JANUARY 24, 2016
I SPEND a lot of time wondering whether I’m a futurist. I don’t have any training in strategic foresight, I’m not a member of the World Future Society or the Association of Professional Futurists. But, as a journalist, I do cover technology and science, write a column about future lives for BBC Future, and produce and host a podcast called Flash Forward that’s all about possible tomorrows. Which is all to say that for someone who’s not officially a futurist, I do a whole lot of thinking about the ways our future could unfold. Which is why Speculations (The Future is ____) appealed to me — a book full of thoughts on futures that we might or might not see.
I’ll start by admitting that I read this book the wrong way: I read it from the beginning, moved through the middle, and came to the end. In the introduction, editor Sarah Resnick tells us explicitly not to do this. “This book is meant as a finding aid,” she writes. “Like a dictionary or encyclopedia, the book is not meant to be read cover to cover and instead encourages a form of browsing — of search and discovery — that is particular to the form.”
And that is how Speculations (The Future is ___) is formatted: a collection of small chunks of texts organized by theme and then arranged alphabetically. There are snippets on “Agency” and “Aging,” on “Bullshit (Technology)”, on “Food,” and on “Utopia.” There is a section on “Trayvon Martin” and one on “Prometheanism.” Within each category you’ll find somewhere between one and eight short segments. Some are merely a single sentence: “What if we want to break the Internet?” is Sam Frank’s contribution to the “Internet” section in its entirety. Some read like proposals or promotions for companies that already exist, or will soon. Others are fictional tales of futures possibly to come. Some are scholarly in style. Others are conversational. Some are fleshed out with evidence, examples, and justification; others simply declare things to be true.
These snippets are culled from a lecture series held at MoMA PS1 in New York City, put on by a magazine called Triple Canopy. For 50 days, a sweeping variety of writers, academics, engineers, artists, and more came to the space to give lectures and have conversations with the audience. (The book details the full schedule of speakers in the back, but you can also find it here.) The writers Samuel Delany and Kelly Link came to talk about how people “use and abuse the future.” Fatima Al Qadiri, a composer and artist, presented a “soundtrack for a future apocalypse in the form of a live DJ set.” There was a debate about the future of drones, featuring an MIT professor, an artist, and a human rights activist. Reading through the lecture details, I regret not attending any of them.
But Speculations doesn’t reproduce, or even recap, each lecture — a task that would take a much longer book to accomplish. Instead, it’s a collection of brief, cryptic excerpts from the talks. According to the folks at Triple Canopy, who hosted the event series, the book “is meant to convey the relationship between ideation and action, in order to suggest viable approaches not just to interpreting the world but to changing it.” The same sentiment is expressed a bit more clearly by Samuel Delany, in a remark filed under “Speculation”: “The healthiest way I know to use the future is to think about what sort of future you would like, then research the factors that would make such a future possible.”
The thing is, you couldn’t use this book to do that. None of these segments are fleshed out enough or detailed enough to give you the tools to build a future. A few of them suggest approaches, but none of the passages are long enough to prove that they are viable. Here’s an example: In the section on “Population,” Ted Nelson says: “At some point the world population will drop precipitously. I say ‘precipitously’ because, as you can see, humans never do things rationally. We overbuild and overbuild until an earthquake smashes it all.” While that prediction might very well be an accurate one, it doesn’t exactly present what Delany would call a “viable approach” to changing the world.
I can’t say I recommend the experience of reading this book as a book (which, of course, I wasn’t supposed to do). But I will say that doing so produced an interesting kind of futurological vertigo. As the collection shifts from fiction to nonfiction and back again, I gradually lost the ability to tell which was which.
Take the passage by Esther Dyson, filed under “Health.” In it, she describes a company, the Health Initiative Coordinating Council, or HICCup. The company, she says, will pick five small communities “that will compete to produce visible improvements in five measures of health and economic vitality.” The competition will involve surveillance and data gathering; the communities will “compete with one another with Fitbit teams instead of football teams to reduce hospital stays, for instance — to become more healthy.” Dyson then goes on to explain that “we’re hoping we can prove that if you community puts in one hundred million dollars in the first year, you’ll get your initial investment back plus seventy-five million or so in savings by year five.”
Reading this, I was sure that the future Dyson described — in which at-risk communities are asked for a hundred million dollars so they can compete in Fitbit games that will somehow alleviate the poverty and environmental disadvantages that keep them unhealthy — was a dystopian, fictional scenario. But it’s not. HICCup is a real company, and Dyson is its founder.
Another passage, by the novelists Katie Kitamura and Hari Kunzru, gave its fictional nature away by quoting a date (2025) in the first paragraph, but its depiction of a world where words have been privatized and cost money feels almost as plausible as this confession by photographer Naeem Mohaiemen: “No matter the size of the protest, afterwards I’ll write to the newspapers, to the New York Times or Bangladesh’s Daily Star, and insist one hundred thousand people were marching.” As I moved through the book, I found I was second-guessing myself more and more. Was that a projection about a probable reality? Or a fable about an invented tomorrow?
