Thursday, October 26, 2006

Barbershop futures revisited, part I

A colleague of mine, an exceedingly perceptive, forthright and charming futurist from Belgium, Dr Maya van Leemput, recently emailed me in response to a post put up in August, "Barbershop Futures"...

I was asked to write about futures thinking for a project here ... that wants to address the general apathy that the organisers believe might underlie the local success of the extreme right.

A wrap in two lines: 2017 is a cultural project in Antwerp, Belgium, with free performances and events in public spaces of the city, playing with the idea that art can save the world. It publishes an old style printed 'Paper of the Future' that tries to give its readers some food for thought about local and global futures.

[T]his organisation wants to encourage people to think for themselves and preferably "a bit further than their noses are long" (a Flemish expression I didn't want to keep from you). So I wrote one introductory piece for their Future Tabloid already and now they've decided to keep up the effort after the elections too and want me to contribute regularly.

When they asked me this I had been reading your blog for a while and thought of an "open letter to a colleague" in response to your Barbershop futures post. Something that would let me be personal and professional at the same time. What do you say?

I said go for it. Here's the open letter, unedited:

Dear Stuart,

Compliments on your blog, motivating stuff.

I can relate to your barbershop futures experience. I like the image of the hairdresser that doesn't need a futurist and the futurist that needs a hairdresser (take this literally, I see your 12-months uncut style in my mind's eye). Your discussion of "the misunderstanding that my interest in the future meant I would be willing or able to forecast" and your thoughts on the usefulness of futures thinking were helpful. I'm confronted with the same misunderstandings and like your conclusion: "As to many of the things that matter to us, we can do something about them. The something (or various alternative somethings) we can do, and why and how, and to what possible ends -- identifying and acting upon these is, to my mind, the purpose of futures thinking."

I have been holding futures conversations with the hairdresser on principle since 02000. I say 'the' hairdresser, but actually there were more than a few: in Antwerp, Brussels, London, Antigua, and like you, in San Francisco. The first time I hadn't planned it, it just happened. It was in my home town in Belgium and when Vincent, who had his shop in a hip and happening street in the centre of town, heard that I study 'what and how people think about the future', he was unstoppable. "So have you heard? You must have heard?" he asked in a complicit tone. "You must know what I mean. It's really important, we're heading for a big change, people are changing, more and more people know, we're moving on to the next level, the energy in Antwerp will turn around soon." He went on to explain the history of the cosmos, the human psyche and the world, in true new age spirit mixing 101 mystic, spiritual, religious and scientific beliefs. The reason he told me this, he said, was that I was in a position to spread the word, people would listen to me more than to him. This particular hairdresser certainly felt he could use a futurist. He wanted me to go out and tell the truth (his truth) about the future.

Advocacy, Wendell Bell sees it as a task of futures studies. How many study the future to explicitly proclaim one and only one future, the true future? There are some. Most futurists advocate futures thinking itself however, I guess that's where I am too.

The kinds of goals you were pursuing with your hairdresser when trying to work out a view of future possibilities in relation with his business, are probably among the most widely accepted and applied objectives of our trade. To take one set of (often economically oriented and as such pre-defined) goals and search for the various ways in which these could be achieved or challenged often makes sense even to those with an otherwise short-range outlook. The survival, growth or decline of economic units (whether they are charming small businesses like Wally's or large corporations) mostly concern questions of change within an otherwise unchanging framework.

You remark that "futures can indeed be helpful, for almost anyone, in clarifying where they may be able to make a difference, and where they are less likely to do so." So in that case, does the hairdresser really not need a futurist? He lives in a neighbourhood (the changing nature of which, by the way, might affect his business). He might have children. He lives in a world that is threatened by human greed. He is part of a nation the leaders of which are trying very hard to determine what the future for everyone on earth will be like, regardless of what futures people might choose for themselves. Does Wally think the fact that the same shampoos he buys in bulk to wash your elegant locks, are being sold in single-use packaging in third world countries, affects the future? And actually, does he give a damn?

