Hopper/Vermeer: Things that never quite were

New York’s Whitney Museum is currently hosting an exhibition on Edward Hopper’s New York, which I visited on a recent trip.

As the exhibition blurb puts it, for Hopper “New York was a city that existed in the mind as well as on the map, a place that took shape through lived experience, memory, and the collective imagination.”

The show is especially satisfying for its use of newly acquired archives, showing how Hopper and his wife Josephine Nivison Hopper collaborated in a lifetime of artistic production.

Works like New York Movie are exhibited alongside preparatory studies and sketches as well as photographs from some of the real-life locations the artists visited as part of their creative process.

We see just how fictive Hopper’s New York was: scenes created from amalgamation of multiple locations, with imaginary additions or even omissions, creating a city-that-never-was which is nonetheless powerfully evocative of New York specifically and a certain quality of mid-twentieth-century American life more generally.

I’m always seduced by sketches; I love it when people show their working. You can see the traces of their choices, the possibilities they pursued and then abandoned, especially when the artist is “thinking through drawing”.

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Life after trends

In the memorable phrase of Ged Davis, a trend is a trend until it bends…or breaks.

For many of us, the pandemic era has been a reminder of this, as the course of events has not always followed the trajectory we were expecting.

Today, we sometimes hear talk of “megatrends”, too; Stefan Hajkowicz of Australia’s Data61 told me you could compare these to the powerful rip currents which pull swimmers out to sea.

Sometimes such currents are hard to spot, and researchers put dye in the seawater to make them visible. Savvy surfers can use rips to swiftly travel out from the shore to the point where they can catch a wave.

Perhaps thinking in terms of trends can work this way, too: using foresight to make a previously unseen tendency visible, using strategy to take advantage of it.

But what happens when the perceived tendency, mega or otherwise, bends or breaks? Our expectations are thwarted and we are reminded that a trend is a projection from the past into times yet to come. The ghost of yesterday’s future haunts our thinking in the here and now.

It’s not that tendencies don’t ever endure – sometimes they do. But it doesn’t always tell us much about what is coming next. After all, we can’t gather one shred of evidence or data from events which haven’t happened yet.

At an event in Plymouth earlier this year, where people gathered to address the question of regional development for England’s “Ocean City”, Fiona Tuck of the economic development consultancy Brand Dynamics spoke not of trends, but “sticky” issues that seemed to accumulate and endure, proving intractable to policymakers’ attempts to change their course.

Fiona’s words made me think of the Scots word “flench“, used to describe unreliable weather where the promise of improvement proves deceitful. After a season of rain, a “flinchin Friday” offers a brief false hope of brightening skies, before the downpour resumes.

In this flenched season of the 2020s, we have been reminded of the hold that expectations of the future can have on us – especially when we assume that a trend will play out in accordance with our projections.

For example, the arrival of COVID-19 was an exemplary lesson in the human struggle to think about exponential, rather than linear, change.

As Trudi Lang and Rafael Ramírez wrote for the Oxford Answers blog in January 2022, “Growth that multiplies and then multiplies again for a period of time (exponential), is very different to growth that is additive, building incrementally in equal chunks over time (linear).” Mistaking one for the other can confuse our understanding of a situation and hamper effective decision-making.

In such situations, our thoughts and words can scramble in the rush to make sense of what is going on and to assuage the discomforting feeling of having been wrong about the future.

At one event I attended during the earlier stages of the pandemic, a speaker said: “The trend accelerated, and 2030 arrived ten years early.”

Of course, what they really meant was that their model was wrong. It had told them that a state of affairs would come to pass in 2030, and in fact that state of affairs was realised a decade before. But it sounds better to say “2030 arrived early”.

In some senses, the future never really arrives anyway. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “the time that will come after the present or the events that will happen then”.

When I was a kindergarten teacher, kids would sometimes come to school and ask me: “Is it tomorrow yet?”

“No,” I’d tell them. “Tomorrow is the next day, this is today.”

The next day, they’d arrive and ask again, “Is it tomorrow yet?”

“No, it’s today again. Tomorrow is always the next day.” Part of the work of learning to make sense of time when we are little kids, is understanding that tomorrow is relative, it is built out of expectations, and in some senses, it is never going to arrive.

So what’s to be done? How do we counter the human bias against perceiving exponential growth? How do we avoid getting blindsided because we’re so focussed on identified trends which may then bend or break?

In the Oxford Scenario Planning Approach and related methods such as Islands in the Sky, we talk about the transactional and contextual environments for a given entity.

The transactional environment consists of actors and dynamics which that entity perceives it can influence: in effect, the “island” on which it operates.

The contextual environment comprises those factors which are perceived to be out of our direct control: the “sea” surrounding the island. Uncertainties within that sea have the power to come ashore in different ways, at different intensities, and in different combinations, redrawing the map of the island on which the central entity operates.

Imagining different ways that the sea of uncertainty could come ashore and redraw the map lets us think about future contexts which lie outside of our current assumptions and expectations; this leads to the “strategic reframing” described by Rafael Ramírez and Angela Wilkinson in their book of the same name.

Strategy and policy can then become a matter of preparing ourselves to operate on different potential islands, or of orchestrating relationships on our island to mutual benefit and greater resilience.

We can also work with others to “reclaim land from the sea” and create a situation where factors previously thought to be outside of our control now become part of the set of dynamics and relationships which we perceive we can influence. A farmer may not be able to control whether it rains or shines tomorrow, but if they contribute to collective efforts to manage, mitigate, and adapt to climate change, they may be able to ensure that the land is still farmable for generations to come.

