Futures Theorist Luke Robert Mason pops up on my computer screen, dressed in all black and partially swallowed by a luminous indigo orb. Perhaps he belongs to another planet? Or is he our Saviour from the future, coming to rescue us from ourselves whilst sporting a halo he nicked from a rave? “I’m hiding a multitude of sins,” he pauses ominously, “there’s a pile of laundry behind this. The reality of life.”
Slightly disappointed, I ask him what he thinks the word ‘future’ means? “Absolutely nothing.” He explains that it’s simply a constrained view of what comes next. “Future is singular. And the challenge with assuming that the future is going to be one thing means that we can be led to believe that the future is inevitable. I’m much more of an advocate of futures, the plural, a multitude of possibilities for what may occur. Everything is up for grabs, anything that you essentially imagine, can come to pass.”
Luke got into this work after coming across Virtual Futures, a series of cyber culture conferences that took place at the University of Warwick in the mid-90s. An undergraduate at the university years after the original talks took place, Luke revived the conference.
When they put together the original conference in the 90s, Luke tells me they were “almost laughed out of the room. Everybody thought the internet was a fad. The internet at the University of Warwick existed in the basement of one building under the maths and stats department, and you had to book time to get on to it.”
The conversations he had as part of the revival came to shape the trajectory of his career, as well as his fascination with the history of ideas and how we came to conceptualise the promises of the internet in the mid-90s. “Virtual Futures is a weird part of my story. I’m 15 years younger than anybody who was originally involved, and I spent at least a decade of my life trying to work out what the hardcore philosophy guys were talking about then. I still am in many cases.”
On his show the FUTURES Podcast, Luke talks to historians, scientists, philosophers, and transhumanists, to name a few, about what the future might look like. Is there a possible future that he finds particularly appealing? “The one in which humanity survives,” he says. “Humanity has this weird self-esteem crisis at the moment. We’re down on ourselves to the point where the idea of an apocalypse is almost appealing. A cataclysmic event presents a unique opportunity to start-over with a new operating system for society. But that’s the easy way out; we need to be unafraid of doing the hard-work in the here-and-now. Understanding our place, understanding our importance, in a world where it’s so easy to dismiss human beings as being controllable, manipulable or stupid, is crucial.”
We invented the future when we invented linear time, Luke explains. “We created linear time, largely so that we could delineate time, so that we could then sell time. We got born into a world that was enslaved to a clock, and a belief that this thing expires, as opposed to this thing recycles, that’s defined all our dominant worldviews. If you believe that this whole game is linear, and you run that in an operating system, which believes solely in a progress narrative, then you’re highly likely to be disappointed.”
Has the future become a commodity? “Hell yeah dude. It’s used as leverage. It’s personal, it’s political, it’s profitable. Elon Musk can stand on stage and say something about batteries and the stock price of Tesla will go up, he tweets something about Bitcoin, and the value of Bitcoin will go down in the present. He can make provocations using the communicative tools that the market values and truly affect the future, creating outcomes by using the present as raw material.”
In our attempts to make sense of our existence, we can become closed-off and dogmatic about our worldviews, making it harder to stay open to possibility. “Robert Anton Wilson famously said, “I don’t believe in anything, but I have my suspicions.” I very much subscribe to that”, Luke tells me. “As well as Robbie Parrish and David Eagleman’s idea of Possibilianism, which posits there are a multitude of possibilities. I think we’re going to find that our ability to stay open to new knowledge, and wear different worldviews without prejudice, is how we find unfamiliar – yet perhaps effective – ways to ensure our collective survival.” He goes on to talk about Eternalism and the block universe theory, that the past, present and future are simultaneously occurring and all moments in time are little places. All versions of the past and future exist equally too.
“There is something wonderfully comforting about there being multiple versions of you, or multiple outcomes, all existing simultaneously. It’s a freeing worldview because it suggests that your subjective experience right now is just one version, and there are many futures that you can potentially step into. Anything is possible, and anything could have been possible. It’s all just a little dance you’re experiencing.”
Does Luke’s rejection of the future as inevitable make him an activist in some capacity? Perhaps. “We need to become more comfortable with the idea that our thoughts can alter reality in a multitude of unrealised ways, thoughts can be causative, thoughts create outcomes”, he explains. “If you can imagine it, it can occur. We have to be very careful about the sorts of futures we imagine for ourselves because sometimes we bake-in the inevitability. For that reason, I’m fearful of things like self-fulfilling prophecy. Be careful what you wish for, it might just come true. There have been banking crises that occurred simply on rumour. The most recent example is the toilet paper shortage in the early days of lockdown: that was purely speculative fiction, on a mass scale. But it’s also a wonderfully exhilarating thing to realise that you have the ability to say a thing, and have it come to pass, it’s liberating.”