Thinking about the future

More notes to self, all instantly out of date. As this post took shape the neighbourhood came to some accommodation with ‘social distancing’. Many have suggested ‘physical distancing’ as a better term, and it’s certainly more accurate on the face of it, but sociality is embodied, and it’s bizarre to imagine that my making myself physically distant—stepping off the kerb, turning my face away from people—isn’t felt socially. Certainly a repertoire of acknowledgements have emerged over the last few days, the ‘thank you’, the nod or raised finger when one of us takes the initiative and crosses the road. Building work is coming to an end: builders have stopped working next to each other as they sweat and breathe, and stopped also earning money. Last week I queued, distantly, behind a woman who felt certain the younger generation’s appetite for social distancing means we would never have got through the Blitz; now, all generations maintain a two-metre (more likely six-foot) gap in the queue as they wait to enter the little supermarket in groups of no more than five. The staff there have established a covid regime of gloves and sanitiser not evident in the larger supermarket down the hill, where queues are unordered and the experience more stressful.

I have become more aware of the different temporal affects I inhabit over the day. My work rhythms, with the expectation from some colleagues previously tied to their desks from 9 until 5 that I am available throughout the day, or reordering teaching so it can exist online, or the longer rhythms of grant applications, slowly becoming aperiodic as priorities shift and the capacity to process them is diminished, sit next to the professional ebb and flow of my partner’s commissioning and editing content and periods of moderating online conversations. These unfold across our new domestic rhythms: timetabled home-school activity, ad-hoc cleaning and quarter-mastering, irregular unscheduled departures from these as we or our young children exhaust our capacity to maintain this efficient pace. I have felt a kind of rupture with the temporalities around me, brought on by our isolating far earlier than others in the community; we were a week or so into a home-focused existence when the schools closed, and felt sometimes further along some sort of process of acceptance than friends around us (Holbraad et al. explore ‘rupture’ more in this new collection). Outside, there is a shared disconnect in the lag between taking collective action and seeing its results: the link between cause and effect is longer, now, than we are used to having to think of, at least on the news. There are new sychronicities: the change to British Summer Time, or the strange Ballardian coincidence two nights ago where all of our household, and work colleagues, all experienced a night of unsettled sleep and bad dreams.

What is futures work for? Riel Miller describes three modes of engaging with the future: contingency, optimisation, and ‘exploration-discovery’. This last mode recognises the possibilities that arise through novelty and emergence. Talking about these futures is something policy groups tend to find difficult. Optimisation imagines that the world can be arranged to achieve a particular aim, like planting seeds in order to produce a harvest. These futures are at the heart of policy-making, acting now to shape society as desired. Contingency thinking imagines an external threat and prepares measures to mitigate it should it come to pass. This mode is the one that people inside and outside government find easiest to imagine as the purpose of futures work. If there is a ‘lay futures’ perspective, then perhaps it lies in valuing the practice of anticipating threats in order to be prepared.

So it is dispiriting to realise that even this least sophisticated, most widely-appreciated approach towards imagining the future has proved inadequate. The most sober-minded and straightforward approach towards imagining and managing the future—that is, the kind most likely to be taken seriously by those in power—has, as Phillip Lee and Chris Lu describe, not succeeded. Of course, despite not acting on the futures anticipated, government and the wider establishment still draw on a contingency mindset in imagining and responding to the threat, using modelling and projections to describe the risks, and establishing new regimes of control as a way of managing the uncertainty that necessarily attends these estimates: this is the inheritance of the risk society, something familiar. As well as this kind of risk thinking (something Amoore and Massumi, and Beck, describe), the pandemic points out the paradox illustrated by the Y2K bug: action designed to forestall an imagined future removes the rationale for acting, with the result that any measures taken appear to be an over-reaction to a fictitious threat. This is a kind of negative image of Paul’s ‘transformative experience’, describing events that, for those that experience them, change the way they are evaluated. Asking policy-makers to invest in what looks like inaction is a tough sell, certainly harder than reaching for ready-to-hand tools for controlling risk.

