all the energy going to come from? Solar? Wind? High tension kivas? Where are all the parts going to come from? Will they be carved in wood or will we still be using petro-based plastics? What are we gonna use for the screens? Are Geek tribes the same thing as chapters of The Society for Creative Anachronism?

I want to dream with you, but I don't want to be condescened to just because a bunch of pretty pictures don't convince me that our problems would all be solved by living like deer. The TAZ's you talk about are all actually predicated on the existence of the culture and society that you seem to think they render superfluous.

(I liked the site, by the way.)
posted by OmieWise at 1:02 PM on September 12, 2005

Interesting-looking art, but not serious futurism, unless neo-primitivism catches on a lot more. Once the oil runs out, people will live more simply, but they won't just start using Peruvian or Hopi motifs in their artwork and artifacts, because that symbolism still seems foreign to most North Americans. The symbols and stories we have now will carry on (though possibly transformed), and not be replaced wholesale even if our high-tech society crumbles. Luke and Vader at the bridge will be a much more common myth in the post-peak oil age than any story about Coyote. People will probably still wear pants and crucifix pendants and play baseball on lazy Sunday afternoons. They will play guitars and bang on drums with sticks, because that's the culture of most North Americans.

Neo-primitivist tribal culture is a conscious reaction against modernity; rarely do such reactions leave lasting and full-spectrum transformative effects. Cultural change tends to be a largely unconscious process; borrowings tend to occur from high-prestige or majority cultures, and technological innovations like rain-catching equipment spontaneously arise from necessity, or perceived necessity. I find it hard to believe that, just because the oil's run out, North Americans will start feeling a need for spirit weapons.

On the contrary, I believe the (already limited) tendency to look outward and to the past for signs of beauty and meaning in the primitive Other will diminish in the event of an acute energy crunch, and be replaced by a much stronger urge to cling to and replicate what is already culturally familiar. Baseball (with homemade equipment) and apple pie (or some other fruit pie, if apples are not locally available) will be the order of the day. We'll be a lot closer to and more aware of the rhythms of the seasons and the land as we live our hunter-gatherer/subsistence farmer lives, yes, but we'll still be dressed in shirts and pants and summer dresses.
posted by skoosh at 2:41 PM on September 12, 2005

You're assuming that survival rates across all sub-groups would be the same in the case of civilizational collapse, a la Tainter. I disagree. I think the groups most independent of civilization will have the highest survival rates. So, the survivors of such a crunch would be precisely those people most influenced by Native American culture.

Or, you could use cultural materialism to argue that, ideology aside, such groups would fall into patterns very much like those of Native Americans, simply because it is the path of least resistance. We could note how well the "Nine Nations of North America" have wound up emulating the Native American cultures that preceded them in those regions--in general inclination as well as geographical range--to support such a contention.

Or you could be absolutely right, and this whole exercise is less about accurate futurism than highlighting the possibilities.
posted by jefgodesky at 2:50 PM on September 12, 2005

MetaFilter: I want to dream with you, but...

MetaFilter: I don't want to be condescened to [sic]

MetaFilter: our problems would all be solved by living like deer.

MetaFilter: you seem to think

OmieWise, I'm happy to see you're developing an interest in Buddhism.

Here's some interesting human behaviors whose causes and consequences you might wish to consider in your meditations : Personal attacks, straw man arguments, exaggerations of difference, focus on difficulty of problems rather than readily available solutions.

I particularly recommend the following koan:

A man stands alone on a beautiful mountain. Why is he shouting when the sky is blue?
posted by cleardawn at 5:13 PM on September 12, 2005

The truth is that for the first time we are bereft of a positive vision of where we are going. This is particularly evident among kids. Their future is either Road Warrior post-apocalypse, or Blade Runner mid-apocalypse. All the futuristic computer games are elaborations of these scenarios, heavy metal worlds where civilization has crumbling into something weird and violent (but more exciting than now).

