Betaville, or reverse-engineering the future (estimated reading time: 45’ 32”)

Peter Lemmens & Annemie Vermaelen


Put on some headphones, push play.

Take a moment.

Let us tell you a story.

When looking at an official student card, it reads: “determine the future”. This is probably intended as an encouraging, positive message. However, looking around a little bit more, this narrative seems to be omnipresent. “Living tomorrow today”, announces the high-rise building being renovated. “Building the city of tomorrow”, reads the city planning’s sign at a massive construction site. “Buy now, pay tomorrow”, promises the credit card company. “Ten jobs for the future”, recommends the school flyer. “Who will be the next unicorn”, asks the financial newspaper. “Pre-order now”, reminds the online shop. “Sore today, strong tomorrow”, reassures the fitness club. “Invest in tomorrow! Now 100% safe!”, guarantees the spam mails. “National debt soars to all-time record high”, reports the news. “Prelude: Melancholy of the future”, “Potential Worlds 2: Eco-Fictions”, “Uncertain Where the Next Wind Blows”, “Tomorrow”, “Digital Cultures 2020: Imagined Futures”, “The Restless Echo of Tomorrow”, “Thinking about possible futures”, “Countryside, The Future” are some of the current and upcoming exhibitions. Do you catch our drift? These examples cover a lot of ground from economic to social to politics to art. There are many more. Something is going on here.

What could be a critical way to understand this continuous invocation of the future? We propose three keywords to help us out here: the future, narrativity and distribution. By correlating these three notions we argue that our time (e.g. chronology), systemic thinking (e.g. societal improvement) and praxis (e.g. production and distribution) have been compromised. When the future becomes a dominant structure of thinking and acting, narrativity is formatted through distribution methods. ‘The future’, ‘narrativity’ and ‘distribution’ are keywords for a neoliberal system that thrives on probability and extraction. It’s supported by narratives that require a critical mass remaining uncritical to the distribution of a probable, extractable future. If our present is defined by social, political and economic structures, and if these structures are in their turn implicated by narratives about the future, then how do we go about our present reality? 


“Complex societies — which means more-than-human societies at scales of sociotechnical organization that surpass phenomenological determination — are those in which the past, the present, and the future enter into an economy where maybe none of these modes is primary, or where the future replaces the present as the lead structuring aspect of time. (Avanessian & Malik, 2016)

When we hear ‘Living tomorrow today’, we may need to take this more literally than we would like to. The future is no longer a set of possibilities in front of us. It has already been determined. The future subordinates the present, because, when the future is already determined (memorised), the present loses the privilege of being a moment that can not be grasped in itself (Broeckmann & Hui, 2015). In other words, our present and society are governed by a prospectus for the future. We thought we were post-, but we are only pre-.
To enable this pre-condition, the future should be predetermined. Its uncertainty needs to be captured and reeled in with something. That lasso is probability, which differs significantly from possibility. Probability often curtails unlikely possibilities. It disregards the impact of sharp jumps or discontinuities (Taleb, 2010). The future is no future if it’s only possible; it needs to be probable. Where the future used to be an undetermined field of possibilities, it’s now truncated.. Probability flattens out ideas to match, not the average opinion, but the average opinion about what the average opinion will be (Eatwell, 2001). We might already be living on borrowed time. Another way to describe this could be: the future is prescriptive. The future is already determined and serves as a disciplinary fantasy for the present.
This probability is a narrative that keeps the complex circulation of leveraged capital operating (primarily by applying probability calculus to random or historic data) (Nestler, 2017). This incessant pushing into the future reduces everything to placeholders.  By the moment we catch up with a probable future, it has already been supplanted by the next moment. The future is postponed time and time again and we are trapped in perpetual beta. It’s the old bait-and-switch. Our default condition has become one of permanent anticipation.
Once predetermined, that future is set as the default and is already mined through derivatives. What is this thing called derivative? It’s a financial instrument that allows something to be traded in the future at a fixed price. The estimated market size of derivatives exceeds the world’s GDP by twenty times. This means that a whole new field opens up for speculation. A field that is not defined by the quantitative abstraction of production, but by a quantitative abstraction of the information about all of the possible future states of a system (Wark, 2016). This derivative condition has significant implications. In such an economy, human invention increasingly makes physical resources obsolete. We’re breaking through the material conditions of existence to a world where man creates his own destiny (McClanahan, 2013). This acknowledges a materiality problem with a double dynamic. Our economic system is not only finite in physical resources, but in opportunity as well. There is a shortage of profitable investment opportunities. Less investment in the productive economy (the ‘real’ economy) means lower future growth (Magdoff, 2006). Neoliberal actors are very much aware of this finite system. Neoliberalism doesn’t offset limitations by innovative ways to manage material production, but bypasses the system completely by shifting production through time. With the introduction of debt and financialization, production can be sidestepped completely. Material resources can be left out of the equation, while an unlimited opportunity for immaterial surplus can be generated simultaneously. For instance, investing in a yet to be constructed building promises a vibrant new community, social status and soaring real estate prices afterwards as part of the deal. In short, the strategy is to move to the one resource we have unlimited amounts of: time. It stretches out into infinity. How could such abundance not be used? It could be considered a crime not to use it. It would be a waste of time.