How have those in the futures world responded? Initially some found it hard not to say ‘we told you so’, a cathartic but ultimately unhelpful response. Others have argued for the value of futures thinking in general, suggesting that this kind of event is what futures helps us prepare for and understand (e.g. “A lot of imagination & swift systemic thinking is needed now”), though this kind of generic call for thinking in a particular way isn’t helping me think about just what exactly might be done as a result. There have been links flying around to past relevant work, and ongoing efforts to make sense of things using futures perspectives, and I expect since I made this list many more examples exist:

These will be more or less use to different groups – they are all, I think, practical examples of what futures thinking can produce. Lots of people who don’t use futures approaches are thinking about the future, of course, producing things like this list of what ‘big thinkers’ imagine might happen, or this great summary of events and where they might go from Ed Yong. This piece discusses the psychological effects of the response to the virus, actual mechanisms through which the ‘event’ will lack a clear end and which will mean many more localised moments of isolation, and the public consciousness of SARS (mentioned to me recently also by a colleague in Singapore) that supported the right action in Asia, among other relevant elements. It ends with an all-good or all-bad pair of scenarios, in which the all-good scenario equips the world to squash the next virus to emerge “from nowhere”. I think, to the contrary, that this is going to teach us that no future is black and white, or final. But it stands out amongst ‘non-futures’ writing.

Lots of the rest of this wider speculation focuses on a kind of ‘if this then that’ thinking that moves one step from the present and stops there, without thinking about how things interact: it’s plausible but sometimes banal and leaves me thinking, “well, yes, and?” People are inside more so there will be a baby boom. There will be greater acceptance of working and learning at a distance. Care workers and other key workers, promoted from ‘low-skilled’ to ‘front-line’, will be more valued. Networks will be run less efficiently now that we can see how brittle this makes them. There will be a greater acceptance of the state exercising more control over ‘our way of life’. Platforms will benefit at the expense of traditional businesses. These may be correct, of course: I’m just noting them here as examples of ‘one-step’ futures, not based in a structural analysis but representing more of a knee-jerk extrapolation of changes that have already happened.

Related: the crisis is the moment we need to achieve the future we’ve been advocating for all along (for example: “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for cities to remake their streets by taking space away from cars and giving it to pedestrians and bicyclists — permanently”, or this USS brief on the need for universities to change the way they work, or this shopping list of progressive issues, or this scenario “today’s eco-cities include food grown in high rise buildings with solar rooftops, vegetable gardens, and electric public transport, after automobiles were largely banned from urban streets in 2030”). At the more general/abstract end of this approach is the ‘from this to that’ trope, which has been a feature of thinking about transition and change since I’ve been involved with it: from hierarchies to flat organisations, from mechanical to biological, from planning to emergence, from top-down to grassroots, from extraction and exploitation to sustainability and respect for non-human life, from planning and design to speculation and imagination, and so on. Anab Jain has a good contemporary example of this approach. I want to see all those moves, I think: I’m just noting that this Aquarian imaginary is another ready-to-hand future for which the present moment seems opportune. What if, though, the moment has made the categories and ideas we used to make those futures irrelevant?

M John Harrison offers another view on the purpose of thinking about the future:

Specifically, what use is a prophet, now that the future has caught up with the past, and the present has caught up with the future? The whole point of prophecy collapses as soon as the prophecy comes true. So what do you do next?

Cassandra doesn’t know. Except:

Events this overbearing leave you with the growing sense that unless you foreground them, you have no position to speak from and no business speaking.

I think this pandemic is something we need to sit with a bit longer to work out what’s distinctive about it, and what deep changes it might catalyse in how we relate to the planet and each other. And I want to find a way of getting beyond the binary thinking that is so ready-to-hand. I’ve been thinking about three questions. What forces are working to keep things the same? What if it isn’t a crisis? And what if this is a staircase rather than a blip? Perhaps these are three versions of the same question.

