The World When We’re Gone

I was in a room with more than a hundred smart and lively library leaders from across the state of California and I asked them:

What do California and the future have in common?

My favourite answer was: “They’re both getting hotter.”

As always with these things, participants come up with wittier and more perceptive answers than you ever did when you thought of the question.

That is, of course, the point: if you have 100+ people in the room, is the best way to find bright ideas & useful answers for one person to talk, and one hundred to listen – or should you get all the minds in the room at work on the problem?

So I asked my hundred guests what California and the future have in common, but I did also have an answer of my own in mind:

They’re both socially constructed — we talk them into existence.

This is true for the future because it exists only in terms of our hopes, fears, plans, predictions, strategies, expectations, anticipations, and the blind spots which we are currently failing to detect or anticipate. In the strategic planning work I’ve done with Rafael Ramirez and the team at Oxford’s Saïd Business School, the scenario approach emphasises this, constructing plausible futures – not predictions – in order to challenge the assumptions of the present.

It’s also true to say that we talk California into existence, because any human-made identity must be labelled, demarcated, defined in opposition to what it is not, talked about until it sticks and perhaps even takes on a life of its own – or at least a life bigger than any one of us. California exists as a geographical territory and history, a legal code and legislature, a perceived “state of mind”, but also as a blurry and porous concept, susceptible to reinterpretation and change. The Mexican province of Baja California, for example, reminds us that even the name of California predates US statehood and speaks to a previous colonial history.

One way to think about ourselves differently – to step outside the necessities of the day-to-day and the usual frameworks by which we seek to understand and control the future – is to imagine the world after we’re gone.

It’s not the full, rigorous construction of plausible futures which we conduct in scenario planning, but it is a useful way of testing our assumptions – and as Rafael Ramirez puts it, even “back-of-the-napkin” futures work can help us prepare for the world to come.

So here are two questions I sometimes offer to organisations that I work with:

Imagine a hundred years from now, your work has been a huge success and changed the face of society for the better. The head of state comes to the commemoration and gives a speech celebrating your organisation’s work. What do they talk about?

Imagine that five years from now, after a catastrophe, society has collapsed and your organisation has ceased to exist. How do people feel about that? What do they miss about your work? What structures or arrangements did they have to construct to replace the role you served in society? 

Think about these questions. Answer them for yourself, but also share them with your colleagues and clients and other stakeholders, to see how their responses compare with yours. You might be surprised by what you find – or reassured by the common ground which exists. Either way, you’ll only find out if you choose to step back from the day-to-day and dare to imagine a world after you’re gone.

And if you want to give it a California spin, well: here’s Los Angeles’ L7.

Questioning the future of the written word

Something this weekend reminded me of the time I was too lazy to transcribe the builder’s order for materials and just scanned the plank he’d been writing on, so I could email it to the merchants.

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Later, I was talking to my friend David, who teaches at a university. These days, student papers are submitted and marked electronically. That won’t surprise you, I’m sure, but what impressed me was that David delivers his marks and feedback as audio files which the students can then listen to when they get their grades.

The students have responded positively to the audio feedback, and David finds it more efficient, too. He reads the paper once, then goes back through it dictating into his phone. Not only does he get the work done in less time, but it helps him to highlight the reading experience to his students: “By the time I get to this point in the essay, I’m lost, because you haven’t established your argument on the preceding pages.”

Another friend who works in a senior academic role refuses to give book reports in written form; instead, he will mark out two hours of his time and take editors and publishers through his comments orally, over the phone. It saves time, means he can work from his notes, and enables them to question him or seek clarification as they go.

Attendees working on tasks for Matt's workshop at the Royal Dutch Library

Earlier this month, I was leading an event for the Royal Dutch Library of the Netherlands exploring the future of our relationship to the written word. We pondered how new technologies and their social impact might affect this relationship, including developments in machine recognition of text and speech.

“If voice recognition and machine transcription were perfect,” we asked, “what would we gain? What would we lose?”

One of the first responses was immediate and positive. “No one would ever have to take minutes in a meeting again.”

