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Social Text 20.2 (2002) 1-15

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Future Texts

Alondra Nelson

We will make our own future Text.

—Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo

and on to post now
post new

—Amiri Baraka, "Time Factor a Perfect Non-Gap"

In popular mythology, the early years of the late-1990s digital boom were characterized by the rags-to-riches stories of dot-com millionaires and the promise of a placeless, raceless, bodiless near future enabled by technological progress. As more pragmatic assessments of the industry surfaced, so too did talk of the myriad inequities that were exacerbated by the information economy—most notably, the digital divide, a phrase that has been used to describe gaps in technological access that fall along lines of race, gender, region, and ability but has mostly become a code word for the tech inequities that exist between blacks and whites. Forecasts of a utopian (to some) race-free future and pronouncements of the dystopian digital divide are the predominant discourses of blackness and technology in the public sphere. What matters is less a choice between these two narratives, which fall into conventional libertarian and conservative frameworks, and more what they have in common: namely, the assumption that race is a liability in the twenty-first century—is either negligible or evidence of negligence. In these politics of the future, supposedly novel paradigms for understanding technology smack of old racial ideologies. In each scenario, racial identity, and blackness in particular, is the anti-avatar of digital life. Blackness gets constructed as always oppositional to technologically driven chronicles of progress.

That race (and gender) distinctions would be eliminated with technology was perhaps the founding fiction of the digital age. The raceless future paradigm, an adjunct of Marshall McLuhan's "global village" metaphor, was widely supported by (and made strange bedfellows of) pop visionaries, scholars, and corporations from Timothy Leary to Allucquère Rosanne Stone to MCI. Spurred by "revolutions" in technoscience, social and cultural theorists looked increasingly to information technology, especially the Internet and the World Wide Web, for new paradigms. We [End Page 1] might call this cadre of analysts and boosters of technoculture, who stressed the unequivocal novelty of identity in the digital age, neocritics. Seemingly working in tandem with corporate advertisers, neocritics argued that the information age ushered in a new era of subjectivity and insisted that in the future the body wouldn't bother us any longer. There was a peculiar capitalist logic to these claims, as if writers had taken up the marketing argot of "new and improved."

There was also much that was familiar in this rhetoric. As rapturous proclamations of the Internet's ability to connect everyone, everywhere echoed the predictions that greeted the age of the telephone, so did neocriticism's imperative to embrace the new and transform the body fall neatly in line with older narratives of technology and forgetting—most notably, the futurism movement of the turn of the twentieth century. In 1909 Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, an Italian artist, published "The Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism," in which he called for a new aesthetic that could properly represent the sensation of living in a rapidly modernizing world. Marinetti glorified the creative destruction of war, exalted the beauty of "eternal, omnipresent speed," and promised to sing of the revolutionary potential of factories, shipyards, locomotives, and airplanes. He called for the end of the old, proclaiming, "But we want no part of it, the past, we the young and strong Futurists!" 1 In constructing his vision of the future, Marinetti implicitly evoked a subjectivity that was decidedly male, young, and carved out in relation to the past and the "feminine."

While neocriticism's take on identity tended more toward the glorification of the self's dissolving than its hardening, it was propelled by a similar impetus to understand the technological transformations that characterized the beginning of a new era. Technoevangelist Timothy Leary proclaimed that advances in technology augured the end of burdensome social identities. Out with those old categories from the social movements of the 1960s, in with the new. Leary predicted that "in the future, the methods...