The Academy 2023 takes place at Wyboston Lakes, Bedfordshire. For a full overview, including how to buy tickets, visit The Academy 2023 page.
Friday 28 July
Room check in opens
Saturday 29 July
1045 – 1100
Welcome address: The future has been cancelled
Jacob Reynolds, convenor, The Academy
1100 – 1230
Plenary I: Utopia and fatalism
Professor Frank Furedi, executive director, MCC Brussels
Chair: Jacob Reynolds, convenor, The Academy
One of the overlooked casualties of the ‘end of history’ period was the idea of utopia. With the end of grand ideological battles came the end of the idea that society might, in the future, be radically, wholly different. If ‘utopian’ had always been used as an occasional insult for those promoting ideas that would be difficult, or impossible to realise, today there are few ideas even remotely grand enough to warrant the dismissal as utopian.
Utopia had been a key part of Western thought, going back at least as far as Plato. Almost every revolutionary moment in Western history was attended by a new series of utopian visions for how the future might be. If the idea of Utopia was finally buried by the end of history, it was put into question in the aftermath of the Second World War, tarnished by its association with the totalitarian ideologies that insisted, with macabre determination, that ‘anything is possible’. All the leading lights of postwar thought, including essential thinkers like Arendt and Camus, roundly condemned the aspiration towards Utopia.
But without Utopia, are we left unable to imagine a truly different future? Utopia, after all, is not just an aspiration towards reform. Without genuinely transformative ideals, what is there to fight for – merely a marginally better version of today? Perhaps change as such draws its power from Utopia – impossible, perhaps, but certainly inspirational?
Today, when a grim realism seems to be setting in, and the future’s wings clipped by everything – from green austerity to economic malaise and the return of ‘might-is-right’ realism to political disenchantment – do we need a return to Utopia?
1230 – 1345
1345 – 1515
Plenary II: Cultural exhaustion? Remakes and originality
Dr Maren Thom, co-host, Performance Anxiety Podcast
Chair: Alastair Donald, secretary, Ideas Matter; convenor, Living Freedom
‘They say Hollywood is running out of ideas’, Jimmy Kimmel joked while presenting the 2023 Academy Awards. ‘Steven Spielberg had to make a movie about Steven Spielberg.’ The statement captures the feelings of many that artistic creativity in general, and film in particular, are in a peculiar, self-inflicted doldrums. Ours is the era of endless remakes, repeats, reboots, franchises, cinematic universes and multiverses. What happened to creativity?
Spielberg himself has attributed the decline of creativity at least in part to the censorious mood in the arts. Against the idea of sanitising the past, he insisted that ‘no film should be revised based on modern sensitivity’.
Today’s times invoke comparison with the era of the Hays Code, adopted in Hollywood studios in 1934 (and eventually abandoned in 1968). The code, effectively an industry-wide practice of self-censorship, drew on conservative moral panics and restricted what could be shown on screen. Yet if previous eras were defined by strict taboos on what could be shown, leaving widespread freedom so long as the taboo subjects were not directly shown, today’s taboos are both pervasive and more ephemeral. Indeed, many allege that the entire notion of representation – the master concept of film and art more generally – is under attack when culture warriors insist that, for example, only trans actors can play a trans role.
What underlies this period of artistic stagnation? Is self-censorship rampant? What are the true origins of artistic creativity, and how can art help us imagine a new kind of future?
1515 – 1545
1545 – 1700
History I: The first transhumanist? Haldane’s Daedalus 100 years on
Sandy Starr, deputy director, Progress Educational Trust
Chair: Timandra Harkness, journalist, author and broadcaster
2023 marks the centenary of Daedalus, a landmark lecture – subsequently a book – by the geneticist, polymath and public intellectual JBS Haldane. The lecture surveyed humanity’s relationship to technology in the wake of the First World War, arguing that while the previous two centuries had been characterised by chemical and physical innovations, the coming century would be characterised by biomedical innovations. The lecture also introduced the idea of assisted reproductive technology and specifically in vitro fertilisation (IVF) into the public imagination, helping to establish Haldane as Britain’s most (in)famous scientist and provoking rebuttals from figures including Bertrand Russell.
People who were famously inspired or unsettled by Daedalus included Haldane’s friends the Huxley brothers: Aldous Huxley was inspired to write his famous dystopian novel Brave New World, while Julian Huxley popularised the term ‘transhumanism’, meaning humanity’s use of technology to overcome biological and other limits. Where did the Daedalus lecture come from? What impact did it have? And what can we learn from Haldane’s life and thought today?
Literature I: Bronze Age Mindset: Body-building the future?
