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The Museum of the Future of Productive Forces
Thoughts on a visit to Dubai
Today I’m fresh back in the states after spending the better part of a week in Dubai. I flew across the planet at the invitation of the Fiker Institute and the Museum of the Future, who asked me just a few weeks ago to come speak at their inaugural Climate Future Week. Having never been to Dubai before——and having heard some impressive things about the new Museum of the Future——I decided to commit the climate misdemeanor that is intercontinental air travel to attend.
The event was an interesting mix of speakers and workshops. There were some UAE ministers, a couple guys talking about plastics pollution, some architects, a Kuwaiti gardening blogger, a couple poets, and me. Much of it was geared toward building public engagement around the upcoming COP28, which Dubai is hosting in a few weeks. The UAE is a petrostate of course, though apparently working to diversity in a way that some others are not, led by finance, tech, and tourism in Dubai. Petrostate inclusion is par for the course when it comes to the COP (the last one I attended was smack dab in the middle of Polish coal country), as it’s hard (at least for the UNFCCC) to imagine stopping climate change without their participation.
For my own session, I was asked to talk on “Sci-fi, Cli-fi and Societal Reshaping,” and so my speech was a mix of riffs I’ve done elsewhere: why we trust novelists with the future, the cli-fi theory of social change, a rundown of my book, post-normal fiction, and the Reverse Anna Karenina Principle.
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Most of the other talks were very much about the present, about efforts and projects already well underway. And yet “The Future,” as an idea, was all around us, as it was everywhere I went in Dubai. The words “future” and “innovation” and “tomorrow” scrolled on building screens and adorned metro trains, often in the form of quotes by Emirati leaders.
The MotF is housed in what they bill as “the most beautiful building in the world,” and while I don’t know about its official ranking, it certainly is something. It looks a bit like the Chicago Bean blown up to giant size, turned inside out until it’s an uneven torus, then cut with windows in the shape of Arabic calligraphy. It’s a structure that leads from abstraction. The building and the museum’s oval-in-oval logo evoke each other, and in 2D the torus looks like a tunnel, or maybe a telescope, extending into the distance.
Inside, if you can get tickets (it’s apparently sold out months ahead), an elevator takes you on a simulated rocket ride up to a floor styled like an Emirati space station. There you can fiddle around with installations that tell you about the lightly colonized state of the solar system in 2071, including a band of solar panels on the moon, used to beam microwave energy back to Earth. It’s an impressive setup, with a lot of room still to deepen the narrative as the museum evolves. It only opened in 2022.
It’s also pretty much a concept that one would expect to see in a place called the Museum of the Future basically at any point in the last 75 years. As I argued last month, we haven’t gotten much closer to that future in the last 50; at some point I’ll write up my thoughts on how space-based sci-fi is increasingly feeling like a period piece to me. But it is still a compelling mythology, especially when deployed to give a high tech, ambitious future to a people/culture/region that has often been left out of such visions.
The floor below takes you through the “Heal Institute,” with a visually stunning room full of 3D animal forms etched in glowing glass jars——representing genetic information preserved against extinction. Below that is a kind of back-to-the-real human sense-experience center, all soft-lit like a James Turrell installation. Below that is an expo-floor arrangement of miscellaneous real-world prototypes, and below that is the kids play area.
But back to the building. I have written before about my disapproval of pod-shaped future aesthetics. If it made sense to make everything round, we would have done so already! On this trip, however, I think a new angle on this clicked home for me, which I’m going to try to figure out as I explain it here.
There is a difference between developing sciencetechnology (combined here like spacetime) and developing what Karl Marx called ‘productive forces.’ The former is about replicable knowledge, learning over time how nature works and the best ways to do things, such as constructing sturdy and practical habitats. The latter is about accumulation of wealth and capacity, marshaling resources to do things that are in fact difficult to replicate, such as constructing monuments in strange shapes.
It’s easy to accidentally conflate these two when thinking in the context of science fiction, where traditionally many words have been spent discussing the technoscientific cleverness future people might embed into their homes, cars, clothes, spaceships, etc. As I argue when I talk about cli-fi, that’s the bias of science fiction: it’s fiction about science.
But that’s not the whole story of how the built environment comes to be, in either the present, past or future. It’s not just about what you’ve got the engineering know-how to do, it’s about amassing money, influence and human/material resources behind particular projects.
In Capital Marx detailed how historical progress results from the development of such ‘productive forces’ as much as the process of scientific revolution. So one way to signal that you are in the future, particularly in visual media, is to show the skylines getting bigger and weirder.
The Jetsons didn’t live in saucer-shaped cities in the sky, perched atop spindly support columns, because future architects and urban planners found this to be the most efficient way to build or the best way to live with whatever mess they’ve made of the surface. The Jetsons lived there because they (and their society) were rich.
