Something about Silicon Valley tycoons inspires the word “futurism.” Whether they like it or not.
When Elon Musk began his crusade to buy Twitter, millions of conservatives cheered and rallied behind his political vision, while media outlets such as Politico (perhaps in response to the notion that Musk was a visionary) labeled Musk’s agenda as “futuristic.” Similarly, Wired described tech investor Peter Thiel as a futurist when detailing the PayPal co-founder’s libertarian ideology. It seems that “futuristic” has been applied to any ideology in general based on technology and its potential to change the future of humanity as a species.
But “futurist” also refers to a particular movement from 20th-century history that is crucially similar to and different from the supposed “futurism” propagated by the likes of Musk and Thiel.
Futurism was an early 20th-century intellectual, artistic, and social movement centered primarily in Italy and Russia. Founded in 1909 by the Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Futurists glorified technology and detested political and artistic movements rooted in historical traditions. They employed an aesthetic that an early 21st-century resident might associate with the sci-fi genre: heavy on machines, industry, and reliance on the promises of technology.
Futurists promoted youth, physical vitality, violence, and speed. Futurists not only embraced life through their own unique worldview, but also rejected what they saw as the irrelevance and decline of politics and art at the hands of Italians who espoused ideas rooted in ancient Roman times, the Renaissance, or other historical antecedents based.
“In a way, they don’t need politicians or the government to implement their visions. It’s a big contrast to these early 20th century futurists, and they’re a lot more dangerous in my opinion.”
“The Futurists certainly favored modern innovations, but modern technology was desired against the perceived traditionalism and backwardness of Italian society,” explained Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi, a cultural sociologist at the University of California – Santa Barbara, in an email to Salon.
After expressing skepticism that Musk could be compared to Italian Futurists, Falasca-Zamponi argued that “a departure from the country’s current ‘stasis’ motivated the Futurists’ vision, and technology was just one aspect of their forward-looking pursuit.” They advocated anti-Catholic social policies such as divorce laws, and when Fascist leader Benito Mussolini took over Italy, many Futurists rallied behind him.
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“The most disturbing element of their position, however, was their disregard for the impact of technology on human life,” added Falasca-Zamponi, referring to a critique of futurists from the philosopher Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay. She described the usual association of futurism and fascism as “a bit misleading”, noting that futurists “certainly officially agreed with Mussolini’s movement and were involved in the regime”, but Mussolini himself “never really assigned them an important role in the regime” and that “futurism was never the official art of the Fascism was”.
It is also noteworthy that the futuristic glorification of violence was motivated by specific incentives that today appear anachronistic. This can be seen in Marinetti’s 1909 Manifesto, which outlines the movement’s essential beliefs—although Marinetti himself viewed this Manifesto as art as much as politics.
“Marinetti was more of a multi-genre artist from today’s perspective – he believes in performance (readings); wrote poems, [and] even had a futuristic cookbook [which] said Italians ate too much pasta to be a glorious country,” Mabel M. Berezin, a sociologist at Cornell University, told Salon via email.
She also noted that in the manifesto Marinetti praised war and violence “but not as an internationalist activity”. Rather, he saw violence “as a way to liberate Italy from its dependence on the past (cemeteries, museums, Renaissance art, etc.)”.
“The most disturbing element of her position, however, was her disregard for the impact of technology on human life.”
It’s hard to pinpoint when and where people started comparing Musk, Thiel, and those who admire their views to futurists. The analogy may exist for no other reason than that there are superficial similarities, specifically admiration for technological advances and belief in a great future for the human species.
I’ve even argued before that Donald Trump (whom Musk and Thiel clearly respect to varying degrees) is bizarrely a bit of an artist, and that his artistic sensibility fueled his political movement. Additionally, Musk promoted the philosophy known as long-termism, which could be described as highly forward-looking because it is defined as (to quote the philosopher Émile P. Torres) “a quasi-religious worldview, influenced by transhumanism and utilitarian ethics that claims that millions or billions of years in the future, so many digital humans could live in giant computer simulations that taking action to ensure that as many of these digital humans as possible emerge is one of our most important moral obligations today. “
But these are all surface layer similarities. As Berezin notes, people like Musk and Thiel are more ominous than futurists because “they have the money to move their plans forward. In a way, they don’t need politicians or the government to implement their visions. It’s a big contrast to these early 20th century futurists and they’re a lot more dangerous in my opinion.”