Reverse Archive: on the past of the future

In 1984, written in the 1940s, George Orwell described a dystopian future, thirty years ahead, where centralized state control would invade every aspect of personal life, under the watchful eye of Big Brother. Another thirty years later, in 2014, and the old forms of state surveillance (literally ‘watching from above’) have been replaced by social media as the primary means to monitor our personal lives. This new distributed form of power is based upon active personal participation, a kind of internalized surveillance system, or autoveillance, from which there is no escape, where state control is effectively out-sourced to individuals and relies upon their own self-policing in relation to the values of ‘the crowd’. This begs the question, what forms will social control take in thirty years from now?

Visions of the future describe the present. Like memory in reverse, narratives of what the future will look like can be harnessed politically to define our attitudes today. When times are good these stories tend to be optimistic, with a belief in ever-improving living conditions and continual progress, but when the economy is struggling politicians resort to the ‘power of nightmares’ to galvanize our support. At the same time the distribution of power around the globe is constantly mediated, or ‘pre-mediated’, by representations of the future. For example, the Middle East is a region often portrayed by Western media as being caught in a perpetual state of crisis. Yet this image is quite at odds with the vision of futuristic cities rapidly emerging in the Gulf. The resistance to change in this ‘battle for the future’ reveals the underlying interests at stake in the present.

The ‘archive’ is normally conceived of as a repository of historical records, and thus inherently political. It is generally accepted that the interpretations we apply to the past actively define the present, and therefore that prevailing narratives of history inevitably reproduce contemporary power relations. The first task of a new regime must be to ‘re-write history’. In 1984, Orwell wrote “who owns the past owns the future, and who owns the present owns the past”, deftly describing the hegemonic forces of colonial power. However, if the focus has now shifted to the dialectics of anxiety and optimism in contemporary visions of the future, is it possible to conceive of an archive in reverse, replacing the historiographic ‘way of the shovel’ with an ‘archaeology of the future’? A ‘reverse archive’ that throws into question prevailing narratives of the present by describing the past of the future.

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