Monday, October 13, 2008


On the political importance of impossible dreams.

This is a video of political activist, theorist and NYU prof Stephen Duncombe (previously mentioned here) presenting recently at the Honolulu Futures Salon. It runs for about half an hour.*

Imagining and planning for the future on a large scale, argues Duncombe, is usually the province of "experts"; architects, urban planners, engineers, and yes, futurists (sometimes). Similarly, the purveyors of future-oriented texts whether utopian (such as Thomas More and Edward Bellamy) or science fiction in genre have been individual authors. The result is that the production of images of the future has traditionally been quite undemocratic. That is, it has been left to a very small group of individuals.

In its most pernicious form, the top-down imposition of a particular, singular vision of the future has meant projects seeking, and sometimes accomplishing, a terrifying lockstep obedience, embodied by autocratic figures like Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Rumsfeld. However, Duncombe points out that intrinsically "the future is a democratic project -- people make history". And various participatory, public projects have been animated by this more collective, bottom-up way of thinking, such as Constitutional Conventions, Glasgow 2020, and (to add my own example to the list) Hawaii 2000 [pdf]. He notes:

With this model of futurism, the futurist's job changes. They're no longer architects of the future, but instead, organisers and facilitators of situations and experiences that bring people together to imagine the future.

Notwithstanding the explicitly "political" character (in an institutional sense) of these examples, future-oriented initiatives need not be positioned that way in order to tap public concern and imagination. The above quote happens to be practically a word-perfect description of the futurist's role in Superstruct, the world's first massively multiplayer forecasting game, and a cutting edge instance of harnessing collective intelligence. (By the way, the game is live as of last Monday, so if you're interested in these themes and not a registered player yet, you should be!)

Now, Duncombe knows that even if this more democratic, distributed kind of futuring addresses the autocratic problem, serious challenges remain. One of these, which may sound abstract, but plagues even the most practically oriented attempts to envision the future, is "the problem of totality". However much we might like to, we can't simply step outside our social, political, cultural and temporal context to think and communicate about radical change.

It is exceedingly difficult to imagine something you don't know.
Not only can we not dream something new, but even if we could, it would be impossible to communicate that. It would literally be insensible; I would be seen to be speaking gibberish.

Thus goes the argument, support for which can readily be found in the way that conceptions of the future, historically, are so clearly a product of their time: consider Bellamy's inescapably Victorian vision in 01888 of the year 02000 [link], or 01950s designs for future cars (especially flying ones) replete with telltale tailfins [i.e.] that instantly date them [e.g.].

Against this backdrop, then, comes Duncombe's central idea, a contrast to Otto von Bismarck's Realpolitik contention that "politics is the art of the possible". Another way to approach politics (in the broad sense that covers perceptions, not just institutions) may be a practice that Duncombe calls Dreampolitik, to invoke the art of the impossible. He cites the work of artists Steve Lambert and Packard Jennings (blogged here earlier) and also the FoundFutures postcard project (see here) as examples of strategically provocative depictions of futures that may appear entirely unlikely, and yet which enable discussion of possibility in a different way.

Duncombe says:

These impossible dreams open up a space for democratic participation in the process of imagining the future, which also offers the possibility of escaping the tyranny of the present... for people to imagine, 'why not?', and 'what if?'

This argument is essentially identical to the distinctive conception of futures practice at the "Manoa School", the most well-known encapsulation of which remains Dator's second law: "Any useful statement about the future should appear to be ridiculous". However, the usefulness of ridiculousness is not universally appreciated by practising futurists. And the fact that Duncombe, a political theorist and activist, has found his own way to much the same conclusion as veteran futurist Dator does not in itself make them both right. But I happen to think that they are, and here's why.

Imagine a spectrum or scale of likelihood, ranging from "impossibility" at one end (probability = 0), to "inevitability" at the other (probability = 1) . Any point on this scale may be associated in our minds with a scenaric proposition. The extremes of this scale, those notions of impossibility and inevitability, are among the most politically potent ideas in existence, because, deployed effectively, they are like the traffic lights of the attentional economy. An idea about the future that is constructed (we could say "tagged") as impossible or outlandish is red-lighted, and those who adhere to it or perhaps even idly entertain it may, it follows, be dismissed as stupid, dangerous or irresponsible. A proposition tagged as inevitable, on the other hand, is accordingly green-lighted for all manner of attention in response.

Of course, the spectrum between these poles is possibility -- a greyscale of maybes. Now, I'm focusing on the extreme cases because they make the point clearer, not because the middle is insignificant. But these extremes, though they appear to be opposites, have one important thing in common: when we believe something is either impossible, or inevitable, we are by definition implicitly accepting that nothing can be done about it. Such conclusions are showstoppers. Inevitable means it's going to happen; and impossible means it's not on the menu. Either way, there's no scope for agency, or responsibility for the occurrence of those things. (There may, I hasten to add, be plenty to discuss about what to do following such a conclusion -- e.g., if some course of action is tagged "impossible", the "possible" alternatives may come under scrutiny; or an "inevitable" disaster may be mitigated, even if you've concluded that it can't be avoided.) But the point I'm making is about the crucial consequences that flow from embracing these extremes. If a tax hike is to your mind "impossible", any argument about it is over before it begins. If war is "inevitable", you might prepare to fight the war, but evidently you'll no longer fight the proposition that war is in our future.

Incidentally, "necessity" is another politically charged tag, substituting normative commitment for probability. That which is "necessary" needs to happen; although it's conceivable, if unacceptable, that things go otherwise.

In any case, clearly our understandings have concrete normative implications. To question ideas about what's possible (a restlessly moving target, if ever there was one) is part of a mode for futures work that encourages people to think for themselves, and for us as political actors to assume as much responsibility as we can for the great mass of possibilities that rightfully belong on the greyscale of probability, where things can be influenced to some degree, and preferred futures may be invented, pursued, and (perhaps) realised.

I'm not convinced that a scenario or artwork needs to be literally (or according to informed consensus, at any rate) "impossible" to be useful, although neither do I think that Duncombe is necessarily advocating that. "The art of the impossible" that he describes deliberately plays with subjective perceptions of impossibility, as a political heuristic, a lever to pry open what Dator has long called (after C. Wright Mills) the "crackpot realism" of the present. In my experience, for the purpose of exploring alternative futures, a good scenario ought to seem ridiculous or even impossible at a first glance, and then become more compelling as you spend time with it. That's a powerful way in which our perceptions may be rewired, and our conceptions of the range of plausible futures rewritten.

It is in my view necessary -- but not, I think, inevitable -- that more futurists develop their appreciation for, and facility with, the art of the impossible.

Related posts:
> The production of necessity
> Dreaming the home of the future
> How future-shock therapy works
> San Francisco's awesome future

* The full version with post-talk discussion can be found via the HRCFS website. Jake Dunagan and I started the Honolulu salon in 02005, with the encouragement of John Smart at the Acceleration Studies Foundation. Since then, we've been delighted to host a variety of interesting forward-looking thinkers, including GBN cofounder Jay Ogilvy, Long Now executive director Alexander Rose, Jamais Cascio of Open the Future and IFTF, as well as Smart himself.

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