In 1992, a consignment of around thirty thousand bath toys was lost from the Ever Laurel, a container ship bound from Hong Kong to Tacoma, Washington. During a storm in the North Pacific Ocean, several containers were washed overboard, including one bearing “Friendly Floatees”. These Chinese-made toys took the form of red beavers, green frogs, blue turtles, and yellow ducks, and when the container holding them broke open, the Floatees were free to travel the oceans.
Ten months after the spill, most of these bath toys arrived on the beaches near Sitka, Alaska, but not all of them shared this fate. A number spent the winter of 1992-93 frozen in the ice of the Bering Sea. Some floated back into the North Pacific, and yet others made their way through the Arctic Ocean to the North Atlantic. Oceanographers eagerly studied their unexpected trajectories, which revealed previously unknown information about ocean currents.
In his book Footsteps in the Dark, the American historian George Lipsitz uses this event to explore how cultural phenomena such as pop music also circulate via hidden currents, finding new life and new uses in different times and different places around the world.
He describes how KC and the Sunshine Band found their sound by combining influences from Pentecostal Christianity, doo-wop, Santería drumming and Bahamian “junkanoo” carnival music; how the infectious beat of Dion’s “The Wanderer” has its roots in the Italian tarantella; how a composition by George Clinton of Parliament owes its “operatic” quality to synagogue chanting which Clinton heard in childhood at a schoolfriend’s bar mitzvah.
Lipsitz also attends to the social uses of such music. Analysing the Isley Brothers number which gives his book its title, he considers it an account of 1970s Black American experiences which were neglected by journalists and historians:
“As far as we know, the Isley Brothers did not intend to be historians of these changes or even to create a historical record of them with their music. They never chose to present an empirical accounting of events organized in chronological order, nor did their songs speak directly about politics, laws, or leaders. The Isley Brothers did not do research in traditional archives filled with government documents, personal records, or diaries of famous people. Yet they displayed extraordinary familiarity with and knowledge of what we might call the alternative archives of history, the shared memories, experiences, and aspirations of ordinary people, whose perspectives rarely appear in formal historical archival collections.”
Lipsitz gives us the tools to look not only at the past, but also the future, through lenses we might have previously neglected: sifting pop culture for overlooked clues to social change, examining cultural movements to understand the hidden currents which drive them, and making meaning from the “Friendly Floatees” which have drifted away from the course prescribed by the dominant social, political, and economic order.
“My hope,” he writes, “is that reading popular music as history and interpreting history through popular music will help us to hear the footsteps in the dark, to see how history happens and why music matters.” I believe that Lipsitz’s book also has much to teach us about the way we look at the future.
The Long Fetch
“In places where the ocean meets the beach,” Lipsitz tells us, “most waves rise, crest, and fall in the space of a few yards. They are visible to the eye for only a few seconds. The life of a wave seems to be short, both spatially and temporally. Yet these waves can have enormous power. Under the right circumstances, they can erode rocky coastlines, pull sand from the shore back out to sea, crash through windows and walls to destroy buildings, and even wash up on shore miles in land.”
Lipsitz reminds us that the short life of waves is an illusion: though they appear abruptly to us on the shore, they have accumulated shape and power from prevailing winds and undersea currents across their “long fetch” – defined as the distance between a wave’s point of origin and its point of arrival.
If we think of the various upsets of 2020, where so many shocking events have erupted from long-building, submerged forces, it’s hard to resist the explanatory power of the long fetch.
“An eruption of hatred, an outbreak of violence, or the overthrowing of an entire social order can shock us by its surprising force and fury, but the surprise comes largely because its long fetch remains hidden from view,” writes Lipsitz. “The purpose of studying history is to train ourselves to look for its fetch, to realise that things that appear suddenly in our lives have a past, and to appreciate that part of what things are is how they came to be. Historical knowledge reveals that events that we perceive as immediate and proximate have causes and consequences that span great distances.”
Foresight, too, depends on a process which is sister to the study of history. Unlike forecasters, who seek to identify the one future which will certainly come to pass, and whose work demands confidence in the predictive power of a given model, foresight practitioners seek to understand the forces which may be bringing about the future while remaining hidden to us. Foresight requires the identification of weak signals of emergent change, an attention to the limits of our usual perspective, and an understanding that the smooth curve of a projected trend may be suddenly transformed, just as a long-travelling wave appears to break on our shores with only a few seconds’ warning.
