Tag Archives: foresight

the slowdown papers

Those among you with a more futures-y orientation may already have noticed Dan Hill publishing last week a collection of work that he’s calling “The Slowdown Papers”; this is the header post that bundles them and links them all.

I’ve been following Dan’s work for quite some time now. He was always an interesting and erudite feature of the early Twentyteens design fiction scene; if I’m recalling my rather blurry timeline correctly, he started working for Arup around the same time I started my PhD, but at some point pivoted out of that world and wound up working for the Swedish innovation agency Vinnova, as well as collecting a bundle of (well-earned) visiting professorships.

One of the double-edged silver linings of the coronavirus situation has been that a) it has resulted in a massive outpouring of interesting writing from all sorts of people, which b) I’m struggling to keep up with as a reader. I made a conscious (and surprisingly painful) decision over the Easter weekend to limit my attempts to keep up with it all—partly because there just aren’t enough hours in the day, and partly because I found that I was becoming frustrated by and envious of all these people producing insightful material when I was producing little or none of it myself (a shortfall due in no small part to my spending too much time reading other people’s work). I have the generalist’s (and blogging veteran’s) pathology of feeling like I need to respond to everything that interests me—which I now recognise as an early, slower version of the birdsite pathology that urges you to provide your hot take on all the things. I’ve been spending a fair bit of time reminding myself that there’s no need to feel envious of all these experts writing important things about their fields of specialisation, because I am (at least in theory!) and expert with my own field of specialisation; as such, I should probably read a little less (or possibly a lot less), and write more, while focussing my efforts on the topics and issues which are germane to my work. We’ll see how that goes; drinking from the firehose is an old habit, one from long before I even knew what RSS stood for.

But back to Dan: the Slowdown Papers are perhaps the most substantial answer to a question I’d been asking since this thing kicked off, namely “when are we going to decide it’s acceptable to start looking beyond the lockdown?” It’s far from acceptable everywhere as yet, but some folk are starting to spin up some more considered and thoughtful long views, and these essays are a benchmark for the sort of material I want to see more of.

I have yet to read all of them, but there was one that I went for right away, because it addresses (though doesn’t exactly answer) a question that I’ve been asked dozens of times over the last month or so, namely: “what the hell does the Swedish government think it’s doing?” Dan’s been here long enough, and is sufficiently well-connected to the machineries of government (not to mention well-read and bloody insightful) to have a good idea of how things fit together here; as such, this piece was a real relief for me, because it allowed me to see a bigger picture, of which I had heretofore glimpsed only a few parts. For instance, I understood that the Swedish government is quite literally constitutionally incapable of announcing a lockdown akin to those going on elsewhere; likewise, I was aware of the strict (if fuzzy and contested) demarcations between the “what” (or strategic goals) of policy, which are decided by elected politicians, and the “how” (or tactics for “delivery”, to grudgingly use that most repulsive of shibboleths), which are decided by technocratic agencies such as the gloriously hard-for-me-to-pronounce Folkhälsomyndigheten. But there’s so much more to it, just as there is so much more to the question of why every nation has responded differently, and are experiencing different rates of infection and mortality—a question which, while it’s being asked everywhere pretty much constantly, is rarely being explored properly.

If nothing else, we’ve solid proof for the maxim that disasters tend to make us fall back on exceptionalist narratives of nationality—and not just our own.

On that basis, I recommend Dan’s piece on the Swedish situation in particular to everyone, because it’s a model for thinking about the situation more broadly. I still think that there’s a silver lining of opportunity in this crisis—and hell knows the far right has already seen it, and grabbed for it with both of its tiny, unwashed hands. But if we want to alchemise this collision of statistically inevitable tragedy and systematic ideologically-motivated mismanagement into a civilisational turning-point, we need to get beyond the point of getting angry or resentful at anyone not responding in exactly the same way as us.

