To be, I would now say, is not to be in place but to be along paths. The path, and not the place, is the primary condition of being, or rather of becoming.
―Tim Ingold, Being Alive
Nicky held a white sheet of paper up close to the camera of her computer, with a number “3” written in the center. She spoke softly, with her face half hidden by the paper: “For me, it’s been quite an unexpected challenge, because I fall into, in UK terms, what’s considered extremely vulnerable—which is never a way I’ve considered myself before. And, so, the implication of that is that I can’t leave home at all for the next three months, and with my partner and I, we’re having to segregate the house, and create a quarantine within it.”
As well as Nicky, 14 people gathered in small rectangles in an online video call, some with video on and others just with audio on, taking turns sharing a number on the screen. We were strangers, assembled in a “digital room,” attempting to make sense of the fallout of COVID-19, the subsequent lockdown, and what that meant to each of us.
How should we imagine a future while in presents like Nicky’s? How are we to imagine any kind of future with lives so suffused with precarity? With so many feeling so vulnerable, so ill at ease with those who are loved and in the places thought of as home, how can a future be imagined, hoped for?
Often it is the “futurist” who takes on the enviable job of extrapolating trends and projecting them into our future worlds. Yet it now seems that many more, globally, are dreaming and imagining about entangled futures. This is a stay-at-home futuring, a common world-making, an impulsive response to the collective and contemporaneous forces shaping our world.
Alex’s work of over 20 years as a sociologist speculating in/on naturecultures and human-machine entanglements has been an inspiration for Anab, since the two first worked together in 2006. While Anab started hosting the feral-futuring sessions, Alex wrote his essay “Life Less Normal,” in which he reflects on the deep inequalities that normal life pre-COVID had amplified, and suggests that ways to build “the conditions for a shared and collective becoming together—that is honest about the troubles—may be just what we need to turn our attention to.” Sharing this understanding and perspective, we felt the current conditions offered an opportunity to collaborate again, this time, thinking, together, about what feral futuring might teach us.
By trade, we are designers and artists, exploring the possibility space of futures. For over 10 years at Superflux, Anab, with her partner, Jon Ardern, have looked to the technological imaginaries that proliferate in the boardrooms and halls of big tech and speculated on what life in the future might be like—its goods and its bads. But given the scope of the crisis, and this prevailing sense of a stay-at- home futuring, we felt the urgency for different kinds of stories heard through different voices, such as Karen Eng’s: “I’m a single mother, and if I go into the hospital, then there’s no way for me to contact my daughter. If I can’t contact her by phone, then a doctor isn’t going to be calling her, unless things take a very severe turn. And I don’t even know if that would happen.”
Between March and July 2020, we began a series of online meetings with people who weren’t experts, but were made up of a much more diverse cross section of the public, and separated not just by their physical geographies but also by their experiential distance.
These sessions created an opportunity for strangers to collectively hold space for each other’s imaginations without a specific agenda or goal. A space where, for brief periods of time, we could encourage each other to let our minds wander, to challenge, question, and reflect on what other, different worlds could feel like. A space where we could speak up, share, and overcome the powerful sense of powerlessness that such a crisis can bring. Says one of the participants, Cornelia Daheim, “I don’t think we can see any of this clearly right now. I would describe it as a cognitive dissonance. It’s really extraordinary.”
Unexpectedly, acknowledging our individual vulnerability made our collective endeavor stronger, as we were more open to each other to listen, even to suggestions we might not feel aligned with, and see a path through. The paths were patchy, unbound, and unconstrained. As Tim Ingold would say, we were “humaning.”1 Participant Ahmet Alpan Sabanci reflects,
We are actually seeing how it’s going to end. And how it is going to end is, you will be afraid about writing a tweet, or you will be afraid about saying anything about any wrongdoing, or things like that. You can easily get quite depressed. And when you start to think about climate change, or all that upcoming trouble, upcoming disasters in the future, it can easily make you feel like there’s really no future for this place, because no one else actually wants a future. They just want to make sure that they are the powerful ones today.
While we were engaged in a form of scanning, it was not the usual horizon scanning, in the traditional sense of the word: the detached and disembodied sets of trends and weak signals. Instead, it was a scanning of how our emotions and states of being were shifting in relation to the changes in the world around us, thereby holding the personal, familial, communal, national, and planetary perspectives—all in view—simultaneously. There was no opportunity to fall into the instinctive trap of making hasty, consequential decisions, but we could, instead, be generative, ask questions in an almost childlike fashion, and sit with multiple, seemingly contradictory possibilities. Participant Robert Greco says, “We’re, at least here in the US, very much about the individual and individualism. It gets to that notion of the individual has all the responsibility, even though they don’t have the power. Through vulnerability, through asking for help when you need it (which is kind of discouraged), you can then give power to someone laterally, versus up on the hierarchy.”
