THE ACCIDENTAL FUTURIST
In April 1999 I was invited to a seminar organised by the Seattle-based Foundation for the Future. There were 22 of us altogether, a mix of scientists, futurists and others. The topic under discussion was the long-term future of humanity, specifically the next 1000 years. The Humanity 3000 meeting will be the first of a series of 1000 meetings planned for the next 1000 years. Only in America are such things possible.
I'd like to reflect on the special conjunction of science, popular science, science fiction, cosmic spirituality, and futures studies that took place.
One thing required of each of us was a personal vision of the 1000-year future. My first thought was to backtrack 1000 years. If in the year AD 1000, people were told that one day they'd have the vote, the reaction would be disbelief. What's a vote for, when you've got your own local war-lord? Moving forward a thousand years from now, I thought hi-tech and the Damien Broderick Spike, the unknowable phase transition to new levels of complexity ¹. Humanity 3000 will be technologically stranger than I can imagine. Then I'd flip back to AD 1000, to the warlords, slavery, the feudal system, and note that these persist to AD 2000, in too many places. Hence I decided on the guiding image of the yo-yo; one jolt forward, one back and over the loop, and a thousand years on becomes a bit of more of the same plus the totally new.
I reckon many of these images have come from science fiction and fantasy. In speculative fiction, other worlds, not necessarily future worlds, are imagined in terms of haves and the have-nots. Unsurprisingly, fictional worlds borrow from everyday worlds. The technologically sophisticated and the primitive are intermingled, the alien with the savage. Tumbling together in my head are scenes from Star Wars and The Epic of Gilgamesh, Bladerunner and The Secret Life of Plants, TV news clips of the Hale-Bopp comet and its associated cult, Signorey Weaver and Evolution Annie.
The future is a multi-layered thing, a layering in story as well as in history, science and archaeology. Something is happening in my head with this mix of popular science and popular culture that is more than a linear projection into the future, the unknown building on the known. Intelligent science fiction has layers of characters, layers of plot, layers of the social, the political and the scientific in articulated or implicit worldviews. Stir in necessary elements of dramatic tension, plot and character development, humour and pathos. The dimensions of myth and metaphor work with writer and reader alike to stir powerful emotions. The hero's journey; salvation through suffering; visions of apocalypse and Paradise; themes from the Hebrew and Christian Bible - these strands intertwine with science to provide a rich diversity of layered themes. It is a small step from Moses and the wilderness to Lost in Space; from Adam and Eve to the final frames of Bladerunner; from tales of the coming of the Messiah to Dune. When I reflect further on these images, I find Western culture dominates. The next question needs to be asked: for how much longer will this domination continue? Not until the year 3000, if past records of the rise and fall of empires and dominions are examined.
I worked on my vision of the next 1000 years in despair at the impossibility of the task. Once the meeting got under way, I was relieved to discover that my companions fell into two groups. One lot came with very firm convictions and pre-set speeches. Others came a blank slate, like me.
William H. Calvin and Terrence Deacon are both distinguished scientists and science communicators in their field of neurophysiology. Deacon introduced himself as someone engaged in fetal cell transplantation, someone who really likes monkeys yet has to kill them in the course of his work. Calvin has developed an interest in climatology, specifically the coming of the next Ice Age. Ice Ages have forced human evolution in the past and are of special interest to anyone living in northern regions of the planet, reliant as they are for their relatively mild climate on the Gulf Stream and its periodic flushing. Philip Tobias and Clive Gamble are archaeologists. Tobias, from South Africa, has worked on most African fossil hominids. Gamble co-authored In Search of the Neanderthals. Archaeology is a science of special interest to futurists. There was a time in the history of language when the future tense came into use, one of the last aspects of language to be developed. Ten thousand years ago no one lived in cities. With concepts such as individual and community, how recent are these ideas? The archaeologist will imagine life around a hearth, where creating the hearth signifies the beginning of primitive community and communication. There was a time before that. There will be a time beyond now when humans will gather differently, when we shall mean different things to each other.
