Category Archives: Futures

Alter the biogeochemical organism on the fly

Robinson Meyer on the latest IPCC report; climate change is an existential issue in both senses of the term.

More than 30 years after climate change first became a political issue, it feels like we are still figuring it out. This report gets us closer. It makes clear that climate change isn’t only about coal-fired power plants, or gas-guzzling cars; and it’s definitely not about littering or—God help us—recyclingIt’s about the profound chemical and physical specificity of human life. You and I are not free-floating minds that move around the world through text messages, apologetic emails, and bank deposits. We are carbon-based creatures so pathetic that we need a lot of silent plants to make carbon for us.

Climate change requires us to alter the biogeochemical organism that we call the global economy on the fly, in our lifetimes. Such a task should command most of the time and attention of every economist, agriculturalist, investor, executive, and politician—anyone who fancies themselves a leader in the physical workings of the economy, or whatever we call it. It is our shame, and theirs, that they don’t.

Meyer’s piece here goes some way to explaining why it’s immensely frustrating to hear people arguing that they’re doing their bit for the climate by buying a Tesla. These people are almost invariably well-intentioned, but they’re also making the same argument a junkie makes about their methadone.

(I am far from innocent, to be clear; I may not drive or fly, but there are things I don’t want to change about my comfortable lifestyle, and I can make some damned nimble arguments about why I shouldn’t need to change them. But all those arguments — mine, yours, everyone else’s — melt like a glacier under the blowlamp of actuality. No one is to blame, but everyone’s complicit.)

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In related news, one of the projects I work for got a pretty decent write-up at FastCompany, which even quotes a bit of the copy I wrote for the exhibition. How do we get past the inertia discussed above? Well, maybe we try presenting the zero-carbon transition as already having happened — showing that not only is it achievable, but that there will be real social payoffs to balance out the supposed privations. Like, would you rather have a Tesla, or would you rather live in a society where you didn’t need to spend hours every day driving from place to place in order to earn a living?

Admittedly, the Tesla is the easy option, both for you and for capitalists like Elongated Muskrat — but that’s exactly why it can’t make a significant difference.

an appropriately unheroic spirit

Nice chewy essay by John Farrell at LARB, on the long-running philosophical ding-dong between utopianism and what he calls the “literary-heroic worldview”.

… the transition to modernity, with its focus on economic rationality, has only changed the terms upon which status is distributed without assuaging the basic competitive drive that animated the literary culture of the heroic. The humanitarian program of the Enlightenment moderated but could not extinguish that drive, and tellingly, in the mid-20th century, the breakdown of capitalism brought back the protagonists of the ancient quarrel in nightmarishly magnified forms: Soviet communism and its imitators — the disastrous implementation of the classic utopian scheme — and fascism — the delusional resurgence of its heroic enemy.

[…]

The abundance of our current world has by no means deprived literature of its dystopian ingredients, only given them more scope. Ideal world-making, the original utopian flourish, has now been absorbed almost entirely by its dystopian rival. In the terrain of the imagination, dystopia has swallowed utopia whole, and Americans seek refuge from their comfortable lives in spectacles of primitive violence like The Hunger Games and Game of Thrones. The heroic mode has even shed some of its masculine bias, producing female action heroes like Brie Larson and Jennifer Lawrence. Nothing in the direction of our current politics casts the outlook for dystopia as anything less than promising.

[…]

The heroic-aristocratic literary mode, along with its economically driven successor, indulges the need for distinction to excess and distributes distinction unfairly, while the rational utopian mode seeks to eliminate this need altogether. One is chronically inhumane while the other verges on the inhuman. Both are still with us.

I have a lot of thoughts in response to this piece, but I lack the time to develop them fully at the moment. The main thing is that Farrell’s take here seems to confirm, or at least support, my own ongoing argument that the classic (and/or technological) modes of utopian thinking are as much a trap as the heroic/hierarchical worldview to which they set themselves in opposition; therefore a path to futurity must be found between those two points, a path that refuses to relinquish the possibility of societal betterment while also refusing to believe that perfection is achievable, while further acknowledging the inevitable failure of any such project without taking that as an excuse not to try. Those of you following along at home will recognise that formulation as my own reading of the critical utopian mode, building from Moylan and Levitas and others.

