Can you imagine that the world will change?
Last night at the conference dinner I was chatting with Peng Hwa Ang, and we started talking about young people nowadays. That’s a sure sign that I’m getting older, I suppose, but we weren’t complaining about their wildness, we were comparing notes on teens in Norway and Singapore and how the younger generation is more conformist than their parents’ generation in both countries. And of course, social media is often blamed for the woes of youth today.
“No, it’s because of the future deficit,” Peng Hwa said. I demanded an explanation: I had never heard the term.
“Well, think about it. You and I experienced the world changing when we were young. The end of the cold war, the Berlin wall, the internet.”
“Oh, yes, ” I nodded, instantly seeing where he was going. “Our students were born after the web was well established. They weren’t even teenagers yet when Facebook took over the world.”
Peng Hwa nodded.
“Do you mean that for a young person today, the world looks as though nothing ever changes?”
He nodded again. The term “future deficit” was a term a colleague of his had coined, he explained as we piled on to the shuttle bus back to the hotel.
At drinks a little later, I eagerly told Luciana Gattas about the future deficit.
“Oh, he’s talking about the broad present,” she said. Another term I’d never heard before.
“You know, Gumbrecht talks about that.”
Sure enough, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s book, The Broad Present: Time and Contemporary Culture, was published in English last year. As Luciana continued to explain the rich basis for this idea in contemporary culture (she clearly reads a lot more critical theory than I do and she made me want to read it all) I remembered Tim Barker’s talk at Le sujet digital in Paris last year, and realized that these are ideas that are floating around in many discourses. We talked more over drinks, thinking of how we are clearly headed to mass annihilation and don’t really want to think about that future, and how youth in Southern Europe are facing record levels of unemployment and little chance of a stable future. And yet the future deficit Ang Peng mentioned goes even deeper than that. I googled Gumbrecht’s book, and read:
Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht notes an important shift in our relationship to history and the passage of time. Although we continue to use concepts inherited from a “historicist” viewpoint, a notion of time articulated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the actual construction of time in which we live in today, which shapes our perceptions, experiences, and actions, is no longer historicist. Without fully realizing it, we now inhabit a new, unnamed space in which the “closed future” and “ever-available past” (a past we have not managed to leave behind) converge to produce an “ever-broadening present of simultaneities.”
Perhaps, if we believe in this idea, young people today truly cannot imagine that the world changes. To them, perhaps, the world has always been the same. The internet and social media have always been there. The constant threat of terrorism has always been there. Climate change has always been there. There has always been fighting in the Middle East. How could you imagine change if nothing has changed in your life time?
When I was 18 the Berlin wall fell. Some of my classmates immediately got on trains and busses to participate in the protests. There are still protests, but does anything much change? The Occupy movement, the Umbrella movement: did anything change? Can anything ever change?
At Transmediale in January I was saddened by the one-sided dystopianism with little space given to those who are trying to hack the system and change it. Perhaps this is a sign of the times. If there is no future, why try to improve it?
What do you think? I may be too rooted in the past to really know.