Part of this also has to do with the way in which the passages are presented. Each passage is signed at the end, but the names aren’t accompanied by titles or credentials. This isn’t to say that I demand a PhD in neuroscience to listen to someone’s thoughts on memory, but it is always nice to know where a person is coming from when they start to predict the future. “I wager that there will soon be extraordinary breakthroughs in genetics, immunology and related fields such that we become capable of significantly slowing down aging,” writes Alex Gourevitch in a segment on “Aging.” A few sentences later he follows this sweeping prediction up with the statement: “I’m no scientist, so this is pretty speculative, but my casual reading of the science has made me think we are on the brink of such a change.” Gourevitch is a professor of political science at Brown University, and his contribution to the lecture series was to talk, along with the feminist scholar Kathi Weeks, about the role of work in a “better future.” But you wouldn’t know any of this from reading the text of Speculations.
On top of the increasing feeling of uncertainty over which passages described “reality” and which depicted imagined tomorrows, the format also lends itself to rampant contradiction. When it comes to the future, just like the present, nobody can agree on anything. “Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are no longer just a military technology,” Mary “Missy” Cummings writes. The very next passage, written by Chris Csikszentmihalyi, starts with this sentence: “The UAV is a military technology by definition.”
It’s no surprise that opinions on the usefulness and dangers of drones differ, of course, but the format of the text presented here allows for commentators to enter into more subtle conflict, too. “The more productive we become, materially, and the more machines we invent, the more it seems like the kinds of work nobody wants to do should be banished from our lives,” Gourevitch writes, in a snippet filed under “Automation.” But his passage follows one from Silvia Federici, which insists that:
We should be suspicious of all technologies introduced into the workplace. Furthermore, the work of caretakers, which is undervalued and done disproportionately by women, cannot be mechanized. This work is precisely the terrain where the limits of technology become apparent, where the fallacy of the utopian dream of automation freeing us from labor is exposed.
Gourevitch and Federici weren’t part of the same conversation during the actual talks, so all we have here is these two excerpts playing intriguingly off one another. Perhaps they could explore the message people send when they combine the idea of “robots doing all the dirty jobs nobody wants” with “robots caring for the elderly or sick.” Can robots supplant caretaking? Should they? Is caretaking a job nobody wants? What kind of future is it where we shove nursing into the same bucket as sewage collection and dangerous electrical work? But instead of digging into these questions, Speculations merely allows them to suggest themselves, before we move on to a segment about nanobots. The two ideas are almost in dialogue, but not quite.
The Future Is may be modeled on an encyclopedia, but it’s not really encyclopedic. Resnick’s suggestion to the contrary, it’s hard for me to imagine anyone using Speculations (The Future Is____) as a reference. Say, for example, you are an urban planner working on a project to design cities for the waves of refugees the future seems to continually promise. If you opened up the book to the “Housing” section, you’d find three snippets. The first describes a woman’s project to build suits that turned into wearable homes. The second outlines the thinking behind a proposed residential colony. The third talks about social movements, and how they interact with architecture. All three are interesting, and perhaps inspiring for that hypothetical urban planner. But they’re so short, and so devoid of context, that to use them as jumping off points would require some Googling to learn more. Perhaps that’s the point, but it’s certainly not how encyclopedias work.
Perhaps the best justification of this book occurs within it, in a passage in the “Speculation” section, by the novelist Kim Stanley Robinson. “The future is always receding,” Robinson writes, “it is an idea around which we orient our actions. The future is a subject for cognitive mapping, which might enable us to figure out what to do right now.” And we can definitely do better. Right now, tech millionaires are throwing their money at the prospect of immortality: something that only appeals to people with immense power, with bank accounts gathering compound interest.
Meanwhile, our imagined dystopias are full of global catastrophes, inspired by recent and cultural fears over increased sectarian violence and the surge of refugees trying to escape it. Science fiction writer and activist adrienne marie brown sometimes says that people of color today are in an “imagination battle,” trying to project futures that are in conflict with the systemic racism of the status quo. “We must imagine new worlds that transition us from seeing black people as murderers, or brown people as terrorists and aliens, to ones that can see black and brown people as cultural and economic innovators,” she said in a speech last year. Hip-hop artist and science fiction writer Gabriel Teodros once told me that, for some black people in America, telling stories about the future has always been essential for survival. “You have to imagine a future that’s different from the one you live in just to have strength to live another day,” he said. That’s one contribution that Speculations might be able to make: providing not so much reliable visions of tomorrows, but strategies for facing the present. The future is coming tomorrow, but the way we talk about it, the reason we care about it, is because of the problems we face today.