Also interesting is his observation that dystopia has “swallowed utopia whole”, which, following the implicit mapping of utopianism as a leftist (or at least leftish?) project and the literary-heroic as rightist, approaches the ongoing muddling of political valences from an interesting new angle: as Levitas has observed, while the right ostensibly scorns utopianism, it is in fact engaged in utopian speculation all the time; meanwhile the left struggles to find a utopia it can bring itself to believe in, and increasingly resorts to borrowing the tropes of the technological utopia to patch the holes (cf: Fully Automated Luxury Asteroid-Mining, solarpunk &c — all well-intended and admirable, yet all completely dependent on one or more unexamined externalisations and/or sf-nal moments of pure handwavium). The problem in both cases is the assumption that utopia is a blueprint — a destination, rather than a direction of travel. A noun, rather than a verb.

I’m reminded also of Rebecca Solnit and Donna Haraway’s channeling of Le Guin’s quiet, determined insistence on the rejection of the heroic narrative, which we erroneously assume to be a sort of gold standard in storytelling primarily because a powerful and influential man once told us it was.

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(I would note that I reject any suggestion that the critical utopia is a centrist compromise. Centrism is the doctrine of doubling down on the status quo, doing nothing which has not already been done. In this sense it’s the mildest form of the conservative utopia, which is distinguished by locating its “good place” in the past rather than in the future: centrism locates its utopia last Tuesday, just after lunch. The critical utopia, by contrast, locates utopia as being perpetually beyond the temporal horizon — it will not, cannot be reached. But it can be approached, one step at a time. It can be oriented and re-oriented toward.)

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Finally, and only in passing as a note-to-self: as part of a small reading group, I’m about 3/5ths through Spinoza’s Ethics, and this passage in Farrell’s piece has allowed me to situate that work in the larger philosophical schema.

The philosophical critique of the heroic worldview, in the thinking of Plato and the various Hellenistic schools (Cynics, Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics), depended essentially upon a rational reassessment of human needs and values which rejected the notion that fame and the violent struggle against other human beings can be the chief source of happiness or the purpose of life. Living according to nature, not to be better than others or to survive as a fantasy in the minds of others, is the keynote of Greek philosophical ethics. Wisdom is seeking tranquility instead of glory, leisure instead of wealth, personal well-being instead of familial status. Social and political ambition are to be replaced by the contemplation of truth, the pleasure of discussion with friends, or the peaceful detachment that comes from accepting the limits of our knowledge. Philosophy’s goal is to overcome the turbulence of the body, with its carnal and competitive urges, and to preserve the health and balance of the psyche. Wisdom looks to the joy of the present, not the glory of past and future. In all of these ways, philosophy offered a pointed alternative to the heroic mode.

Spinoza was, whether he realised it or not, rehabilitating a Hellenic ethics for the early Enlightenment. (This may well be an extremely banal observation to anyone with a formal education in philosophy, but to this bootstrapper, it’s something of a lightbulb moment.)

Past futures / participatory panopticon revisited

It’s a head-spinning experience to think back and recall how I started the journey to where I’m at now, in terms of what I do for a living, not least because I had no idea where I was going.

Well, that’s not strictly true – I decided circa 2004 that I was going to have a proper crack at this whole being-a-science-fiction-writer thing, and wandered online to start practicing the skills I thought would be necessary. And I suppose we could say that I am now a science fiction writer, albeit one whose fictional output is, uh, not exactly prolific… and further that the skills I practiced have turned out to have another application that’s fairly adjacent to being a science fiction writer. I very rarely identify as a futurist any more, because that puts you in a box with Shingy and a whole raft of dubious hucksterism, but there was definitely a period during which I was orienting myself in that sort of direction. And that was largely due to encountering Jamais Cascio, whose blog I used to follow, and who I briefly enticed onto Futurismic as a columnist. Cascio was one of the first people I can recall reading who was doing what I think of as “black-sky thinking” – contemplating the darker possibilities of sociotechnical change, in a way that seemed to me to combine the best and most interesting aspects of sf worldbuilding along with the real-world critique that I was slowly coming to see as an urgent political project in reality.

