The future does not exist

Using future scenarios to navigate the choppy waters of 2020

'It may be the end of the world as we know it, but other worlds are possible.'
- Anab Jain

This is a really chaotic moment. For me, and I'm sure for many of you, the future suddenly feels very uncertain. Projects have been shelved, career and life plans called into question, and planning more than a couple of months ahead requires a major leap of faith.

When it comes to pandemics, we've had so many warnings and near misses, we could not have been more prepared. At the same time, no-one predicted the way this would unfold: social distancing, a third of the world in some kind of lockdown, and economies deliberately paused.

How do we navigate through these unfamiliar and choppy waters?

In the last few years, I've been really drawn to the tools and techniques used in the field of Futures Studies. I've examined it in my work (projects like Break into the Aquarium and CrimeForce: LoveTeam with Jordan Prosser), and I've also come to really rely on it in my own personal life.

Futures Studies

Futures Studies is a loose label for a diverse field of practitioners including academics, consultants, scientists and artists, drawing on history, earth system sciences, politics and sociology.

The core principle across the spectrum of Futures Studies is this: the future cannot be predicted.

'The future does not exist. The ultimate reason to engage in futures work, then, and especially to create scenarios -- which are merely tools to help us think -- is to enrich our perceptions and options in the evolving present.'
- Stuart Candy

What futurists provide is not a prophetic timeline of the years to come, but scenarios that depict the different directions that society might go. A scenario is an imagined vision of the future, described in graphs or text or images.

These scenarios aren’t meant to be accurate, or “correct” - the whole idea is to imagine best and worst cases, averages and extremes. And you don’t create just one scenario - you want a whole set of them, a range of possible futures that embody the various ways our society might go.

This is what futurists call the ‘scenaric stance’ - holding multiple futures in view simultaneously. The idea is that it gives you greater emotional and intellectual rigour when considering your options in the here and now.

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When the lockdowns and travel bans started to escalate, my partner and I sat down to rethink our plans. The first thing we did was to sketch out some 'what if' scenarios for the next few months. What if Covid completely obliterates the healthcare system? What if it's all sorted out in the next 10 weeks? What if we get sick? What if our families get sick?

For each scenario, we scribbled a few thoughts of what we'd need to be okay in that situation. And then we set out to make sure, as best we could, that we were covered. We got a box and started filling it with two weeks worth of food, in case we got sick and needed to quarantine. We put a series of 'if/then' plans in place - 'if we hear that cases are escalating past this point, then we try to get back to see our families as soon as possible,' etc. And we scheduled a series of regular check-ins to look at the horizon and see whether we needed to update our plans.

All pretty straightforward and intuitive, right? I figure everyone does some variety of this kind of planning: for their job, for their family, for their finances. Futures Thinking and the Scenaric Stance really just boils down to exactly this kind of planning, but at the scale of society rather than just the household.

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Maybe one of the most useful things that exploring Futures Studies has taught me is that devising future scenarios is a creative exercise.

This is true whether you're doing it yourself, brainstorming on a piece of paper, or if you're producing economic forecasts for a government agency. No matter how much you dress them up in numbers or statistics, any future scenario is a creative fiction. They're stories.

Of course, a quantified climate model running on a supercomputer produces different kinds of future scenarios to those dreamed up by a science fiction writer. But they're still both stories. What matters is not whether they're true or accurate, but whether they're useful.

Right now, in the midst of this chaotic and uncertain moment, I'm finding scenarios are incredibly useful in helping me make sense of the noise.

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In 'normal' times, future scenarios can help break us out of the assumption that the future is going to look like the past. Imagining different visions of what the future might look like is a way of reminding ourselves that things do change, quite drastically.

But right now we don't need to be reminded that abrupt and serious change is possible - we're seeing it. We've crossed a global threshold and we're in a state of real future shock.

In moments like this, as Noah Raford pointed out, scenarios can help us make of what we're seeing. The onslaught of news and current events can be confusing and chaotic. Future scenarios allow us to say, the future might look like this, or this, or this.