I guess you'll be off to the hairdresser again at some point. If the conversation turns to futures, I'm curious to read about it again and hope you can steer it beyond the barbershop perspective. As you suggest, futures thinking is relevant to almost anyone. I see it as part of our job to help people experience this for themselves. Maybe it will turn out to be impossible to escape from being "the proverbial hammer that is constantly looking for a nail to strike" after all.

When futurists start asking difficult questions back, that's when things get interesting. It's certainly a kick. I ask my hairdressers about personal, local and global futures, best-case and worst-case scenarios, expectations and interpretations. We talk about what's needed for an ideal to come nearer and what can be done to avoid the worst. We talk about who's responsible for getting what done, about the means and the paths. Sometimes I draw a complete blank but a lot of the time, people get into telling me all about their hopes and fears as if I'm not some unusual stranger but an old mate that they can confide their secret ambitions to. I recommend it.

I've got carried away thinking about the barbershop and futures conversations and haven't even got round to addressing the matter of the crystal-ball and prediction. That's for next time: I'll get back to you.

It's a pleasure to receive such a thoughtful, extended response to a post. Thank you, Maya! Although I doubt I'll do justice to every point made here, there are a few thoughts I can offer by way of a reply.

/To be continued.../

Monday, October 23, 2006

The intimation of catastrophe, part II

/Continued from previous post.../

An article about invasive species and customs inspection in the Honolulu Weekly from August this year had a sidebar (not included in the online version, as far as I can tell) in which one of the interviewees noted that, if Hawaii's import lines were to be cut off, there would be sufficient stockpiles of food and other supplies to last eleven days. I'm in no position to verify or challenge such a figure, though it seems to embody a number of dubious "other things being equal"-style assumptions... but it strikes me as rather obvious that Hawaii is perhaps uniquely susceptible to this kind of severe disruption. And it certainly begs the question, what sorts of things might we expect to happen around day twelve?

This is most isolated island chain in the world, living at United States levels of energy consumption many times that even of Europe (let alone Asia or Africa); some 1.3 million residents and seven million visitors per year, all of whom arrive and leave by plane. Almost everything eaten here is imported. Over 90% of electricity in the islands is generated by the burning of oil. We mustn't elide the enormous differences between an earthquake and, say, a global oil crisis. But neither should we pass over this important opportunity to consider the extent to which the Hawaiian lifestyle in the early twenty-first century resembles a socio-ecological time bomb.

Since arriving here to live in August 02005, I have heard a number of people refer to Hawaii as a sort of social laboratory (e.g. for ethnic intermingling), a microcosm of broader patterns (e.g. in the development and destruction of native flora and fauna), and -- less chirpily but no less accurately, perhaps -- a canary in the coalmine of global history. The earthquake here last week provided an opportunity, for those willing to make out its unpleasant contours, to consider the prospect of having the power go out, and planes grounded, for some time. A day's disruption was what we got. How might it feel for that to stretch out to a week? Or two? Hawaii's isolation may make it more transparently vulnerable to a disruption of routine than the continents, but its fragility is ultimately no different in kind from that of the planet as a whole, wherever on it you may live. And nothing brings that lesson home like the sensation of the world shifting beneath your feet.

The other earthquake that has happened while I've been within trembling distance, occurred one morning in June, as I slept peacefully over a faultline in San Francisco. Thinking long-term means gradually awakening to tectonic forces, glacial grumblings well beneath the pitch of ordinary hearing -- the slow stuff. (In this case, though, it was me that was too slow, and I failed to awaken at all when it happened.) I completely missed that gentle tremor, that reminder of the fragility of all that seems so solid. But when it comes to mind, I wonder how often the thoughts of the average denizen of that beautiful city turn to the imminence -- geologically speaking -- of the thundering collapse of everything they know? Hard to measure, I guess, but interesting to contemplate.

I think of the aerial view as my plane left San Francisco, the brittle exoskeleton of the city draped over a rolling sculpture. The hills of Marin County receding in late afternoon sun, ripples pinched neatly into a velvet handkerchief. Those colossal bridges across the bay, which sent a thrill through me every time I crossed, with their sheer scale and engineering audacity, look like matchstick models from the air. From up there it's easy, disturbingly easy, to picture them carelessly torn asunder by the hiccup of a sleeping giant.

