We live in a world of ‘future machines’. By ‘future machines’ I do not mean machines in the traditional sense of the term. They are not material machines, not machines in the future, and nor are they machines that will bring us into the future. What I refer to here is this: Future machines produce promises of a more equal future in an unequal present. Doing so, present forms of inequality are stabilized through expectations about future equalization. Future machines offer projections, promises and hopes for a more equal future. Future machines is a heuristic metaphor for thinking more closely about the relationship between inequality and temporality. Similarly, our project will look at what, in prolongation of German conceptual historian Reinhart Koselleck, are past futures, that is, past expectations about what the future would bring. Was the world moving towards greater convergence or divergence? Was individual nations expecting greater within-nation equality (or not)?
From the post-war era onwards we can easily identify four important future machines. These are the theories of international trade (promising to lead to more income convergence between nations), theories of development (because development entails a promise of future equalization), the Kuznets curve (read as a generalized, stylized fact about a transition stage of necessary inequality), and the basic storyline of globalization (that it would make everyone better off in the long run).
It is not the point here whether these theories are or were wrong. At times, more trade, development, inequality and globalization did certainly bring some people to higher standards of living. The point here, instead, is to see how these future machines (also) work. The point is that these future machines also work as strong narratives that, at various points in time, produced futures that made present conditions seem more tolerable and livable. In that sense, future making (future machines) legitimize inequalities in the present.
The talk on cocoa-production in Ghana by anthropologist Martin Arvad Nicolaisen on October 24th certainly encouraged us in this interest in the role of past (and present) expectations, and our interest in relationships between inequality and temporality. How does poor and unequal societies cope with high or rising inequality? Well, one way of doing so is to offer people a hope of future equalization. In Ghana, or so we learned, such practices were highly common through various forms of religious beliefs in future happiness, to various widespread kinds of lottery (also deeply within the banking system) and other ways in which people would put their hopes in the future for bringing about more material equality.
Future machines produce futures. Doing so, they offer gratification, but only a delayed one. Doing so, they share key traits with some kinds of religious and economic thought: gratification, or economic prosperity, will come later, if only you pull yourself together now, and live through hard, unequal times.