Angels on the beach

Walter Benjamin wrote a few famous lines about Paul Klee’s artwork Angelus Novus. You may know them:

A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

-Walter Benjamin, “On The Concept of History”

Imagine the plight of Benjamin’s angel today. The winds are more turbulent than ever. The ground on which the angel walks has become, perhaps, more unstable. Each step, however small, is taken in extreme uncertainty.

Perhaps the angel has come to realise that they are no longer alone. Other angels, with other perspectives and other understandings of what has gone before or where they are headed, also stagger against the storm. However much they wish to stay with the past that has gone before them, they are constantly driven onwards.

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The Lusory Attitude: Interview with Florence Engasser

This month, I spoke with Florence Engasser, senior foresight analyst at the innovation foundation Nesta. Florence works on exploring the future of innovation for social good; her interests include intelligent cities, social incubation, games and simulation.

We caught up to talk about her work using games as a tool to stimulate and develop the thinking of policymakers, including the innovation board game Innovate!, which was released in 2018.

Playing the Innovation Policy board game prototype – image courtesy of Nesta

M: You’re fond of quoting Bernard Suits in The Grasshopper: games are “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles”, what he calls “the lusory attitude.” Have you always enjoyed overcoming unnecessary obstacles?

F: It’s a really cool quote, isn’t it? I’ve always been into all kinds of games; growing up with two brothers who are close in age, and parents who weren’t great fans of television or pop culture, I spent a lot of time “off screen”. As I grew older, I graduated from games like Uno to those which my parents might have labelled as “brain games” – more intense and elaborate stuff like Pandemic or Risk, where you might end up banging your head against the board!

M: Games serve so many purposes: entering an imagined world, competition, intellectual challenge, social connection — for you, was there one particular aspect which appealed above all?

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“Whose futures matter?” Gender, identity, and strategic foresight

I was privileged to be Dr. Pani Farvid‘s guest at The New School’s SexTech Lab this week, talking about how researchers of gender, sexuality, and identity can work with the imagined future to understand the present and challenge its assumptions.

The discussion built on some previous tentative explorations of foresight and identity, which you can read on this site: “Foresight and Cruising Utopia” and “Dots that I haven’t joined yet“.

Another valuable reading is last year’s article “Whose futures matter?“, from a group of foresight practitioners including Joshua Polchar, Özge Aydogan, Pupul Bisht, Kwamou Eva Feukeu, Sandile Hlatshwayo, Alanna Markle, and Prateeksha Singh. I also recommend the OECD’s Alex Roberts‘ piece on “otherness and innovation” from 2017.

Taboo Futures, Fate, and Destiny – Conversation with Steffen Krueger

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.

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It’s not about tomorrow, 2: Samuel Delany

In the Winter 2020 issue of The Yale Review, Samuel R. Delany gives twelve short responses to the question “Why I Write”.

Delany is a critic, teacher, and author of fiction both popular and transgressive, most famous for his science fiction writing.

The ninth of his twelve answers speaks to his love of the genre, and also the wider question of why imagining wild futures might make us wiser in the present.

Delany writes, of his preference for science fiction over stories of the everyday:

“I think what happens with mundane or naturalist fiction is that these characters succeed or fail in what they try to do, but they succeed or fail against the background of the real world so that their successes are always some form of adjusting to the real world. Their failures are always a matter of being defeated by the real world.”

For those of us who help people make better decisions by telling stories of the future, this “real world” is like the perspective of a decisionmaker who thinks themselves utterly pragmatic and realistic.

Their assumptions are those commonly held in their time and context; their decisions are based on the seemingly firm ground of evidence and data; they see the world through a frame which is widely held by their peers to be “right” for the present moment. They see their successes and failures as being a matter of how well or poorly they adjust to meet this reality.

Yet it cannot be the whole story. If everyone in your peer group is looking through the same frame, they will all have the same blind spot. If you rely on numbers – the reduction of complexity to countable simplicity – you will lose valuable information; quantitative indicators are, after all, not objective facts, but tools designed for specific functions, with all the benefits and limitations that implies. The practices which make you feel comfortable in your decisionmaking will also bind and limit you, both in terms of what you can see might happen and what you might choose to do.

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It’s not about tomorrow, 1: Ursula Le Guin

In the introduction to her book The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin writes that “Science fiction is often described, and even defined, as extrapolative. The science fiction writer is supposed to take a trend or phenomenon of the here-and-now, purify and intensify it for dramatic effect, and extend it into the future. ‘If this goes on, this is what will happen.'”

“A prediction is made”, she continues:

“Method and results much resemble those of a scientist who feeds large doses of a purified and concentrated food additive to mice, in order to predict what may happen to people who eat it in small quantities for a long time. The outcome seems almost inevitably to be cancer. So does the outcome of extrapolation. Strictly extrapolative works of science fiction generally arrive about where the Club of Rome arrives: somewhere between the gradual extinction of human liberty and the total extinction of terrestrial life.”

