“The future is a particular kind of speaker,” explains communication scholar James W. Carey, “who tells us where we are going before we know it ourselves.”1 But in discussions about the nature of the future, the future as an experience never appears. This is because “the future is always offstage and never quite makes its entrance into history; the future is a time that never arrives but is always awaited.” Perhaps this is why, in the American context, there is a widespread tendency to “discount the present for the future,” and see the “future as a solvent” for existing social problems.
Abstract discussions of the “the future” miss the mark. That is because experience changes us. Anyone that has lived through the last 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic would surely agree. While health experts are well aware of the ongoing global risks posed by pandemics, no one—not even an algorithm—can predict exactly when, where, and how they might come to be. And, yet, since spring 2020, there has been a global desire to understand precisely what is next, how to navigate uncertain futures as well as adapt to long-term changes. The pandemic, according to the writer Arundhati Roy, is “a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”2
In order to understand the choices that we are facing, it is necessary to understand the ways in which technologies and futures are often linked—socially, politically, and commercially —through their promises of a better tomorrow, one just beyond our grasp. Computer scientist Paul Dourish and anthropologist Genevieve Bell refer to these as “technovisions” or the stories that technologists and technology companies tell about the role of computational technologies in the future.3 Technovisions portray technological progress as inevitable—becoming cultural mythologies and self-fulfilling prophecies. They explain that the “proximate future,” a future that is “indefinitely postponed” is a key feature of research and practice in the field of computing that allows technology companies to “absolve themselves of the responsibilities of the present” by assuming that “certain problems will simply disappear of their own accord—questions of usability, regulation, resistance, adoption barriers, sociotechnical backlashes, and other concerns are erased.”4
But the promise of a better tomorrow is no excuse for the inequitable, unjust, and harmful deployment of technology today—a topic that I’ve written about previously for Public Books, with respect to both “smart” cities and “smart” medical devices. Let’s take one example, as a Type 1 diabetic, I’ve been living with a “smart” insulin pump and sensor system for the past three and a half years. During that time, I have only been able to sleep through the night a few times a week, due to the frequent need to calibrate the sensor in the middle of the night. I’ve come to believe that, “the AI system that is keeping me alive is also ruining my life.” While the next-version system is promised to be better, that does very little for the tens of thousands of people like me that are living with the current system.
Rather than continuing to cling to claims about a better future, Dourish and Bell suggest that perhaps it would be better to acknowledge that the future is already here, full of the kinds of technological problems that we experience every day—moving from the futures portrayed in science fiction to futures full of messiness and frictions. As we navigate the potential technological solutions that have been presented throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and the claims that they make about the world today, it’s useful to consider the ways in which “the future” is constructed as a social-technical frontier—one in which the social, political, and economic stakes are closely tied to our continued belief in the promise of technological progress —and how we might work towards other ways of understanding, practicing, and living with futures today.
How should we be thinking about the future, as well as about the practice of futuring? Some answers can be found in three recent books: Devon Powers’s On Trend: The Business of Forecasting the Future, Scott Smith’s How to Future: Leading and Sense-Making in an Age of Hyperchange, and Rose Eveleth’s Flash Forward: An Illustrated Guide to Possible (and Not So Possible) Tomorrows.
As these three books make clear, trends, scenarios, and stories are valuable ways of engaging with questions and practices around uncertainty and futures. And trends, scenarios, and stories can be used for profit—for practice in sensing and anticipating change, as well as for the purpose of bringing critique, imagination, and experiences of the future to life.
But merely stating that the future will be better or different does not make it so. Ultimately, transformative social change requires a deeper understanding of power and the politics around the futures field and, even, vastly different understandings of temporality and how the future is defined. Thus, “Who gets to Future?”5 is an essential question—especially, as we step through the portal, and reinvent our lives anew in the years ahead.
So, how might we move beyond status quo futures and toward more pluriversal futures? Black futures? Feminist futures? Queer futures? Trans futures? Crip futures? Working-class futures? Asian futures? Indigenous futures? And multispecies futures?
In Western American and European contexts, the future is typically understood as a linear movement in time6—in the United States, the future is synonymous with optimism, solutionism, and the promise of a “sublime technological future,” in which “it is the machines that possess teleological insight.”7 Today, algorithms are often lauded as all-seeing oracles with often vastly overstated and inaccurate claims about their abilities to predict trends, diagnose diseases, and manage efficiency.
Powers writes that “futurism has a long history of being overwhelmingly white and male” with “what counts as a trend” being determined by a “select few” based in European and North American capital cities and mapping onto existing inequalities. She asks, “How other modes of future imagining can bring about more visionary, radical, and diverse futures” with a chapter on Afrofuturism, which Powers argues is itself a trend.
