Tag Archives: futures

terrible stories, told beautifully

A shameless wholesale reblog from Nicolas Nova, here, as he’s done the service of transcribing a bit from a podcast interview with Anna Tsing which I have yet to listen to, but which chimed so damn loud with a conference paper abstract I’ve been writing this afternoon (as well as with, well, everything I’ve been thinking and writing about for the last couple of years, but the last year in particular) that I couldn’t let it pass unblogged. Plus, y’know, it’s been a while, hasn’t it?

Anyway—quoth Tsing:

As I continue to read about the challenges around us, I have decided that’s not enough, we also gonna have to tell stories where we’re not winning, where there’s just terrible things happening and we might not win, and I know anthropologists have been very critical of those kind of stories, particularly as paralyzing, as leaving one dead-end. Then it’s gonna be a challenge, how do write those stories in a way that they’re not paralyzing, that they bring us to life, that we notice the details, all that art of noticing is in there, that we ‘stay in the trouble’ as Donna Haraway puts it, that we get involved, so that’s our challenge. So that rather than saying don’t do it, I think the challenge of our time is: ‘how do we tell terrible stories beautifully.’

At the risk of coming across as a shameless fan, I could argue that Tsing has already found at least one answer to her own challenge, as illustrated by her magisterial and beautiful book The Mushroom at the End of the World. But it remains a hard case to make, whether in academia (where, while you may have a solid theoretical justification for futures that contain the grit of failure and unevenness, actually getting that past the tacit and largely unexamined institutional bias toward optimistic futures over hopeful ones can be an uphill struggle) or beyond (where attempting to end-run accusations of “being a downer” by means of theory is, nine times out of ten, merely to dig one’s own hole a few feet deeper).

But nonetheless: terrible stories are a prerequisite for hope, because hope, being active, requires some undesirable future (e.g. what Lisa Garforth describes in her excellent book Green Utopias as the “apocalyptic horizon” of climate change”) to be deployed against. Optimism is not enough; optimism is Business As Usual; optimism is centrism’s implicit endorsement of the status quo. Optimism is another operationalisation of the Someone Else’s Problem field.

Hope is a harder thing to sustain—and I don’t for a moment claim to be much good at sustaining it myself. As Garforth also points out, the “end of nature” and the sense of foreclosure upon the future are closely related, and have changed the shape of hope’s expression over the last six or seven decades: they’re exactly why we’re distrustful of blueprint utopias, as futurity (quite accurately) does not appear to have the space for such blank-slate thinking.

But hope persists—and the persistence of hope is itself utopian. I have often argued here that utopia should be thought of less as a destination and more as a direction of travel, and I hold to that now—but thanks to Garforth, and to Phillip Wegner’s Invoking Hope (the proper reviewing of which is one among many tasks against which this blog post is a procrastinatory displacement activity), I understand that utopia also resides in the very attempt to travel at all, in the acted-upon belief that change is both still possible and worth attempting.

Which is why even though I feel I suck at sustaining hope, I also feel it gets a little easier the longer I try. The point of the work is the work.

defeat the dread

Good chewy long-read from Cennydd Bowles, starting with a look at the ongoing situation (and a zinger of an opening line), and building out to a measured and respectful but nonetheless pointed dig at the futures industry:

For too long we’ve been serving the wrong goals: helping large multinationals and tech giants accrue more power and wealth at the expense of other actors, contributing to the atomisation of society by designing products for individual fulfilment ahead of the wellbeing of our communities. Our rethought world will need to prioritise people and societies, ecologies and environments, ahead of profit and productivity. If you use this crisis to thought-prophesise about the new era ahead, don’t you dare return to your cosy consulting gig with Palantir or Shell afterward. Own your impact. Act in the interests of this better world you espouse, and withdraw your support for the forces that brought us to the brink.

Selah. (Though it goes without saying that it’s yer Palantirs and yer Shells who are most likely to have the money to hire people after this sitch calms down some… and those who’ve taken their money before are unlikely to have too many qualms about taking it again.)

Setting my cynicism about the consultancy sector aside, Cennyd has a riff near the end that’s a timely reminder to me in the wake of yesterday’s long post about hope in the context of climate change:

… we will not succeed by simply evangelising our own paternalistic, privileged messages of hope upon others. We won’t convince others that we can conquer the climate crisis by pointing to our previous models of utopias yet unrealised. The only sustainable way to defeat dread is to give people the skills and the powers to forge their own preferable futures. Hope comes from communities, not from experts; it arises with empowerment and inclusivity, not the promises of politicians.