We never stop telling ourselves stories, because it is how we make sense of our place in the world, what came before, where we are now, and where we are headed. (Patterson & Monroe, 1998:319)

Everybody loves a good story. The future is ‘without form, shape, or color: it demands yet exceeds all figuration. It’s the “sublime object of ideology”’ (Hebdige as cited in Dunmire, 2005:485). Consequently, stories about the future allow us to conceptualize and examine language as ‘virtual space’ and as ‘action and event’. If we look to exploit narrativity, then we must think about the various ways in which different futures are imagined. We have to explore how particular discursive strategies open up or close down particular lines of possibility; how they invite or inhibit particular social, political and economic fractions. Here, stories can become narratives. We define narratives as stories with an agenda. As unilateral constructs they require neither dialogue nor reflection. All interaction immediately enters the narrative’s intrinsic feedback loop. And this might raise some concerns. Narrativity is the only tool we have to deal with in the future, but swinging a hammer doesn’t necessarily turn all your problems into nails.

First, these narratives are not simple ‘everything-is-possible’-fictions about what could occur in the future. On the contrary, they construct a truncated vision of the future and come with certain prescriptions. In other words these narratives are not about how the future could possibly be, but how it should be. They get distributed without dispute and reproduced as blueprints for that future. As copies that can be implemented anywhere and anytime, these probable future narratives project a standardized one size fits all future. The anticipation of that future narrative then functions as if it is sending signals back into the past, which then prompts action in the present (Dupuy, 2007 as cited in Bayly, 2013).

A second concern is that narrativity has become a super-efficient tool for leveraging and hedging future financial risks and opportunities. Don’t just spend time, invest it. This begs the following question: how do these narratives unfold when we actually catch up with that probable future? Narrativity does not translate well into reality. It’s in its nature to be slippery. Once we catch up with a fantasized future, it’s simply replaced by another narrative for a probable future. This might be essential to understand narrativity as a tool, because it’s the escape route from liability. There is no need to deal with the results, results are not part of the narrative. All that matters, is the probable narrative and the byproducts it creates along the way. This solves the apparent paradox of how to continue myths of economic and technical growth while embracing a future understood as finite and catastrophic.

The future and narrativity are an efficient team. Through narrativity, the future is rephrased as a standing reserve to mine. It’s a way to bring in that future and extract it through derivatives. When that probable future is discarded at the time of arrival and narratives are replaced with new narratives about the next probable future, narrativity becomes a tool to disconnect us completely from materiality.

This brings us to another concern: in neoliberalism’s approach to economic volatility, extraction and profitability is found in a continuously deferred tomorrow (McClannahan, 2013). As mentioned, time becomes the structuring factor and narrativity is the power tool to wield. Although these narratives operate with a certain language and idiom that insists on a probable future, they are in fact not really about the future. All this talk about the future is only a decoy. It projects a fantasized future image as a preemptive strike to determine actions and extraction in the present. This mining of the future in the present changes what the present is. It’s a way to materialize derivative byproducts from that probable future in the present. And that dominates what you can, will and should do today.
Finally, we arrive at the question: whose future are these narratives talking about? The narrative does not only entail a fantasized future, but a fantasized “community” for that future as well. The narrative is simply a way to create a domesticated, disciplined community. The narrative about the future and what should be done today for that probable future, is very particular and fits our current socio-political neoliberal system. It encourages us to get a mortgage, it encourages countries into huge loans, it encourages us to support preemptive strikes against “evil”, it encourages us to buy into and construct a particular architecture in so-called beat-up areas, ... This particular kind of actions in the name of the future, are actually beneficial for the future of a particular part of society. The sugar coat is societal improvement for all, but the reality is improvement for a few, debts for many. Such narratives literally use populations as resource, medium, and testbed for new forms of development, extraction and speculation (Halpern, 2017). In other words, to extract that probable future, the fantasized community that will work towards it, should also be constructed. We understand this community as similar to the fantasized future: it’s not about how this community could be, but how it should be. It should be one that applies for loans, legitimizes wars, buys into gentrification, etc.. This community is made compliant. It’s encouraged to take actions or agree with actions today within the illusion that this will bring us closer to that fantasized future. It’s molded to the fantasized community that is necessary to construct the future narrative and will take part in the distribution of this narrative.