There’s no denying that one can demonstrate and flex a certain kind of mastery and futurity by constructing buildings with such inconvenient shapes. In fact, Dubai is all about that! Most every skyscraper I saw had a hole cut out of the middle, or twisted weirdly, or was faceted like a gemcutter’s journeyman project.
The Museum of the Future is futuristic in this way. It’s less about a future in which new secrets of the universe have been unlocked by science, and more about one in which today’s knowledge and tech are deployed by more advanced productive forces to accomplish more ambitious——and more abstract——goals.
This is not in any way a knock on the museum. In fact I think it’s quite canny. I suspect this is a theory of the future that many, probably most, futurists ascribe to, and a lot of sci-fi too——though SF creators still like to throw in the occasional grand discovery as a curveball. But that’s increasingly an exception that proves the rule.
After all, we’ve all felt the way scientific discovery has leveled off in the last couple decades——or rather, has become more nuanced and less startling. Gone are the days in which seemingly every year or two someone was inventing the radio, the telephone, the vaccine, the television, the laser, the microwave oven, the plastic bag, the atom bomb. For the last 25 years internet-drive technological evolution has mostly been a result of incremental improvements in computing power paired with business model manipulation and cultural churn. (Perhaps AI is breaking this trend; we’ll have to see.) Meanwhile the actual quality of many commodities has gone down——we live in the so-called “era of mids.”
In “Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit,” the late, great David Graeber argued that this situation is a deliberate choice by capital, who did not want to create the “leisure society” some thought automation and unchecked technological progress would bring to the masses. My own personal theory of our stagnation is that, deliberate or not, the Opening of the Maw in 1973 led to a decline in what I call “shop floor innovation” by average workers (the source of much real technological progress during industrialization), replaced instead by anemic innovation carried about by a professional class that must kowtow to the whims and desires of weirdo capitalist tech funders.
Whatever the reason, if we’ve plateaued, the marshaling of productive forces for this or that project is the last game in town. Oddly enough, this was basically what I argued in my 2015 essay “On the Political Dimensions of Solarpunk":
Nearly every piece of solarpunk content I’ve seen or read suggests that the solarpunk future is a result of nuanced choices about such arrangements, not wild technological advancements. The very name “solarpunk” implies that scientific breakthroughs alone won’t fix our environmental, social and economic problems. After all, it posits a world of solar-energy abundance and then argues that we will still have need of punks. No magical tech fixes for us. We’ll have to do it the hard way: with politics.
Dubai’s vision of the future has a lot to speak for it: it’s a vision of a multipolar globe, of clean and well-run cities (for those who can afford them), of trying to embrace new technologies in a deliberate and coherent way. It’s a vision that does seem (at least at the Museum and Climate Future Week anyway) to acknowledge environmental challenges and take them seriously. Many people find this to be a compelling way forward, particularly the global upper class, though not exclusively——many not so wealthy people in the region are drawn to Dubai because there’s just a big appeal to living in a safe, functional city.
On the other hand, I didn’t see a single electric car in Dubai, and the AQI hovered around 150; I got a sore throat after about an hour outside. Though I tried to wander, I found the city deeply not walkable——massive highways run right through the middle, and when I did attempt to get somewhere by foot I found myself blocked by fences and construction. An Emirati I talked to complained frankly that Emiratis were fat and diabetic because it was too hot and humid to do anything but drive (or be driven), but in the long run I think air quality is going to be the year-round problem that has the same effect as the heat.
There were some exceptions to the walkability issues: thanks to enclosed skybridges I could get from my hotel, to the museum, to the metro, to the enormous Dubai Mall, all without leaving the comfort of air conditioning. I also heard about a massive indoor tropical rainforest botanical garden/zoo called Green Planet, though I didn’t get to visit. This seems like the chosen way forward: pump a lot of energy into ACs (and indoor skis slopes/ice rinks, which I’ve written about before), link attractions up with enclosed passages, and subsidize car travel (Uber was surprisingly cheap compared to the US). I expect there’ll be more where that came from, as heat, smog, unwalkability, fossil fuels, and car-oriented design are all issues that tend to compound and reinforce each other.
At present the slick, indoor Emirati vision of the future is pretty far from solarpunk’s crusty-but-breathable counterculture. But for now we’re all playing the last game in town: marshaling productive forces to take on the polycrisis and find a path into hypermodernity (or whatever we’re calling it now). And there’s a lot to be said for boldly trying to grab onto the future, to asserting that abstraction as a meta-goal and creating governmental offices and institutes and foundations and museums and university departments (looking at you, ASU!) tasked with achieving it. That’s what I saw in Dubai, and it’s something I’m going to be thinking about for a while.
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