The Future Starts Here – John Higgs’ Latest Cultural Exploration

This is the third and latest of Higgs’ works on cultural criticism to enter my library, following The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds and Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century and is surely his most exhaustive to date, dedicating nearly 400 pages to examining the first 18 years of the new millennium. 

I discovered the book by chance while hungrily searching for cultural examinations of post-postmodernism / metamodernism and media culture. Higgs’ previous works are some of the most insightful and contextual writings on contemporary culture I’ve ever had the pleasure to read, so the news of a new book was an absolute thrill.

Acquiring this text was a challenge amid the COVID-19 outbreak as at the time the book was only available from UK distributors in its first hardcover run, but thankfully I was able to secure a copy internationally from The Book Depository.

While his KLF book primarily examined culture through the lens of the band, Stranger Than We Can Imagine provided greater insight into global culture as a whole, so the announcement of this new book inspired immediate action on my part. I’d found my eagerness increasing with each successive chapter of Stranger Than We Can Imagine, while Higgs ushered his readers from one decade to the next. By the time I reached postmodernism (expertly described in the context of Super Mario Bros) and the pivotal transition from the hierarchical absolutist worldview to the communal network culture of the millennials, I was on the edge of my socio-cultural seat. It was a brilliant read, and just as satisfying and informative as his book on The KLF.

Eager for information on his latest book, I found that Greg Wilson published a review of it on his blog and noted that Higgs counters “the dystopian narrative that’s generally thrust upon our thoughts of the future by the various media we encounter, in favour of a much more hopeful and holistic tomorrow that makes better sense of the metamodern world in which we reside.”

The first few pages of the introduction outline how, in the 1930s, all visions of the future, like the World’s Fair, depicted a marvelous utopia where mankind is free from work and want. That dream, Higgs explains, ended in the 1980s. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is cited as the last attempt at a utopian vision in mainstream culture. Back to the Future Part 2, The Walking Dead, and Children of Men painted a far more bleak image of what was to come. Higgs notes that films no longer had to preface the audience as to why the world had fallen into disarray, as it became increasingly more believable. Higgs writes:

As the American writer Adam Sternbergh has noted, ‘the biggest problem with imagining dystopia seems to be coming up with some future world that’s worse than what’s happening right now.’

And prophetically, Higgs then states:

If we judge by the stories we’re fed by film and television, then our current civilization can feel like a crime novel with the last page ripped out. We don’t know exactly the identity of the murderer, but we do know that the story is about to come to an end. Perhaps a new antibiotic-resistant disease will erupt into a global pandemic and wipe us from the face of the Earth.

That last sentence was all the more alarming as the book was published just a few months before COVID-19 shook the planet.

Each chapter of The Future Starts Here examines a facet of rapidly-changing culture and technology and frames their impact on psychology and sociology and the human race as a whole. Most of these chapters could stand well on their own as essays on their respective topics, but Higgs is an expert at demonstrating the interconnectedness of seemingly disparate subjects to paint a contextual image of cultural influence.

Much of the text examines the nature of artificial intelligence, but Higgs also dedicates a potent and impactful chapter to a comparative analysis of generational culture. I was fascinated by how he demonstrated the origins of the contrasting value sets of Boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials, and Generation Z. This was what I was most looking forward to from his latest book after enjoying the author’s prior comprehensive critique of twentieth-century culture. Higgs effectively outlines the causes and effects of these generational value sets, perhaps best-demonstrated by depicting Gen Z’s reaction to the John Hughes film, The Breakfast Club.

A later chapter surveys both fictional and factual phenomena of space exploration and the conflicting characteristics of various Star Trek series and films, specifically differentiating those sanctioned by and contested by Gene Roddenberry. This chapter also highlights the technological impact of Elon Musk before emphasizing the importance of the universes yet to be explored right here on Earth.

The subject matter is deeply explorative. A chapter beginning with the technological advances in virtual reality quickly reframes the potential consequences of the technology, both positive and negative, and examines it comparatively to phenomena like Skinner boxes, ‘redpilling,’ Gamergate, Russian troll bots, cultural Marxism, tribalism, and other psychological influencers of social imprinting, while also touching upon its potential for medical benefits and its usefulness as a proponent of social empathy. The chapter goes on to reference VR in contemporary cinema, (e.g. WALL-E and Ready Player One), as well as the Oculus VR company and its acquisition by Facebook. The chapter concludes with an examination of augmented reality, Pokemon Go, and Google Glass, and looks ahead to the potential of virtual pets and personal AI assistants, as well as the moral and ethical implications this technology would bear. As always, Higgs’ writing is richly contextual.

Another chapter, fittingly titled, “Psychic Pollution,” cautions against the dire consequences of our collective addiction to social media and the disinformation it so often spreads. Higgs parallels Facebook algorithms to the history of psychologically predatory advertising and twenty four hour alarmist and sensationalist news networks. He outlines the nature of our biological addiction to dopamine and how these phenomena prey on our need for a neurochemical hit.

But not all of the twenty-first century is so dismal and worrisome. The penultimate chapter, “Fixing Things” poses the potential benefits of the American biologist E. O. Wilson’s Half Earth initiative and of implementing Universal Basic Income. Higgs is certainly not without hope. From James Surwillo’s feature on the book:  

Higgs calls for a new pragmatic optimism because history has shown that there is always a new story in the “circumambient mythos” as he calls it, which is different than the one that those of us who grew up in the prior era are able to interpret. That potential is a very real phenomenon of the world of the 21st century. It is the idea that we have matured to the point that it is possible to become “meta”, or to psychically remove ourselves from a time and place and review a new and pragmatic position. This potential frees up post-millennials to introduce a more mature version of meaning itself.

The closing chapter, “More Than Individual” explores American anarchist author Peter Lamborn Wilson’s Immediatism and Brian Eno’s scenius as examples of the interconnectedness of the twenty-first century culture. Higgs concludes his examination of the early years of this new millennium with hope and optimism. He notes that, for much of the twentieth-century, “the job of advancing what it meant to be human fell to the avant-garde and the counterculture.” Contrastingly however, “since the emergence of the internet in the mid-90s,” “…the work of evolving and improving the human experience falls to everyone.”

The Future Starts Here is an engaging and exploratory venture into the culture and mindset of the new millennium. It’s an inspiring, informative, and contextual perspective I’m grateful to have read.