And I think back to when I emerged, bags in hand, from the subway, blinking in the crisp morning air of Market Street on 8 May, to start my summer's work with The Long Now Foundation. One of the first things I noticed was a MUNI bus rolling by, bearing a 72-hour earthquake awareness billboard, with a slogan to the effect that San Franciscans ought to be prepared for The Big One at any time. It's all borrowed time, spend it how you will. (That was not the slogan, but it could have been.) I don't think headquartering the Long Now Foundation in a city on a precipice is necessarily a fatal irony; it's a valuable one. Life on a fault line simply crystallises the mortal predicament.

Living on an island in the middle of nowhere with almost all its energy eggs in one basket -- oil importation -- should also make us think twice.

What happened last Sunday in Hawaii was an opportunity to reflect on the underappreciated truism that the unexpected can crop up at any time. It didn't bite us hard this time, but we saw the flash of teeth and perhaps had some intimation of what a real catastrophe could be like.

The last thing I want to be accused of is harbouring morbid expectations and spreading gloomy premonitions. But there are some things we simply don't pay enough attention to, and this is one of the big ones. So, let me spell it out. The following ought to be self-evident, yet apparently is not: in a matter of just a few centuries of history, modern society has denatured its urban members, and made us, for the most part, incapable of supporting ourselves outside a highly elaborate and interconnected agricultural, industrial, and now informational framework of relations. To make it personal: had Magoo's kitchen not come to the rescue with a piping hot cheese-steak sandwich, I might have been able to set about stockpiling cans of this and that, like the queuing multitude at the Star Market... but if push came to shove, would I be able to grow my own stuff? Tricky to do; with neither land, nor farming experience, nor opportunity to plan/t in advance.

Attendant upon this whole arrangement, then, are certain risks, and, though they may make their presence felt only every so often, it is on those few occasions that we really ought to revisit this historical bargain we've somehow struck, asking how well it serves us. If we're feeling particularly bold, we might also ask this question from the standpoint of other species, or indeed of future generations. But I'm not sure we'd like the answers.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The intimation of catastrophe, part I

It is Sunday morning. Just after 7am, I wake up with a start, and a slight sense of panic, to the sound of my room's door shuddering loudly against the jamb. Over perhaps ten seconds, a series of thoughts presents itself. Gales of wind, whistling down Manoa Valley, must be blasting through the open window and shaking the door... but no, the air in the room is still. Someone, then, is banging their fist to wake me up. A big Saturday night party carrying over to Sunday morning? But the other, typically more studious residents of my unit have never, as far as I know, done anything so outlandish (or interesting) as getting drunk and harrassing their neighbours. And more to the point, this sound is not that made by a person knocking on wood. Its source seems more structural. So perhaps someone's clomping hurriedly down the hallway outside? But that can't be right either -- that hall is made of solid concrete, and however energetic, no flat-footed march or frenzied dash could cause the doorway to shake...

Wow. It's a goddamn earthquake.

I leap out of bed, throw on last night's clothes as the room keeps tremoring slightly, and I head out onto the 12th floor lanai, the open air walkway, where a number of pyjama-clad lost souls -- fellow quake victims -- are staring out over the valley with a certain glazed expression mixing puzzlement and concern, which, were I looking at my own face, I might find I also share. Although still almost as asleep as awake, I head to the building's elevator and ride from here, the top floor, down to the lobby. I want to get outside and walk around, give myself a chance to process what has happened. I don't sense any more tremors, and I'm not exactly worried. Just, you know, shaken.

Outside it's raining, and cloudy grey, for the long haul. I'm in a tee shirt, and it's not cold, but the rain is moderately heavy as I wander north across campus and turn left down Maile Way. There's virtually no one around, and no sound except the rain, and a distant car alarm triggered by the quake. I walk down past Saunders Hall, where I work at the futures center, and notice one of the elevators is frozen open on the ground floor, lights out. The whole place is eerily quiet, then as the rain picks up intensity and I shelter under the awning at the top of the steps of the Queen Lili'uokalani Center -- I notice that there are no lights on in any of the buildings.