You could even argue that these approaches are not really “futurist” at all, in any meaningful sense. They’re just mapping contemporary uncertainties as perceived in the environment of a given actor. We only manufacture plausible future scenarios – maps of how the island might be in time to come – in order that we can really get to grips with those uncertainties and their implications.

Factors in the sea of uncertainty may run the gamut from climate change or demographics to technological shifts or changing social values. They may be global in scale or small and highly specific. What they have in common is their relationship to that central entity at the heart of the scenario building process: they are factors perceived to be outside of that entity’s direct influence or control, lying offshore from the island on which the entity operates.

And these factors don’t have to be trends.

In some ways, I’d argue, it’s actually more powerful if we frame them as uncertainties. “There is a growing trend towards automation of higher level cognitive tasks” is a statement of expectation about the future – the machines are coming for the jobs of the lawyers and teachers and novelists now! This expectation can deceive us. It can be thwarted. Competitors can even use it against us, if they know what future we are betting on.

Expressed as an uncertainty, this becomes a question which can be usefully debated: “Which cognitive tasks and processes may prove possible to automate in the future? What about social and emotional tasks? Do we need to challenge our own expectations about such automation? In what settings, industries, and sectors, and for what roles, could it apply? And what does all this imply for us?”

You’ll get a lot more from discussing those questions than just bluntly stating the trend. You might even notice something that you weren’t previously aware of at all…and find that you are able to do something useful about it – individually or collectively.

And isn’t that the point of conducting strategic foresight?

IMAJINE: Visions of the Rural in a Globalised World

In the latest response to the IMAJINE scenarios for the future of European inequality, Professor Esther Peeren of the University of Amsterdam explores the representation of the rural in each scenario, relating these visions back to concerns and challenges in the present day.

Drawing on Donna Haraway’s work, she reminds us that, “Rather than seeking to predict the future or escape from the present, these are ways of ‘staying with the trouble’ in the present, for the future.”

Esther highlights “the dangers inherent to the fantasy of the rural idyll as an isolated paradise shaped by a homogenous community, as well as underlining that such isolated worlds are not exclusive to the rural but may also exist in urban areas and online”; and she reminds us that even when the urban-rural divide seems to be overcome, its inequalities can be displaced “to the global and even interplanetary scale”.

Find Esther Peeren’s response to the IMAJINE scenarios here.

The full IMAJINE scenario set can be found here.

The RURALIMAGINATIONS project “Imagining the Rural in a Globalised World”, which Esther heads, can be found here.

X365: The Graphic Novel, by Neill Cameron

In early 2020, acclaimed comic creator Neill Cameron began to write and draw the one-panel-a-day comic X365: “No plan going in, no preparation. I’d just make a story up and see where it took me.”

When the pandemic hit, it reshaped the tale Neill was telling, of parallel worlds entwined.

The full story is now being produced in a collected edition on Kickstarter, including an interview I conducted with Neill about the project as it reached its conclusion.

See more at the Kickstarter project page for X365: The Graphic Novel.

Scripturient: Computing Taste – Interview with Nick Seaver

For the latest issue of Information Professional magazine, my Scripturient column features an interview with Nick Seaver, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Tufts University.

Nick’s new book Computing Taste uses ethnographic fieldwork to explore how the makers of music recommendation algorithms understand and go about their work – from product managers thinking about their relationship with users to scientists theorising the act of listening itself as a kind of data processing and engineers for whom the world of music is a geography to be cared for and controlled.

You can read the latest Scripturient column featuring Nick as a PDF download here, and there’s a full transcript of our conversation, digging even deeper into these issues and other elements of Nick’s research, below.

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Preservation for All: Whose Future?

“We need to meet this inflection point with a more expansive imagination of what conservation work could be…The tools of the conservator can remind us of the fundamental human need for creativity, most especially under difficult or dehumanising conditions.”

In this short video for America’s National Gallery of Art, Sanchita Balachandran of The Johns Hopkins University speaks about “preservation for all” and strategising under TUNA conditions of turbulence, uncertainty, novelty, and ambiguity.

Chessboard Interrobang / Burden of Dreams

At a recent event, I was allowed just one slide to present an approach to strategic foresight.

Here it is:

On the left is a chessboard, the setting for a game where all the moves are knowable in advance, and the winning and losing conditions clearly defined. It’s just a matter of which piece goes where and when within the constraints of the rules. (Not that it makes chess easy!).

On the right is an interrobang, an unusual punctuation mark which is intended for use at the end of an exclamatory rhetorical question: Are you out of your mind!? Is this for real!?

To me, the point of manufacturing plausible futures when doing strategy work is more about the right hand side of the image than the left.

It’s not about identifying all the contingencies, or modelling all the ways you think the action could play out according to today’s rules.

It’s about showing you something which usefully pushes the bounds of what you believe is plausible; which uncovers issues previously unseen from your standpoint in the present, and makes you question yourself.

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The Ghosts We See from the Mountains: IMAJINE at the Territorial Bodies Conference

I’m pleased to say I’ll be presenting at the Territorial Bodies Conference held at the University of Warwick in February 2023.

My paper, “The ghosts we see from the mountains: Scenario planning and the territorial body in time”, will explore the intersection between bodies and territories via the questions of spatial justice explored by the IMAJINE scenarios for the future of European territorial inequality, and consider how scenario planning can give insights into the ways we understand the relationship between bodies and territories over time.

Find out more at the University of Warwick conference website or via the Territorial Bodies account on Twitter.

Scenarios for the future of civil protection in Germany

I served as an expert respondent on the pro bono scenarios for the future of civil protection in Germany created by the team at CapGemini Invent.

German speakers (or those of you possessed of a decent machine translation option) can read more about the Katastrophenschutz 2035 scenarios here.