To: Elliott Montgomery
Subject: Thoughts on “Should Everyone be a Futurist?”
I was at your talk a few days ago at the Speculative Futures meetup and really enjoyed it. We didn’t speak – I had to leave shortly after. My name is Kohzy – in a parallel universe (or a separate future, as you may call it), I would have been a student of yours in the TD program 2017 alongside Jack. Instead, I chose SVA IxD and am now a product manager at Intersection. Still, I’ve stayed in touch with TD people, and am an admirer of the program.
I really liked your question of “Should Everyone Be a Futurist?” I loved how meta the question is – what is a future of futuring? You’d asked for feedback as you refine this talk: I wrote down some notes that I thought I’d send along, many half-baked. I apologize if any of these repeat things you already know or have written about, or if anything below is an oversimplification of your points – I’ve honestly not read as much on speculative futuring and media theory as I should have. Hope they help in any way!
I couldn’t help but notice the double duty of “critical” in critical futuring/design. On one hand, the practice is meant to raise questions about our current society, trends, condition. But on the other hand, the practice also could be critical of itself, and push for a better implementation of the discipline. That seems to be one of the messages you were pushing, calling out the certain problematic aspects of futuring such as its western-centric-ness, or fake news when futuring isn’t grounded in any kind of reality.
Future potential vs current development
I was struck by the world map you showed with the different stages of development shaded in.
This triggered the question: does the current stage of development of a community have an implication for the future possibilities of that group? If we believe that there is a finite universe of futures (and the leveling of your voros cone suggests this), and we’re moving forward as we develop, could that mean that a more developed city/nation/society has eliminated more of the possible futures space than a less developed one?
You did raise several things that could point to a narrower set of futures in developed societies. The ubiquitous consumption of media means we’re apt to see the same ideas in our feeds, and the same notion of tech advancement around us. This availability bias leads to a greater overlap of shared futures. A second point would be that a few dominant ideas of the future thought up in the past have had more time to propagate through media and education, influencing all our current modes of futuring. (Although my above points really describe a narrower set of plausible futures, not possible futures.) I also think you were moving towards this point as you noted that there are less-developed regions where there are many futures yet explored.
Has there already been thinking around this?
The colonization of mindspace territory
You brought up one risk of a future where everyone is a futurist: that a future can be used as a tool to influence minds and “colonize territories.” And this could be problematic if used by a bad actor. E.g. what if Black Mirror was produced by a propogandist agency? I certainly buy that point. I would posit that the influence of an idea (a proposed future in this case) would be the result of how compelling it is combined with how successful the agent is in getting the idea in front of people.
Influence = Compellingness x control over media?
I’m just making words up at this point.
Should everyone be a Historian (Historist)?
I do think that another point worth raising in your talk is to question the entire act of futuring. In particular, futuring is inherently forward-looking. But are we looking forward too much? There is a certain (American?) ethic of constantly moving forward, desiring to make progress, to innovate. This has created the kind of super-linear, unsustainable growth that we’re now grappling with (I’m reading Geoffrey West’s Scale now and it is fascinating).
Instead of asking the question of whether everyone should be a futurist, could we ask this question: should we ensure the right mix of futurists, people who look at the present, and people who look into the past? Can we create a universal index of this mix: a Gini coefficient of futurists to histor(ists)?
Time scales of futuring
As you rounded up your talk, I wondered if a nuanced answer to your question of “Should Everyone be a Futurist?” be this: yes, we can all practice different time scales of futuring. You certainly seemed to begin touching on this by talking about people who only have the appetite to strive for the next day.
In the discipline of speculative futures, is there the notion of different time scales of futuring? I can see the discipline of futuring be applied to a day, just as it can be applied to months, years, decade, and longer. The futuring techniques may differ from timescale to timescale. But perhaps there could be a notion that there are time scales of futuring that is suitable for different people with different situations. (Maybe even for the same person, in different situations.) There may also be a notion of hierarchy, although this is less clear cut: does one move towards futuring at longer time spans as one gets better at the discipline?
If you got this far, thank you so much for your patience with this long email. I appreciate that, in giving your talk, you’re practicing futuring in the same way that you’d work on a speculative project, and triggering questions like the above is exactly the point of the talk. I’d certainly like to see a speculative project where everyone is a futurist.
I’ve ordered your Extrapolation Factory manual and am excited to read it.
Footnote (this wasn’t in the email). My friend Sarah wrote a really thoughtful response to the same session here.