In 2019-2020, I worked with researchers from the University of Oslo on a set of scenarios for the future of Norwegian schools. You can see the full scenario set, “Schools and/or Screens”, here.
Niamh ni Broin and Steffen Kruger of the University of Oslo convened the project and recruited me to help a group of key stakeholders develop the scenarios. Today Steffen, a psychoanalytic researcher and senior lecturer in the university’s Department of Media and Communication, joins me to talk about the project, taboo futures, pop culture, and questions of fate and destiny in foresight work.
Matt: Last time we met, it was the year 2050.
Steffen: Or October 2019… We were looking at the future of Norwegian schools with my colleague Niamh Ni Broin and a group of stakeholders from the education sector: teachers, tech firms, non-profits, government officials. You took us through a scenario planning exercise exploring how the digitalisation of education might play out in coming years.
We used the Oxford Scenario Planning Approach, which helps people generate plausible future contexts to inform present-day decision-making. The emphasis is on finding imagined futures which stretch people’s sense of what may lie ahead – and highlight their blindspots when it comes to the current situation.
We ended up with three scenarios for 2050: self-educating teens in a heavily digitalised post-capitalist world ravaged by climate crisis; a “rustbelt” Norway where economic crisis had put an end to oil wealth and politics was decidedly Trumpish; and “Norway Prime”, where people had traded all privacy for material comfort in a heavily surveilled, corporate-dominated future. In this last scenario, jobs and domestic life had blended into one – both one’s schooling and career were determined by “the algorithm”.
This last one proved most interesting in light of what happened shortly after the workshops.
In this future, we imagined parents battling “the algorithm” over the question of children’s health. As machines scrutinised, analysed, and judged their caregiving – issuing sanctions for the slightest lapse or deviation from prescribed norms – parents and carers asserted their right to make decisions about their child’s health and wellbeing.
During the scenario process, we identified the rise of machine intelligence and the management of children’s health as key issues, and began to explore types of ill health that would challenge such a system. We landed on “factitious disorders” such as Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy, which would not easily yield to number-crunching. We imagined parents battling authorities over such small decisions as deciding when a child was old enough to wipe their own nose – but also increasingly turning to extreme and perverse measures to assert themselves against this claustrophobic arrangement.
People were acting pathologically within a profiteering surveillance system which could not otherwise be revolted against, because it was also the giver of care. You are enveloped in this comfortable life, yet you know something’s not right.
Scenarios imagine a challenging future in order to highlight issues we might consider in the present. Among other things, this future drew attention to the tensions between parents and education authorities over children’s health, played out in digital space.
Within days of the scenarios’ final publication, we saw parents in Oslo organising on Facebook to lobby the city over school closures: public health officials claimed school was the safest place for children, while parents were saying, We’re working from home, so why are our kids going in? We know what’s best for their wellbeing!
2050 arrived in 2020 — within days, not decades.
This question in scenario work, of attending to the things which you can’t or won’t see about your situation, resonates strongly with me as a psychoanalytic researcher.
I remember you being really interested in the perversity of the Munchausen’s element.
I had this feeling of pushing to where the taboo is. This is also what we do in psychoanalytically informed research: interrogating words that you shouldn’t use, thoughts you shouldn’t think. You look at the future of digitalisation, at all this new technology which is being sold with such promise, and you ask: “What would be the perverse use of these new tools and toys?”
Do you think that scenarios help us to uncover taboos?
Perhaps. Some of the issues which arise are certainly hard to face if we are talking about reality; no-one likes to confront such questions for their own lives, their own children. But I didn’t feel that we raised up these issues from such great depths; rather, they were very close to the surface, but just beyond our field of vision – at least, in the frame through which we typically look when it comes to the future of education in Norway.
Much of the future can already be found around us quite explicitly, but it lies in popular culture rather than the “realistic” domain of policy – in thrillers, soap operas, crime dramas, viral social media, science fiction films. People are fluent in this culture; watching the rise of COVID-deniers and conspiracists, we see an endless stream of repurposed pop cultural tropes.
All of this is right there already: you only need to turn on your TV to see the signals! Children of Men, The Road, Black Mirror: they were all resonant with the preoccupations in our scenarios.
George Lipsitz, in Footsteps in the Dark, talks about sifting popular culture to elicit hidden information about social and political history. He looks at songs – like the Isley Brothers number which gives his book its title – as “the alternative archives of history, the shared memories, experiences, and aspirations of ordinary people, whose perspectives rarely appear in formal historical archival collections”.
Lipsitz also uses the notion of the “fetch” – the distance a wave travels in the ocean from its origins to its exhaustion – as a metaphor for how pop culture churns through the ages, reemerging in different forms and being put to different uses. I wonder if something similar can happen on an anticipatory basis when we look at the seas we might sail through in the future.
Perhaps in this scenario project, we caught such a wave and surfed it for a short stretch on its journey from pop cultural past to a troubling future vision.
It resonates with this notion that the future does not come at you from over an unknown horizon; it overtakes you in the rearview mirror. The future is already emerging around us, and could even be grasped to some extent, if only we knew which weak signals of change we should attend to.
I turn to Christopher Bollas and his psychoanalytic notions of “fate” and “destiny”. The fated person suffers under a power which interferes with their capacity to work, find pleasure, form intimate relationships; to bring their potential to lived experience. Destiny, in turn, is the progressive articulation of one’s potential through many objects. “A sense of fate,” Bollas writes, “is a feeling of despair to influence the course of one’s own life” – whereas the sense of destiny is that of one’s personality progressing, of moving and steering one’s own course.
Do scenarios make our fates manifest in order that we can discard them and find our destiny? And what is the accelerating, turbulent effect of COVID-19 on our capacity to cope with the future? Can we understand it in advance or will we only truly do so in retrospect?
Even if we can’t understand it entirely, can we still be like surfers and, through careful attention to the conditions, catch a wave that takes us where we want to go?