Imagine letting your community dream wildly of the world to come.
Imagine collaborating on a future history spanning millennia.
Imagine turning public space into something that was wondrous and strange.
As part of our time-travel themed festival of weirdness, storytelling, art and science at Ann Arbor District Library, we asked visitors to write postcards from the future.
We collected over 80 tales stretching from 2018 to the year 5000.
They took a blank postcard and one card each from four mysterious black boxes.
These four cards were prompts which participants had to include in their postcard: a specific future time, an object, a mood, and a theme to think about.
People could work alone or together, use words or pictures or both, and the activity was open to anyone who was interested. The prompts gave participants something less scary than an utterly blank page and also meant that certain themes and objects would recur across history, creating common ground for the collective story.
Completed cards were taped onto a long paper timeline.
At the end of the event, I took the completed timeline to a back room and began typing up the postcards into a single coherent future history. We also wove in digital images from the artist Peter Miller to illustrate the tale in a short video.
It was fascinating to see how the different stories began to entwine: the rise and fall of empires occurring alongside bizarre trends in food and fashion, whimsical follies, and a deep, consistent thread of appreciation for nature.
A friend based in the area had warned me that “Michigan people really love trees”. That certainly proved the case in Ann Arbor. (Maybe the city’s name should have been a giveaway). Care for the environment, forestry and farming were all recurring themes – including an especially sweet final image of life 5000 years hence.
Some of the adult participants had pointed messages about fighting for democracy, acknowledging the diversity of the community, and showing respect to elders — but even children’s postcards touched on more serious issues, reminding us of the extent to which current affairs filter down to the playground.
The postcard about police wearing artificially intelligent hats which are capable of zapping people – only to find the hats are “crazy” and going out of control – speaks to anxieties about law enforcement in the age of bodycams, technologised policing, and concern over official misconduct.
Seeing this kind of card reminded me how even light-hearted storytelling activities can be powerful ways to elicit the issues that trouble, challenge, or engage a community.
Mostly, however, people were optimistic about the future. Even eras dominated by robotic life were oddly wistful, with a Silent Running vibe.
Robots rescued Ann Arbor residents from their city’s destruction in a far-future age; they quested for the mythical Pants of Freedom; their young went to elementary school just like human kids; and they were fascinated by statues — “Like robots that can’t do anything, they’re kinda cool though!”
Some of that might be silly stuff – but some of it is on a par with James Lovelock musing about how future artificial intelligences might treat human beings the way we treat trees. Expert knowledge has its value in informing predictions of the future, but one of the joys of the future is precisely that it is unknown and not fully predictable by anyone. We all have a right to daydream about what might happen next.
Our Postcards from the Future activity allowed the community to come together and collectively imagine the destiny of their city for thousands of years to come. It could be whimsical, witty, or self-indulgent; it could engage with the most serious issues of our time or be entirely personal – like the girl who simply wrote “In ten years time, I will be a grown up”.
Watch the full Postcards from the Future video below.
To see more about this kind of community futurism, see Visions from Bundaberg, a 2016 storytelling project in regional Queensland.