What we talk about when we talk about The Future ⊗ Polyfuturism ⊗ The downward spiral of technology

No.295 — The sublimation hour ⊗ Humanity’s inability to tackle the climate crisis ⊗ The 2024 climate fiction contest collection ⊗ Altman’s self-serving vision of the future

What we talk about when we talk about The Future ⊗ Polyfuturism ⊗ The downward spiral of technology
Four characters representing distinct genres of futurist rhetoric.

Recently I had a chat with a couple of readers and both mentioned that they are here for the critical tech articles. They also said that, even though it’s not usually one of their favoured topics, they enjoy the futures content, in part because it connects to an interest in science fiction. As luck would have it, two of my favourite piece this week are about futures, so I thought I’d say a bit more.

Although in the last couple of years I’ve written more about foresight as a practice, my interest is actually broader, extending to anything to do with stories about the future. I see futures thinking, in the context of this newsletter, as the study, critique, and creation of stories that move us forward. Technology and the climate crisis are two of the biggest and entangled ‘stories’ today and I think the various lenses of futures thinking are very useful, essential really, to properly decrypt and act on these stories. Which explains why it’s a big chunk of Sentiers, and also why I encourage you to pay attention to those topics when reading through, even if ‘futures’ doesn’t normally draw your attention.

What we talk about when we talk about The Future

Dave Karpf is writing a book about WIRED’s brand of techno-optimism through the years. He’s “trying to isolate what the impending digital future looked like back then, in the hopes of deriving some insights regarding how we got to now.” In that process, he has identified “four distinct genres of futurist rhetoric” and goes about presenting them.

Well worth a read, but I think when he talks about a “professional class of futurists — consultants who take business leaders and other influential actors through extensive planning exercises,” he’s generalising quite a bit and glossing over a lot of professionals. He’s portraying some of the big firms, the big-tech sycophants, and the folks doing strategy painted over as foresight. They exist, but they are just one segment of a very varied field of futures.

It’s something I’ve previously written about, these differences in approach and how strategic imperatives, transformational ideals, and societal needs are balanced—or not, as in Karpf’s professionals. See No.276 with a piece by Frank Spencer, No.277 for one by Alex Fergnani, or No.288 with another piece by Spencer where I write about a “loose taxonomy” along “Calculation, Exploration, and Transformation.”

Techno-optimist futurism insists that the path to a better tomorrow can only be discovered through positivity. And it places Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs, engineers, and investors at the center of the action. […]

The future, Stross is telling us, is just setting. Not all science fiction is meant as a call-to-arms or a grand warning. Sometimes it might be intended as a warning. Other times it might be a roadmap (as in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future). But these authors are not oracles. They are artists. […]

My main conclusion thus far is that we should pay particularly attention to load-bearing futures. […]

Pay closer attention to the track record of Futurism-with-a-capital-F. It is often synonymous with the view-from-capital, and its optimistic storytelling masks a political agenda.


This one by Theo Priestley is directly in line with my questioning above. He goes quite a bit further and is more critical than I am, but exposes very well the chasm between a very strategy-focused form of foresight and one that considers transformational change (Spencer’s term), diversity, and culture. Priestley believes, and I agree, that too much focus on business needs obfuscates some futures, which is “why cultural futurism, or as I want to call it, Polyfuturism, needs to become a pivotal and central theme in all future studies and foresight practice going forward.”

As I mentioned at the beginning, futures thinking can be used as a lens, so you can read this piece and the one above purely for the discussion about forms of futures, but in this one you can also think about all the variations he talks about (polynesian, queer, indigenous, solarpunk, protopian futures, and more) as potentials, things that could happen but that ‘we’ too often ignore. Which then brings us back to last week’s article by ADH, An Alternate History of Human Potential. There are moral reasons to include a greater diversity of people, but if morals aren’t enough, it’s also ‘just’ a lot of ignored potential we are missing on.

The World has raced towards The Singularity without question but beyond this point everyone has stopped thinking about what the possible or preferable futures could look like and how society could be shaped. […]

The list [of futurisms] is endless and yet all are ignored in pursuit of strategy, profit and ultimately, conformity. Whilst many are steeped in purely speculative science fiction the concepts still form part of cultural ideologies and movements that exist today. […]

Projecting the future often presents a similar problem: The object is foregrounded, while the behavioral impact is occluded. The “Jetsons idea” of jetpacking and meals in a pill missed what actually has changed: The notion of a stable career, or the social ritual of lunch. […]

The future we think we want may not be the preferred outcome that another culture wishes to see manifest and so Polyfuturism has to become part of the discipline irrespective of what the technology, corporate strategy or national interest is.

The downward spiral of technology

Where Karpf critiques the WIRED to Silicon Valley connection and its invention of a future that didn’t pan out, and Priestley critiques the ‘strategification’ of foresight which is not eventing more diverse futures. Here Thomas Klaffke shows us where both of these problems have led us; to tech that is purely profit-focused, is getting less useful, not more, and increasingly enshittified. In this issue of his excellent Creative Desctruction newsletter, Klaffke attaches takes by Ted Gioia, Ed Zitron, Gita Jackson, Cal Newport, and wisdom from philosopher Ivan Illich to show how far we’ve strayed from using our tools, and towards being led by them.

