“Leap, and the net will appear”: Interview with Chana Porter, Part 2

Playwright, novelist, and education activist Chana Porter joined me to talk about her new novel The Seep

In the book, Porter imagines an alien invasion of an unusual kind. The Seep find their way into the Earth’s ecosystem and cause every living being on the planet to become connected. “Capitalism falls, hierarchies and barriers are broken down; if something can be imagined, it is possible.”

You can read the first part of our interview here, or check out the complete text now as a PDF download. In this instalment, Chana talks about her practice as a writer and its connection to her experience as a person who stutters, and reflects on questions of point-of-view, identity, and appropriation raised by The Seep.

M: I was reading about your play Leap and the Net Will Appear. You talk about the play coming to you after a silent retreat. I wondered about what the balance between writing-as-inspiration and writing-as-carpentry was for you?

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“A wonderful way to tell yourself a story” – Interview with Chana Porter, Part 1

Playwright, novelist, and education activist Chana Porter joined me to talk about her new novel The Seep

In the book, Porter imagines an alien invasion of an unusual kind. The Seep find their way into the Earth’s ecosystem and cause every living being on the planet to become connected. “Capitalism falls, hierarchies and barriers are broken down; if something can be imagined, it is possible.”

Trina Goldberg-Oneka, a middle-aged trans woman, is the book’s protagonist. An artist who retrains as a doctor after the invasion, she cherishes “the casual overthrow of everything that had felt codified but broken for so long“ — until her partner Deeba decides to use the Seep’s power to be reborn as a baby, moving on to a new life. The book follows Trina along her spiral of grief as she begins a strange quest in a transformed world.

Our conversation touched not just on the novel, but also Porter’s plays and her work as an education activist. She is a founder of the Octavia Project which brings together young women and trans, gender non-conforming, or non-binary teens to create speculative fictions offering “new futures and greater possibilities for our world”, blending creative writing, art, science, and technology.

Part 1 of the interview is below, or you can read the whole thing right now as a PDF transcript.

I began by asking Chana about her first glimpse of the idea that became The Seep.

C: There’s a secret book that probably no-one will ever see, written from the point of view of a teenager in my hometown. 

I was really intrigued by this concept of an Invasion of the Body Snatchers style alien takeover, without it being a cut-and-dried thing of “This is good, this is bad.” This is also the feeling I have when I watch the 1978 Body Snatchers movie; it feels so brutal because we don’t really understand what these beings are feeling or what they care about, but the more that we understand as a scientific community about how trees communicate with each other, and protist communications, the more we question: what is alive? What is a life? What is social? What is a community?

When you use the lens of a horror film to reflect on these issues, when you consider the destruction we have wrought on the planet, it prompts you to ask: what if it’s not bad? 

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Thinking with your non-dominant hand: ambidexterity and foresight

I wouldn’t say I have the best handwriting. It’s a bit of an unpretty scrawl, though people can mostly decipher it. I use my left hand to hold a pencil or pen, though I do everything else with my right; I can’t use left-handed scissors or can openers, and whenever it was I last played cricket or tennis, my right hand was dominant. I’m probably a natural righty who picked up the left-hand habit from copying a left-handed parent, back in those days when they first get you to clutch a crayon and make your mark.

M.C. Escher, Drawing Hands

This week, I was helping a group of people learn to use scenario planning. There are a lot of ways to define what a scenario is, but in the Oxford Scenario Planning Approach, scenarios are assessments of the future context, developed for a particular user and purpose, to contrast with the way that the future context is currently being framed. People engaged in scenario planning devise plausible futures in order to test assumptions, challenge existing framings, and enrich decision-making in the present.

Stretching your sense of the futures you may have to inhabit can feel like “thinking with your non-dominant hand”. We’re so used to trying to solve the problem in front of us, “get on with the job”, fix things, make them better, chart a course, steer the ship. The act of strategic reframing – creating plausible futures to stretch our understanding of a given context – can feel seriously counterintuitive.

Even clasping your hands or crossing your legs the opposite way round to usual can feel odd; using your non-dominant hand when playing sports, using scissors, or writing could feel even more so. So it’s not a surprise that scenario planning might feel strange when you first try it.

Yet releasing yourself from a dominant or habitual approach can bring all kinds of benefits. You may be forced to rethink processes from first principles, returning you to “beginner’s mind” and unpicking tightly woven assumptions. You may find that your engrained habits of thinking are patterns of comfort and convention, rather than the best way to address an issue. You may see things from a different angle when approaching from the left instead of the right, or vice versa.

In successful scenario planning engagements, people often feel a sudden moment of realisation – what the pioneering scenario planner Pierre Wack called an “a-ha” moment. “It does not simply leap at you,” Wack wrote in a 1985 issue of the Harvard Business Review. “It happens when your message reaches the microcosms of decision makers, obliges them to question their assumptions…and leads them to change and reorganise their inner models of reality.”

Once people have experienced this benefit of thinking from the “outside in” – starting with future contexts, then working back to an assessment of options and strategic possibilities, often in an iterative process which is enriched by multiple repetitions – they see the merits in going against the grain of habit.

The more they employ this approach, the better their “muscle memory” for scenario work. (A right-hander who tries playing the guitar left-handed just once might not get very far, but continued practice could yield competence and even virtuosity). Gradually it becomes possible to integrate “left-handed” and “right-handed” thinking into processes of assessment and decision-making, so that our perceptions, our judgment, and our capacity to act are enriched.

And in times of turbulence and uncertainty, when tomorrow will not be like yesterday or today, that could make all the difference.

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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