There was more. Two participants, Steve Dick and Allen Tough speculated on the scientific evidence for extra-terrestrials. Barbara Marx Hubbard promoted a cosmic spirituality in which a feeling for the universe is the key to both personal and planetary salvation. Ashok Gangadean argued for dialogue as the key to a workable global ethic. This being America, both Hubbard and Gangadean add a dash of seven or twelve step plans in their small group transformative workshops they give for business. From a base in cybernetics Frances Heylighen reflects on evolution towards a social super-organism and its global brain. What is common to all is a vision of a forthcoming human or extra-terrestrial direction to evolution. The term 'conscious evolution' embraces the unity in diversity of these ideas, what happens when people (or extra-terrestrials) intervene in the process of natural selection.
I met Frederik Pohl, legendary science fiction writer, now also a futures consultant and lecturer. I'd long admired his classic social satire The Space Merchants (co-authored with Cyril Kornbluth) and was delighted with the opportunity to hear him in action. The Space Merchants notion proved prescient. The Humanity 3000 seminar was sponsored by the Foundation for the Future with support from Kistler Aerospace. Because of government cuts to its operating budget, NASA is privatising some of its activities. Kistler Aerospace has developed the reusable rocket to launch low-orbit satellites, with the cost of launching a payload declining by 30 to 40 percent. Reusable rockets will be in use by the year 2000, to be launched and retrieved from Woomera and Nevada. The commercial era in space has begun. The space merchants have arrived. Life imitates Pohl and Kornbluth's consummate art.
The seminar was strong on visual imagery. As we talked together in small groups, professional graphic artists took up the ideas and drew trends of the conversation in diagrams and sketches. Words changed to images. It cut through the verbiage of some prepared speeches - which we weren't supposed to be giving, but people did it anyway. At the end of conversation a series of images and flow charts remained as witness to what had passed. I had to wonder at the varieties of fountains, waterfalls and rocket ships. Images of orgasm each and very one - was I the only one to notice?
Terrence Deacon hit on an inspired phrase, the 'simulation imperative'. Take present knowledge and think of possible ways to simulate futures, always, of course, with the knowledge that simulations, whether computer or scenario models, will always be incomplete. But that is what science must now do, as a matter of urgency, with the long-term future of humanity in mind. Simulation in all its forms, and with all its deficiencies, is an absolute imperative for the long-term welfare of humanity.
Someone turned to Frederik Pohl and said: 'The simulation imperative. Of course, that's what you've been acting on, most of your life'.
What emerged from the seminar, for me, was a confirmation that science fiction is one strand in the 'simulation imperative' activity alongside neurophysiology, archaeology, futures studies and New Age transformative workshops. The 'what if?' question, postulated in a spirit of play in fiction moves into the big league of talk about things that really matter for the future of humanity. Yet the relation between science fiction and Futures Studies, the new name for Futurology, is more than simply another form of the 'what-if' scenario.
When I thought about it more, there is a fictional element in many sciences as they orient themselves towards the future. Does Frances Heylighen really know humanity is in the course of undergoing a metasystem transition to a higher level of evolution, or is he making the 'what if' leap from knowledge of systems theory in cybernetics into systems theory in evolution? Though she would not call herself a scientist, does Barbara Marx Hubbard have any evidence that consciousness is moving from a self-centred to a whole-centred intuitive stage of being? Does William Calvin know we are 'out-driving our reaction time', as he puts it, that we are causing changes in society or ecosystems that cannot be corrected before crashes are triggered? No, but he finds evidence here in climate research, there in the evolution history of the brain, and he warns us to act as if these things are true. This means adopting the Precautionary Principle. Act as if disaster will happen. If it happens, then we've tried our best to avert it. If it doesn't happen, then we've also tried our best. And the Americans do think big. Calvin wants to help devise a long-term system to stabilise the Gulf Stream's flushing mechanism. Pohl suggests NASA should get busy on working out how to deflect any asteroids on a collision course with earth.