Cascio is still kicking about, of course; he’s one of the Institute For The Future people these days (and, to be honest, one of the few folk there whose output doesn’t make my eyes roll so hard I nearly pass out). Last month he was reflecting on some thinking from that period in which I was just starting to venture out into futures-y spaces, which not only reminded me of the length of this journey (fifteen years!), but also of how we were talking about tomorrows in that particular yesterday. Anyone remember the participatory panopticon? Yeah, that was a circa-2004 jam… and Cascio argues, fairly reasonably, that we got a fair bit of what we thought we were gonna get, just not quite in the form that we thought we were gonna get it: the tech and its functions were clear to see, but (to borrow a well-worn Gibson riff), we didn’t quite see some of the uses the street would find for these things. Plot twist: turns out that “transparency” might have a problematic expression when rolled out at drastic scales! Says Cascio, “that’s the ugly reality of the Participatory Panopticon: it was never going to change who we are. It was really only going to make it harder to hide it.”

But ain’t that always the way? Cascio continues:

Foresight (forecasts, scenarios, futurism, etc.) is the most useful when it alerts us to emerging possible developments that we had not otherwise imagined. Not just as a “distant early warning,” but as a vaccination. A way to become sensitive to changes that we may have missed. A way to start to be prepared for a disruption that is not guaranteed to happen, but would be enormously impactful if it did. I’ve had the good fortune of talking with people who heard my Participatory Panopticon forecast and could see its application to their own work in human rights, in environmentalism, and in politics. The concept opened their eyes to new ways of operating, new channels of communication, and new threats to manage, and allowed them to act. The vaccination succeeded.

It’s good to know that, sometimes, the work I do can matter.

That vaccination function is a much neater way of summing up my argument in favour of the necessity of dystopian extrapolations: as much as utopia is necessary not as a destination so much as a direction of travel to be constantly reassessed in light of the changing terrain, dystopia is necessary as a sort of “here be dragons” motif on the perpetually-updated map of the territory which we use to orienteer ourselves.

No map can ever be the territory, of course – but at the same time, we can’t operate without some approximation of what’s nearby. This is why I increasingly think of what I want to do as being tactical foresight, rather than strategic – which is a riff on de Certau, to some extent, as well as an implicit rejection of the managerial God-trick perspective of corporate futures. I am not a leader, nor do I want to be one; there are too many self-styled leaders already, which goes some way to explaining why we’re marching in circles. Instead, I see myself as a scout – and while he might not characterise it in the same way, I see what Cascio does as being a form of scouting, also.

(I also believe that our work matters, though it’s still very hard to make the case for it to that gaggle of squabbling “leaders”, who tend to see it as little more than an attempt to undermine their assumed authority. Which it is, of course… but it’s also much more than that.)

Weird futurings in the academic hinterlands

Vibrations in the web suggest that folk I don’t yet know are trying in various ways to force a bit of weirdness into the academic futures literature. I’m particularly taken with this title and abstract:

Sport hunting and tourism in the twenty-second century: humans as the ultimate trophy / Wright, Daniel W M (2019)

This paper aims to address the potential of hunting humans as sport tourism activity in the twenty-second century. The paper explores past and current trends related to sport hunting, animal extinction, human violence and the normalisation of violence via fictional media. This paper paints a provocative picture of society with the aim of encouraging dialogue across the wider community regarding the challenges facing society in relation to practices related to sport hunting and tourism.

Regrettably my institution doesn’t have access to the journal Foresight, so I think it’s time to ping the author and ask for a copy.

Here’s another paper from the same journal:

The future persona: a futures method to let your scenarios come to life / Fergnani, A (2019)

The purpose of this paper is to formally introduce the future persona, a futures method to let scenarios come to life. A future persona is a scenario-specific fictional individual living in the future scenario (s)he is meant to depict. The paper provides a formal, systematic and clear step-by-step guide on how to create engaging and effective future personas after a scenario planning exercise.

As I and others have noted before, futures studies and strategic foresight is severely hampered by its nigh-complete refusal to engage with narratology, despite the centrality of narrative to the work it aims to do. Which is presumably why this scholar has proudly announced their reinvention of the focalising character

“The Imaginary Reconstitution of Society”: Levitas (2013), Utopia as method

  • Levitas, R. (2013). Utopia as method: The imaginary reconstitution of society. Springer.

(Only annotating the (brief) intro of this one for now; very much want to dig into the detail of the rest, but hahahah OMG scheduling.)

