Monday, May 14, 2007

Lost futures

A very well-written article published at Salon on 12 May, entitled "Back to the Future", reviews a new book called Where's My Jetpack? A Guide to the Amazing Science Fiction Future That Never Arrived, by Daniel H. Wilson, the robotics specialist who gave the world How To Survive a Robot Uprising. Writes reviewer Simon Reynolds: "I get the feeling a more serious book is struggling to extricate itself from Wilson's arch and camp approach [... but the] research is top-notch and fascinating. Some of the best material here entails a sort of archaeology of stillborn or prematurely abandoned futures."

Reynolds uses Wilson's book as the springboard for an interesting discussion of the fluctuating fortunes of future-oriented discourse, and the article is well worth reading for that. (I haven't got a copy of the book yet, but the review stands alone as an interesting point of departure for discussion here.) Reynolds notes that, from an earlier era of star futurists such as Alvin Toffler and Buckminster Fuller, there's no one quite occupying that space for now. "Futurology as a popular nonfiction genre has been largely reduced to short-term trend watching, cool hunting in the service of marketing people and brand makers." Sad, but largely true, as a popular nonfiction genre. Meanwhile, as he points out, "It carries on as an academic discipline, as research and speculation conducted by think tanks and government-funded bodies." That's also fair to say, and I suppose the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies is one of those mysterious bodies (except that we're not government funded). Aside from their waxing and waning popularity, it seems to have fallen outside the scope of that article to engage with the content or approaches used by any of these groups. And so what follows does not claim to speak for the futures field as a whole, although some of my colleagues may agree with parts of what I have to say, but what I want to do here is illustrate how the book Reynolds describes can fit into an alternative futures framework, and why that framework can offer a useful corrective to the usual single-future reflex.

Let's first of all locate it in terms of its subject matter. Futures studies invites and affords engagement with a multitude of complex avenues of inquiry, but let's talk first about how it relates to time and the unfolding of possibilities. Starting with a mental model of spacetime that calls up a sort of "branching universe" notion, in principle every sentient being is in a position to elaborate, at some level, alternative possible futures from any given "here and now". These can be possible futures (the broadest set) or probable or preferable (narrower subgroups); and substantively this includes a vast array of varying images. Every individual has his or her own complicated, and frequently contradictory, profile of beliefs, expectations, hopes, fears, and so on. Each of these also implies a range of potential viewpoints from which "our present", as well as things that have gone before, take on different significance, because as today recedes into the past, it will be cast in very different light depending on the kind of future from which it is surveyed. In contrast to contemporary futures, there are also historical instances -- yesterday's futures -- and it seems Where's My Jetpack is in this category. In principle we can subdivide past futures into possibilities actually perceived and discussed at the time, and, by contrast, those realised or identified only in retrospect. Both types could be pursued further, to generate alternate or counterfactual chronologies; paths not taken which, nonetheless, given different circumstances or choices, could have been.

At a first glance, all this may seem to some readers like an elaborate, and not especially practical, form of intellectual entertainment. On the contrary, though, I would argue that our society desperately needs a more nuanced understanding of time and possibility, and this is the only field I know of that is directly addressing the need. The reduction of future-oriented discussion to a predictive binarism (will this happen, or won't it? or, in the hindsight mode; did this "prediction" come true, or did it not?) is a symptom of a civilisation unwilling to face up to its responsibilities in the unfolding historical process. (As I'll explain below, I don't mean to say that lost futures can play no part in our thinking about present-day options, but I suggest we treat them with caution.)

Now, the range of possible futures in circulation at any given time is broad, multifarious, and very difficult to map. Naturally we look to the images of the future actually expressed -- the stories we tell each other; the films we make and watch; paintings, magazine articles; and cartoons; and political pamphlets; and corporate projections; and government forecasts... But this is in a sense just the tip of the cultural iceberg, because after all, the decisions that comprise and produce change trace back to the contents of people's minds, of which only a part manifests visibly in the ways listed here. So the range of possible futures we allow ourselves to imagine, or which we could imagine, is bound to be broader than what's most prominently in view at any given time. Add to this complexity the fact that all these images are constantly changing. Certain ideas about the future which were widely seen as sure bets in times gone by later strike us as absurd; and vice versa (hence the value of Dator's second law, that any useful statement about the futures should appear to be ridiculous). "The future" doesn't exist, but our ideas about it (or lack thereof) have a palpable effect on what we do, or not, in anticipation of times to come. In parallel to the chronology of observed events is the chronology of ideas, the lives of our minds, in which the notion of the future plays no small part.

In one of his letters, Mark Twain famously dismissed nostalgia -- yearning for the past -- as "mental and moral masturbation". Generally speaking, I'd have to agree: yearning for times gone by is a singularly useless way to spend one's time. By definition, the past is gone, and it's not coming back. But it remains essential to try to learn what we can from history, and that includes identifying things that we'd like to carry forward, or recreate. The futurist (at least!) needs to wonder about the history of possibility, how or to what extent horizons of imagination, as well as actual states of affairs, can be recovered or recreated. So it's potentially quite politically profound to consider what conditions made the jetpack idea seem viable and appealing in its heyday, but more especially, to apply this kind of learning to the question of what it is about the present era that leads so many of us to think about the future in such radically disempowered, morose terms. As Reynolds says, "Today we seem to have trouble picturing the future, except in cataclysmic terms or as the present gone worse." It should go without saying that this dearth of imagination is not the future's fault. It's our problem, our limitation.