Earlier I mentioned multiple layering in story-telling, and I'd like to suggest an up-date to the entry Futurology in Clute and Nicholls' great Encyclopedia ofScience Fiction (1993) ². Clute and Nicholls give a history of futurology as the science of prediction, and mention techniques such as linear projections and extrapolations from trends, scenario-building, and what-if stories. In recent years, however, Futurology has morphed into Futures Studies and has devised additional techniques, e.g. emerging issues analysis, scanning, and layered causal analysis. New links are being forged between future fact and fiction.
In what follows I take as my guide the work of Sohail Inayatullah, a futurist who comes to Futures Studies from training as a political analyst. I doubt he'd use the word 'futurology', with its connotations of prediction and forecasting in the quantitative analysis of trends. Rather, Inayatullah wants the field now called Futures Studies to include different ways of knowing, in order to open up the present and the past to alternative futures, and he suggests ways of making this happen.
Here are some methods both science fiction writers and futurists use in their respective activities:
- Both groups examine concepts of space, time, self and value.
- Both groups use guiding metaphors for the future: time's arrow; time's cycle; the vast ocean of time; the Spike.
- Both groups use scanning and emerging issues analysis. Scanning is the activity of rapidly surveying news media, digesting the literature of science, the literature of popular culture, the literature of just about everything. What's new, what's happening that doesn't make sense, what links can be made between disparate activities? In scanning, the reader may spot emerging issues. Somewhere where people gather, something new is happening. If it fast becomes mainstream, it will have a dramatic effect on society. The reader scans for the disturbing, the provocative, and the ridiculous, for events that challenge present assumptions. As an example of an emerging issue, Inayatullah cites the rights of robots, a theme science fictions have explored before today. In emerging issues analysis, the futurist seeks the small ripples that might one day become grand waves, the tsunami.
- Causal layered analysis is a concept developed by Sohail Inayatullah ³. Earlier I mentioned layering in the work of fiction, a layering that in fiction may draw more on metaphorical, not literal connections, and on associations rather than on cause and effect. Briefly, Inayatullah speaks of four levels of analysis: the litany or recital of the problem or issue; the social causes; the structure and supportive cosmology; the dimension of metaphor and myth. His case studies include the futures of the United Nations, Bangkok's traffic problems and housing for people with disabilities.
- Both futurists and science fiction writers may make use of the workshop as a laboratory for change. Futurists act as facilitators in workshops for government, industry and community groups. Facilitating a meeting means taking what people say, meeting them where they are at, and then prodding further reflection. Teasing out layers of meaning is a task traditionally given to the philosopher or the priest. Enter the futurist, the facilitator of the new millenium.
When I am asked about the Seattle Humanity 3000 meeting I am tempted to reply that it was a kind of think-tank. Except a think-tank, popularly understood is a group that usually reports directly to people with power. Our role was to report to the next Humanity 3000 seminar, so that in will have a less nebulous working agenda than we had. It was the case that at least two participants had been research advisors to previous US presidents. Nowadays, though, Nixon and Reagan are not exactly forces to reckon with in US politics.
Because I'm also thinking of what went on here in relation to science fiction, I want also to highlight the role of the workshop. A fiction-writing workshop usually has five or six people who meet informally together, each with a story to workshop. There may be a facilitator in the shape of a co-ordinating enthusiast who brings people together with the aim of each producing a better story. Group members critique each other's stories, on the look-out for the unspoken assumptions, any chinks in the fictional world-view, or dull passages of exposition that need to be improved to get ideas across in a livelier and more engaging fashion. It is a non-causal layered narrative, rather than a causal layered analysis, if you like, working by free association through drama and humour.