The mainstreaming of worldbuilding

Looks like some ideation-futures concepts and methodologies are leaking out of the Valley and into the entertainment industry:

[The artist formerly known as Grimes] plans to eventually take up the name of the main character in her book series, an elaborate mythology comparable to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings. It sounds like the books will have a soundtrack, too: “Only, the songs will come first. It’ll be like Sailor Moon and Game Of Thrones, and yeah, it’s super, super pretentious….” Relatedly, “I call branding that is art, lore. Prince has lore. Rihanna has great lore. It’s essentially world building. It’s my favorite art form.”

TafkaG has been in some sort of relationship with Elongated Muskrat, which is probably the infection vector in this case — both of the worldbuilding stuff, and also the gravitation toward some sort of meme-ready edgelordism. I think we can expect to see the notion of “lore” get some rapid traction in the cultural world, even if only for a season or so… but “worldbuilding”, as a label for a hard-to-define bundle of practices, is going mainstream faster than I expected, which presents both opportunities and difficulties. It’s an interesting moment for science fiction (and the scholarship and criticism thereof), too, because there’s no escaping where that concept originated.

A putative reality that does not (yet) exist

The goal of the process is to put people in circumstances whereby they’re invited and enabled to think and feel into the potential and implications of a putative reality that does not (yet) exist. They do not have to buy it hook, line and sinker; the point is more commonly to invite them to test it out. So, creating those circumstances means alternating between the conceptualisation of your creation at several levels of abstraction: the logic of the scenario, and the accessibility and comprehensibility of the experience provided (part of which is furnished by the context of the encounter which you may not be able to fully control, but which you can certainly try to co-opt). Aspects of this process are captured well by a phrase of futurist Riel Miller which he uses to describe scenario production: ‘rigorous imagining’. The rigour that you need to bring to the imagining is increased when you’re trying to manifest it palpably in experience, rather than leaving it in the splendid abstractions of text or statistics, which are the most common modes of scenaric representation.

Stuart Candy on the goal of “experiential futures” work.

Kahneman’s pre-mortems: dystopia as clusterfuck avoidance strategy

I’m not much of one for citing economists approvingly, but in this QZ piece devoted to distinguishing a clusterfuck situation from a mere SNAFU or shitshow, there’s an interesting note on Daniel Kahneman’s approach to forward planning:

Before a big decision, teams should undertake what Kahneman calls a “premortem.” Split the group in two. One is assigned to imagine a future in which the project is an unmitigated success. The other is to envision its worst-case scenario. Each group then writes a detailed story of the project’s success or failure, outlining the steps and decisions that led to each outcome. Imagining failure and thinking backwards to its causes helps groups identify the strengths and weaknesses of their current plans, and adjust accordingly.

That flies in the face of the vast majority of corporate foresight and “innovation fostering” practice, which still tends to focus relentlessly (some might even say myopically) on the positive, a strategy doubled down upon by the repeated uncritical use of template narratives based on the Hero’s Journey… and indeed it flies in the face of recent griping about the way dystopian science fiction supposedly poisons the well of futurity by portraying clusterfuck futures.

Why not hire a cynic now, while you’ve still got a budget to hire with?

Seven billion spiders

Here, then, is what makes all members of the species Homo sapiens cultural animals. They come into the world quite incomplete, and pick up what they need to know, and more, by learning from life, and in very large part from one another. As at the same time social animals (and for them the social and the cultural go together, inseparably), they deal with life and with each other in large part by way of interpreting and making signs, managing meaning. And this is what culture is about: meanings and meaningful forms, more or less organized into wider complexes. In an oft-cited passage, Clifford Geertz […] concluded that “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun.” The abstraction of that formulation, however, risks making it a bit misleading. There is not just a single, solitary spider in that web, but a great many—by current estimates, over seven billion of them.

From Hannerz, U. (2016). “Reporting from the Future.” In Writing Future Worlds (pp. 113-133). Springer International Publishing.