The point is: These technologies aren’t all bad! However, we now create and apply them in a way that doesn’t serve humanity (or, to even think broader, all of nature) but rather a system that prioritizes profits above all else. […]

One of the key problems of our current age is that we’ve focused too much on the ideas of “the engineer” – I mean this in the broadest sense – and their mechanistic perspective rather than looking at non-technological or non-mechanistic solutions and innovations to our problems. […]

The crucial thing however, is the approach! Solving climate change requires system change, solving inequality requires system change, solving racism requires system change, solving the mental health crisis requires system change…
The problem is not that the “machine” of humanity, of earth is broken and therefore needs an upgrade. The problem is that we think of it as a “machine”.

The sublimation hour

Drew Austin with one of those short but impactful pieces he has the secret of. From the Vegas Sphere to the iPhone, to dreams, and to reality through screens.

The Sphere is less architecture than a building-sized consumer electronic device, too heavy-handed for Apple but just as smooth and seamless—and like the iPhone, it comes with U2 already installed on it. […]

The Sphere, then, is here to correct our outdated assumptions and tell us what the world is actually like today: etherealized and content-saturated, with everyone still staring at screens even when visiting the world capital of fun. No more secrets—what happens in Vegas is transmitted everywhere. […]

It’s popular to point out that our phones never appear in our dreams. I’ve always believed this is because our devices frame our reality so comprehensively that we imagine we live inside them, and only in dreams do we escape the physical constraints that break the illusion.

§ World will look back at 2023 as year humanity exposed its inability to tackle climate crisis, scientists say. “When our children and grandchildren look back at the history of human-made climate change, this year and next will be seen as the turning point at which the futility of governments in dealing with climate change was finally exposed.” … “We do not understand why the ocean heat increase is so dramatic, and we do not know what the consequences are in the future, are we seeing the first signs of a state shift? Or is it [a] freak outlier?”

Futures, Fictions & Fabulations

Imagine 2200: The 2024 climate fiction contest collection
“Grist’s Imagine 2200: Climate Fiction for Future Ancestors short story contest celebrates stories that offer vivid, hope-filled, diverse visions of climate progress. These stories are not afraid to explore the challenges ahead, but offer hope that we can work together to build a more sustainable and just world.”

Critical Futures Talks
Fantastic lineup and will be available online, roughly one talk every month. I’ve shared the writing of almost every one of these speakers through the years so if you enjoy the newsletter, you’ll likely find something you’ll want to attend.

Square Eyes by Mill and Jones
Read this last weekend, gorgeous graphic novel and fantastic vision of AR. “A graphic novel about robotic cities, augmented reality and digital memory, set in a future where the boundaries between memory, dreams and the virtual world blur.”

Algorithms, Automation, Augmentation

Sam Altman’s self-serving vision of the future
“Meanwhile, the deception is there too in the use — at least by people like Altman — of narratives like the AGI threat to shape regulation in his company’s favor. Not all of his statements are solely about advancing his personal or commercial interests, but the narrative he’s laying out — even if it contains elements of faith or delusion — is aimed at realizing a particular future.”

Mark Zuckerberg’s new goal is creating artificial general intelligence
Deep sigh. “OpenAI’s stated mission is to create this artificial general intelligence, or AGI. Demis Hassabis, the leader of Google’s AI efforts, has the same goal. Now, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg is entering the race. While he doesn’t have a timeline for when AGI will be reached, or even an exact definition for it, he wants to build it.”

Former Google CEO gets into the AI-powered kamikaze drone business
“The former Google CEO has written extensively about how AI drones are the future of warfare, including in a book he co-wrote with everyone’s favorite recently deceased warmonger, Henry Kissinger. Now it’s pretty clear he was just talking up White Stork.”


  • 😍 🖥️ 🍎 🎥 Insanely Great: The Apple Mac at 40 and Happy 40th Birthday, Macintosh. “Laid the foundation for Apple's enduring commitment to elegant design, innovation, effective marketing, and cutting-edge engineering, values that continue to define the company four decades later.”
  • 🤯 🧬 🔬 Scientists Will Test a Cancer-Hunting mRNA Treatment. “Strand has figured out how to “program” mRNA much like computer code, allowing it to perform certain functions—such as turning on only in specific cell types, at specific times, and in specific amounts. Today, the biotech company announced that the US Food and Drug Administration has greenlit a clinical trial testing the approach in cancer patients with solid tumors.”
  • 😱 💦 🤬 The World’s Essential Aquifers Are in Deep Trouble. “An alarming new paper published today in the journal Nature looked at available data on 1,700 aquifer systems worldwide and found that groundwater is dropping in 71 percent of them. … Nearly a third of the aquifers are experiencing accelerated depletion, meaning the decline is speeding up, in particular where the climate is dry and there’s a lot of agriculture that needs watering.”
  • 😍 📸 🐟 🐠 🦑 Winners of the 12th Annual Ocean Art Underwater Photo Contest. “A reminder of how cartoonishly colorful and weird it is under the sea. The alien creatures we’ve been looking for in outer space? They’re already right here, just take a swim.”
  • 🤩 🏢 📸 but 🤔 BIG Unveils Gelephu’s ‘Mindfulness City’: Bridging Bhutan’s Heritage and Future. “BIG has just unveiled ‘Gelephu,’ an envisioned master plan that draws from Bhutanese culture, Gross National Happiness principles, and spiritual heritage.”
  • 🤩 🤖 📸 but 🤔 Refik Anadol’s nature-focused open source AI model debuts at world economic forum. “The Large Nature Model aims to transform the way individuals use AI to understand Earth’s ecosystems, aiming to reshape society’s connection with the natural world. Built on extensive interdisciplinary research, it taps into open-access data from institutions like the Smithsonian Institution and London’s Natural History Museum.”

Your Futures Thinking Observatory