Natural’s Not in It. Futurism Needs to Get Real. Reinvent democracy. A Future Without Fossil Fuels? Face masks get fashionable. — No.72

It’s not a new interest, but after recently including the piece On Foresight in Organisations by Stuart Candy in Sentiers at Work No.4, I’ve been on a bit of a foresight / forecast / futurism trajectory, thus lots of mentions of “future” in this week’s selection. Btw, feel free to point me to practitioners of said disciplines in Montréal… if they exist.

This week: Natural’s Not in It. Futurism Needs to Get Real. Reinvent democracy. A Future Without Fossil Fuels? Face masks get fashionable.

A year ago: 12 Things Everyone Should Understand About Tech.


Natural’s Not in It

Danya Glabau (who’s an anthropologist of Medicine & Technology) with a pretty fascinating piece I will need to circle back to at some point. Going from the usefulness of scifi as “a frame for decoupling nature from culture,” then to the repercussions of Emile Durkheim’ concept of social facts, to the use of nature as determinant by the likes of Damore and Peterson, to sex and gender, circling back to scifi and using the work of Ursula K. Le Guin “as a tool to challenge the ‘facts’ we take for granted about contemporary social life.”

While science fiction has provided the scripts that many technologists have used to create our disappointing future, it also plays an important epistemological role in the struggle against racism, sexism, ableism, classism, xenophobia, and capitalism. […]

In fact, these visions of future technology are deeply conservative: They portray today’s social problems as built into human “nature,” inescapable and unalterable with or without new technology. […]

[S]cience fiction is increasingly a resource for imagining futures in which biology is no longer destiny. […]

And if sex is not the same as gender and neither is destiny by way of nature, then other categories that have operated historically as axes of oppression need not determine one’s place in society either. Disrupting such naturalized, apparently biological facts ramifies outward to other social facts like race, class, occupation, educational attainment, nationality, disability, and more. […]

While social facts are often imposed, deadly, and oppressive, recognizing these facts as themselves fictional opens up new ways to be flexible, playful, and experimental with how we imagine future societies. Rewriting these facts as social fictions doesn’t divorce them from history, place, and context. But recognizing the constraints on our lives as social fictions, rather than natural facts, offers the utopian promise that we can be in control of our own stories again. […]

Science fiction socializes technology, creating a sandbox in which its role in mediating biology and society can be reimagined as well. In the process the genre creates space to propose alternative social fictions that take the place of the social arrangements that act as social facts in the “real” world.

No More Shiny Tomorrows: Futurism Needs to Get Real

Slight step sideways going from scifi to futurism, where Amber Case, explains her vision for a middle futurism. Imagined between shiny perfect forecasting videos, and demoralizing and not very useful dystopias. A middle future is: maintainable, transparent, “allows for both chronos (structured) and kairos (in the moment) time,” allows for empathy, and works for the long term.

What’s needed, I believe, is a new approach to forecasting the future that sits between the unsustainable techno-utopianism popular with Silicon Valley, and the dystopian imagery favored by pop culture. (Which is uninspiring, and only warns us what to avoid, not what to strive for.) […]

Traditional futurists talk about disruption all of the time; middle futurism only advocates disruption that optimizes our attention, involvement, and proximity to technology. […]

Middle Futurism, by contrast, revives the PARC vision, describing a technological path that “takes into account the natural human environment”. […]

Ethical futures work for all, not just a select few; they respect our precious, finite resource of time and attention, and help people flourish as fully realized humans.

Why we need to reinvent democracy for the long-term

Roman Krznaric tries to figure out what is not working with democracy and what could be changed to fix it. The three problems he lists are the electoral cycle which makes for short-term limited thinking, special interest groups with too much influence, and representative democracies systematically ignoring the interests of future people. He spends most of the article on the latter and on how we colonize the future, an important notion I agree with. But one thing that I don’t see often enough is respect for the jobs and institutions. Just look at our previous PM in Canada, look at 45, look at May in the UK. Beyond Krznaric’s three points, too many politicians just don’t respect the offices they hold and disregard their responsibilities and the intent of common good beyond the letter of the law. Perhaps if they did, we wouldn’t need to separate out responsibilities to future generations and they could simply be responsible decent leaders?