Smith acknowledges that some cultures understand time to be cyclical with the potential for “multiple threads” and “simultaneous” events, specifically, mentioning Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa. Along these lines, the editors of a new book Black Futures offer a collection of work that resists Western and American thinking by deliberately focusing on global, atemporal, dynamic, and hybrid modes of knowing. They write, “Like us, this book is not linear. Like us, this book lives and breathes beyond temporal Western frameworks. There is no past, present, or future, nor is there a beginning, middle, or end.”8 Artist Alisha B. Wormsley’s “There are Black People in the Future” is included as an example.
How should we be thinking about the future, as well as about the practice of futuring?
An energetic account of the social, historical, and cultural modes in which the future is constructed, Powers’ On Trend focuses on the business of forecasting and trends as “a certain style of new.” Trends, according to Powers, are the “currency of cultural life”; they “normalize, codify, and anticipate change.” Trends are commodified ways of understanding change, mitigating uncertainty, and aspiring towards transformation. What that really means is that trends are “future uncertainty made into a business,” in which culture, meaning, social influence, and social change is traded.
Trends, communication technologies, and networks are closely connected in Powers’ view, mutually shaping one another, and, thereby, shaping us as well. Networks are the “infrastructure for trends,” and, as such, they are “deeply recursive”: prone to bias and oriented towards homophily (the idea that “birds of a feather flock together”). As such, future uncertainty continually reinvents itself through a perpetual state of “what if” loops.
A historical precedent that ties the role of communication technology and networks to the future lies in Carey’s work on the invention and use of the telegraph, which “shifts speculation from space to time, from arbitrage to futures. After the telegraph, commodity trading moved from trading between places to trading between times.” Consequently, after the invention of this communication technology, the future became something primarily conceived of as space for the extraction of profit. This aligns with the core argument in Powers’ book, which links trends and trading with new communication technologies.
While Powers’ goal is to describe the business of futuring, Smith’s How to Future offers a set of methodologies—from sensemaking to scenario-building, storytelling, and prototyping—for understanding futures. For all of Smith’s methodologies, the key is to use “uncertainty as a material to build with, not as a risk to be mitigated.”
“‘The Future,’” writes Smith, is “co-opted by technology marketing” and the promise of “tomorrow, today!” In the field of design, Smith argues, few approaches make meaningful use of divergence and dissensus in ways that allow for other “pathways of possibility” to be explored. Instead, many institutions remain wedded to dominant future narratives, which are “official futures” defined as the “easy, default foundations on which to build narratives,” offering “comfort and certainty instead of opening up questions about the forces that may shape possible futures.”
Beyond merely mapping and understanding trends, Smith describes the ways in which scenarios can be rendered and materialized through the creation of tangible things, artifacts, and prototypes. These include mundane everyday objects, such as Wikipedia entries, unboxing videos, and registration forms. Building on a range of complementary work in the futures field, Smith suggests that the future can be experienced. For example, How to Future argues that prototyping things and embedding them in detailed scenarios with vivid storytelling offer ways of engaging closely with unfamiliar situations and contexts. But to what ends and by whom?
In assessing the ethics, implications, and effectiveness of the modes of futuring proposed in the book, Smith argues that it is necessary to carefully consider “how they’re presented and what claims they make”; ultimately, stating that “the point of exploring the future is to better understand how to proceed from the present.”
Along these lines, Rose Eveleth’s Flash Forward: An Illustrated Guide to Possible (and Not so Possible Tomorrows) brings particular futures to life through scenarios and stories in the form of comic strips by a diverse set of authors about a wide range of topics, including smart cities and computational art; a world without sleep; animal rights and the gender binary; celebrity avatars, fake news, and lie detection; biohacking and transhumanism; and outer-space crime and ocean living. Each comic is followed by a short essay on the topic by Eveleth in order to better navigate some of the political questions—with both measured critiques, as well as enthusiasm—raised in the story.
Eveleth argues that “the future is not made exclusively by white men in black T-shirts who give TED Talks. The future is far more ornery and slippery than that.” And, indeed, the characters, settings, and stories depicted in the comics are full of generative frictions. Despite the cartoon format, the characters—disabled and able-bodied, Black and Brown, old and young, animal and robot—have rich live and realistic interactions, despite living in a fictional future world.