Nikos Sotirakopoulos, visiting fellow, Ayn Rand Institute
Chair: Geoff Kidder, CEO Ideas Matter
In 2018, a strange book appeared, propelling its author, an anonymous twitter account by the name of Bronze Age Pervert, to the centre of public conversation. The book was said to be a manual for Donald Trump and Steve Bannon, and has come to define the reactionary Right. Ostensibly a satire of the genre of self-help books claiming to cure your modern malaises by returning to the past (‘Train like a spartan’, ‘discover your inner caveman’), the book has become a cult hit. It spawned a legion of obsessive followers who dedicate themselves to its message: Nietzschean vitalism, bodybuilding and racist trolling of the left. Yet even its critics admit its appeal: wicked humour, a unique, postmodern style, and biting critique of the empty shibboleths of today’s elites.
Is the book, or its author, just another voice wanting to preach to a disaffected youth, like Jordan Peterson or Andrew Tate? What should we make of the reactionary Right’s return to Nietzsche and fascist aesthetics? When the future seems foreclosed and the public square a distant memory, is anything left to us but bodybuilding and trolling?
1700 – 1730
1730 – 1900
Plenary III: Is progress a thing of the past?
Sherelle Jacobs, columnist, Daily Telegraph
Chair: Phil Mullan, author, Beyond Confrontation: Globalists, Nationalists and Their Discontents
In the summer of 1963, Playboy magazine hosted a roundtable of world-famous science-fiction writers to imagine the world in 1984. The future that these ‘visionaries of progress’ envisaged was mundanely hyperbolic — a world of weekend trips to the moon, Instant Sleep helmets and stain-proof clothing. Today, we can only look back to 1963, and all its hyper-optimism, as a period that is gone with the wind. Yes, today’s techno-utopians still insist that a dazzling world of rockets, robots and biohacking is just around the corner. The difference is that deep down we no longer believe this is true. And in any case, we find it hard to care either way.
What happened to progress? For a long time, progress was assumed as a given: both in the moral, liberal sense of progress from women’s rights to LGBT protections, and the economic, neoliberal belief in the endless growth of living standards. But these assumptions have increasingly been called into question in an era of both ever-expanding victimhood politics and economic stagnation. Perhaps the issue is that Western societies have lost their sense of mission. Without a captivating story and a spine-tingling vision of progress, people start embracing the kind of policies that will only tip us into doom loops of decline.
How, then, do we recapture the belief in progress? What does the current malaise consist in: economic stagnation, ideological passivity, culture-war stasis, or some combination of all three? How can we restart the future?
Sunday 30 July
0930 – 1100
Plenary IV: Contemporary dystopia: the return of apocalyptic thinking
Dr Tim Black, columnist, Spiked
Chair: Ella Whelan, co-convenor, Battle of Ideas festival; journalist; author
End-thinking seems to abound today. Politicians and activists alike warn daily of the ever-impending climate catastrophe. Others talk excitedly of the next pandemic or of the world-ending threat posed by AI. What’s driving the prevalence of apocalypticism today? And how does it relate to the long tradition of eschatological thinking?
Writing over 40 years ago, Susan Sontag attributed ‘the taste for worst-case scenarios’ to ‘the need to master fear of what is felt to be uncontrollable’. Is the contemporary taste for the apocalyptic fuelled by something similar, by a fear of a profoundly uncertain future, or is there something more going on?
After all, beyond mainstream doom-mongering, countless niche strains of apocalyptic thinking are flourishing, too, from the dark fantasies of Islamists to the dreams of a neo-reactionary right, convinced that the era of Western liberal democracy is coming to its decadent end. There seems to be a proliferation of such conspiracy-minded groups, all self-righteously ‘in the know’, denouncing others as evil and / or duped, and keenly anticipating a final reckoning. Norman Cohn, writing of millenarian cults at the dawn of modernity, claimed that the essence of apocalyptic thinking lay in ‘the tense expectation of a final, decisive struggle in which a world tyranny will be overthrown by a “chosen people” and through which the world will be renewed, and history brought to its consummation’.
Could we be seeing a revival of this millenarian sensibility today, rich as it is in Manichaeism and conspiricism? And, if so, why? What is it about the apocalyptic that exerts such a powerful pull on the modern imagination?
1100 – 1130
1130 – 1245
History II: Forecasting failure: A short history of the future
Professor James Woudhuysen, visiting professor, forecasting and innovation, London South Bank University
Chair: Nico Macdonald, instructor on innovation and entrepreneurship programs; consultant, Civic Future
From the exuberance of Jules Verne to the forebodings of HG Wells, visions of the future are well known to say more about their own times than they do about the future itself. At the height of the Cold War, for instance, some still had faith in the future: the scientist and novelist Arthur C Clarke looked forward to harnessing nuclear energy for space travel, so that Mars and Venus would be ‘only a few hours away’. Yet just 10 years later, in a famous report for the elite Club of Rome, the mood had darkened. Donella Meadows and her co-authors insisted that growth clashed with the inescapable limits of nature.