As an example, here's the excellent Grey Briefings scenarios. This is a set of post-covid scenarios developed by an anonymous collective of international futurists. Published back in April (which already feels like the deep past), it offers three possible futures for the world in the next few years:

  • The Pyramid, a world of totalitarian government, economic inequality and militarised surveillance;

  • The Leviathan, a world where states centralise power and use it to develop infrastructure and climate resilience, quashing community dissent;

  • The Village, a world of ineffective governments where small communities are forced to rely on each other and where grey markets and DIY hacks flourish.

Every incoming news headline can be considered in the light of those scenarios. You can read a headline and say, 'Ah, this piece of news feels like it's moving us towards the Pyramid scenario', or, 'this event feels more like we're trending towards the Leviathan future.' So scenarios become a way of helping us process information in an otherwise chaotic news environment.

Of course, the reality is that the future won't be quite like any of these scenarios - it will be a mix of all of them, plus other elements we haven't yet imagined.

'The future is dark, which is on the whole, the best thing the future can be, I think.'
- Virginia Woolf

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Inspired by the Grey Briefings report, Jordan Prosser and I are developing a new online performance looking at post-covid futures entitled Broken Hearts 2035.

It’s 2035 AD, and the world looks very different from the way it did in 2020. After Ryan and Rachel bump into each other during a protest march, a decade and a half after their last kiss, they face extraordinary obstacles as time and fate march them towards their hopeful happy-ever-after. It’s up to you to help them navigate the strangeness of 2035, and explore the consequences of the choices we’re making today in the world of tomorrow.

Will the future be informed by high-tech surveillance or rigorous privacy rights? Will it be a world where the Green New Deal is a mere pipe dream, or where climate action is enforced at gunpoint? Will we live in a globalised society or a world of separated nation-states?

And most importantly of all: will it be a world where love between two attractive almost-strangers can still blossom?

Broken Hearts 2035 is Blade Runner meets The Notebook. Minority Report mixed with Notting Hill. When Harry Met Sally in Children of Men. Part interactive introduction to future scenarios, and part dazzling Hollywood sci-fi romance.

RSVP here if you're interested. There are two shows:

6.30 - 7.30pm (Australian Eastern time) Wednesday 26 August
1.00 - 2.00pm (British Standard time) Thursday 27 April

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In other news, I'm presenting two workshop / presentations next week showcasing the work of some other fascinating artists.

Green Manifesto - Tuesday 28 July
Jordan and I are hosting this conversation with Filipino artists and activists about the situation on the ground in the Philippines. In the last few weeks, the Philippines government has taken the country's largest TV station off the air and passed a new Anti-Terror Bill that allows for warrantless arrests, while covid cases rise unchecked.

JK Anicoche, Sarah Queblatin, Edwin Quinsayas and Tey Krishna Lopez will share their insights into the social, political and environmental crisis, and talk about art-making under extreme pressure.

enVisage - Wednesday 29 July
Hanna Cormick is an expert theatrical mask maker and performer. Having apprenticed under the world's leading mask makers in France and Indonesia, Cormick fell out of love with mask performance in 2013, but two years later was struck by a cluster of rare diseases that have left her with breathing complications and an immune system so haywire that the outside air could kill her. She now relies on medical masks to help her breathe, and cannot leave her filtered safe-room without a full-face respirator and oxygen tank.

In this conversation, Hanna will talk about the ethics and aesthetics of these devices that are suddenly central to our culture.

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Waiting for Permission
Here are two contradictory impulses. On the one hand, as a writer / maker, you need to be responsive to your audience. If it doesn’t connect, it doesn’t work. To create only for yourself is not only arrogant, it’s also ultimately pointless.

On the other hand, as a writer / maker, you cannot create work purely to please people. You cannot chase popularity or make work entirely based on what you think people will enjoy. Above all, you cannot let the opinions of others shape your own sense of self-worth. If you do, you paralyse yourself.

A new blog about waiting for permission from gatekeepers.

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Thanks all, take care and keep in touch -