Back at my hall of residence, Hale Manoa, perhaps a hundred people are chattering in the lobby (many of them still in pyjamas) and all the lights are gone, like the soul of the building had departed. Ah, and elevators aren't working any more either, hence the milling crowd. (Mixed reaction -- lucky the elevator got me to the ground floor before the power went out, deeply stupid that I even tried using it.) I chat with some friends for a few minutes -- talking about our surprised reactions, not yet thinking about the consequences this event could have for the rest of the day. Then I climb the eleven flights of stairs to my room, check my email (although the power's out, the answering machine isn't glowing at me and the fan isn't working, my laptop has a charged battery) and decide to get some more sleep.

Some hours later, I go out foraging. Need food. Maybe Volcano Joe's, a pizza place across the street, will be open. No such luck. But, bumping into some good friends who are out in their van and facing the same situation, I suggest we head down to the stores on University Avenue. Since nothing else seems to be working, maybe the pub is open.

It's bizarre: down here all the traffic lights are out, and many of the smaller stores which would be doing at least a light trade on a Sunday early afternoon are shuttered and dark. The supermarket around the corner is working, but the queues are stretching down the block. Are people stocking up in case the blackout isn't resolved -- or perhaps the cashiers are just working more slowly, having to record and calculate all the purchases by hand?

Now, personally -- if no one's getting hurt -- I enjoy a bit of chaos, a sense of routine disrupted. When everything is put on hold due to extraordinary circumstances, a degree of heightened awareness sets in, people attend to different things. They have to think differently, if only a little bit, because the complacency of the reflex action is temporarily out of commission. So our conversation at Magoo's, the local dive sports-bar, revolves in part around the challenges of getting food. The kitchen there gradually runs out of key ingredients and the menu becomes shorter and shorter. A gas-powered generator is able to keep a few essential lights on, with occasional interruptions that are met with cheers from the patrons, and the classic-rock jukebox imparts a festive mood; but when evening arrives, the lights on the streets and highway are still out, and cops are still waving through traffic with flares and whistles at the busy intersection of King St and University Avenue.

Down at Waikiki, one part of the city that with its intensive tourist presence seems likely to be a priority for the electricity to be restored early on, lighting remains minimal at 9pm. Apart from the larger hotels, hardly anything is open, and there are entire blocks where you can barely see someone standing a few feet in front of you. It is surreal. People seem not to be enjoying themselves too much down here, and while the ABC Stores (a chain selling mostly postcards and other tourist crap) are doing a roaring trade, this esplanade is suddenly out of its element, and feels neither quite like a public space (the way a park does) nor a private one (like a mall). It's in limbo; as if no one knows what to make of it or what to do here.

The idea of a riot, or of looting or generalised havoc, does not seem so implausible with the lights out. Possibilities, both grim and heartening, open up in your mind's eye when business as usual is put aside.

In point of fact, by the time I get back to my place, the power's on and the day's events are already taking on the odd quality of a waking dream. Although, I later learn, there were some greater disruptions (landslides, buildings evacuated) nearer the epicentre of the quake on Hawaii Island; as a friend of mine put it, the worst result for most people was spending part of the day in the 18th century. No harm done, apparently.

But it's interesting how the effects of an unexpected disruption dawn on you gradually. It's like there are layers of routine, expectation, and reliance, and you don't tend to comprehend the impact on all of them at once. Perhaps the measure of one's dependence on something can be realised in the cumulative layers of irritation, disappointment and despair that are peeled back after it is taken away, and how deep you have to dig into all that is a function of time spent without it.

Fortunately, this time Hawaii just scratched the surface. But I think there's much more to see.

/To be continued.../

Monday, October 09, 2006

If women ruled the world

"Men should be barred from public office for 100 years in every part of the world. ... It would be a much kinder, gentler, more intelligently run world. The men have had millions of years where we've been running things. We've screwed it up hopelessly. Let's give it to the women."
~Ted Turner,, 20 September 02006.

Last month, media magnate turned philanthropist Ted Turner addressed a gathering in New York on the Iraq war, and various other themes of contemporary politics. And, as one account noted; "When asked about the possibility that the next U.N. secretary general might be a woman, Turner went a step further, advocating that men should be barred from public office for a hundred years in every part of the world."

