The future is unknown but also inescapable. We have no choice but to relate to it. But how to do this? The future is impossible to accurately observe, measure or calculate. We only know that the future will come forth out of the present. That the forces that shaped the past and the present will also, to a degree, determine the shape of the future. But the contours of human society are emergent and unpredictable and do not follow straight forward deterministic reasoning. There is, for instance, human imagination at work. So how can we approach the future in a sensible and productive way?
There are many ways to approach the unknowable. At Monnik we’ve developed the World Tree Model, a qualitative method using a historic-futuristic model of modernity that we use to make our future scenarios [Monnik]. The World Tree Model is basically a model of the stories that we tell each other. Another way to approach the future would be to use a quantitive method, like the World3 model that the Club of Rome used in 1972 to extrapolate the measurable dimensions of human civilization (GDP, demographics, resources, pollution, etc) [Wikipedia]. But there are also simpler ways to look at the future. It’s more crude but anyone with a curious mind and an internet connection can monitor the two most powerful forces that shape our society; money and imagination. They represent power and thought, established fact and speculative fiction.
Those who are able to wield these forces of money and imagination are able to shape the future. The more one is in tune with both, the more powerful of an impact one can have on the future. Take Elon Musk for example, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who is disrupting the entire car and energy industry with Tesla and who is transforming the economics of spaceflight with SpaceX. He links vast amounts of money with lucid visions. Tesla embodies the dream of realizing a non-fossil fuel energy and transportation system. SpaceX has as its mission to turn mankind into a multi-planetary species. This is the power of capital fused with imagination at work. The imagination and the projects of Musk are bold and inspiring and have elevated him to a cult-figure with fan-boys and girls (but mostly boys) that are lining up to buy whatever he sells, repeat whatever he says, and that share his dreams.
Musk’s operations are proof that it is not technology that is directing the future. Technology is how ideas become manifest and how they enter physical reality. But it is imagination and funding that precede it and that make it possible. First an idea needs to be thought and developed before it can become real. You need time and resources to work on it, which requires money. If the technologies that drive electric cars, autonomous vehicles and commercial spaceflight are becoming economically viable, and broadly shared realities, it’s because immense amounts of human and capital resources are dedicated to these challenges. Proven technology alone is not enough. Sometimes even if large amounts of money are dedicated and the technology is working, the economics can still fail. The technology will be shelved or only accessible for the lucky few. A good example is the dream of supersonic airlines, which died not just because of Air France’s Concorde crash in 2000, but mainly because of the price tag; $5,000 for New York-London one-way [NYT]. Technological progress is not a law of nature. It is a product of human ingenuity in an economic context.
Money is not technological friendly per se. Most of the time the economic context does not align well with novel societal visions. Just think of the financial and real estate sector. Capital is directed to become more capital and nothing happens in between. The real estate business is very R&D adverse and Wall Street is mostly developing increasingly complex financial products that are meant to avoid risk. (Thus, it is probably not a good idea to elect a real estate developer as the revolutionary avatar of the common folk. Chances are that he will work against your interest.) Most human ingenuity and technological prowess is directed to the project of multiplying money and not the reshaping of society for the better.
A good example is gentrification. What starts as students and artists moving into decrepit housing and forgotten neighborhoods, ends with real estate speculation driving up the prices, forcing out everybody who was initially involved in raising the quality of living, public space, and diversity in the neighborhood. The initial value created by the pioneers is captured by the real estate developer, but it is also eventually destroyed by the same developers, since they gradually drive out the elements that made the area attractive in the first place. This brings us to the first law of money-imagination dynamics: Most capital is invested in the status quo. This capital will, more often then not, work against change.
Money that only wants to make more money also produces a massive societal blind spot. It obscures the values that are hard or impossible to express in monetary terms. This failure of expressing societal value in economic terms is a huge blockade for progressive change. As long as this is the case there are no guarantees that the future will be a nice place. Those who have power will fight to maintain it. With this in mind, the future, just like the present, will probably be a mixed bag of the good, the bad and the ugly.