Today, airport booksellers groan with bestsellers telling us what the future will be like. As Peter H Diamandis and Steven Kotler’s The Future Is Faster Than You Think: How Converging Technologies Are Transforming Business, Industries, and Our Lives, an ‘editor’s pick’ at Amazon US, insisted three years ago: ‘Sure, AI is powerful. Augmented Reality is too. But it’s their convergence that is reinventing retail, advertising, entertainment, and education… these convergences are happening at an increasing rate’. But when was the last time you saw a Tesco cashier or a university lecturer don the goggles of AI-assisted AR?
If predictions of the future indeed say more about the present than the future, are they a fool’s errand? Is society’s confidence, or lack thereof, simply reflected in our dreams about what the future is like? Today, these dreams often look more like nightmares. Pessimists and optimists, technophobes and technophiliacs: all the usual experts unite in future worlds marked by presentism, in which a bogus acceleration of everything is matched only by the absence of human agency in any scenario you care to mention. So, is there anything worth saving in the idea of forecasting the future? Can we learn from the pitfalls of past attempts, or perhaps even be inspired by them? Can we dream of the future, but without regurgitating the present?
Literature II: Dune: science fiction and the end of the future
JJ Charlesworth, art critic; editor, ArtReview
Frank Herbert’s 1964 sci-fi masterpiece Dune remains a pivotal work in the history of science fiction. Epic and bizarre in its imagining of a future in which humanity has long inhabited the galaxy, yet is sustained by superstition, ancient custom and feudal order, Dune heralded the beginnings of a more quizzical and sceptical idea of the future in Western science fiction. Whereas the science fiction of the earlier twentieth century trumpeted the infinite possibilities of humanity’s future, driven by technology, science fiction since Dune has been more preoccupied with the imminent eclipse of humanity – either at the hands of human-induced climate catastrophe, or else by the uncontrollable rise of artificial intelligence, or biotechnology – themes all anticipated in Dune.
While Dune anticipated some of the cultural pessimism which has come to dominate contemporary sci-fi, it remains fascinating for its ambiguous and subtle reflection on human agency and history-making, projected into a future in which what defines the human is itself under constant threat. In its complex and often contradictory fusion of technology and medievalism, and of heroism and fatalism, Dune‘s imaginative power lies in how it questions the relationship of humanity to the idea of history and progress. While much of today’s science-fiction can barely bring itself to imagine human beings even a few years into the future, this has a lot to do with our culture’s declining sense of human exceptionalism; and as ideas of traditionalism and premodernity emerge in politics as a reaction to an apparently futureless present, how might science-fiction recentre the human?
Plenary V: The New Elite: Future Proof?
Professor Matthew Goodwin, University of Kent; author, Values, Voice and Virtue: The New British Politics
Chair: Claire Fox, director, Academy of Ideas; independent peer, House of Lords; author, I STILL Find That Offensive!
Lots of recent commentary from both progressives and conservatives has focused on the question of who the ‘elite’ are, and how, if at all, the make-up of the ruling elite has changed. For some, it’s the shady fund-managers and asset owners who bankroll populist movements. For others, it’s a new class of professional technocrats who’ve imbibed the latest ideas about gender and identity. Either way, few would deny that our current crop of elites seem singularly unprepared for the challenges and crises of the 21st Century. Why is this?
1515 – 1645
Plenary VI: Reclaiming the future from the War on the Past
Dr Tiffany Jenkins, writer and commentator; author, Strangers & Intimates: The Rise & Fall of Private Life
Chair: Jacob Reynolds, convenor, The Academy
Throughout history, ideas about the past and future have always been intertwined. Whether in ancient views of history as a cycle, the Christian view of history as suffering ending in redemption, or the more modern idea of logical or rational process, the past seemed to make sense of and provide a path to the future. Today, it seems we can no longer assume such a straightforward relationship.
This is not least because we live in times consumed by the idea of a dark past. Today, we seem hostile to the past, more likely to hide it, as in the shutting of galleries in the Wellcome Collection, or try and remove it, as we see in the pulling down of statues. The demand for reparations for historical wrongs also seems to reflect a widespread fatalistic sense that the present is so determined by past events that all we can do is mourn.
The waves of pessimistic and moralising perspectives on the past are entangled with our perceptions of the future. With the past a dark place, we struggle to envision the future. Perhaps this fixation on historical transgressions arises from a present that is uncomfortable with change, evades understanding its catalysts, and fails to conjure a vision of what could lie ahead.
Our discomfort with the past stands as a significant obstacle to envisioning the future. How has this rupture between the past and the future come to be? What are its underlying ideas? Ultimately, how we can forge a renewed connection between past and future, and from past to future?
Coffee and departure