Visions from the Future
Conference Presentation delivered at: “Uncertain Futures from the Uncertain Past,” Maria State University, Quadrant Charlie, The Moon, 15th October 2117:
There are three key dates that mark the beginning of the period we call astromodernity. October 4th 1957: when the former Soviet Union launched a satellite named Sputnik into the Earth’s orbit. July 20th 1967: when the United States of America landed the first humans on the moon. Finally, October 18th 2025: when the tech-entrepreneur Elon Musk’s company SpaceX carried out the first manned spaceflight to the planet Mars. Thanks to developments in interplanetary travel and terraforming, space colonization has progressed at an unexpectedly rapid pace over the past century. Human settlements span the universe, from local planets in our own solar system to distant regions like Kepler-186.
Ever since the famous expedition to Mars, SpaceX has monopolized the cosmic tourism and interplanetary transport industry. Part of the company’s success can be attributed to the absorption of the public agency NASA in a period of ravenous privatization in the mid-21st-century. SpaceX’s founder Elon Musk attracted huge support for the company’s projects mainly because he presented a compelling and convincing vision of the future at a time of great insecurity and uncertainty. Many competing visions of the future were being circulated in the early 21st century, so it is essential to identify why astromodernity won this contest. My task as a historian of futurity is clear: I must burrow into the soil of the past to see which roots grew into majestic trees that bore succulent fruit, and which ones shriveled up and turned to dust.
Before we exist, our lives are works of fiction. In Ancient Greece, men wrote beautiful epic poetry or fought gallantly in wars so they would be remembered by their descendants. They turned their mortal flesh into immortal memories. These hypothetical descendants were fictional beings until they were born into reality. Nothing in the present has any meaning without the future; the future cannot exist without a past.
A hyperstition, a term coined by the founder of the Cybernetic Cultures Research Unit Nick Land, is a fictional entity that attracts and combines historical forces—which comprise the actions and interactions of humans and their environment—to turn itself into a reality. Land describes hyperstitions as entities that emerge from the “imperceptible crossing when fiction becomes time-travel.” I contend that the past century has been nothing more than the actualization of a hyperstition that was created in the year 2015 by the government agency NASA, which, as I said, was absorbed into SpaceX. I warn you that it would be foolish to dismiss hyperstitions as lucky guesses or mere coincidences, because you would overlook the fact that they are indispensable for the success of political projects.
In 2015, NASA commissioned the design studio Invisible Creature to produce a series of posters called Visions of the Future which imagine a time at which space travel becomes a form of luxury tourism. David Delago, the creative strategist behind the project, borrowed the aesthetic style from the iconic Works Program Administration posters that were designed between 1936 and 1943 to advertise—among other things—the National Parks of America. Delago explains that he hopes to convey a “retrofuture feel” that profits from a “nostalgia for an era that just feels good.” Any astute observer of American history can report that this era that inspired “good feelings” in Delago was also a period of Japanese-American internment camps, sodomy laws, ugly laws, and Jim Crow laws. Although Delago sought only to copy and convey the positive aspects of this period in the Vision of the Future posters, he also unwittingly replicated this era’s hidden biases and disparities.
At first glance, the posters seem innocent. On a closer look, a few salient facts emerge. Every visible face is white; every couple is heterosexual. Viewers are encouraged to book tickets, which implies the continuation of scarcity-based, currency-commodity economics. Unlike the popular early-21st century meme “Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism,” these posters presupposed that the iniquities of globalist capitalism would endure an age of unparalleled technological development. Yet, critiquing these posters for their implicit racism, heteronormativity, and capitalist realism would be nothing more than knee-jerk oppression-gaming. If anything, the designers were eerily prescient about the types of people that would enjoy the benefits of cosmic tourism and interplanetary immigration-resettlement programs.
In his “Further Considerations on Afro-Futurism,” Kodwo Eshun calls science-fiction the “Research and Development department within a futures industry that dreams of the prediction and control of tomorrow.” As an independent agency of the United States federal government, NASA was one of those institutions that determined the future. NASA wrote in the publicity statement for these posters that “someday, with the help of new generations of innovators and explorers, these visions of the future can become a reality.” Clearly, there was a sense that these visions do not portray or predict the future, but predate it. In other words, this future became a reality as soon as a new generation of engineers and pioneers made it happen.
Visions of the Future anticipated many of the social and political transformations of astromodernity. Why do the figures in these posters conform to a specific phenotype and sexual orientation? History shows us the answers. Once interplanetary travel became a more profitable enterprise, stricter protocols were introduced. Candidates for interplanetary transit underwent an extreme vetting process before they could buy tickets for the space shuttle flight to the long-distance cosmic transportation hub on the moon. They needed to submit evidence to verify that they had adequate funds to cover the expenses of travel. There were biometric background checks to guarantee that they had no affiliation with terrorist organizations, luddite collectives, or political parties. They were subjected to psychological and medical tests to confirm their heterosexual orientation and check that their reproductive organs matched fertility requirements. Additionally, they supplied DNA samples to prove that they met with genetic standards for outer-space human colonization.