The great scenario planner Pierre Wack spoke of foresight as being like looking at rain on the mountain and knowing that could mean future floods in the valley below. He could equally well have spoken of the long fetch: knowing that a motion of the water in the heart of the ocean could bring tsunami to our coastline…or a gift of colourful, misplaced bath toys to our shores.
Lipsitz chooses the Isley Brothers’ “Footsteps in the Dark” as the title of his book because the song, as he puts it, “worries about the past and the present. It expresses doubt about the future. It tries to face the facts honestly, pleading urgently, ‘Let’s look at what’s been happening and try to be more aware.'”
The song is superficially about the haunting sense of a relationship jeopardised by doubt and desire: “being torn between wanting to know the truth and being afraid to know it […] The footsteps in the dark might be the partner walking away, another lover approaching, or a projection of the singer’s plan to slip away.”
When we practice foresight, too, we seek to listen out for signals which might meaningfully inform our choices about what to do next. We seek to give them context and meaning, to parse their ambiguities, to acknowledge and therefore manage the feelings of hope and fear which can blind us to the future which is emerging around us.
So, what can we learn from Lipsitz, and how can we apply the lessons of Footsteps in the Dark – the book and the song – to the business of foresight?
Listening out for change in “disreputable” places
When we seek to make strategic decisions, we try to find reliable sources of information about what is happening around us and what might be happening next. We will tend to look to economic forecasts, news sources we consider trustworthy, expert opinions.
Yet expertise is not infallibility, the most prestigious institutions and individuals will still have their blind spots, and change often comes from the margins rather than the established centre.
Where would we have had to pay attention to detect the earliest signs of the movements which led to the Brexit vote in 2016, or Donald Trump’s ultimately successful candidacy for President? Both events surprised pundits and commentators who had been watching events closely, but clearly not looking in the right places to see new currents building in power.
If we had attended more closely to GamerGate and harassment in video games culture, for example, what might we have foreseen about the rise in vicious right-wing sentiment both on and offline? What hidden changes went unnoticed because we prefer to build our visions of the future on information from sources perceived to be trustworthy, stalwart, and serious? And if we choose to explore more “disreputable” sources, how can we do so without deceiving ourselves, in a way which is helpful to making better decisions about the future?
Finding new ways to talk about what happens next
If the Isley Brothers chronicled a historical American experience which was largely neglected by more mainstream institutions, are there also alternate forms of foresight which have been similarly neglected? Tools which I favour, like the Oxford Scenario Planning Approach, remain largely the preserve of big business, big government, global policymakers, and a few lucky NGOs.
Alternative methodologies like Black Quantum Futurism have arisen from grassroots activist communities, but they occupy a position in foresight work similar to “fringe science”, and their approaches can seem difficult for institutional strategists to digest. Yet they are evidence of communities trying to find new ways to talk about, and challenge, received notions of the future that awaits.
Who are the Isley Brothers of foresight? And what is the most respectful, least appropriative way for a wider community to value and learn from these less institutionally legitimated approaches to looking at the future?
Foresight and fandom
Lipsitz devotes one chapter of his book to talking extensively about boy band fandom, where male teen idols are crafted by the music industry to appeal to pubescent girls. He points out, however, that participating in fan culture doesn’t make you a victim: fandom creates communities and creative spaces where people can meet, connect, and reimagine both themselves and the world around them. The most headline-grabbing example of this power in action – an impressive wave rising up from the long fetch of fandom – might be the fans of the Korean “K-pop” genre who have been repeatedly pranking the Trump campaign online.
More recently, protestors in Thailand drew on the world of Harry Potter to express their disapproval of the current government.
In the Philippines of the 1980s, opponents of Ferdinand Marcos had rallied around the song “The Impossible Dream”, which had its own long fetch from the musical Man of La Mancha (and therefore Cervantes’ Quixote, before that) to becoming the campaign song of assassinated Marcos opponent Evelio Javier.
People interested in foresight can also learn much from researchers who are studying fan cultures. Ludi Price of City University London has written of how online fanfiction communities organise and manage information in ways which are the equal of, if not superior to, institutional taxonomies. Penny Andrews is exploring “politics fandom“, where people become passionate devotees displaying fan behaviour “around politics itself, individual politicians and political campaigns”.
What would we understand about the future if we learned from those who study pop culture, and looked at it through a fandom lens?