The AFTERCULTURE is an attempt to transmute this folklore of the future into something deep and rich and convincingly real. If we are to pull a compelling future out of environmental theory and recycling paradigms, we are going to have to clothe the sacred in the romantic. The Afterculture is part of an ongoing work to shape a new mythology by sources as diverse as Thoreau and Conan and Dances with Wolves and Iron John. The Afterculture is not "against" the problems of our times, and its not about "band-aid solutions" to the grim jam we find ourselves in. It's about opening up a whole new category of solutions, about finding another way of being: evolved, simpler, deeper, even more elegant. Even more cool. Even very cool.

--Michael Green

posted by cleardawn at 5:34 PM on September 12, 2005

posted by Joseph Gurl at 6:29 PM on September 12, 2005

cleardawn writes "focus on difficulty of problems rather than readily available solutions. "

This is the one I like best, and the one that you haven't said shit about. But I, again, appreciate your attempt to paint those who disagree with you as somehow just not hopeful enough.
posted by OmieWise at 5:31 AM on September 13, 2005

jefgodesky: Unless the civilization-ending cataclysm is extremely sudden (less than ten years, like a pandemic), I don't foresee a mass extinction of certain classes of people. Instead, the death rate will gradually surpass the birth rate as more and more people decide they can't afford kids, and all humans will adapt to their new circumstances accordingly. Even so, the people who are most likely to survive such an event are not the highly educated neo-primitivists who attend Burning Man, but farmers, fishermen, (currently recreational) hunters, and military veterans who've had field survival training. They already know how to get their own food, and are not as dependent on the economy for survival. Unless there's a lot more hardcore neo-primitivists on the West Coast who are learning how to live on ants and grass, or even when to plant corn and wheat, I doubt that their survival rates would be any better than average.

Also, I'm not contesting that a lot of post-civ culture would resemble prior Amerindian cultures in many ways. I'm sure that in the absence of plastic or cheap metal, a lot of art will make use of wood, ceramic, and found artifacts from the "old days." But the outer, symbolic trappings of that society would be carried over from existing North American culture, not picked up from global indigenous cultures. The Afterculture artifacts are what you'd expect if you transported people from a bunch of pre-Columbian indigenous societies from around the world and dropped them into the post-apocalyptic remains of a North American city. But what if you dropped Americans from today into that context? Most of them have little knowledge of Celtic symbols, and even less of Peruvian motifs. Also, their (our) culture sees no need for spirit weapons, so they wouldn't produce them. There are people today who believe in demons and angels, but in a Judeo-Christian-Islamic context (wherein God does the fighting, and only things like crucifixes and rosaries offer protection), and those religions will not simply vanish along with cell phones and computers.

What I'm saying is, the great sea of culture in which we swim today will not simply disappear - all the semiotic elements which are, or could be, maintained by their own audiences (like Star Wars, Star Trek, evangelical Christianity) will continue to endure no matter what technology is at hand. A whole lot more North Americans know the story of the Black Knight and the White Knight, and instantly recognize where it comes from, than know the story of the Prophet who set straight the Crooked Man, and combed the snakes out of his hair, so that he could become a peacemaker among the nations. And if you don't know the second story, then things like this are not especially deep or profound at all - they're just pretty, decorative designs. We have our own stories, our own myths, and those stories will continue to be told and retold apr├Ęs le deluge.
posted by skoosh at 6:39 AM on September 13, 2005

appreciate your attempt to paint those who disagree with you as somehow just not hopeful enough.

That wasn't what I was attempting to do, as it happens.

I don't even think you do disagree with me, at heart. You're just as capable as I am of imagining possible solutions to the practical difficulties you suggested might dog our imagined afterculture.

But for reasons best known to yourself, you create cheap imitation models of cleardawn, made of straw, with whom you can argue endlessly.

Nothing wrong with that, necessarily; playing with dolls can be fun!