We then started to explore issues around archiving and preservation, disability and accessibility, and division between technological ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’.

Such explorations formed the basis of our event’s opening activity, which encouraged participants to challenge their thinking about the future, rather than resting on the assumptions of the past. It’s part of an ongoing project at the library to develop a space which explores the Netherlands’ relationship to the written word.

The 1954 "Groene Boekje" guide to the Dutch language. Image by Wikipedia, used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.
The 1954 “Groene Boekje” guide to the Dutch language. Image by Wikipedia, used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.

This is particularly interesting in a Dutch context, because the Dutch language is regulated by an international treaty which seeks to maintain consistency between use in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Suriname.

The Dutch Language Union puts out a regular publication, the “Green Book”, which includes official spellings for all Dutch words. However, another publication – the “White Book” – suggests alternative rules which some Dutch publishers and firms have preferred to follow. (The official spelling reform of 2015 was particularly controversial).

 

 

 

All of this dispute, debate, and linguistic politics provided rich pickings for a group of Dutch culture and information professionals trying to imagine a library space devoted to the future of the written word in the heart of Den Haag.

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From speech recognition to linguistic treaties, graffiti and doodles, hate speech and ‘fake news’, the value of fan fiction, battles over privacy, piracy, and copyright, and the political power of the written word, there’s so much to be discussed when we imagine the future of reading and writing.

If you’d like to contemplate some of the questions we asked ourselves, you can read them in this PDF download.

Bandersnatch: Choosing a Future, Letting People Surprise You

Over at The Cultural Gutter, there’s a thoughtful piece about Netflix’s recent interactive film, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.

The choose-your-own adventure film allowed viewers to shape the story of a young programmer trying to develop a computer game in 1984. Presented with either-or choices to make via their TV’s remote control, someone watching Bandersnatch can influence the outcome of the narrative – but as the story develops, the choices are increasingly unpalatable and the question of who is controlling whom becomes increasingly prominent.

The Cultural Gutter’s Alex Macfadyen writes:

What watching Bandersnatch felt like to me was entrapment. A choice between two terrible things is still a choice, but I often didn’t agree with any of the available options. There also seemed to be no way to avoid making some of the choices because you just got brought back to them after the other options resulted in a dead end. The writers clearly had a very specific moral direction they wanted the story to go, and the viewer is ultimately corralled into creating the narrative they want.

Part of that narrative was the construction of me, the viewer, as the person forcing the character to make bad choices and lose his mind, but the viewer also only has access to the paths that the writers dictated for them so it’s more an illusion of choice. There is no path that leads to a good outcome, but you have to follow them all to find that out. In the end, I think the only choice you could make that would resolve the ethical conflict they’ve posed would be to refuse to participate and stop watching altogether.

Playing Bandersnatch, and reading Macfadyen afterwards, reminded me of a British Library Labs event I attended a couple of years back.

Jon Ingold, who has made several great choose-your-own adventure games including the subtle and troubling World War 2 drama The Interceptspoke about the relationship between players and authors of such adventures.

Rejecting the language of “empowering players” or “co-creating game narratives together”, Ingold described adventure games as puzzles where the author attempts to lure the player into a trap of their own choosing – a trap to which the player must then find a brilliant escape. The player is never in control of the story, any more than the rat who turns left or right at a given corner is in control of the maze.

These problems of choice and control lie at the heart of the workshops I’ve been running over the past couple of years. To what extent can we allow participants in an event to surprise us?

I’ve devised participatory sessions for literary festivals, conferences, and training events; run live-action games where players must battle zombies and solve practical problems; I’ve even written a book review in the form of an online choose-your-own adventure for Australian literary magazine The Lifted Brow.

The challenge for me has always been – how can you let people surprise you?

Choose-your-own adventures, from Bandersnatch to Ingold’s more sophisticated offerings, are ultimately more like mazes which one can only choose to run or not run. (The promo art for Bandersnatch helps to make this clear).

black-mirror-bandersnatch

In activities like Library Island, I’ve been trying to devise opportunities for people to tell their own stories and genuinely shape the outcome of a collective narrative – the benchmark for this being whether the players were able to do something the author didn’t see coming.