The imagination is however not to be underestimated. It is a powerful force that will always stand at the gates of those in power. Ready to rattle the golden cage of its inhabitants and to shake up the worldview that upholds it. The conduit for the imagination is the mind. And the minds that direct the flows of capital are equally susceptible to the magic of the imagination (something economists haven’t been able to model). Thus, when an alternative imagination starts to circulate, able to inspire a different course of action, it has the power to command the rivers of cash. Take for instance the fossil fuel divestment movement, which started in 2011 with students demanding their university administrations to divest their funds from fossil fuels. Today the movement has grown into the financial mainstream. In December 2016, $5.5 trillion in assets had been divested from fossil fuels [Guardian]. At the same time, clean tech and renewables have become profitable. This brings us to the second law of money-imagination dynamics: Money is a unreliable mistress. Established ideas and technologies will eventually always be replaced by new ideas and technologies. Replacing old elites, and old values, with new élites and new values [Wikipedia].
Changing the world is a game of lofty ideals and murky practicalities. Walking around with ‘no more pollution’, ’no more climate change’, ‘no more exploitation’, ‘no more war’ and ‘no more austerity’ on your t-shirt is not enough to make a better world happen. Proposals and alternatives are needed. Power play is needed. Money is to be lured in. Those who direct power and cash need a ‘yes’ to direct their resources to. A ‘yes’ that can be imagined and is, in the long term, economically viable. People need to be persuaded. It is not that those who pull the strings have a lack of imagination. It is just that their imagination has strings attached, it is tied down to consequences, it is deeply entrenched in the soil of reality, and thus has a hard time to fly freely.
The imagination is not just a flight of fancy. It has structure and logic. The imagination in the form of speculative fiction has a viral quality to it. As soon as the idea of ‘a man on the moon’ or a ‘man flying’ is thought, people will try to realize that image. A lot of these speculative dreams are pursued and realized. Just think of all the boys and girls that watched Star Trek and that are now engineers working at space agencies, science laboratories and tech start-ups trying to make communicators, tricorders, replicators, warp drives, holodecks and transporters [Youtube]. And it is not just the technological imagination. In the 1960’s Star Trek also presented a progressive image of society. They introduced a society beyond money and a black woman on the bridge of a spaceship. Not as a servant, but as a lieutenant. She was part of the command team and performed the first interracial kiss on American television [Guardian]. So, the third law of money-imagination dynamics is: Fact follows fiction. So if you want to know what the future will bring: follow the imagination.
Speculative fiction is everywhere, from pop culture to the fine-arts, but it especially lives and thrives in the library, where written words evoke virtual realities in the mind’s eye, conjuring up possible worlds, societies, and behaviors. It is here in this web of stories that ideas evolve, possibilities grow, worlds are created, and where readers and authors built upon each other’s ideas in experiments of the imagination. Not very dissimilar from how academics built upon, and reference, each other’s work. Where science fact investigates how the world is, based on science, science fiction speculates about what the world could become, based on science.
If we want to get an inkling of where the future is heading we need to understand that fact follows fiction and we need to follow the money. When we find the places where they converge and where they contradict we can start mapping possibilities and to extrapolate these into credible future scenarios.
On a personal level, we need to identify the contradictions between how we spent our money and the futures we imagine and seek to resolve these conflicts. Futurology is all about positioning yourself in the field of forces that shape the present, and deciding which future you or your company wants to support (or resist). Or to put it more bluntly; it is about putting your money where your imagination is and to let the facts follow your fiction.
Weekly Future Briefings
- De Blinde Vlek voor CultuurJanuary 31, 2018En hoe we wel zouden moeten toekomstdenken
- De Circulaire SamenlevingJanuary 23, 2018Wat als we een Universeel Basisinkomen betalen met een 100% erfenisbelasting?
- We Are AstronautsDecember 3, 2017You, me, and all the plants and animals
- Going Post-SoilNovember 15, 2017Why Moving Food-Production into the Technosphere is Inevitable
- Beyond DisgustNovember 5, 2017Why a sustainable future will be dirty