Category Archives: Futures

both men believed they knew how the world worked

I’m always here for anyone giving neoclassical economics the kicking it so rightly deserves; in that sense, this piece at Aeon is a bit measured for my tastes, but Bergin—like all the best journalists—leaves plenty of room for one to read between the lines.

If even the simple supply-and-demand curve, a staple of the orthodox neoclassical framework, fails on something so fundamental as wages and employment, why do economists cling to it? And why do policymakers keep listening to them?

Perhaps the answer to the first question lies in the second. In 2009, the then US president Barack Obama appointed Cass Sunstein as his regulation tsar, with a remit to help cut automotive emissions. Sunstein argued a carbon tax on fuel was the most efficient way to influence people’s behaviour because that’s what the neoclassical dogma says. The fact that the tripling of fuel prices in the previous decade had not fundamentally changed Americans’ car purchasing patterns apparently did not merit consideration. Neither did the fact that other regulatory measures imposed in Europe had led to a far larger increase in fuel economy with only a modest price signal via higher fuel prices.

In 2020, the UK government appointed Mark Carney – a former governor at the Bank of Canada and the Bank of England – as climate change adviser. Carney was quick to declare the problem to be essentially a mispricing of the cost of emitting carbon. Neither Sunstein nor Carney are experts in climate economics, let alone climate change. But being economists, both men believed they knew how the world worked and therefore had the toolkit to provide solutions to world’s gravest and most complex problems. Political leaders believed them. In effect, their self-confidence made them more employable.

My bold, there, deployed principally in order to give me a reason to repeat a favourite riff from over the years:

… always remember that the “con” in “con-man” is an abbreviation of “confidence”.

That’s not to say that every confident person is on the con, of course. (Nor that con-mannery is exclusive to men, for that matter.) But frankly—the times being what they are!—if you wanted a rule of thumb for working out who to trust, that’s as good a one as you could ask for.

it’s about being right, whatever the heck that means

Couple ‘graphs from Julian Bleecker, here, which manage to put fairly succinctly an argument about futuring which I first found myself trying and failing to make ten, maybe fifteen years ago:

Predicting things feels like a setup for bad behavior. It feels weird trying to anticipate what’s going to happen “next” or down the road. It’s hard to explain. It feels a bit like the phenomenon where you tell yourself something enough times with enough conviction that you are challenged to imagine anything else. Also predictions feel transactional. Someone wants that prediction in order to make a proposition bet on something happening and all of a sudden, it’s not about imagining possibilities richly, it’s about being right, whatever the heck that means. I guess it means placing the right financial bet on a possible outcome and reaping the rewards thus.

That stands on its own, but the second one manages to underscore it without pointing the finger too hard:

Statistics might be useful when bets are being placed on possible near future worlds. When one doesn’t care about the lived experiences of that world except insofar as one is attempting to place (typically financial) bets on outcomes.

The angle that always interested me was what I took to be the absurdity of rating people (not exclusively futurists) on the percentage of things they “predicted” correctly—a bugbear I probably picked up in the sf world first, thanks to the ubiquity (mostly faded now, thankfully) of such claims about Asimov, Heinlein, whoever. And it still bugs me now, I find, having started to think about it… because here’s the thing: your supposed skill or luck at predicting is only (supposedly) verifiable after the point at which the certainty of your prediction would have been useful*, and that’s true of each particular prediction as well as your predictions considered as a set (whether carefully curated for positives or not).

It baffled me for ages why anyone would want to trust in those odds, however calculated… which, with hindsight, is because I was still at that point a lot more innocent about the ideology of commerce than I thought I was. Bleecker—with whom I do not by any means agree with on everything—has done a lot more time at that particular coalface; that’s presumably why he can name (or at least describe) this phenomenon so much more successfully than I can, and possibly why he’s more willing than I am to accept it as part of life’s rich tapestry.

Selah—maybe we choose our paths, maybe our paths choose us. Maybe there’s no substantive difference in those two options. But back to the main point here: you can disagree with me about the utility (or otherwise) of predictions, and you will be neither the first or the last to do so, and I’ll shrug it off (because experience dictates that this, another dogmatic catechism of the cult of Number Go Up, is effectively impossible to argue with anyway, and because I believe—or should I say predict?—that my position will be borne out by events in the long run).

But when it comes to arguing for the nimbleness to outcomes, expected or otherwise, that comes from the exercise of the imagination that Bleecker is extolling here, well, that’s a hill I’ll gladly die on—indeed, it’s the one where my flag’s been planted for a decade already.

[ * Of course, there’s a gotcha lurking in here that applies to Cassandra “shouldn’t” types such as myself, which would be fun and useful to sit down and work through at some point. Another one for list. ]

Smart cities: Policy without polity

Another publication is getting close to popping out of the pipeline!

23rd November 2021 sees the formal release of the Routledge Handbook of Social Futures, in which yours truly has a chapter entitled “Smart cities: Policy without polity”. Regular readers here will likely be able to guess—and guess correctly!—that this piece does not at all celebrate the “smart city” concept, nor even attempt to (re)define it; rather, to cite my own introductory paragraph:

“I am not interested in defining the ‘smart city’ so much as in investigating its persistent resistance to definition and exploring alternatives to its problematic framing of technologically mediated urban futurity.”