I don't know how serious he thought he was being, but let's dwell on this a moment. As a potential solution, Turner's suggestion has a startling blunt elegance -- and undeniable poetic justice -- about it. Whether it would resolve as many of our present problems as could be desired is another matter. I'd like to think so, but it seems to me that the territorial parochialism, and attendant aggression, that we see in the behaviour of people claiming to represent the interests of nation-states, may be inherent to that system, regardless of which sex is in charge. Many women who have succeeded in politics have been accused of adopting, if not outdoing, some of the most Machiavellian strategies and militaristic postures of their male counterparts (Margaret Thatcher, anyone?). A powerful argument elaborated by many feminist theorists of international relations is of course that the state is inherently "gendered", the implication being that if enough women were in charge, states wouldn't be as divisive, chauvinistic and exploitative as they are -- and perhaps they would cease to exist in their current form altogether.

It's a topic of very great interest, but I'm not aware of very much serious futures work having been done on the matter. There was an excellent BBC television series of a couple of years ago, entitled "If...", each episode of which offered topical scenarios set in the next few decades, using a combination of documentary and narrative techniques (fictional narrative interspersed with interviews featuring contemporary commentators and decision makers). One edition imagined how things might be "If... Women Ruled the World". But where else can we find scenarios envisioning a radical feminisation of global politics? I'd be grateful to hear from others better informed than me.

Contemplation of this kind of sweeping structural reform is the bread and butter of the distinctive approach to alternative futures taught at the "Manoa School" for over three decades now. In Jim Dator's graduate class on Political Systems Design, teaching this astonishingly underexamined process is based around students having to address, through structural change, some of the major problems with governments today:

we will consider six of the many complaints levied against all existing governments: that they are bureaucratic, placing the convenience of the governors over the needs of the governed; that they too nationalistic, privileging the nation-state over both smaller and larger units; that they are undemocratic, thwarting participation of some, while favoring other, groups and individuals; that they are repressive, using and causing both direct and structural violence; that they are patriarchal, insisting on a gender binary and within that binary privileging men and masculinity (particularly violence), while ignoring or marginalizing the mobility of gender as well as the participation and perspectives of women; and that they are unfuturistic, basically discounting the future and concerning themselves with at best immediate and in many instances past, and almost always comparatively trivial problems.

Back to Turner's proposal, then; it's hard to say to what extent a systematic change addressing just one of these six indicative problem areas, namely, patriarchy, would alleviate the others. I'm not sure that a pure reversal of the long-standing male domination of public space would meet what I regard as an urgent need to enhance mutual respect and cooperation between genders (as well as across other social fault lines). Substituting one variety of domination for another has not worked particularly well in the decolonised states of sub-Saharan Africa, for instance. But generally, given the gravity of our civilisational predicament, this kind of big-picture thinking is sorely needed, and specifically, in light of the starring role that men have played in bringing our "civilisation" to the brink of self-destruction, we need to ask if a less testosterone-driven global politics wouldn't bring about a good measure of positive change -- and who can doubt it? It's a shame, but no surprise, that billionaire philanthropists apparently find it easier to broach such essential and provocative questions than anyone actively involved in politics.

So, what if women ruled the world? I'd be very interested to hear what others have to say on this topic. Not merely an opportunity for some spectacularly politically incorrect standup comedy, this is truly a matter of paramount relevance to the quandary we find ourselves in the early twenty-first century. But there's also room to wonder, long before Turner's suggested female century neared its end, if we wouldn't have an entirely new set of representational issues to deal with... What if robots ruled the world?

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Towards a Sceptical Futuryst blogosophy, part IV

The best attitude for somebody who's a serious futurist is not pessimism or optimism, but just a deep sense of engagement. It has to mean something to you. You have to find aspects of it that can really compel your interest. You shouldn't get hung up on whether it's "good" or "bad", because those qualities can change their coloration quite rapidly as time continues to pass. What's good for us right now might not be good for us in 20 years; things we should be optimistic about now might not be such good news 50 years from now.
~Bruce Sterling, Massive Change Radio, December 02003

The optimist says the glass is half full. The pessimist says the glass is half empty. I say the glass is refillable.
~The Sceptical Futuryst