What’s keeping things the same? The financial crash in 2008 seemed to offer a real chance of changing the global systems that promote inequality and austerity—yet beyond the introduction of new regulations little seemed to change. Certainly capitalism was described as vulnerable and on its last legs by a number of breathless commentators. It wasn’t the case then. It isn’t now, either, I think: there are too many business plans that rely on disaster and extremis, and too many willing to exploit basic human needs for a profit. But beyond the usual roll-call of the powerful (who perhaps already think and act on the same global scale as the coronovirus, and so might be experiencing less of a dislocation than people like me), other factors might keep things the same. A legacy of past thinking in times of crisis is evident in the wartime evocations to ‘fight’ the virus, or in online calls to continue to act as normal to ‘show no fear’: these have misunderstood the nature of the threat. National character has been evoked by leaders in a number of states, all of whom seemed to suggest that a stoic commitment to the greater good is a uniquely Italian/British/Belgian trait. A desire for normality, a longing for what appears stable (despite evidence to the contrary) might be enough to return us to some semblance of how we lived before. Two weeks ago, I heard an announcer on Radio 3 promise ‘familiar sounds’ and an effort to keep things feeling the same, before they played a Mozart horn concerto. Radio 2 later that afternoon promised to keep things as “normal as possible”.

What if it isn’t a crisis? I don’t mean that it isn’t important, just that a ‘crisis’ implies a departure from a situation to which we will return. But there won’t be a whistle to tell us when covid-19 is no longer a threat. So how many of our assumptions about possible futures rely on the idea that we will be able to see when this ends. ‘Before’ is clear, though far from universal, but there will be no clear point marking ‘after’, no silence following the catastrophe. In the same way that the comfortable distinctions between ‘before’ and ‘after’, or ‘normal’ and ‘exceptional’ don’t exist, the distinction between ‘here’ and ‘there’ has broken down. I am thinking of the groups following another legacy, the tradition of gentry escaping the diseased town and holing up in the countryside: this time, the second-home-owners and monied renters hoping at least for some scenery in their isolation have been turned back. There seems to be nowhere, apart from in submarines under the sea, where humans are excepted from living with coronavirus. Everywhere is ‘here’ now, there’s no more ‘there’ (this brings to mind Sloterdijk’s description of modernist thought depending on the notion of an “outside realm”, and the challenge to this presented by thinking of the ‘Anthropocene’). Some have recognised that a return is not possible, and there are many articles and blog posts declaring that ‘after this, nothing’s going back to normal’. But this isn’t as useful as it sounds, I think: you might say that already happened, in 2016, or maybe 2008, or perhaps 1989, or 1979, or 1786 (these dates are European contenders: other parts of the world might choose the arrival of Europeans, or their own historic industrial revolutions, to mark the end of their ‘normal’).

What if it’s not a blip, a deviation that returns to the line, but a staircase? I could have said ‘ratchet’, perhaps: in any case, what I mean it that our existence now might be more likely defined by increasing pressure, bit by bit, lacking an ebb and flow, offering no respite. There will be additional crises, not ‘new’ crises, that follow this one. In the same way (from a UK perspective) that Brexit placed additional pressure on a society suffering under austerity, this crisis makes the consequences of Brexit more intense: the continuing displacement of people from regions made unliveable by climate change, or the further erosion of public trust, or any other long-anticipated event, will all be dealt with by a society still dealing with the social and economic effects of the coronavirus, which it was managing while still dealing with the consequences of, well, you know. The more things break, the more things break. Different contexts will have their own crisis staircase, their own ratchet. This is the mechanism of the Jackpot William Gibson describes, a slow, ongoing, mundane, tragic, comprehensive, multi-dimensional collection of layered catastrophes that has been happening for the last hundred years and will last another hundred more. If the emergency is declared over in three weeks and we are all sent out of our homes to our workplaces again, it will still be unfolding beneath us, and it will still shape our response to the next emergency.

All these questions are concerned with legacies, ways of being and thinking handed to us. Perhaps the purpose of thinking about the future is to engage with what we’ve been given and what we’re passing on. What have we inherited that we can make use of? What can we let go of now? What are we doing now that we ought to protect and pass on? What accidental legacies might we leave if we don’t pay attention?

Instead of rushing to work out what I think about this, I think I have a short time to loiter, stepping off the staircase. The changes we will be concerned with are going to be bigger than telecommuting, or pernicious states of emergency, and pretty soon there will be more urgent aspects of the pandemic for our household to deal with. Lynn Unger wrote a poem, Pandemic, that suggests we

Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.

The key is ‘just for now’. I don’t know, yet, that we understand what’s happened well enough to know that what we want to do is a good idea. Maybe, for now, acting in response to something is less useful than just acting, doing what’s needed — helping, caring — regardless of how we understand things.

One thought on “Thinking about the future

  1. Rush to the future – Richard Sandford

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