My opening move is to claim that the “smart city” is a generic narrative form in the technological-utopian tradition. After that… well, I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you, now would I?

In case the prospect of me railing against one of my love-to-hate suitcase words is not enticement enough, you should know that there’s twenty-nine chapters of social-futures fun in this volume, featuring such friends, acquaintances, colleagues and inspirations as Andrew Curry, Ann Light, Nicola Spurling, Genevieve Liveley, AbdouMaliq Simone, Lisa Garforth and Nick Dunn, among many others; the whole thing has been edited with admirable wisdom and patience under pandemic circumstances by Carlos López Galviz and Emily Spiers, whose work at the Lancaster Institute for Social Futures is a leading light in the field, if you ask me.

Now, as the title of this post makes clear, this is a Routledge title—and those acquainted even only in passing with academic publishing will know this implies that acquiring a copy will leave a serious dent in your bank account. As such, it’s probably the sort of thing that you’d be best to encourage your institutional library to acquire, assuming you are fortunate enough to have access to such a thing (and that it has the budget to do so); whoever might decide to buy it, the blow may be slightly softened by using the discount code FLY21 (as found on the flyer acting as an illustrative image for this post), which will result in a 20% reduction in the price.

Those for whom neither of these options are viable, but who would nonetheless like to see a copy of my chapter, should feel free to drop me a line; we’ll see what other options for dissemination are available.

het från pressen

Taking what feels like a well-earned and much-needed day off today, after yesterday’s launch of the above narrative prototype / experimental futures vehicle (via the second medium of a slightly kludgy pseudo-Brechtean performance of an online talk-show from 2041). If anyone had been wondering why things have been quiet here lately, getting this thing finished to deadline is one of the larger reasons!

Will likely write about it at greater length in the weeks ahead; for now, I’ll settle for a simple statement of the necessity – and joy – of having a great team to work with on the realisation of somewhat crazy ideas. Few things worth doing can be done well alone.

Solnit’s hope vs. Arendt’s natality

Rebecca Solnit’s definition of hope is so succinct a summary of my own definition that I assume I must have picked it up from her (and from others who got it from the same source). This version is from a new interview at LARB, which I’m stashing here so I can cite it properly going forward:

I never describe myself as an optimist. An optimist is someone who thinks things will be all right no matter what. It is the flip side of being a pessimist, which means thinking everything will be bad no matter what. What I am is hopeful. Being hopeful means there are possibilities, but it is up to us to seize them and make something of them. We will see.

Interesting to compare this to Samantha Rose Hill’s reading of Hannah Arendt’s definition of hope:

It was holding on to hope, Arendt argued, that rendered so many helpless. It was hope that destroyed humanity by turning people away from the world in front of them. It was hope that prevented people from acting courageously in dark times.

Now, I’m not about to gainsay Hannah Arendt, nor Rose Hill’s reading thereof—but nonetheless it appears that Arendt is using the term in a very different way to Solnit: Arendt’s hope is much more like Solnit’s optimism, or so it seems to me. (It would be interesting to do a proper philological dig into the etymology of hope, and its different expression in the various Germanic languages.) That leaves Arendt’s natality as a plausible counterpart to Solnit’s hope:

An uncommon word, and certainly more feminine and clunkier-sounding than hope, natality possesses the ability to save humanity. Whereas hope is a passive desire for some future outcome, the faculty of action is ontologically rooted in the fact of natality. Breaking with the tradition of Western political thought, which centred death and mortality from Plato’s Republic through to Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927), Arendt turns towards new beginnings, not to make any metaphysical argument about the nature of being, but in order to save the principle of humanity itself. Natality is the condition for continued human existence, it is the miracle of birth, it is the new beginning inherent in each birth that makes action possible, it is spontaneous and it is unpredictable. Natality means we always have the ability to break with the current situation and begin something new. But what that is cannot be said.

(In the spirit of honesty, I must confess to finding something unsettling about the connection of futurity to “the miracle of birth”; perhaps this is an expression of an institutionalised misogyny on my part? I both hope and believe that it is not… but if it were, then by definition I would believe it to be something else, I guess. Which is another unsettling thought… and perhaps the more pertinent of the two unsettlements for me to address.

But the idea that “the children are our future” has always seemed to me—a childless person by personal choice, rather than by political conviction—as a way to kick the can of change down the road, even if not intentionally or consciously: “well, we’ve made a mess of things, but if we bring the kids up OK, they can sort it all out when we’re in our dotage!” And I guess that, as a recent exile from Rainy Reactionary Island, I currently find it rather hard to believe that generations in their dotage will actually accept their children trying to change anything at all while they’re still alive.

Which is not, to be clear, to claim that there’s some inevitable conservatism inherent in parenthood… though it is perhaps to suggest—as I believe many feminist and post-feminist theorists have already done at great length—that the nuclear family is the institution that does the majority of the cellular-level work of reproducing capitalist relations. I dunno… this is one of the may fields where I need to do a lot more reading than I already have.)