This is exactly the sort of work my postdoc project is intended to do, as luck would have it. But I need to remember that for “hope” to have a concrete meaning and manifestation, I have to come down out of the theoretical tower and do the work. That will be counter to my customs, certainly, but I’m confident—hopeful, even—that it’s not counter to my instincts.

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

Thick skein

You can’t talk about every possible future in one work of science fiction—that would be crazy. But what you could do is tell a bunch of stories that are relatively plausible, that are set in the near future, and that describe a course of action that readers can imagine in a kind of “thick” texture. Where you really feel like you’re there. There’ll be some contingent events and some characters that are representative, but they are also individual characters with their own quirks. There’ll be a story, and yet the reader will also say: “Well, yeah—this could be one way forward.” This way, you have the utopian strand of describing things going right. Do we have a sense that things could go right? Even if it’s physically possible, the question is: Is it politically possible, and is it humanly possible?


I would invite everybody to think of the Green New Deal as it currently exists (a document which is quite impressive in its amount of detail and substance) as a science-fiction story. It’s a utopian science-fiction story written in the form of a proclamation or a blueprint for action. In my short-story collection, The Martians, I experimented with all kinds of formats, including a short story in the form of the Martian Constitution and a short story in the form of an abstract in a scientific journal. In the case of the Green New Deal, and in the best possible way, I want to suggest that seeing it as a kind of science-fiction story is what we need. We need that kind of vision.

Kim Stanley Robinson

Re: the upper paragraph of this quote, cf. my piece for The Sociological Review (originally posted back in 2016) in which I argued for sf as a tool for speculative ethnography, providing a “thick description” of reconfigured sociotechnicalities; that argument was extended in my (open-access) paper for Energy Research & Social Science from 2017.

Regular readers will know I’m not a fan of the blueprint utopia per se, but note that KSR is here advocating specifically for multiple such blueprints, rather than simply advancing a single vision; that plurality is one way of avoiding the pitfalls of the solutionist technotopia. But it’s interesting to hear a fiction writer arguing for the treatment of policy documents as fictional forms, even if only in part; that understanding of the transposability of narratological approaches into political imaginaries is something my colleagues and I are working to develop further, and it’s good to have someone with the profile (and, let’s be honest, the charm and candour) of KSR arguing the same case.

Resistance to the colonising present

While I was in Hebden Bridge, I looked out of the window of a coffee shop one Friday at lunchtime, and saw a small crowd of schoolchildren on a climate protest. Sensitized by being in England, it dawned on me that what I was seeing was a rebellion of the natives against the colonizers – the inhabitants of the future marshaling resistance to the colonizing present and to the extraction of the resources that they will need to thrive.

The response of colonizing powers to uprisings has been chillingly consistent. […] It’s hard to stay optimistic when the worst of history is repeating itself, and writing a thousand words about colonial atrocities isn’t exactly helping. I want to be able to say with total confidence that we’re not going to open fire on anyone’s children for standing up against us and demanding a better world, but it’s really, really hard.

Deb Chachra

The notion that the present is colonising — or, in economic terms, externalising — the future is a powerful, if distinctly bleak metaphor. But I think it also contains some cause for hope regarding the ultimate result of this struggle, provided we lean into the metaphor a little further.

If the future stands for the colonised territories, then the past stands for the colonial core, the base of power from which the colonial project is directed and sustained as both project and narrative, through and into the present.

And we are currently seeing a substantive and drastic remapping of the past, a new narrative being pieced together by ever more subaltern voices: the enslaved, the oppressed, the exploited, slowly and painfully dragging into the light the stories of their subjection.

Empires collapse from the center outward. As the hold of capital and whiteness (which are effectively synonyms) over the past is loosened, its ideological supply-lines and recruitment strategies are thus broken and undermined. This would seem a good explanation for the recent surge in overt attempts to reassert this narrative, which previously had relied upon euphemism, effacement, and a veneer of scientism. The old metanarrative is breaking down, and we are living through the ever-more-desperate attempts of its primary benefactors to shore it up.

The hazard of collapse is the absence of a new narrative to take over from the old one. Deb goes on to say that:

… there absolutely is a path through to a better future for everyone, one that’s sustainable and resilient and equitable. But we have to learn to see it, to stay focused on it, and to follow it down. That’s the work.

That IS the work. It is all of our work — not just to tear down, but to replace. This holds true for physical systems as well as social ones — which, as I hope you know by now, are so entangled as to be inseparable.

Network is a verb. A network is a becoming, a thing that happens — a performance taking place upon and across a physical substrate. The engineering of the latter is part of the poetry of the former, and vice versa.