The FutureFest conference room is vast and lit in shades of clean non-threatening purple, the colour of expensive shirts and corporate promotion films. There is a big white stage and big digital screens and everything is being filmed for some reason. It is all so flat and clean and empty, like being trapped inside Windows 7. A hollow room filled with hollowed out phrases floating languidly in the warm air above us, spinning aimless cartwheels before drifting towards the exits.
The next talk hasn’t started yet and before it can an advert is playing on the giant screens. It is an advert for an electric car. In the advert the car sits charging outside an immaculately conceived house. It drives smoothly along clean empty streets. It arrives silently at a glass office block and is carried in a special lift up to the second floor to sit neatly alongside other identical electric cars. Everything is so clean. So devoid of antagonism, a neoliberal fantasy of frictionless comfort and ethical consumption.
I am reminded of a conversation we had this morning about the London riots and the well-meaning liberals who rushed out the following morning with their newly brought brooms to sweep away the fear and tension, to silence the anger that made them so uncomfortable. In response to this Liz told us of the destruction of a shanty town of temporary huts in a plaza in Kreuzberg in Berlin; the land covered instead in neat, unspoilable astroturf. Grass without roots. The seductive safety of aggressively maintained cleanliness. A society without fear, as Tony Blair once frighteningly described the world he was trying to enact.
The conference room is called IMAGINE, and it is full of people. People sent to imagine the future. Except there is no future here for us to imagine, only a perpetuation of the present. Imagine, we are asked, if everything could stay the same forever. Imagine a world in which we can all stay rich and powerful forever, whilst elsewhere continents sink into oblivion. Imagine our politics will remain the same, and our structural inequalities will stay the same, and our deadening endless consumption. Except all the cars will be electric.
Elsewhere I listen to two American men deliver a talk called Designing Your Life. Designing Your Life is also the name of a book they are trying to sell. They speak with the slick confidence of rich white men. They both used to work for Apple and both teach at Stanford, a private university in California that is one of the wealthiest universities in the world; it currently has an endowment of $22 billion dollars. At Stanford they seemingly teach their laissez-faire Silicon Valley libertarianism to privileged students who are encouraged to confuse self-interest with self-actualisation, and to couch their private greed in the language of corporate manifest destiny.
At one point one of the two says ‘the best way to predict the future is to design it’ and I think it is the only true thing I have heard all day. This is not a conference about predicting the future, it is a conference at which the powerful come to consolidate the political and economic paradigm that has allowed them to become powerful. It is a conference at which they can keep designing the same future over and over again, like a new iPhone, with slightly rounder corners and a more powerful inbuilt camera.
Except it all seems so small, so unconvincing. No one is buying what they are selling and even they don’t seem to believe any more that this is what the future is really going to look like.
We leave the Imagine room and head out of the conference into the reassuring greyness of Wapping. As we start to walk up towards Cable Street we pass a large mural commemorating the battle of Cable Street, the day in 1936 when a coalition of anti-fascists, socialists, communists, anarchists, Jews and various other people of the East End prevented Oswald Mosley and his British fascists from marching through the area. The bright primary colours of the mural sing on the rain-slick wall, a mess of arms and faces, swastikas, horses, red flags, truncheons, chairs, bottles, open mouths and shielded faces and at the top a thin sliver of bright blue sky. It is full of chaos, and anger, but also hope and vibrant technicolour beauty. Here, finally, was a future I want to believe in.