The practical task of the science fiction writers is to get in there and write, and in writing, to make things up. We can say anything we like. That is our privilege and our responsibility. One common trick of the fiction writer's trade is to change one factor in nature or in society and imagine how everything else accommodates itself to that change. For example, alternative histories or Hitler wins! scenarios take a what if approach to history. What if Hitler had won World War II?
The fiction writer's workshop may operate to better organise plot, action, character, world view, etc., but it works though invention of a kind that doesn't have to hold to any standards of empirical truth. Yet the fictions we knowingly create are in there with the fictions we unconsciously create in telling ourselves scientific and other stories about the world. The Humanity 3000 workshop and the science fiction workshop had more in common than would first appear.
What underpinned much of the Humanity 3000 discussion, for me, was a sense of a scientific millenarianism, the idea that we are at a turning point of some kind, on the verge of something totally new in the world. As I tried to analyse the vibes from this particular meeting, I got the sense that what we were in the process of witnessing is the creation of a new myth about ourselves.
There is a sense of excitement in science that an end is coming, and the beginning of something new. There is talk of a quantum leap in knowledge and a transition to new ways of life on earth and beyond. A scientific millenarianism has science substituting for religion in visions of apocalypse and paradise. The millenium fascinates everyone, whether the year 2000 or 3000. Old worlds of science need to be revalued. New worlds are yet to come. The future beckons.
The myth is powerful and eminently seductive. And acting as if beliefs are truth can be a force for considerable change. As I listened to Barbara Marx Hubbard on the theme of universal life, I thought to myself, I do not believe much of what she is saying. Yet I can see her as a person who touches people as she passes them, who has acted to as an agent of positive good in the world. Her ideas about the future work as principles regulating her life, as neither true nor false in themselves, but guides for living and acting in a future oriented way. That's something that futurists ask us to consider doing in everyday life, and as a credo to live by, it makes sense to me. I came away from the experience of meeting with people from the Foundation for the Future with a sense that my worldview has been perturbed. It is possible to think one impossible thing a day. It is still possible to surprise myself. Science fiction still grabs me.
Old myths about the meaning of humanity die when they cease to meet changing circumstances. Few believe the year 2000 will bring either Paradise or Apocalypse. Rules for living derived from a medieval world no longer work. A new myth is needed to account for new circumstances. By myth, I mean a story that we tell ourselves to bring meaning to the mystery that is human life on earth. In the age of the new millenium, it seems only natural to turn to science for new rules to live by. Yet science by itself is not enough. New myths may derive from science, yet may be as grounded in faith as belief in heaven and hell. This is where I place the activities of conscious evolution. Conscious evolution proceeds on the premise that we understand the mysteries of life enough to take charge of natural processes. I would argue this is a mythic dimension of science. The genetic techniques exist, or will be created soon. That is science fact. The myth lies in the illusion of control. One of the lessons of the evolutionary past is that flexibility is a key element in survival. The limits of that flexibility are unknown.
What will it mean, to be human in the year 3000? Imagine human identity in a age of machines that will be smarter than their human creators. Imagine a multi-planetary society, with space exploration swiftly becoming cheaper. Imagine space-adapted humans, or a situation in which what moves off-planet may not be human. Imagine a new kind of human-directed evolution. For me, science fiction is the place where ideas of conscious evolution may be explored without danger. Fiction writers well know the illusion of control as their stories unfold and take on a life of their own. As I suggested earlier, the future is a multi-layered thing, a layering in story as well as in history, science and archaeology. The unknown builds on the known, as it always must, to reach out to times that are not yet, to places that may never yet be here.
1. Damien Broderick, The Spike, Reed Books, Melbourne, 1997.
2. John Clute and Peter Nicholls, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, Orbit, London, 1993, pp. 457-450.
3. Sohail Inayatullah, 'Causal layered analysis. Poststructuralism as method', Futures, Vol. 30, No.8, 1998, pp. 815-829
Eidolon: SF Online
Copyright © 1999 Rosaleen Love. All rights reserved.
Published online: 17 December 1999.