If I didn’t blog this, I’d have to be put out to pasture and shot as a mercy.
Pickard starts by making the case that we are living in post-normal times, a time of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity:
[…] we have the dubious honour of living in post-normal times. Hooray for us.
As used here, the concept of the ‘post-normal’ originates with British philosopher Jerry Ravetz and Argentinian mathematician Silvio Funtowicz. In their work on science policy and risk, the term ‘post-normal’ is used to describe situations where ‘facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent’ (Ravetz, 1999). Does that sound familiar? Scholar and commentator Ziauddin Sardar suggests it should, for ours is an age
characterised by uncertainty, rapid change, realignment of power, upheaval and chaotic behaviour. We live in an in-between period where old orthodoxies are dying, new ones have yet to be born, and very few things seem to make sense. A transitional age, a time without the confidence that we can return to any past we have known and with no confidence in any path to a desirable, attainable or sustainable future. (Sardar, 2010)
More than anything else, this is the background hum of the 2010s. For a second opinion, we need look no further than the feeder schools and colleges of the American military-industrial establishment, where the talismanic acronym ‘VUCA’ has come to identify operational contexts of notable ‘volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity’. VUCA situations change quickly and in unexpected ways, with participants befuddled by information overload and the fogs of war, and the risk of second-order blowback more deadly than any enemy.
Whether on or off the battlefield, 2011 was very VUCA.
The world — our sprawling, interconnected, and unimaginably complex world society — has moved past the threshold into the post-normal. Note that in the post-normal, we still have domains in which the old normal seem to hold, or hold in part. There is no clear transition, and so we can be caught wrong-footed at every turn, unless we can adopt new frames of reference and new ways of seeing.
Pickard quotes Montuori’s Beyond postnormal times: The future of creativity and the creativity of the future, but not at length, although he seems to be exploring the same ideas regarding the end of the West’s concept of the future:
In 2010, 2012 has become the mythical wall where the imagination of the West comes to an abrupt end. From ‘‘hard’’ science-ﬁction to ‘‘hard’’ techno-psychedelic mysticism-fact, extraterrestrial visions interwoven with chaos theory and neurotheology. 2012 is symbolically the point at which the imagination fails. Where do we go from here? What can the West dream of?
Perhaps we have reached the limits of futurism: have we passed peak future?
Whatever else, if we are to conceive of some future — one in which we find options other than boiling the oceans in a runaway greenhouse hell planet — we must start with a new synthesis in our thinking that encompass alternate visions of the future other than collapse and dystopia. Whatever else, if we are to conceive of some future — one in which we find options other than boiling the oceans in a runaway greenhouse hell planet — we must start with a new synthesis in our thinking that encompass alternate visions of the future other than collapse and dystopia.
Montuori rightly mentions Von Foerster’s Emirical Imperative — Act always to increase the number of choices — as an example of the ‘complex ethics’ that might be necessary to overcome postmodern ennui and solipsism. The decline in faith, the break in identification with trusted organizations (government, religion, unions, nationalism), and the apparent collapse of the social contract all contribute to what I call post-normal traumatic stress syndrome: we are stressed beyond the breaking point by the post-normal world, but it’s not in the past. We are not post the stress: it’s an on-going state; permanent, and seemingly inescapable.
If we are to adapt to the post-normal we need new ways to see and think.
Pickard makes a case for new skills for what he calls the ‘gonzo futurist’.
I dislike the term because it is badly patched together. Gonzo is lifted from Hunter S Thompson’s gonzo journalism, where the reporter is directly in the story, and maybe *is* the story, a reversal of the objective mumbo jumbo of conventional journalism.
I agree that we need to drop the outmoded thinking of old futurism — the association with fanciful science fiction, techno-utopianism, and the colonization of the future by the past — but ‘gonzo’ doesn’t capture that. The best path is to drop ‘futurism’ instead of dropping a new adjective in front of it.
