Inventing the Future | Sus

Credit: QTY/Isiah Medina

Thomas Atkinson

‘Adaptation’ only works as a description of Isiah Medina’s Inventing the Future if it is ‘adaptation’ as defined by Andre Bazin. As Bazin posits in What is Cinema? Volume I, filmic adaptations of non-filmic texts work best when we consider them an artwork in their own right that expands our understanding of the original text. Indeed, Inventing the Future, an adaptation of Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ 2015 book of the same name, is resolutely a work belonging to Medina. His previous films, such as 88:88 and especially Idizwadidiz, are riveting, bracing works that rail against the social and cultural forces of capitalism with genuine anger and hopefulness, with a dizzying editing style and impressive manipulations of computer-generated spaces. 

Srnicek and Williams’ book fits Medina’s interests, though it is unlikely to convince you that the messiahs for a new generation of left-wing empowerment have arrived. It’s not for lack of trying on their part. They spend a great deal of the book’s first chapter bemoaning the way ‘folk politics’ have overtaken the need for organisation on the left. They say that socialism has died on its feet and is in dire need of a revival with a new, exciting, and concrete message. 

‘All this is to say that we are the motherfucking shit,’ one can imagine the authors positing before getting to the point: the Global Left should embrace technofascism. Yes, in order to reach what the authors call a ‘post-work society’, what needs to be done is not organising at a local level, instigating direct action, and showing solidarity with material struggles both foreign and domestic. In fact, all that is needed is a list of four demands (yes, only four!): a reduced working week, Universal Basic Income, doing away with the work ethic, and their signature demand, full automation of work wherever possible. This means the use of machines and computers to perform work instead of humans. It really is that easy to dismantle the insidious, rigid, weblike structure of neoliberalism! 

The book does not grapple with any material implications of its assertions. Who will (be exploited to) make these machines? Are the powerful people of the world just supposed to let all this happen? In what world is the Global Left in a position to make ‘demands’? As is clear from the unfettered hellscape in which we all reside, the net result of Srnicek and Williams’ book in the five years since its publication has not been an almighty overhaul of the capitalist system as we know it. Its only tangible impact appears to be the release of Medina’s ‘adaptation’. 

Though Medina’s films have appeared at a few festivals, they’re also all available online, which might explain the particular type of attention Medina has received. MUBI Notebook has published essays about his work several times, and one or two veteran critics like avant-garde expert Michael Sicinski and Nick Newman have shown interest in him. But the place where Medina’s work has received the most attention is Letterboxd. Visiting Inventing the Future’s ‘reviews’ page is to be met with a barrage of equal derision and acclaim. Slant’s Sam C. Mac gives it a rave; a user by the name of yush describes its imagery as ‘embarrassing’. In its reception, as with its making and distribution, the film is entirely a work of the digital era.

However, let us be clear and up-front here: I do not share the rapturous view that Inventing the Future is ‘the first film of the 22nd century’, as suggested by my erstwhile contemporary Ben Nash. Despite Medina’s considerable vision as a filmmaker, Inventing the Future is an incomprehensible work. Its arcane editing system is how one might envision a journey through a pinball machine, to say nothing of how regressive the horseshit politics underlying both the book and the film are.

I have seen Inventing the Future twice now. But the farce of the film is that no amount of rewatches would be enough to fully decode its messaging. The problem becomes apparent during Medina’s many signature strobe-like montages. In the opening, for example, Medina splices together millisecond-long clips of student protests, Lego blocks, and CGI landscapes. Later, these montages mash together images from other sections of the film, as though it is actively consuming itself. 

It’s a fascinating thread to pull at, even if a film about the ontology of cinema in the digital era already exists in Jean-Luc Godard’s last few features. But with the film grafted onto the rigid structure of Srnicek and Williams’ book, which is read out in narrated sections across the film’s runtime, the viewer is forced to try and make associations between images. This is difficult to do, and makes the film meaninglessly obtuse, though these illegible montages are not as silly as when Medina lets some of his images breathe. Because then we actually have to look at them, and they are often thuddingly stupid. It’s insulting the amount of times Medina forces his audience to consider the individual and global implications of capitalism through the medium of foam alphabet letters.