Levitas opens with H G Wells’s claim that “the creation of Utopias – and their exhaustive criticism – is the proper and distinctive method of sociology”, and observes that it seems somewhat counterintuitive in the context of contemporary understandings of both terms, and the latter’s attempts to distance itself from the former — Urry digs into this development in detail in What is the Future?, as I recall. However, sez Levitas, ‘both conventional sociology and critical social theory have unavoidable utopian characteristics, increasingly recognised in recent discussions.’ (p. xi; and even more so since this was published, I think)

‘The core of utopia is the desire for being otherwise, individually and collectively, subjectively and objectively. Its expressions explore and bring to debate the potential contents and contexts of human flourishing. It is thus better understood as a method than a goal – a method elaborated here as the Imaginary Reconstitution of Society, or IROS.’

(ibid.)

However:

‘… the most culturally prevalent understanding is quite different: utopia is commonly dismissed as an irrelevant fantasy or traduced as a malevolent nightmare leading to totalitarianism. This anti-utopian discourse equates utopia with a blueprint producing violence and teror, and gives rise to a politics of quiescent subordination to the dictates of capitalist markets.’

(p. xii; Levitas refutes this discourse by pushing against John Gray, its most notable peddler; I would note that the blueprint utopia is an extant form, and indeed a very prevalent one… but that it doesn’t think of itself as utopia, precisely because of its rational “deliverability”, which appears to give it a free pass from the standard anti-utopian attacks Levitas describes here)

Another unpopular point that’s well worth noting: ‘it is important to recognise the utopianism of right-wing politics, both at the level of improvised institutions and especially at the level of the state and the global market’ (ibid.); again, I think the aforementioned utopian scenarios (which tend to emerge from the state, or from businesses close to the state) fall into this category. I used to joke that the distinctive thing about conservatism was that its utopias were located in the past rather than the future; I don’t make that joke so much any more, not because I don’t believe it to be true, but because it stopped being funny.

Moving on, Levitas gets back to the matter of IROS, ‘the construction of integrated accounts of possible (or impossible) social systems as a kind of speculative sociology’, which is less an invention from whole cloth than a metalabel which ‘names methods that are already in play with the intention of clarifying and encouraging them’ (p. xiv); IROS ‘intrinsically necessitates thinking about the connections between economic, social and political processes, our ways of life, and what is necessary to human flourishing. It requires a holistic approach fundamental to the distinctive character of sociology [… but some] of the difficulties Wells identified remain pertinent, including the insistence on the scientific character of sociology. Contested ideas of possibility render some overt sympathy for utopia quite anti-utopian, while some overt suspicion of utopia is accompanied by a hopeful, visionary openness to the future.’ (p. xv)

‘The encounter between sociology and utopia implies reconfiguring sociology itself. Sociology must affirm holism and must extend this to include “the environment”, locating our human and social existence within the “natural” or material world. It must embrace the normativity that it has systematically sought to exclude, address the future which it has systematically sought to evade and engage with what it means and might mean to be human. […]

This encounter also implies thinking differently about what constitutes knowledge. It challenges the assumption that sociology constitutes a form of knowledge while utopianism is simply a form of speculation, and seeks to legitimise utopian thought not as a new, but as a repressed, already existing, form of knowledge about possible futures.’

(p. xv; cf. Moylan, though that’s no great surprise given Levitas has worked with Moylan, and utopian studies is not a huge scene)

IROS has three aspects or modes: ‘The first of these is an analytical, archaeological mode; the second an ontological mode; and the third a constructive, architectural mode.’ (p. xvii) Through the archaeological mode we can see that ‘the ideas of meritocracy and groweth that are supported across the range of public discourse imply modes of social organisation that are far from sustainable or equitable’ (p. xviii); meanwhile, the ontological mode is concerned with ‘grace, since imagining ourselves and our social relations otherwise is a necessary and unavoidable aspect of imagining a better society.’ (ibid.) Finally, the architectural mode is ‘concerned with what needs to change, […] with the principles and institutions of a potential alterantive world – yet one which needs to be treated as a hypothesis rather than a plan.’ (ibid.)

‘There are several advantages of utopian thinking as a method. It is holistic. […] It allows … an element of ethical and institutional separation from the present […] it is less constrained by what now seems immediately possible. Importantly, its explicitly hypothetical character enables us to insist on utopia’s provisionality, reflexivity and dialogic mode. […] The utopian method involves both making explicit the kinds of society implied in existing political programmes and constructing alternatives. It entails also considering the kinds of people we want to become and that different forms of society will promote or inhibit.’

(p. xviii)