I have been guilty of this as well, although I have been modifying ‘futurist’ with a new prefix: postfuturist. But no more.
There’s a long list of skills and traits that Pickard lays out as if he is defining the gonzo futurist, but its more like describing a style inherent in a gonzo culture. By all means read it. But it doesn’t address the fundamental issue that futurists — or whatever we will come to all them — are attempting to connect the dots in a puzzle that others often don’t even see. And then, we share the puzzled-out puzzle and its implications.
My friend Jamais Cascio says that ‘deep generalists’ are likely the best to consider the future implications of today’s realities, and I buy that, but it doesn’t help recasting futurism in a way more relevant for post-normal times.
Stuart Candy characterizes this as ‘the search for killer imps’ — implications — and zooms in on the difference between applications and implications. Candy quotes Tony Dunne and Fiona Raby, from Design For Debate (note: the question marks are in the original):
Design today is concerned primarily with commercial and marketing activities but it could operate on a more intellectual level. It could place new technological developments within imaginary but believable everyday situations that would allow us to debate the implications of different technological futures before they happen.
This shift from thinking about applications to implications creates a need for new design roles, contexts and methods. It?s not only about designing for commercial, market-led contexts but also for broader societal ones. It?s not only about designing products that can be consumed and used today, but also imaginary ones that might exist in years to come. And, it?s not only about imagining things we desire, but also undesirable things — cautionary tales that highlight what might happen if we carelessly introduce new technologies into society.
Candy goes on:
Traditionally, design practice has been preoccupied with the former, whereas theirs, and that of their Design Interactions students, is more concerned with the latter. And it seems to me that this maps rather well onto what we examined a moment ago: “futures in support of design” amounts to an orientation to applications, while “design in support of futures” can be seen as pointing towards implications.
Applications are necessarily convergent — concerning that part of the design process where ideas, intentions and constraints culminate and are distilled into solutions, embodiments of the exploration process. Implications, on the other hand, are intrinsically divergent, multiplicative, compound; not only are there alternative futures, but there are first, second, and third-order effects (and so on, as far as you care to go) for any given innovation or development you might name.
What futures uniquely contributes to the exploration of implications is a framework for the systematic exploration of these contingencies; ways of managing the mess of possibilities.
This brings us closer, perhaps, to thinking about where futures thinking might be better positioned: in the world of design, considering the implications of technologies, innovations, and the possible negatives lurking in the law of unintended consequences.
So, I am dropping futurist and even postfuturist. I will instead be adopting more of a speculative design edge to my work: more scenarios and more imagery. More texture to the lines drawn between the dots.
For example, a thumbnail of a scenario of the near future:
Brighton UK, 1 October 2012, Meaning 2012 conference
I am approached during a coffee break by an animated red-headed woman in her late 20s or early thirties, who introduces herself as a user experience designer. Her name is Katje. “You described yourself as a ‘speculative designer’ in your presentation. What does that mean?” she asks.
I hesitate, since this is a UX person I am talking with: a designer. Then I offer this.
Design isn’t just contriving an object: it also involves considering the impacts of its adoption on its users, individually or as a society.‘I started as a technologist, designing and building software, especially software tools: software to help programmers collaborate, and manage the processes around creating programs. Then I became an analyst, writing about the pros and cons of different software products in the context of business use, focusing primarily on social tools. Along the way I became an advisor to software companies, helping them to think about the near future — 3, 6, or 18 months ahead — and what paths they might want to take in their product direction. In June 2012, I finally came to the realization that I’m actually involved in speculative design, thinking about the societal or business implications of designed innovations — like instant messaging or social networks — and sharing those conjectures with clients and the public at large. Design isn’t just contriving an object: it also involves considering the impacts of its adoption on its users, individually or as a society.’
She considered this and said, ‘I am going to have to think more about the implications of the user experiences I am designing. I have to think about how they change the user after they turn off the app.’
Stowe Boyd, speculative designer, researcher-at-large, former futurist.