future practice, future improvisation
When you're confident that the future will be better, you don't have to spend much time thinking about it. It will come, and when it does, things will be better. You get your yearly raise. Your home increases in value. Technology gets better and cheaper. The stock market goes up. Your friends and family are better off than they were four years ago. People seem, on the whole, slightly less racist and sexist than they did when you were growing up. Progress marches on, up and to the right, as the prophets foretold.
Your children will live in a better world, and their children better still.
We do not live in an optimistic time.
In the absence of this optimism, what do we do? Just accepting whatever comes our way is to foreclose on whatever agency we do actually have.
Imaging and designing a positive future is certainly critical–the limits to our imagination are often our first barrier. But this is only an initial step. How do we know if this is this vision that we actually collectively want? How do we have faith in any given direction or solution?
I think a major shortcoming of our current approaches is that we are both framing and addressing the first question improperly.
How do we know what we want?
Humans are notoriously bad at guessing what will make us happy. We are simply terrible at that particular flavor of future projection. And, within complex systems, we are also largely incapable of predicting the side effects and unintended consequences of our actions and interventions. Bad things happen when we believe we can accurately predict all outcomes.
Some people choose to address this using computational models. This may provide some degree of insight, but as Brian Wilcox of NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab once told me, "The problem with simulations is that they're doomed to succeed." By definition, they encode what we know, and leave out what we don't know. We gain false confidence in positive results.
This skepticism aligns strongly with my design education: we don't just decide on an approach and build it. We make prototypes, test them, and thereby learn the answers to questions we didn't know to ask, as well as new questions to address next time around.
This also fits well with the cybernetic approach to complexity, specifically the stance that we don't understand systems by understanding all the components individually. Rather, we understand systems through our interactions with them, through input and response. We build up experience and intuition that are never complete, but give us a sense of what might happen. This is very much how we, as humans, interact with the world around us.
So what does this mean in the context of designing the future? It means it's not enough to author a utopian fiction and then simply sit down and think about it. No amount of pondering will accurately tell us if that's something we want. We will fail to reason accurately about the positive and negative impacts on us personally, and we will also fail to predict the downstream negative effects on ourselves and others.
Put another way: crafting a story and taking a poll will not work. (Unfortunately, this is often how democratic systems of government work.)
I'm starting to think that we need to make ourselves live in the future, partially and temporarily, in order to have any chance of realistically evaluating our path forward.
If reasoning and modeling won't give us the knowledge we need, we must apply the whole of our experience, knowledge that's lived and embodied and social and practical.
At the same time, this gives us a chance to practice–physically, mentally, emotionally–for the changes that may become necessary.
Even if we don't know what's coming, we can still practice.
I think of the difference between practicing a piece of classical music versus practicing jazz. For the precomposed piece, you practice those notes in that order, while still maintaining room for an expressive performance. But when you sit down to perform, either by yourself or with others, you all have a pretty specific idea of what's going to happen. You can hear it in your head before the notes are played.
To practice jazz–or any other form of improvised performance–there are two different types of practice: the fundamental skills, and the practice of performance and improvisation itself. You practice your playing technique and your scales. You listen and study, you transcribe and copy and play different patterns so that your body and your ears and your mind know what they feel like.
But what actually happens when you perform? That's a product of the room, the time, the people you're with, everybody's state of mind, the energy in the room, and the endless feedback loops of instruments and bodies and breath and reactions.
There's a magic in the unknown outcome, the risk and possibility. But there's also a deep sense of intentional practice for adaptation, exploration, and joy in collective discovery and transcendance.
No amount of practicing scales will make you a great jazz musician. You have to prepare, and you have to take the leap and do it, then learn and repeat.
What futures do we need to test out?
Any vague pessimism or uncertainty you may hold about the future can be transformed into a particular near future outcome. Which things do you feel uneasy taking for granted? Climate change is certainly the source of plenty of scenarios, if you're having trouble thinking of one. What happens when air travel is prohibitively expensive, or rationed, or becomes socially unacceptable? What happens if cars aren't allowed in cities? What happens if you don't have constantly available cheap electricity?