I just enjoy pointing out that this is what's happening.
posted by cleardawn at 9:54 AM on September 13, 2005


I'm not sure strawman means what you think it means. My comments were direct responses to comments you made. "Living like deer" was a quote from the site linked. You asserted we'd have computers in your future, so I wondered how we'd overcome some of the engineering problems associated with computers. I read Hakim Bey long ago, and even he makes the tacit admission that T.A.Z.'s are predicated on a larger productive society (see his subsequent work on pirate culture, and some of the associated work on CROATAN).

If you think the stupid shit in the post is going to come to pass, then we completely disagree. We also disagree about the impending end of corporate capitalism, which is stronger now than ever before in history. Spend some time reading about the history of the labor movement in the first part of the 20th century if you want to learn about a time when there was much more of a possibility for change. Then compare that time to now and you might not be so sanguine. An oil crash does not necessarily signal the end of capitalism, and, as is usual in these kinds of situations, were one to occur the poor would fare worse than the rich. There was feudalism before oil, there easily could be after.

I'd also recommend the Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson if you're actually interested in a possible future that dismantles capitalism, rather than just a bunch of pretty pictures. Robinson's vision is not perfect, but he clearly put a lot of thought into trying to figure out the limits of capital.

If you think that the post was kind of neat in the way that pictures of spaceships are neat in Star Wars, well then, we may indeed agree.
posted by OmieWise at 10:29 AM on September 13, 2005

I just remembered that the Pirate Utopias book is actually written under Bey's real name, Peter Lamborn Wilson, which put me in mind of his other book Sacred Drift about heretical islam. The Utopias that he writes about in Sacred Drift are also predicated on being in opposition to traditional and hegemonic Islam. In general I think it's a big mistake of people who read T.A.Z. to think that these kinds of marginal moments could ever take center stage. (I'm not suggesting that you think this cleardawn.) They function by being marginal, by creating a liminal space that allows things that would otherwise be forbidden. Where those things to become allowed by mainstream culture there would simply be another set of rules, another frame that would then have marginal spaces that allowed things not allowed in the new mainstream. No society allows everything.
posted by OmieWise at 10:39 AM on September 13, 2005

If you think the stupid shit

See, that's a straw man, right there.

"If you think"

"You seem to think"

"If you're actually interested in"

are all a bit of a giveaway, really. I realise that not using those structures might cramp your style a bit, but the result might be a debate with a human being instead of a straw doll.

Early 20th century labor history is fascinating, I agree. Joe Hill and the Wobblies, in particular, are great heroes of mine.

We got here because of their work. But our work is to carry on their work, and do more than they could. We have more resources now, and the people are better educated. Capitalism is in a state of terrified reaction - hence George Bush's need for external threats to justify internal repression. His panic is a sign that we're winning.

I don't think conventional Marxism will defeat capitalism. I think that more and more people will join intentional communities, and affinity groups, and the TAZs (of course they're temporary, hence the T) will tend to be more frequent and longer lasting, as state/corporate power gradually withers away - as they lose moral authority, in fact.

If you've read Marge Piercy's He, She and It, that gives a plausible description of one path society might begin to take, with capitalist power eroding government power while tribal power erodes the corporate. But nobody, least of all me, has a coherent picture of exactly what's coming next. Your visions and dreams are just as valid as mine.

The revolution is already happening. It's slow, and no one person is planning it. But each of us can choose where to push.

I expressed enthusiasm; you slammed it down. Not only is that impolite, it's counterproductive, in my view. Enthusiasm is a valuable thing, like knowledge. It's in my interest for you to have both those things - and it's in your interest for me to have them, too.

So here's to knowledge and enthusiasm - oh, and consensus is pretty valuable, too.

The reason I object so strongly to straw man debates is that they make consensus imossible to achieve.
posted by cleardawn at 1:19 PM on September 14, 2005

cleardawn writes "If you think the stupid shit

"See, that's a straw man, right there.

"'If you think'

"'You seem to think'

"'If you're actually interested in'"

Um, no, those are conditional statements. A straw man comment would be more like "you think" "your argument" etc. Unconditional statements that misrepresented your argument. I was correct, you don't know what straw man means.
posted by OmieWise at 7:09 AM on September 15, 2005

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