Those bygone images were products of their time, emblems of the thought world that produced them. Reynolds coins "neostalgia" to refer to this longing for "the impressively futuristic-looking tomorrow that never showed up". But we make ourselves "wrong" about the future, and get mired in neostalgia, by constantly, and for the most part fruitlessly, focusing on correct prediction of content -- as opposed to, say, a more nuanced, inverse view of the future as process. It can instead be seen as a mostly unpredictable, undecided space whose relatively "predictable" parts provide constraints within which we invent, pursue, and reinvent our ideals. Neostalgia is an alternate history (or present-counterfactual) variant of nostalgia -- with identical implications in terms of mental and moral masturbation! Unless we're planning to use these ruminations to fuel our understanding of change, and to pursue a preferred future that seems appropriate starting from here and now, it doesn't help. Dator has suggested we cultivate "aiglatson" (nostalgia backwards) -- a yearning for our preferred future, which we can use to help guide our actions today.

Now, let's take a look at the domain of past futures. It's interesting that they commonly appear to be so heavily imbued with a kitsch aura (Reynolds calls Wilson's approach "arch and camp", which goes with the territory of certain strains of science-fiction, as well as its ostensible non-fiction counterpart, "futurology"). I confess a kind of aversion to kitsch as an aesthetic. It strikes me as lightweight, but somehow self-indulgent. There's a stale, embarrassing air about a lot of past projections of the future -- like childhood photos of us dressed in silly costumes -- a sense that we've outgrown them and would rather not have to face up to them being on the record. And as a futurist, there's a possibility that, if the pattern holds, the work I'm currently doing is destined to look increasingly stupid as time goes on (a humbling and perhaps salutary thought).

But let me suggest two reasons for this, which I'd really like to open to discussion. The first is that earlier decades were more optimistic than our own, and to realise this now amounts to a reminder of lost innocence; not a pleasant sensation. As Jay Ogilvy writes of contemporary attitudes in Creating Better Futures: "World-weary pessimism seems so much more intellectually respectable than even the most educated hope." Tied up with this is a sense of deadly earnestness about the predictions made in the past. They seem silly now because so many of us (whether as credulous children, or credulous adults) believed them; hence the disillusionment, the disappointment of dreams that did not materialise (Q: Where's my jetpack? ... A: In your mind, where it always was).

So here's how I propose to tie these strands together -- meeting the hazards of getting hung up on neostalgia with the investigative toolkit of alternative futures. Hopeful, idealistic, preferred futures are among our choices. So are hellish ones. (Which notions fall into which categories is not given outright, of course, but will depend on your values and so on.) Yet, regardless of what each of these means for you, we all need to pluralise futures to escape the -- rightly embarassing -- earnestness of much past discussion of "the future", which is closely related to monofuturism and binary predictive thinking. Pluralising futures is not simply a hedging strategy -- considering alternatives as a way of spreading our bets. (Although at one level, it is that.) More importantly it's a strategy of inquiry that's faithful to the fact of uncertainty as we experience it, being creatures in time, and it means that many -- nay, most -- of the alternative futures we consider won't come into being. Perhaps none of them will. The future doesn't owe us anything. It's just a lens that we in the present use to consider our predicament differently.

In light of what I'm suggesting, the continual rediscovery of the extent of our own naivete is unlikely to be surprising, embarassing, or frustrating. Just part of the process, and maybe even a mystery in which we'll find delight and wonder.

What we desperately need right now is to develop and use ways of thinking about the future that help us act more wisely, so that what eventuates is, if not the best of all possible worlds, at least not one of the worst. Reynolds: "[P]erhaps sociocultural and political prediction is simply a mug's game." Yup. But discussion of a range of possibilities that reflects our best understanding of the role of the unknown is a game we should all learn to play. Playing it might make our discussions of the future seem less silly, because it's framed all along as possibilities may look one way today, and another way tomorrow. But although many forecasts and predictions age poorly, this is not true of all futures oriented work. Dator's publication archive reads incredibly well, even 35 or more years later (most of his several decades of articles, as a pioneer of alternative futures thinking, are freely available as pdf documents at the HRCFS website). It's written with an awareness of the possibility of being wrong, and it advocates a methodological/epistemological shift that our culture is yet to make. That is, for the most part, it's not about the content of the future, but our role in the process by which it comes into being. Which is a major part of the shift in emphasis advocated by ourselves and others in the futures field.

So, where does all this leave us? Reynolds concludes with a sort of dig at Wilson's neostalgic project. "Forget the goddamn jetpack: It's the sociocultural version of the 'amazing future that never arrived' that really warrants our anguish." He exhorts us to move away from fetishised, technological "science-fiction" discussions of change. I support this gesture, and made a similar point in this recent post about the ubiquity and narrowness of sci-fi as a genre and frame for future-oriented discussion. But with all due respect to Reynolds (and Wilson, whose book I look forward to reading), I beg to differ on the point of what's most important here. Forget the goddamn jetpack: it's the sociocultural version of the amazing future that we're barely even trying to bring into existence right now that really warrants our anguish. And here's the best part -- unlike lost futures of the past, we can actually do something about it.

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