Pick one, and think: how would things change in that scenario? How would my own behavior change? How might I be able to help others? How can I prepare and practice now, acknowledging that I can't predict the future? Which communities or institutions need to be adapted, or strengthened, or created in order to make this work for a community, a town, a city?
And, importantly: what opportunities does that create for discovery and joy and connection?
Let's say electricity becomes less dependable or more expensive. How do you live that now, in order to practice, learn, and evaluate?
This isn't simply an exercise in deprivation, but a chance to answer the question: what are your needs, and how can you meet them within new constraints?
Here's a simple example, to make it concrete. Recently, I've spent a few evenings with all the lights off in my house, then using a couple of LED camping lights for illumination. Instead of just aimlessly browsing the internet, running down my phone or laptop battery, I took the time to think and write in the calm, soft light. With a few key tools, and a sense of what to expect, I could imagine doing something similar if regularly went without power after sundown.
I didn't feel like I was training myself for an emergency–it was just an experiment in changing some patterns in my life. In this case, it was a welcome change, and I learned much more from doing that than from thinking about doing that. I can reflect on the experience, decide what I liked, and what I'd change.
And then we can go another level or two out: how can you expand it to your neighbors, and beyond? Maybe buy a couple more portable lights. Maybe talk with nearby friends or family and buy a larger backup battery that you could share. Maybe talk with your library about making batteries and lights available for check out, as many libraries have done with wifi hotspots. Maybe there's a communal space where people could go after dark.
These experiments won't always work, and won't always lead to desirable outcomes. When they feel unsatisfying or insufficient, that's our chance to try a different approach, or to more clearly identify what has to change. Maybe laws need to change, or new decision-making processes need to be put in place, or new alliances and agreements must be forged. But now these additional steps can be taken with a grounding in concrete needs and experience. It's not just a thought experiment.
I firmly believe that the knowledge we can bring to ourselves and others by actually living in these temporary, partial futures is much stronger than any intellectual analysis of what must be done.
If we have these experiences, we can reflect on them, and respond to them. We can change our experiments, and adapt our communities to support the approaches that work, that feel right, and that support joy and discovery while helping us all through what may be a very difficult era. We can all talk about our experiences and reactions without feeling like we have to defer to self-appointed experts. We should, of course, listen to experts who can educate us about changes in our environment, whether that's our planet's climate or our political system, but we remain the experts of our own lives, values, and choices.
It would be mistake to pretend that these scenarios are fabricated, or futuristic. Nearly any scenario you can imagine of this type is somebody's reality today.
You can see dozens of refugees in camps crowded around phone charging stations, powering their lifelines to the outside world.
You can see kids being driven to McDonald's parking lots at night to access wifi so they can do their homework.
You can see unhoused people on the streets of your city listening to FM radio for entertainment rather than drain the battery on their smartphone (which they may very well own).
You can see families traveling across the country on Greyhound buses to visit their relatives, because air travel is a prohibitive cost.
The list, of course, goes on and on. It's important to acknowledge that, to understand that people are living these struggles already. The future, as they say, just isn't evenly distributed.
For those of us living in relatively comfort, we have a chance. We have a chance right now, while we still have some time, energy, and resources, to experiment, invent, practice, evaluate, extend, create, rehearse, and expand our ways of being and living that will serve us well in an uncertain future.
We aren't going to reason our way through this, and we should be extremely skeptical of anyone who claims to know what's going to happen, or what will work.
There's no lone genius composing the symphony of the future. There's no hero to follow. The music hasn't be written. Even though we can't hear it in our heads yet, we can build on our creativity, resilience, and understanding of our own experience to take steps forward, to practice, prepare, learn, and improvise our future with clarity and intention.
█ Jesse Kriss, Feb 8 2019