“If one is mentally out of breath all the time from dealing with the present, there is no energy left for imagining the future,” [Elise Boulding] […]

[I]t is so startlingly clear that our political systems have become a cause of rampant short-termism rather than a cure for it. Many politicians can barely see beyond the next election, and dance to the tune of the latest opinion poll or tweet. Governments typically prefer quick fixes, such as putting more criminals behind bars rather than dealing with the deeper social and economic causes of crime. Nations bicker around international conference tables, focused on their near-term interests, while the planet burns and species disappear. […]

The time has come to face an inconvenient reality: that modern democracy – especially in wealthy countries – has enabled us to colonise the future. We treat the future like a distant colonial outpost devoid of people, where we can freely dump ecological degradation, technological risk, nuclear waste and public debt, and that we feel at liberty to plunder as we please. […]

The future is an “empty time”, an unclaimed territory that is similarly devoid of inhabitants. Like the distant realms of empire, it is ours for the taking.

A Future Without Fossil Fuels?

A very nearly upbeat fossil fuel piece by Bill McKibben? Yes! The various ways in which fossil fuels are being pushed aside by newly cheap renewables, with quite a few numbers and examples. Special attention to India, mini-grids, and the “end of a crushing import burden” related to oil.

[I]n 2017, for instance, sun and wind produced just 6 percent of the world’s electric supply, but they made up 45 percent of the growth in supply, and the cost of sun and wind power continues to fall by about 20 percent with each doubling of capacity. […]

India, until very recently, was expected to provide much of the growth for coal. As late as 2015, its coal use was expected to triple by 2030; the country was resisting global efforts like the Paris Accords to rein in its carbon emissions. But the price of renewable energy began to fall precipitously, and because India suffered from dire air pollution but has inexhaustible supplies of sunlight, its use of solar power started to increase dramatically. […]

No wonder that over the first nine months of 2018, India installed forty times more capacity for renewable than for coal-fired power. […]

[F]or the 80 percent of the world’s population that lives in countries that are net importers of fossil fuels, the transition to renewable energy means the end of a crushing import burden. […]

“Fossil fuels are produced by a small number of companies and countries and the benefits flow to a small number of people. With solar and wind you get a lot more local jobs, a lot more local investment. You get a whole new geopolitics.” […]

Countries in Africa and South Asia have a golden opportunity to avoid expensive fixed investments in fossil fuels and centralized grids by adopting mini-grids and decentralized solar and wind energy deployed off-grid—just as they jumped straight to mobile phones and obviated the need to lay expensive copper-wired telephone networks.

As pollution gets worse, air-filtering face masks get fashionable

One of those instances where movie fixtures rapidly start appearing in the world. Rose Eveleth has a look at the rise of face masks, the reasons we’ll be needing them and how they are quickly turning into fashion accessories. Includes some smart thinking and quotes by Christina Xu.

The global future of air quality doesn’t look so good. As humanity continues to make little progress fighting climate change, fires are expected to get more frequent. And in some cases, like in California, that new pollution is erasing decades of improving air quality. […]

Xu points out that the density of the urban environments in these countries likely contributes to the masks’ popularity. “You’re protecting yourself from this hyper-dense, hyper-concentrated urban environment.” […]

Xu says she could see it going a few ways: It could be adopted by streetwear fans (Supreme already sells a face mask, although it doesn’t seem to actually do much in the way of safety or filtration) or by users who prefer the Burning Man aesthetic. Or perhaps the wellness world adopts these masks, in which case the product design would look quite different. “The other direction might be the sort of Lululemon-ification of the masks, if they’re treated as these essential wellness objects and they enter the world of performance fabrics and athleisure and athletic wear,” […]

In the future, these masks may be outfitted with tiny sensors that detect everything from hazardous chemicals to the electric fields nearby.

Austin Kleon, How to read more

Miscellany