Project Proposal

Every generation fosters its own conception of the future, just as these conceptions change from place to place. Forms of the future (or ‘futurities’) build on specific cultural heritages, but also “go global” by the spread of various narratives and practices of communication technology.

The “digital revolution” – still unfolding its potential scripts, practices and networks since it began to emerge in the 1960s – is the most recent of such historical transformations, and it has come to symbolize the “new” intermediality and democratic accessibility of popular cultural performance.

This project attempts the multidisciplinary comparisons required to understand such a global dynamic, by comparing such digital future(s) in Europe and North America, East Asia and Southeast Asia, as they emerge in the history of two distinct genres of technologically-driven futurities: “science fiction” and “development discourse”. Both genres often find their technological futures elsewhere: in development doctrines, in a different country, and, in science fiction, in outer space. Comparative histories of such futurities will, we propose, indicate how digital intermediality has both symbolized and facilitated the transfer of content from popular culture into policy statements and vice versa in the period between 1945 and the new millenium.

This project charts as yet little-explored terrain: we intend to take the study of development beyond the relatively narrow focus on “developing countries” (but see Cowen & Shenton 1996; Rist 1997), and the study of science fiction beyond literature into global popular culture (e.g. Suvin 1979; but see Jameson 2005). Our interdisciplinary approach is built around three main research paradigms: Firstly, to understand the global circulation of modern forms of the future we need Koselleck’s (2004) historical methodology for reconnaitring the “futures past” of European modernity by Begriffsgeschichte and political philosophy (as well as the understanding of the romantic, tragic, ironic or other “metahistories” by which such concepts are put in narrative order [White 1973]). Secondly, Barbrook’s pioneering exploration of the political economy of Cold War digital futures, shows these conceptual histories need to be embedded in global political economies (Koselleck 2004: ch.5; Barbrook 2007). Thirdly, however, to counter Koselleck’s and Barbrook’s overemphasis on the globally dominant futurities of Europe and North America, Begriffsgeschichte and political economy need to be augmented by perspectives on political ideology (see Jameson 2005) and the historical ethnography of different modern futures borrowed from area studies and anthropology (as represented by Ferguson’s (1999) study of popular culture and everyday life in a Zambian mining town) – in our case, by an explicit comparison with Japanese and Southeast Asian cases. This requires us to fall back on the innovative methodology pioneered by Tsing, whose critique of “globalist” universal claims and their “futurism” is based in an historical ethnography of the “frictions” of these claims with the cultural categories of the specific times and places in which these claims have to be realized (Tsing 2005; 2008). Tsing’s methodology is reflexive and will help us to cope with the problem that history and social science rarely studied futurities comparatively, because they defined themselves to a large extent by rejecting prophecy in favor of their own rationalist futurity (Rosenberg and Harding 2005: 4).


Barbrook, Richard (2007) Imaginary Futures. From Thinking Machines to the Global Village. London/Ann Arbor: Pluto Press.

Cowen, M.P. & R.W. Shelton (1996) Doctrines of Development. London and New York: Routledge.

Ferguson, J. (1999) Expectations of Modernity. Myths and Meanings of Modernity on the Zambian Copperbelt. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Jameson, Fredric (2005) Archaeologies of the Future. London: Verso.

Koselleck, Reinhart (2004) Futures Past. On the Semantics of Historical Time. New York: Columbia.

Rosenberg, Daniel & Susan Harding (eds. 2005) Histories of the Future. Durham/London: Duke University Press.

Rist, G. (1997) The History of Development from Western Origins to Global Faith. London: Zed Books.

Suvin, Darko (1979) Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt (2005) Friction. An Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton: Princeton UP.

—- (2008) The Global Situation, in J.X. Inda & R. Rosaldo (eds.) The Anthropology of Globalisation. Oxford.

White, Hayden (1973) Metahistory The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.


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