For example, in Ben Passmore’s “Welcome to Tomorrowville,” one of the comics featured in Eveleth’s book, the smart city depicted illustrates all of the utopian promises of technology—convenient transportation, frictionless shopping, connected appliances, and integrated applications—but, while at the same time, surfacing urgent critiques about surveillance, privacy, and policing through the dialogue between different characters with different perspectives on the social consequences and politics of such choices. These include the different and inequitable implications for people in the story, such as the homeless and those who are criminalized by smart city platforms and services. For Eveleth, these comics are valuable, because they illustrate the ways in which the future is a product of the collective choices that we make as a society.
Powers argues that trends are “superficially progressive” but inherently “apolitical” or “antipolitical,” in that they “envision a future that keeps the fundamental structures and relations of the present intact.” In seeking other modes of futuring that might offer the possibility of greater potential for social and political transformation, which Powers terms “eventful futures,” she turns to the work of artists and activists and, in particular, those working in the genre of Afrofuturism. Powers cites the filmmaker Kodwo Eshun’s notion of “counter-futures” that decenter whiteness and white supremacy to illustrate the ways Afrofuturism examines the role of power.
In the exhibition catalog Colored People Time, the artist Martine Syms’s The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto recognizes “a new focus on black humanity: our science, technology, culture, politics, religions, individuality, needs, dreams, hopes and failings.” “The electric feeling that Mundane Afrofuturism is the ultimate laboratory for worldbuilding outside of imperialist, capitalist, white patriarchy.”
In particular, the Manifesto resists common science-fiction tropes of interstellar travel, encounters with aliens, alternative universes, and time travel, while promising “no inexplicable end to racism.” And asks not to forget “political, racial, social, economic, and geographic struggles.”
In my research and teaching over the past 10 years at the IIT Institute of Design, my students, my collaborators, and I have used experimental approaches, such as games, events, participatory workshops, role-playing, props, images, and videos to critique and destabilize “official futures,” particularly, the techno-optimistic claims of perfection that are regularly issued by Silicon Valley firms. In imagining what might go wrong and the social consequences of technology, we explore future frictions, rather than science fiction.
In my Designing Futures course, we explore the kinds of approaches—forecasting, scenarios, and speculation—described above. But we spend just as much time discussing the kinds of futures that are worthwhile, ethical, equitable, and just with grounding in both academic, artistic, and activist visions for futures. I describe this approach as “speculative praxis” that uses “theory as a design material.” Critical futures of this kind require a deep and reflexive engagement in sociological and anthropological understandings of the consequences of design and technology. Without knowing where to look for knowledge about the world—both from recognized experts as well as from community stakeholders and within ourselves—our futures will continue to fail to live up to our imaginations.
We’ve driven on a driverless city testbed, designed fictional surveillance technologies that protect workers, eaten future foods and imagined (and lived) life with biotechnology enhancements. These experiences have changed us in important ways. They have allowed us to ask new questions about the world as well as about ourselves and our commitments to one another, ultimately, moving away from rational arguments grounded in the aggregation (of data) to the experiential possibility of creating new politics and relations.
What’s most exciting to me about this work is getting to know ourselves better in the process. How do we experience change and uncertainty? How can we engage with unfamiliar contexts and situations? What kinds of worlds are we truly committed to building? What must we give up and what might we gain? How might we learn resilience, care, and community in the face of multiple interlinked crises—climate, political, cultural, economic, or otherwise?
In sum, the future is not out there. It is not a solution to today’s problems, to echo Carey’s critique. Rather, it is within each and every one of us, in all of our varied human (and nonhuman) existences, as well as together in relation, imagination, and continued struggle to understand ourselves.
This article was commissioned by Mona Sloane.
- James Carey, Communication As Culture: Essays on Media and Society, (Unwin Hyman, Inc., 1988). ↩
- Arundhati Roy, “The Pandemic Is a Portal,” Financial Times, April 3, 2020. ↩
- Paul Dourish and Genevieve Bell, Divining a Digital Future: Mess and Mythology in Ubiquitous Computing, (MIT Press, 1992). ↩
- Ibid, Kindle Locations, pp. 316–17. ↩
- Jasper Tran O‘Leary, Sara Zewde, Jennifer Mankoff, and Daniela K. Rosner. “Who Gets to Future?: Race, Representation, and Design Methods in Africatown” (paper presented at the Conference of Human Factors in Computing Systems, 2019). ↩
- I’m grateful for an exchange with Ahmed Ansari, which helped to reinforce this critique. ↩
- James Carey, Communication As Culture: Essays on Media and Society, (Unwin Hyman, Inc., 1988). ↩
- Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham, Black Futures, Kindle edition, (One World, 2020). ↩