Futurity, identity, desire
I wrote a while back about the ways in which foresight work risks projecting our assumptions about identity, gender and sexuality onto the future. José Esteban Muñoz’s book Cruising Utopia addresses some of these issues by suggesting that queerness is a way of engaging with gender and sexuality which always resists norms, and therefore is forever on the horizon, a disruptive force which irradiates and energises us like the sun without ever defining itself once and for all.
Lipsitz’s writing on music fandom also acknowledges that when consumers act as fans and refuse to simply serve as puppets of the music industry which targets them as a desirable market segment, our received notions of identity can be challenged.
He draws on Judith Halberstam’s work to argue that fandom may allow people to break out of typical expectations for the trajectory of a life:
“the dominant reigning model of ‘youth’ presumes a normative life course rooted in gradual progression from a presexual childhood to an adulthood defined by heterosexual marriage, procreation, and parenting. Each life stage is designated by age- and status-appropriate commodities and consumption practices. Properly managed pubescent fandom can be permitted as a temporary step along this path, but it cannot be allowed to become so appealing that it serves as an end in itself. A moment of pleasure with other women unrelated to the goal of marriage, procreation, and parenting might undermine the logic of the heterosexual gender system.”
Popular music is steeped in cultural expressions of sexuality and desire, and as a song hits the charts, it carries meanings made by its authors, performers, producers, distributors – and its listeners.
However much the industry may seek to reduce culture to a product, shaping consumers’ tastes and furnishing them only with the songs it wishes them to consume, songs still speak to audiences, and find popularity or value, in great part because they touch us at some emotional level.
It might be hard to express your identity transgressively through your purchase of a fridge or dishwasher, but the music you choose to consume in public or in private can still speak volumes, directly or indirectly, about who you are and how you want to be in the world.
Wouldn’t popular culture, and especially pop music, be a good place to learn more about the new and emerging ways we will live, love, and desire in times to come?
Taking an aesthetic approach to strategy
In their work on “feral futures“, Rafael Ramírez and Jerome Ravetz argue for an “aesthetic” approach to strategy in times of uncertainty. The future is something we feel, interpret, and respond to aesthetically, including our acceptance or rejection of a given future’s plausibility.
Our relationship to the future may bypass rationality, even when we discipline our thinking. Logic, if trained on the wrong aspects of our situation, may lead us to false conclusions. I’m reminded of Oxford University’s Frankie Wilson, with her comment that she believes in “evidence-informed”, rather than “evidence-based” practice, because “sometimes organisations have to do things strategically that the evidence tells them not to”.
Lipsitz’s practice of history gives us a new way of attending to the popular culture of the past which could be immensely useful for us when seeking to recognise the futures which may be emerging around us in the present – the deep currents and prevailing winds which will cause future waves to break on our shores.
The plastic bath toys which accidentally broke free of that storm-tossed container in the North Pacific Ocean were a gift to oceanographers: thirty thousand little floating figures which could be tracked to reveal what was previously concealed.
In the same way, we must look to crises and accidents which make the hidden currents and emerging forces of our own times manifest.
An oceanographer might not have known in advance that a cheap bath toy was a great device for exploring ocean dynamics. What overlooked tools might be available to the foresight practitioner who turns to marginalised, fringe, or disreputable corners as they seek indicators of the futures which might emerge? Are there “Friendly Floatees” bobbing out there in the ocean which give us indicators of what might happen next? Are we attentive, and humble, enough to recognise their worth?
A final word from the Isley Brothers
The last lesson that “Footsteps in the Dark” has to teach us, in song and on the page, might also be the toughest. Lipsitz notes that:
“Although the song’s last verse pleads for reconciliation and proposes that the couple stop ‘walking around’ because there’s ‘love lost to be found’, ‘Footsteps in the Dark’ never reaches narrative or harmonic closure, conveying instead a gnawing, throbbing anxiety that cannot be eased.”
The future will always be uncertain. No-one can gather data or evidence from an event that hasn’t happened yet. Forecasts are merely bets on the power of a given predictive model. And if anyone could bottle the future, they would have done so and made a fortune.
Uncertainty suggests an anxiety about “what happens next” that can never fully be assuaged. But it also implies opportunity: to change, to respond, to propose something new; to transform and be transformed.
When it comes to the future, we may always be reduced to listening for footsteps in the dark; but perhaps we will also be able to choose how best we dance to that haunting tune. Lipsitz’s work of pop-cultural history helps to show us the way.