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.

Toronto iSchool, 6-7 June: Learning to Plan on Library Island

We can’t predict the future, yet we do it all the time. We have to: there are objectives to be set and met, projects to be devised and delivered, holidays to be booked, birthdays to celebrate, mouths to be fed, children to raise, dreams to be fulfilled.

Sometimes people and organisations anticipate the future based on what has gone before – but then we risk being blindsided by social and sectoral changes, financial crises, political upsets, natural disasters, and complex systemic challenges.

So, how do we prepare for futures characterised by turbulence and uncertainty?

What methods help information professionals to develop foresight, insight, and awareness that will support decisions made for their communities, teams, and institutions?

Welcome to Library Island.

This June, visit the University of Toronto’s iSchool – “Learning to Plan on Library Island” – to develop skills and awareness which will help you to deal effectively with potential threats, opportunities, and challenges.

This two-day event will feature speakers including Peter Morville, author of Planning for Everything; Stephen Abram of Lighthouse Consulting; and Rebecca Jones & Jane Dysart of Dysart & Jones. I’ll also be there to offer insights gathered from information professionals working with institutions, communities, and businesses around the world.

Experienced consultants and leaders in the information profession will share planning tips, tricks, and methodologies. Participants will explore and experiment with new ways to develop their strategy, vision, and mission, including sessions of the Library Island play-based activity.

It’ll be provocative, inspiring, practical, challenging, and fun. Visit http://www.thefutureoflibraries.org to see more about this June’s University of Toronto iSchool – we’d love to see you there.