[…] ‘fictitious capital,’ suggesting that finance is a social fiction whose reproduction and power depends on and drives the proliferation of social fictions throughout financialized societies. (Haiven, 2014).

As our last keyword, we want to reframe distribution. Distribution is what makes things available, the natural placement of items along a path. However, increasingly, distribution imposes prerequisites on what can be distributed. Living in the technological age, the world is already framed as a resource available for us, to be made, to be shaped for our ongoing possibilities to express our particular projects, to be whatever we are, as business people, engineers, consultants, academics, teenagers, etc. (Heidegger, 1977 as cited in Introna, 2017). But just as technology doesn’t always reveal itself, neither does distribution disclose its full scope nor its intentional byproducts. Often seen as a logical part of a logistical equation, distribution has shed its neutral skin and mutated to a covert rule-enforcer. It operates with almost imperceptible formats that narrate not only the world, i.e. space, but also the future, i.e. time, as an immediately available reserve. Distribution has become hyper-pervasive and dominant. In our contemporary society and tempo, it favors the immaterial such as ideas, information, services and relationships. These become intensely interlinked and shaped through their distribution formats that demand speed, transition and flexibility.
First, let’s take a look at speed. Interactions are quickened and velocities approach fibre-optic light speed. These kinds of speed liquefy edges and dissolve material with an extreme movement blur. It appeals to the emergence of a new form of money governed not by the ‘physically determined constraints of underlying trade’ but rather by ‘purely financial dynamics’ of circulation (Rotman,1993 as cited in Annie McClanahan, 2013:86). Acceleration becomes easy when matter is discarded in favor of an immaterial, probable future. Light speed might be possible if there is little to no mass. Lightspeed might be the only way to time-travel.
A second feature of distribution insists on keeping everything in a constant state of transition. Leveraging and hedging things into a future is about continuous motion. What becomes more and more evident is that these dynamics are no longer limited to the financial department alone. They are not even limited to fields such as economics or technology. Distribution has become a ubiquitous feature that has infiltrated every layer of thinking and acting. Distribution is no longer a flat surface through which things move, but a 3D situation that reshapes whatever moves through it.
Finally, let’s look at flexibility. Narrativity constantly points at a probable future with a set of placeholders. Here, narrativity is a device to make things happen, even though its subject is replaceable and of no real importance, in this case the future. To replace possibility with probability, to find acceleration and to maintain a state of transition, narratives need to be liquid and flexible. It’s the Argonauts’ boat that is replaced piece by piece while sailing. They speed on, only to arrive with a completely different boat by the same name. It’s completely described yet fully undetermined.
This indetermination is possible as emphasis shifts from what is being distributed to the distribution itself. In this set up of probability, perpetual postponement and immateriality, divergence from the probable future might initially be treated as an error, but will ultimately be inconsequential. Divergence is what threatens current extraction. But nothing more than that. The outcome doesn’t matter. The narrative of a probable outcome is what allows extraction now. It must only be projected as reality for as long as possible. When we eventually reach that probable future, the reality of that situation is already switched to the next moment. Resources become flexible standing reserves located in a deferred tomorrow that can or can’t manifest. That manifestation is besides the point. Interchangeability or adaptability to replacement narratives is key.
When distribution adheres to these formats, it comes with prerequisites that reshape not only the world, but it also reshapes us. Again, narrativity is used to distribute political ideologies, social organization or technological disciplining to displace the present to a fantasized future for a fantasized community. These are the shiny surfaces that reflect the blue skies above. The present is pushed to a next moment, while derivatives are distributed from that future into the now as background activity. These derivatives are therefore the coveted byproducts of narrativity. They are the deep waters below the surface. Through a narrative leveraging, this constant displacement adds up, looming on the horizon as a form of debt. However, these days, the logic that paying your debts makes you rich seems pathetically naive. We have been taught by a decade of casino capitalism that what makes you rich, is precisely the opposite. What makes you rich, fabulously rich, beyond your wildest dreams, is leveraging (Krauss, 1997). The extraction of derivatives simultaneously brings the next moment into the now as the interest rate that’s owed. Both directions of debt and interest rate, disconnect real time from fantasized time and each has its own specific subjects or community. The distribution of derivatives means that when real time finally catches up with fantasized time, extraction has been completed. The future is now exhausted and can be replaced with the next probable future. These are the leverages that insert everything into a continuous distribution cycle.


