These days we’re used to seeing things move quickly: new products, new ways, each more extraordinary than before. We live in an age of anticipation. We anticipate the new; whether it frightens us or excites us, we anticipate change. In many ways this has made us all prognosticators, seers of tomorrow. But as a number of studies have demonstrated, and an even larger numbers of anecdotes confirm, we have a deep, profound, and often troubling relationship with change. And, I would argue, with the future (and, it is getting worse).
At the most basic level, of course, we’re evolutionary creatures and so experience change as part of a biological process. We’re also, of course, sentient, self-reflective beings and so experience change as an intellectual and emotional force, as part of what makes humanity human. Even so, even with our relatively enormous brains, and our sophisticated cultural and social apparatus, we deal considerably better with gradual change, where we can adapt and integrate it into our lives. While our cultural change receptors are tuned very high but create enormous distortion, our biological and social change receptors are tuned way down, and so simply miss much of the input.
This presents an obvious problem, and that problem is our real inability to grapple with, and make sense of, dramatic change – despite living in a culture that worships it. In turn, this inability, perhaps even frustration, manifests itself in futures that are tinged, perhaps even polluted, with sameness.
Of course, much about the future will be the same, or at least a similitude of the same. After all, many forces that shape our lives and experiences are profound, even universal. Love, happiness, compassion, security, and comfort among others all shape the past, the present, and the future. Some sameness is to be expected (and perhaps even hoped for). But with much else, even some big, slow things like demography or climate, the future may look dramatically and incomprehensibly different.
My title pulls together two strands of current futures thinking that illustrate this problem. “Welcome to the future” is from a Brad Paisley song titled “Everyday’s a revolution”. “It’s banal,” is from a brief piece by Bruce Sterling that he did for Webstock this year. These two guys are very different, yet they offer surprisingly similar messages, and both are good portholes through which we can look at this difficulty.
Paisley’s poignant (and nostalgic) ballad offers up pieces of the past – the ferocity of the Second World War, cross-burnings in the barely integrated south, lumbering video game machines packed into arcades – and compares them to the now-future:
And I’d have given anything
to have my own PacMan game at home.
I used to have to get a ride down to the arcade;
Now I’ve got it on my phone.
My grandpa was in World War II,
he fought against the Japanese.
He wrote a hundred letters to my grandma;
mailed ‘em from his base in the Philippines.
I wish they could see this now,
where they say this change can go.
Cause I was on a video chat this morning
with a company in Tokyo.
Paisley sings that the future is here today, that “wherever we thought we were going, we’re here”. On one hand this a paean to change, a valedictory anthem of progress. On the other, it’s a about a future that has arrived, a series of wrongs righted, and then completed. There’s no future future to Paisley’s view of the world.
Stevenson, who does clearly possess a sense of the future, but one often moored tightly (if not indefinitely) to the present and past, offers a similar collection of thoughts in his companion piece to his presentation at Webstock in New Zealand this year.
Stephenson is talking about the difficulty of translating our technical future-visions, which generally tend to be about discrete things, into compelling narrative-visions that engage the imagination and make the future something powerful and immersive. He lists five examples of future-things (all of which are emergent): cloud computing, web 2.0 and on into infinity, ubiquitous interfaces, spimes, and augmented reality. Then he combines them, and makes his point:
…She poured a coffee, then touched the breakfast table. “Where are my shoes?” “Your sister borrowed them.” “Again? Where is Susan?” “She’s downtown now.” “Susan! Why did you swipe my favorite shoes again?” “Look at this dress.” “Oooh, that dress is darling.” “It would look even better on you.” “You’re right. Get it for me. You can’t have it.” “Trade you for these shoes.” “Let me check that with Henry. Yeah, okay.” Karen had another sip of fair-trade coffee. It tasted weird, but it was still hot.”
They’re all in that paragraph. All five. They’re phantom far-out notions gobbled up by the real world. They packed in there so deep that nobody notices them. So, yes, I can write about it. It’s just: it doesn’t look futuristic. It looks way too real…
The future is here (or close enough), and it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because it’s boring. Adding bits of present/future stuff together doesn’t make it a future you care about.
Stephenson and Paisley are articulating something important for those that care about the future and its role in our thinking about the present. The past can’t be our benchmark for the future, and the future isn’t about individual things or events or technologies. We have to go further afield, we have to look at the future, and at change, in broad strokes, in abstractions, in things that are not knowable or predictable. We have to imagine, and imagine freely.
This is not an easy message for many people concerned with the practicalities of change. How do I manage what’s coming? How do I plan for what I can’t see? What do I budget for it? The short answer, in absolute terms, to all of these questions is: you cannot. But how we choose to deal with that answer depends on how we approach change as a force. One way is typical, with fear. The other is less typical, with imagination.
Imagination engages our biological, slow, integrative change receptors. It short-circuits the feeling of being overwhelmed. A team with shared experience in collaborative imagination, with examining a range of futures – where change matters – isn’t disabled by fear. Instead, they see it not as an externality, but as integral part of what they do, and what the world does.
Therein lies our ability to explore futures that are anything but already here. Or banal.