Several of this film’s supporters say its key balancing act is between the intellectuality of its form and a more touching humanism at its centre. Presumably these acolytes are referring to Medina’s inserts of a Black father and his child that arbitrarily pepper the middle section of the film, because if not, then I have no idea what they are talking about. If anything – and this should be the real key to the film – Inventing The Future refers more frequently to the act of dehumanisation. 

Medina’s relationship to a pair of socialist Cambridge graduates, for example, seems driven by his ironic distance from them. As these writers brainstorm a policy theory text about climate change and cycling, the aforementioned images of the Black father-child family unit will appear sporadically for a second at a time, intruding on the writers’ conversation. Taken literally, the juxtaposition of image A and image B could be read as Medina’s visual illustration of humans demanding to be put back into political discussion. It’s a solid sentiment, until one remembers the guiding principle of Srnicek and Williams’ book: folk politics is useless politics, and humanism is ineffective compared to the power of machinery and digital realities. Something is up here, and it’s not just the writers’ abhorrent combination of courgettes with cheesy pasta in a later sequence. 

Medina also pushes his CGI fascinations to their limit with his digital dehumanisation, resulting in digital images that are sometimes pretty, but often just hilariously ugly, such as the repeated – and entirely computer-generated – image of test-tube babies being grown in Matrix-style pods that look like bad demos for a 00s Resident Evil game. And when it comes to actual living, breathing humans, they are often seen residing in green screen environments, save for a couple who discuss Socrates with each other in a deadpan, stagey delivery reminiscent of such works by Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet as Antigone (1992). The running theme here is one of humans being eaten by technology until their very existence within the image is dependent on it, a scary notion that seems like a cautionary against the very book Medina is ‘adapting’.

More essential to all the digital images is the knowledge that Medina is the digital ‘oppressor’. Even though algorithms from computer programmes perform the dehumanisation, he is imposing these 1’s and 0’s on his subjects. He points this out in the film, too. Among the other repeated images in Inventing the Future is a pretty impressive deconstruction of motion capture processes that shows the human in the green screen space, the monitors on which the human is being watched, and the camera capturing all these images as well, which are all seen in a 180⁰ dolly. 

All these examples run in diametric opposition to the book’s core thesis, or at least challenge the notion that the accelerated growth of new technology can be beneficial for a Global Left. Such is the contradiction in Medina’s work. These images are opposed to the book on which they are based, almost to the point where the actual text itself is ignored. At one point in the film, narrated readings from passages of the book are matched in the sound mix by Medina’s Straubian couple, meaning the audience can’t hear it. The unresolved heart of Inventing the Future is this (self-critical?) act of adaptation, where malevolent technology is interrogated in the imagery, contradicting the book, and sometimes outright mocking it.

Yet the promotional materials for the documentary, over which Medina presumably has considerable influence given the film’s DIY production and distribution, bill the film and the book as a single piece that ‘look[s] to the future with unwavering optimism about what humans and technology can do’. In other words, they contain positive assertions about the book. So either Medina is playing a long game of lying about his film’s true purpose, or he has disappeared up his arse and resorted to cheap obfuscation for its own sake.

Therefore, it is worth talking about the success, or lack thereof, of Inventing the Future. It’s clear that, unlike the purely theoretical value of Srnicek and Williams’ book, Medina’s film is a work of actual art in its own right. So, if one were to put the political fallacies aside for a moment, does this alter how one might evaluate the work? Whether or not you buy that Inventing the Future is an act of self-sabotage, Medina has shown an affinity in his writing for the idea of automation as an artistic tool. This is likely what drew him to make the project in the first place, and what fascinated him about the idea of adapting a book in such an obtuse way. This is ultimately a piece of art about art, and specifically about Medina’s fascination with how the use of automation can further democratise the creation of art (for example, an artist no longer needs to hire special effects people to do their work when two or three clicks of a mouse can do much the same thing in Adobe After Effects). 

But it also feels as though Medina grafted the book onto his own ideas about automation, creating a battle of form versus content that fans of Inventing the Future have barely grappled with. Its conception of automation as a positive force for art is perfectly agreeable. But to muddy that by galaxy-braining and suggesting that The Robots Will Save Us is like saying that drinking water hydrates us, so to combat dehydration we should all drown. This is not to mention that the film’s illegibility to a great deal of viewers makes it basically useless as a political text in a way that the book, for all its unbelievable egotism and misplaced energy, was not. One can read and understand Srnicek and Williams; Medina’s film needs footnotes.

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