Library Island players have brought fraud, civil unrest, and workers’ rights issues to sessions – helping us to address the most serious challenges to a community within the safer space of a playful, fictional setting. In the very first pilot for the game, a character stole a plane which they had illegally bought using government funds – something I definitely hadn’t accounted for – and an event which led on to serious discussion of scrutiny, oversight, and accountability for the use of public money.

Since then, players have only made the problem worse — delightfully worse.

Games which genuinely let people contribute to the outcome of a story also have the potential to change the way we look at the future.

Too often, when planning for the months and years to come, we see our options as constrained, like the forking but pre-written paths of Bandersnatch and its kin, railroading us towards a limited number of possible futures.

This can sap our ability to imagine a better world than the one we expect, but it can also make us vulnerable to harmful futures we didn’t see coming; financial crises, political upsets, and environmental disasters, for example.

In a turbulent era, finding ways to allow many voices to offer their story and participate in constructing plausible future scenarios help us to prepare for the world which is to come – a world which has not been pre-written by a game designer, and which therefore denies us both the safety and constraint of someone else’s narrative.

Read more about Library Island here.

Play The Lifted Brow‘s “choose-your-own adventure book review” here.

A different way to plan your 2019

Are you thinking about the year to come? Do you make New Year’s resolutions, or use January 1st as a turning point for your life at work or home?

Here’s a quick & easy planning tool I sometimes use in workshops. It’s adapted from the Oxford Scenario Planning Approach, where it’s called “Arrows of Time”.

You just need a piece of paper – even a napkin will do! – and something to write on it with.

First, put the paper in landscape orientation, with the long sides at the top and bottom, and draw an arrow from the bottom left corner, pointing right. This represents the past.

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Now, around this arrow, answer these questions:

  • What will we still be dealing with in 2019?
  • What issues from the past can’t we get away from?
  • What isn’t finished yet from the year just gone?

When this is done, draw another arrow from the top right corner, pointing left. This represents the future.

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Now, around this arrow, answer these questions:

  • What do we know is coming in 2019?
  • What do we fear about the coming year? What do we hope for?
  • What do we expect to happen?
  • What have we failed to prepare for in 2019?
  • What can’t we avoid about the year to come?

Between these two arrows lies your room to manoeuvre. In the space between them, draw a box, representing your capacity to choose the future you wish for.

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In the box, answer these questions:

  • What do you want to happen? What can you plausibly achieve next year?
  • What actions should you take to meet these goals?
  • What can you do to prepare against unpleasant surprises, or outcomes you wish to avoid?
  • What can you do to be ready for happy accidents and unexpected opportunities next year?

This is just a quick, simple activity, but it helps you to plan in a way that allows for the turbulence and uncertainty of any future – looking not just towards your objectives but the context in which you will need to make them happen.

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As Oxford University’s Rafael Ramirez put it in our recent discussion on scenario planning, such “back-of-the-napkin” activities can be valuable as a starting point, or in constrained financial circumstances:

The metaphor I use is buying a television. If you don’t have a lot of time, or your organisation has been cut back, you may have to do only a good-enough piece of work: like buying a cheap black-and-white television to see who has won the World Series.

If you have enough time or funds, you can buy yourself a big colour television which shows more detail about what is happening. […] To get more detail, better arguments, better references: a better, more detailed colour picture on your television. But getting started costs very little indeed.

An organisation’s intent should be clear, compelling, and easy to articulate succinctly. So should your plans for 2019.

Why not grab a piece of paper today and sketch out where you’d like to head in the year to come?

Postcards from the Future: Behind the Scenes at Wondrous Strange #notenoughscifi

Imagine letting your community dream wildly of the world to come.

Imagine collaborating on a future history spanning millennia.

Imagine turning public space into something that was wondrous and strange.

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As part of our time-travel themed festival of weirdness, storytelling, art and science at Ann Arbor District Library, we asked visitors to write postcards from the future.

We collected over 80 tales stretching from 2018 to the year 5000.

Read more