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When Italian intellectual Filippo Tommaso Marinetti swerved his car to avoid two “tottering” cyclists in the winter of 1909, he landed in a ditch. He was not hurt, but inspired. “As I raised my body, mud-spattered and smelly, I felt the red hot poker of joy deliciously pierce my heart,” he wrote in recollection of the incident.
As his car was levered out of the ditch, Marinetti had an epiphany. He was suddenly struck, not by the dangers of neglecting more vulnerable road users – but by the exhilaration of the crash. He wanted more. “We declare that the splendour of the world has been enriched by a new beauty,” he went on. “The beauty of speed.”
Those words, written a couple of days later, formed part of Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, that gripping but deranged document that was dedicated to fast cars, war, the demolition of museums and contempt for all women. There are few things to commend the screed, other than its manic energy. But it is possible – just about – to feel touched by its abiding belief that progress, in all its shapes and forms, was going to raise humanity to a new level of being.
“What is the use of looking behind at the moment when we must open the mysterious shutters of the impossible?” Marinetti asked, with what we can only assume was a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. The shutters of the impossible were duly blown open by the fevered thinker and his chums, to reveal a nightmare: the rise of fascism, two horrific world wars, and a world in which mankind, gradually and reluctantly, lost faith in the future.
Today, far less space is devoted to our hopes for the forthcoming decades than to the challenges they raise. Who (apart from Top Gear) can remain excited about fast cars when there is the extinction of the planet to be considered? To look ahead of us is to feel nervous, and profoundly sceptical that science really can take over the duties of God and make things right.
I visited the FutureFest festival in Shoreditch, London, last weekend, where a collection of diverse and distinguished speakers brought together by Nesta, the UK innovation agency, were doing their utmost to allay our fears. Asked to talk about the way forward, they focused on a range of developments under way that prompted at least some cautious optimism.
But few of them involved advances in hard science. There seemed to be a consensus that technology had done more than enough over the past couple of decades to get us thinking. What were needed were changes in human behaviour: a new moral blueprint to enable us to take advantage of the dizzying changes in our lives.
In that respect, the conference had a bit of a hippy vibe going, which was unexpected and charming. It was like a grungier version of the now-ubiquitous TED talks, which can blind with their white-hot meliorist beliefs, themselves a legacy of the great pragmatic tradition in 20th-century American philosophy.
In Shoreditch, there was no hard prescriptivism on offer, let alone any simplistic answers to some of our most forbidding problems. In the sessions I attended on Sunday afternoon, it was clear that the future lay with “us”: all of us, now interconnected as never before, and having to find new avenues of co-operation. It is nothing that would have startled John Stuart Mill but, then, he didn’t have Twitter.
Diane Coyle, a former adviser to the UK Treasury, was perturbed by the rampant short-termism of the financial world, and its Marinetti-like fetishism of speed: the millions spent on shaving milliseconds off the rate at which information travels across continents could not be good for our long-term prospects, nor could the attitude of investors who zero-rated any returns that are apparent only after a period of 25 years.
She contrasted this approach with the far-sighted investments of the Victorian era, which were committed to transforming the physical fabric of our cities, and she challenged her mostly young audience to create new institutions that would “make a difference in 100 years’ time”.
JP Rangaswami, a former chief scientist at British Telecom, talked about sharing. The community needed to replace the consumer as the philosophical focus of our technological advances. The drive to acquire had to be supplanted by the desire to set free, and to let go. And then he said something that delighted me: we ought to behave more like the Grateful Dead.
In pouring their music out freely and generously (to a fault, many would say), the Californian band were promoting a culture of “abundance” rather than one based on exploiting scarcity. Crucially, it made economic sense too, he said. In his excellent blog Confused of Calcutta, Rangaswami quotes a study that shows the material rewards of playing live – rather than cynically releasing snippets of music on various “mousetrap” formats.
Perhaps the arts really can form a crucial link between the technological innovations that have so briskly transformed our lives and our economic and political institutions, which lag behind. It’s a nice thought: that we are just an endless guitar solo away from a more serene and equitable society. It’s not something that the unhinged Marinetti would ever have countenanced. But then he would have driven us all into a ditch.
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