Le Guin writes that “it’s lovely to be invited to participate in Futurological Congresses where Systems Science displays its grand apocalyptic graphs, to be asked to tell the newspapers what America will be like in 2001, and all that, but it’s a terrible mistake. I write science fiction, and science fiction isn’t about the future. I don’t know any more about the future than you do, and very likely less.”

The same might be said for those of us whose work includes scenario planning. It’s not about knowing what will happen tomorrow, or even having a sense of what’s probable. What you’re really doing is imagining different tomorrows in order to change your perspective on today: informing decisions in the here and now.

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2266 and All That: Chris Beckett, Two Tribes

As the British House of Commons is recalled to debate the new agreement with the European Union, it’s time to look at one last book in 2020: Chris Beckett’s Two Tribes, published just five months ago, during the summer of COVID lockdown.

In this novel, historians from far-future London find two archived diaries which chronicle a romance blossoming across the Brexit divide of 2016-17. Harry, a Remainer architect, is stranded in a rural Norfolk town when his car breaks down. He finds himself renting a spare room for the night from Michelle, a local hairdresser who voted to leave the EU. They forge a deep and unexpected connection which troubles and compels Harry, leaving him torn between Michelle and Letty, an arts administrator from his own North London milieu.

Harry and Michelle’s private journals are being examined in the year 2266 by Zoe, a researcher affiliated to the elite Guiding Body which now governs an impoverished, climate-ravaged, postdemocratic England, slowly emerging from a spell as a Chinese protectorate. Running water, motor cars, and twenty-four hour electricity are things of the past for Zoe’s world, as is the EU itself, and a vast shanty town has developed within the ruins left by a brutal civil war.

Two Tribes is a swift, compelling read. Efficiently drawn characters map out the polarisations of the Brexit debate, and Beckett deftly charts the unsteady progress of Harry and Michelle’s romance. The passages set in 2016-17, presented as fragments of a historical novel being written from the primary sources by Zoe, skirt and skewer Pygmalion fantasies of love across a class divide.

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Planning for 2021: Value-Creating Systems

Every year, around this time, I share a simple tool which might help people think ahead when making personal plans. In 2019 and 2018 I offered variants of the “Arrows of Time” diagram. The arrows provide a way to reflect on the things which may await us in the coming year, and those from the past which will still be with us on our journey into the future.

This year, I want to share a different tool. You still don’t need anything more than a pen and paper to use it.

This year, I want to think about relationships and values.

2020 has been a strange and difficult year for many of us, with more of our life than ever before spent online: in Zoom meetings and conference calls, online quizzes and get-togethers in new, sometimes awkward, digital settings. All of the emotions, frustrations, and opportunities of these spaces have been magnified by the pressures of COVID-19.

We increasingly expect, and are expected, to deal with constant streams of information from many sources. There’s more stimulation, but we might also be more distractible, less focussed, less aware of our environment, less able to process everything cognitively and emotionally. We might not be tending our relationships as well as we might.

So why not take a moment, map your relationships, and see what difference they’re currently making? It might guide you in the decisions you make as 2021 arrives.

As always, I’m standing on the shoulders of giants, trying to bring together the work of a few different thinkers and writers in a simple tool. I’ll tell you more about the sources I’m drawing on at the end of this piece.

But before then, if you’re willing to join me, it’s time to get started.

We’re going to draw a map. Let’s begin by putting you at the centre.

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Interview with Nate Crowley, Part 2: “Theft, but wet” and other people’s toys

In the final weeks of 2020, I spoke with the writer Nate Crowley, videogames journalist and author of works including The Death and Life of Schneider Wrack, 100 Best Video Games (That Never Existed), tie-in fiction for the Warhammer 40k universe, and the infamous Twitter thread Daniel Barker’s Birthday.

Nate’s new book, Notes from Small Planets, is a fictional travel guide which takes the reader through nine archetypal worlds of fantasy and science fiction, poking fun at well-worn tropes and questioning some of the assumptions which underpin the lands of make-believe.

In the first part of our conversation, Nate and I talked about world-building, map-making, gateways to fantasy, and the political choices woven through genre fiction. In today’s instalment, we talk about piracy, capitalism, empire, and what it’s like to “play with other people’s toys” in franchises such as Warhammer 40k.

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Interview with Nate Crowley, Part 1: First worlds, imaginary maps

In the final weeks of 2020, I spoke with the writer Nate Crowley, videogames journalist and author of works including The Death and Life of Schneider Wrack, 100 Best Video Games (That Never Existed), tie-in fiction for the Warhammer 40k universe, and the infamous Twitter thread Daniel Barker’s Birthday.

Nate’s new book, Notes from Small Planets, is a fictional travel guide which takes the reader through nine archetypal worlds of fantasy and science fiction, poking fun at well-worn tropes and questioning some of the assumptions which underpin the lands of make-believe. In our conversation, Nate and i talked about world-building, map-making, gateways to fantasy, and the political choices woven through genre fiction.

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What were the first fictional worlds that you fell into? I know that elsewhere you’ve mentioned Stephen Baxter’s The Time Ships, which itself was playing with H.G. Wells’ existing universe from The Time Machine. What made that your gateway to fantasy and science fiction?

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