Combined, we came to think of these digitally mediated sessions as a “feral futuring.” Unlike the visions many of us designers and futurists have become accustomed to, what we heard was disjointed, hard to hold together, and only what we might call a future. We collectively engaged in “futuring,” but without the usual tools and methods of foresight work. These were untamed accounts of patched-together pasts, presents, and barely imaginable futures. Sometimes, hope was absent, and, sometimes, it felt absurd. Hope was wild, and loss felt differently and unevenly worldwide. These were feral futures. Participant Alison Burtch notes, “I think the world hasn’t had a collective experience in a really long time—and that that is potentially transformational.”
Something we learned, very quickly, in our remote conversations, was that the sudden stalling of life felt new to many. Where we were, in the UK, it was not until March 23, 2020, that the UK’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, announced that people should stay at home, and the majority of businesses had to close—effectively putting the country into lockdown. However, by then, many of us, rather than relying on our government’s portentous strategy of “herd immunity,” had preemptively enforced our own versions of a lockdown. By the end of March, a third of the world’s population was under restriction, bringing much of the globe’s machinery to a grinding halt.
For those of us who were fortunate enough to not be immediately affected, there was a sense of being somber voyeurs, silently watching the death tolls of comparative country graphs rising, making futile attempts to come to peace with our own helplessness against the foreboding sense of an unfolding tragedy. An uneasy feeling of precarity prevailed in our lives, as certainty slipped away: work deadlines, school exams, wedding parties, birthday celebrations, and trips became a thing of the past. Even the run to the local food shop became a daunting duty. Life and the future felt precarious.
Such conditions, presented to us in the early moments of the pandemic, revealed a great deal. We learned how precarity can envelope life and be marked not by world-changing hopes and dreams but by a question mark—just a question mark. The conditions of the pandemic revealed, alongside its many other stories, what a privilege it is to imagine a future with hope. Participant Giles Lane explains,
I think for a lot of people who have really deeply enmeshed in the wider world of work and the debt culture we live in, and have lived in for a long time, they are starting to see alternatives … This is the key thing. People aren’t just seeing these things as intellectual ideas. They are having to experience them on a daily basis, and that’s truly exciting. It’s more excited than anything else I’ve seen in years … I actually feel very excited at the moment that there’s the potential for people to make their own change. Do we need to wait for our leaders to tell us to make them?
For us, and no doubt others in the business of futuring, something peculiar took hold in this uncertainty—from the question mark, all by itself. For sure, we were reminded of the privilege one has to look ahead, and speculate on what might come next, but we also learned that the futures we imagine rely on the possibility of change and the possibility of worlds fundamentally better (or, indeed, worse). To ask, “What next?” or “What if?” is to believe possibilities exist, and that we can dare to ask how the world might be otherwise. Says Giles Lane:
For decades, we’ve been saying that we can’t stop globalization and industrial capitalism, and a tiny little virus has shut the entire thing down, to a large extent, in a matter of weeks. And I think this is actually an incredible demonstration that change is possible. But what change do we want and what are we willing—and this is where the risk-taking comes in—what are people willing to take a risk for to achieve the kind of world they want to live in?
And participant Erica Whyte reflects, “I find the most hope in the necessity of abolition and decolonial work that is reckoning with some of the violence and security issues over the past few years.”
It was this presumption that the world can change (that conditions are mutable) that we found ourselves returning to. We asked, in different ways, how the imagining of a future tames the future and its present. It turns on a logic that one follows on from the other. It is to hold a place in the world where the possibility exists to live without isolation and loneliness, without disease, without prejudice, and without fear. “For those who have a bit of time and space, thinking about radical futures is something we have the chance to do! For those worried about their next meal, it can seem terrifying,” says participant Dominic Scott.
The question mark, all alone, raises the possibility of impossibility—that maybe some things will never be otherwise.
We came to understand our conversations, then, as an experimentation in and with the contemporaneous conditions of the pandemic and living in its aftermath. We saw them as an attempt to find and create the conditions for something between the solitary question mark and the conditions of opportunity we future-tellers can, at times, become inured to. This was what gave shape to feral futures.