These “vetted” astromodern subjects are portrayed on the poster for the rogue planet PSO J318.5-22. Delago describes the poster as a “sort of a retro-future fantasy” that “leaned heavily on 1930s art deco.” The anthropologist Michael P. Oman-Reagan points out that this fantasy reveals the reality that the inhabitants of outer space are nothing but the “elite, white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, colonialist aristocracy in evening wear.” To date, no other human group has been admitted into this exclusive club. In fact, the poster for the Saturnine moon Enceladus displays one of the great ironies of the astromodern era: a couple travel in a floating orb accompanied by their faithful, beloved pet, allowed under The Transfer of Domestic Animals Act of 2064 which permitted the licensed transportation of dogs, cats, and rabbits across the solar system. The rules for human interplanetary travel remain unchallenged and, therefore, unchanged.
One poster represents the Earth, but not as we know it. A heterosexual couple in spacesuits without their helmets stare out onto an idyllic, pastoral scene, in which deer drink water from a luscious blue lake and birds fly toward a mountaintop blanketed in a thick layer of snow. Apple tree branches hang over their heads, alluding to the ancient Biblical myth of the Garden of Eden. The apples have not been picked and eaten. Knowledge has not been obtained; ignorance remains. They sit in a fantasy paradise.
Most of us will know that the successes of SpaceX occurred contemporaneously with the rising popularity of Elon Musk’s other company Neurolink, which manufactured neural implants to augment the human brain as it struggled to equal advances in artificial intelligence. Neurolink funded its research activities with the revenue generated from a profitable program called Second Livestock that provided virtual reality simulations for chickens. As the condition of terrestrial ecology deteriorated and “climate departures” occurred at a frightening rate, some people—known as “The Blue Pillers”—who could not afford to emigrate into outer space downloaded Second Livestock and spent their final days under the illusion that they were free-range chickens.
Visions of the Future functions as a hyperstition that implanted itself into the past to create the present. Yet, a hyperstition is not an inevitable teleology. As media theorist Nick Dyer-Witheford observed pithily, “post-industrial futurology foresees the future it intends to make.” These visions of the future could be realized only though the enormous investment in infrastructure available to a venture-capitalist like Musk. Given favorable circumstances and resources, another hyperstition could have taken its place. As I mentioned before, the early 21st century was buzzing with alternative visions and conceptions of the future, which Kodwo Eshun called “counterfutures.” From our perspective, counterfutures have become counterfactuals. They show us where we went wrong.
Recently, MOCAM (the Museum of Contemporary Art on the Moon) opened with its inaugural exhibition conceived and curated by the institution’s original founder Joey Cannizzaro. The exhibition, Mystic Hyperstitians in the Heart of Empire, is a time-capsule from 2017 that has reignited the debate about the nature and history of futurity. Cannizzaro chose artworks for this exhibition that imagines futures that diverge from the astromodern narrative of inexorable colonization. In his curatorial essay, Cannizzaro implores artists to “start dreaming—now—of futures that are more free, more just, and more fucking exciting that this one. Futures that don’t take neoliberal definitions and fantasies as their foundation.” Resisting the homogeneity of Visions of the Future, one exhibit, the video-art piece 3CE: A Relational Love Odyssey, explains that “love is neither a closed system nor is it the absorption under pre-existing romantic relationship rules, designed to maintain a system of hierarchies, binaries, and capital.” The piece claims love as the prevailing force of a queer futurity that “pull(s) the future into the now to free us from the present’s totalizing rendering of reality.” Similarly, another exhibit, The Rational Dress Society’s informational pamphlet A Brief History of Spacesuits, uses the jumpsuit as the symbol of technological and scientific advancement because it possesses an “aura of utopian promise, (and heralds) a future defined by the dream of post-gender efficiency.” Visions of the Future did not confront the neoliberal present’s totalizing rendering of reality, but rather embraced and extrapolated it. Consequently, those “fucking exciting” counterfutures suffocated under the weight of oppression while NASA/SpaceX’s Visions of the Future appealed to those whose fortunes could turn that astromodern dream into a reality.
The Frankfurt School theorist Walter Benjamin tells us why we should care about these counterfutures in his famous “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” He writes that the “struggling, oppressed class” is “the avenger that completes the task of liberation in the name of generations of the downtrodden.” If we wish to replace astromodernity with a future more extraordinary and emancipatory, we must carry out our task in memory of the oppressed, the ignored, the homeless, and the hopeless. We must fight for the future of the future on behalf of the futures of the past.