Art is often perceived as thriving on possibility. It can occupy a space right at the intersection of our three keywords. The creative field is ground zero for words such as temporary, pop-up, nomadic, performance, community, project, content providers, storytelling, innovative, potential, passion, work-leisure. There’s also artistic production that ends up as placeholders in free ports, project-based thinking about the future as an artistic praxis, etc. First implemented by a creative field, these conditions are quickly embraced by a neoliberal language and organization as examples for the future of work and society. Are derivatives of art’s structures such as city planning, cash flows, data sets, political narratives, economical models, etc. also shipped along where it steps into mass distribution? Contemporary art seems to have an ambiguous position towards this all. On the one hand it claims criticality, on the other hand its different waves of institutional critique seem to be co-opted by neoliberal narratives. Art becomes an avant-garde that refrains to look back who is following, while providing creative tools and distribution formats for fantasized futures and communities.
Art should no longer automatically imply a virtuous criticality, whose ethic short-circuits economic, political or social issues. The production of yet more and different art is not a given, but should be taken seriously as a construction in concert with a hegemonic politics “at ease with a modernity of abstraction, complexity, globality, and technology” (Srnicek and Williams, 2013 as cited in Johnson, 2015).
Let us repeat here that ‘the future’, ‘narrativity’ and ‘distribution’ are keywords for a neoliberal system that thrives on probability and extraction. It’s supported by narratives that require a critical mass remaining uncritical to the distribution of a probable, extractable future. Contemporary art is often perceived as a “counter-story”, as the critical voice of our current society. But where is this voice still present or has the creative sector and art been co-opted by a creative industry? How does art grasp its own distribution and the narratives it helps distribute?
So we return to the question: if our present is defined by political-economic structures, and these structures are in their turn implicated by narratives about the future, then how do we go about our present reality? Art could sidestep the narrative impulse and fallacy. It could find a new institutional critique in the deliberate absence of a structuring narrative, controlling the reception or delivery (Malik & Phillips, 2009). This is an invitation to read back and revisit these three keywords with selected quotations from an art context.


“[...] the imaginary space projected by the artist will not only emerge from the formal conditions of the contradictions of a given moment of capital, but will prepare its subjects-its readers or viewers-to occupy a future real world which the work of art has already brought them to imagine, a world restructured not through the present but through the next moment in the history of capital.”  (Krauss, 1997:435)

“[...] artists and scholars always keep an eye on developing ‘transferable skills’ for a future in the ‘knowledge economy’. In other words, the contemporary university seems increasingly to train subjects for life under global capitalism, initiating students into a lifetime of debt, while coercing staff into ever more burdensome forms of administrative accountability and disciplinary monitoring.” (Bishop, 2012:269)

”The intriguing exhibition at the Pompidou Centre in 1985 on 'The Immaterial' (an exhibition for which none other than Lyotard acted as one of the consultants) was perhaps a mirror image of the dissolution of the material representations of value under conditions of more flexible accumulation, and of the confusions as to what it might mean to say, with Paul Virilio, that time and space have disappeared as meaningful dimensions to human thought and action.” (Harvey,1990:299)


“Then, however, the dematerialized art object turns out to be perfectly adapted to the semioticization of capital, and thus to the conceptual turn of capitalism.” (Steyerl, 2012:42)

“[...] information about the artwork circulating in the world that makes it collectible. It is also  the noise. As with any other financial instrument in a portfolio, the artwork in a  collection gains and loses value at the volatile edge between information and noise.” (Wark, 2016)

“Any object can be enriched, however ancient or modern it is, and the enrichment can be physical—for example, exposing beams in an old house—or cultural, through the use of a narrative device that highlights certain of the object’s qualities, thereby producing and formatting differences and identities, which are primary resources of enrichment economies.” (Boltanski & Esquerre, 2016:35)


“The definition of artistic activity occurs, first of all, in the field of distribution.” —Marcel Broodthaers. (Price, 2008)

“On the one hand, the economy of poor images, with its immediate possibility of worldwide distribution and its ethics of remix and appropriation, enables the participation of a much larger group of producers than ever before. But this does not mean that these opportunities are only used for progressive ends.” (Steyerl, 2012:40)

“Circulationism is not about the art of making an image, but of postproducing, launching, and accelerating it. It is about the public relations of images across social networks, about advertisement and alienation [...]” (Steyerl,  2015: 20)

This set of quotations asks for a productive reading and a reassessment. It’s a way to return to a starting point while keeping in mind these questions: How to keep from replicating a center that deserves some criticality? How to create a margin that refuses its own marginality as a cynical quality? How to read while listening to music?

Take a moment.

Put on some headphones, push replay.


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