Newsletter No.276 — Aug 27, 2023

The Future Thinker’s Dilemma ⊗ Hollywood’s Future Belongs to People—Not Machines ⊗ Discovering a Green Marx

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Also this week → From expert to explorer ⊗ The strange, secretive world of North Korean science fiction ⊗ Rapid Realms: A visual novel with AI

The future thinker’s dilemma

Good piece by Frank Spencer where he elaborates on some challenges facing the field of foresight and futures thinking. He argues that the predominant focus on solving present-day problems is limiting the potential of futures thinking to imagine and create transformative realities. In the process he identifies several problems with the current approaches to foresight, such as a focus on trends, prediction, and data, as well as an over-reliance on past patterns, a lack of imagination, and the practice of “futuring to the problem” (like “teaching to the test”). Taken together, they reinforce past and current dominant narratives and fail to consider the changing nature of the future.

Spencer calls for a shift in perspective, proposing an approach that embraces complexity, emerging novelty, and an anticipatory imagination of “Ontological Unpredictability.”

While I agree with the aims, which might parallel some of the ideas behind critical futures, I wonder how one might apply this to their own work within organisations or a consultancy practice. Does that mean more radical preferred scenarios? A different approach to signals and trends? A parallel and more ‘subversive’ practice that might influence the subsequent projects? Or perhaps a more personal interpretation of your findings? Spencer argues that a lot of futures work follows the data too much, does a team then use fainter signals and paint a picture much different from the probable future? Or is it a more proactive posture that influences every step of the process?

In the end, I’m left with the same conclusion as with degrowth or dropping fossil fuels or re-inventing the whole energy market; it’s absolutely needed, but how do you connect these imperative society-scale needs with the more mundane business priorities of those you will work with/for?

“Data, data, everywhere, but we never stop to think” or the idea that we are attempting to measure the future when a.) you can’t measure the future any more than you can capture your shadow, and b.) if the nature of the future is shifting and changing, then why do we think that the metrics that drive our present-day systems will do us any good when it comes to understanding what’s emerging and unfolding? […]

Why are we futuring to find solutions to the problems created by extrapolative, exponential, and extractive systems, when we should be futuring to imagine emerging novelty and construct transformative realities that would allow us to elevate our human, planetary, and universal experience above and beyond those systems? […]

Our present systems — based on linearity, short-termism, hyper-productivity, and hyper-efficiency for maximum monetization — benefit most when they are supported by three insidious components that work in tandem: extrapolation, exponentiality, and extraction. […]

“We think creatively (not predictively) about the future in order to decide what to do now in order to make possible different futures. There is no reason to be ‘future-oriented’ other than to try to change things, from now on. This means that you must be very careful when trying to ‘future’ to ensure that you are not unwittingly reproducing implicit past patterns. When doing futures thinking, you can, and to some extent must, explicitly choose aspects of the past that you believe will extend, or should be extended, into the future. But futuring is of little value, perhaps even dangerous, if it extrapolates into the future things that will not and should not be there, but which are because those doing the ‘futures thinking’ did not adequately think about them.

Hollywood’s future belongs to people—not machines

Madeline Ashby writing for WIRED dives into the implications of the Writers Guild of America strike, the generative AI aspect of the conflict and future implications. As is usually the case with Ashby, the piece is heavily hyperlinked, funny in parts, super insightful, and (imho) an accurate and thought provoking overview of the unbundling of various entertainment jobs, what the current Hollywood business model destroys, and how AI-generated content will likely be too targeted. Perhaps to the point of losing connection to other people’s stories, ending up with a jumble of reinterpreted hogwash tailored to each of us. Ashby also interviewed a number of people much less obvious than those we usually see in such pieces, making it that much more valuable a read.

“The future of entertainment will be the future of everything,” says John Rogers, creator of Leverage and The Librarians, “which is watching an enormous number of houses of cards that have been built over the past 30 or 40 years start to collapse.” […]

“Art always comes down to its first principles,” says Television Without Pity alumnus Jacob Clifton. “It exists so one person can say to another person across time and space, ‘I have felt this too. We have a need to share the things that touch us deeply and to create art of our own.” […]

The story of the internet is the story of America itself: a seemingly limitless landscape transformed into a shopping mall populated by the same handful of brands, products, and voices. […]

If AI assumes responsibility for visions of our future and explorations of our past, then humanity will have lost the final culture war: the one between people who are free and things that are owned.

Discovering a green Marx

Long review of Kohei Saito's book, Marx in the Anthropocene, where he examines the later years of Karl Marx's writing and argues that Marx's thinking during this period is analogous to the concept of degrowth communism. Saito highlights Marx's post-1868 exploration of pre-capitalist societies and his study of the natural sciences as evidence of his evolving ecological consciousness.

To be honest, a lot of it is somewhat over my head, quite academic and goes into the weeds of Marx’s work. Regardless, it’s a line of thought I enjoy following, and one already explored in No.264 with a piece by Nathan Gardels that looked at Saito as well as the thinking of Kojin Karatani. I quite enjoy this remixing of old and new and re-interpretation of old work. In Saito’s reading, it also means that in his later years Marx went through the same thing I see a lot of society going through now; rediscovering our entanglement with nature and the value of indigenous peoples’ understanding of that relationship.

Pre-capitalist forms of what Marx called “indigenous communism” were coming into focus as small-scale models of egalitarian social relations based on sustainable connections with nature. Having overcome ethnocentrism and productivism, Saito argues, Marx died having reached a position congruent with that of modern degrowth communists. […]

Saito concludes that Marx’s ideal of post-capitalist society changed during these years, as he transcended the trappings of Eurocentrism and Promethean productivism en route to something analogous to degrowth communism. […]

The point of departure is Marx’s notion of primitive accumulation: the enclosure of the commons represents the original negation of the metabolic interaction between nature and humanity. An anti-capitalist revolution would accomplish the negation of this negation, restoring our original unity with nature on a higher level and at a larger scale.

More → On degrowth, you can also have a look at Jason Hickel’s The fallacies of GDP reductionism: A response to Warlenius, which is a bit too ‘someone is wrong in the internet’ but does provide some useful precisions on what the degrowth movement means to achieve.

From expert to explorer “Explorers create work environments that support exploration and accelerate learning by drawing people together and focusing them on emerging opportunities. Rather than organizing into hierarchical command and control structures, explorers focus on becoming a catalyst for bringing people together into small impact groups that are focused on action and impact and then expanding impact by organizing larger and larger networks of impact groups.”

Futures, foresight, forecasts & fabulations
The strange, secretive world of North Korean science fiction. “Unusual and often breathtaking, the genre is relatively unknown in the West.”

History of the Future syllabus S22. “This course examines the global history of human attempts to predict the future ranging from antiquity to the present, with an emphasis on the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries”

Skills on futures studies. “An array of toolkits to improve your work with futures studies and help create quickly futures scenarios and trends compiled through AI prompt-powered skills”

Algorithms, Automation, Augmentation
Rapid Realms: A visual novel with AI | Part 1. thejaymo has “decided to speed run making a solarpunk visual novel” and is generously documenting the process.

Breaking down “After Light” by directing duo Vallée Duhamel. “There's so many things that we had in mind for so long, that we were finally able to inject into this video. Some of this stuff that we couldn't even afford on other commercial or artistic projects, we got to do here.”

CSI Enhance! The AI tools making images look better. “Researchers have discovered ways around a fundamental trade-off between accuracy and beauty in digital images.”