Feral futures make room for futuring, but not just from the studios and laboratories of creative actors or articulate academics. Instead, feral futures allows futuring in and through other lives—in the banal and unruly moments that are too often cast aside, because they cannot, will not, add up to what comes next. Participant Alex Taylor points out, “Normalcy relies on forms of exploitation and marginalization. So, even if we were to return to the normal—is that is a normal we want to live in?”
By inviting and hearing about inhabited presents, feral futures seek to let the future approach in a minor key, or, to mix our metaphors, by the back door. This stay-at-home futuring, or everyday world-making, responds to the ensemble of forces and actors that make the present, and create the conditions for the future. Participant Marie Petersmann reflects, “This time has been very productive, as it’s destabilizing central pillars of international law, like control, like predictability, and really shaking up these boundaries and bringing a sense of vulnerability, of precarity, of instability, of uncontrollability, of unpredictability really to the foreground, and this is going to be key in my field, to rethink the security of climate futures, of a world facing biodiversity loss.”
To extend the feral futures that Rafael Ramírez and Jerome Ravetz write of,2 we seek to ask more of futures—not just ask how human visions of domesticated futures are overrun by the unruliness of nonhumans. We seek a new way of thinking about the future, one that recognizes the uncertainties and that operates at the limits of what can be told. Dominic Scott notes, “The more that we can become less specialized, less efficient in a way, the more we can be the grit in the machine. The more the machine begins to disintegrate.” And Alex Taylor reflects,
We give, and when we give, we obviously lose something of ourselves, and we put ourselves in these precarious situations … the things that resonate with me and stand out for me in this moment is when you see those efforts to give—where you know that the weight of giving is not easily reciprocated. It’s those moments that you just think that it’s remarkable that someone is willing to give up that, or put that at risk. What would it be to enact that both as a practice and as something to express at a larger scale … What should it mean to expose ourselves in a way?
Where do we go from here? How can we become more feral in our imaginings of the future? We could only invite a few people from all those who volunteered and showed a keen interest in joining us. So, the story we tell is from our experience of convening a few feral-futuring sessions; it’s a story of an experiment and a journey rather than a fully formed and finished project. There will be more sessions to come. Participant Jim Maltby says, “Quite often, if you lose your argument in the sense that we tend to have, actually, you win, because you’ve learned more, because you’ve understood more from the other person and their point of view.”
What we realized is that a feral futuring lies at the heart of Superflux’s work, which we have previously identified as a sort of jugaad approach to futuring. By combining strategies of speculation with hands-on experimentation, bodging, building, and crafting, we invite multiple actors to not just experience a possible future but also to test the tools to proactively tackle future challenges. This material manifestation of cobbled-together assemblages can become a catalyzing force for people to imagine things they would not have been able to imagine otherwise, and, therefore, act upon that imagination. Participant Lucia Dubacova says, “It feels that everybody’s trapped in this division of really wanting to make change, or contribute to a change, on one hand. On the other hand, there is so much pressure from society and from the outside to keep running and keep fulfilling an agenda—because there are plans we made a year ago, or two months ago. I feel this kind of battle is somehow paralyzing for people in the end.”
More importantly, what emerged from this feral-futuring activity is a revelation: that the tools for navigating precarity and crisis and unknown futures will not be the tools we have used to maintain the certainty of progress, or the tools we have used for the pursuit of novel futures. And, while unfamiliar, these feral tools are deeply uncontroversial: acknowledging vulnerability, collective listening, nonrivalrous collaboration, and dreaming at the edges of im/possibility.
We thank all the participants who responded to Anab’s request for such a strange gathering, and then took the time to share their stories with us in such gracious and generous ways.
Correction: November 3, 2019
An earlier version of this article misspelled the names of two participants, Cornelia Daheim and Marie Petersmann.
- Tim Ingold, “Anthropology beyond Humanity,” Soumen Anhropologi: Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society, vol. 38, no. 3 (2013), p. 21. In this article, Ingold also explains, “My preference … would be to think of animate beings in the grammatical form of the verb. Thus ‘to human’ is a verb, as is ‘to baboon’ and ‘to reindeer.’ Wherever and whenever we encounter them, humans are humaning, baboons are babooning, reindeer reindeering. Humans, baboons, and reindeer do not exist, but humaning, babooning and reindeering occur—they are ways of carrying on.” ↩
- Rafael Ramírez and Jerome Ravetz, “Feral Futures: Zen and Aesthetics,” Futures, vol. 43, no. 4 (2011). ↩