Category Archives: Change & Transformation

Notes: The Foundation Trilogy

My battered copy of Asimov’s trilogy

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy (1951) is a remarkable piece of science fiction not just because of its future vision of a galaxy full of humans, or its iconic stature in the genre. It is “future fiction” about predicting the future.

Asimov builds the tale around the work of an imaginary psychologist, Hari Seldon, who uses mathematical equations and statistical analysis of human social behavior (called “psychohistory”) to predict the rise and fall and recovery of the galactic empire over the course of a thousand years.

The action of the story revolves around just how clever Seldon and his colleagues were at planning, in detail, what needed to happen to restore the galaxy. The “Foundation” of the title is a special planet, where a kernel of rationality and science is preserved as war and economic collapse ravage the galaxy — just as Seldon predicted. In Asimov’s fantasy, even the unpredictable, in the form of a mutant with the power to control people’s emotions, is somehow accommodated in this homage to (exceedingly male) rationality and planning.

Foundation was enormously influential in its time. As a small reflection of that influence, two co-authors of the 1972 book The Limits to Growth — Dennis and Donella Meadows, who used computers and equations at MIT to try to understand what was likely to happen if the global growth trends of the 1960’s and 1970’s persisted — named their countryside residence in New Hampshire “Foundation Farm.” To be clear, they were under no illusions that they were preserving civilization there; Dennis Meadows has said it was simply a “sardonic reference” to a book they both admired.

When re-read from the perspective of the early 21st century, the Foundation trilogy seems impossibly dated. Men still carry briefcases, smoke cigars and run the world from small conference rooms, even 20,000 years after humans have fanned out across the galaxy.

And yet, there are aspects of Foundation that seem hauntingly familiar, in the age of global social media and populist politics. Apparently, great masses of people are predictable, and potentially manipulable, given the right psycho-technical tools. At the moment, we call those tools “Facebook” and “Big Data.”

Footnote: In a later 1980s novel, Foundation’s Edge, which expanded on his original trilogy, Asimov invents a planet called Gaia, where the humanoid “Mentalic” inhabitants are completely integrated with both the living and inorganic material around them, and each other, to the extent the entire planet functions as one mind. I wonder what dreams that Gaia would have? 

Notes: Future Shock

In 1970, Alvin Toffler (and his wife Heidi, they wrote as a couple but used only his name) published a book that took the world by storm, selling millions of copies and introducing a phrase — “Future Shock” — that soon earned a place in the dictionary.

Future Shock was not just a book about what was likely to happen, based on trends and patterns (though it did plenty of predicting). It was a book about how human beings were reacting to a feeling that the future was arriving faster than they could prepare for it. The principal thesis of the book is preserved in its dictionary definition: “the physical and psychological distress suffered by one who is unable to cope with the rapidity of social and technological changes” (Merriam-Webster).

The Tofflers (Alvin died in 2016) were surprisingly skilled at extrapolating from the trends of the 1960s into the world that later emerged, accurately predicting personal computers, the Internet, “Information Overload,” the sharing economy, telecommuting, the role of artificial intelligence in the workplace, and the rise of informal and less-hierarchical organizational structures. Their famous “errors” look wise in hindsight: Heidi predicted throwaway paper clothes, which did not happen; but the throwaway society certainly did. Today’s “fast fashion” garments may not be made out of paper, but they are not much longer-lasting.

Future Shock was not the first book to claim that “This lifetime is … different from all others because of the scale and scope of change,” nor was it the last. But it was the first to bring the speed of change into global public discourse as a topic of debate, and to highlight the counter-intuitive features of exponential growth — a topic that would stand at the center of another mega-bestseller that followed just two years later, The Limits to Growth. The Tofflers noted that accelerating economic expansion — Japan was the China of their day, its GDP growing at an average of 9.8% per year — translated into “a doubling of the total output of goods and services in the advanced societies about every fifteen years.” The individuals coming of age in the 1960s might live to see a world 32 times as “big” in economic terms (after five doublings) because of the compounding impact of exponential growth.

As it happens, the world economy has doubled in size more than four times since 1950. Graphs of that growth resemble rocket launches.

The Tofflers were not the world’s first futurists — the term had emerged during World War II, in connection with US think tanks — but they were the first to popularize the profession on the world stage. Alvin even taught the first known university course on the subject of “future studies” in 1966.

In introducing the systematic study of the future to a mass audience, they were careful not to let it be reduced to mere trend-spotting and prediction. Instead, they gave the popular understanding of future studies a decidedlhy philosophical and analytical character. Here they are writing on the advancement of technology, in words that seem to presage the significantly more developed and coherent theories of contemporary thinkers such as W. Brian Arthur (The Nature of Technology: What it is and How it Evolves, 2009):

“[T]echnological innovation does not merely combine and recombine machines and techniques. Important new machines do more than suggest or compel changes in other machines — they suggest novel solutions to social, philosophical, even personal problems. They alter [humanity]’s total intellectual environment — the way [we think and look] at the world.” (Future Shock, p. 29)

The Tofflers noted that for humans to avoid the “shock” part of “future shock,” they would need to become more adaptable, flexible, and ready for the unfamiliar and unpredictable. It was wise advice then, and it also seems to have anticipated the emergence of an entirely new area of scientific inquiry, which is today called “resilience”. Becoming more resilient was imperative, wrote the Tofflers, because the advancement of technological civilization “offers no surcease from change. It offers no return to the familiar past. It offers only the highly combustible mixture of transience and novelty.”

While the Tofflers are usually remembered as cheerleaders for the future, their agenda was far more radical. In their book’s final pages, they called for a massive slow-down in the pace of economic, industrial and social change in order “gently guide our evolutionary destiny.” Their diagnosis of where “this wild growth, this cancer in history” was leading reads less like a prediction, and more like a hauntingly accurate premonition of the early decades of the 21st century:

“[B]efore we can build a humane future, [we must] halt the runaway acceleration that is subjecting multitudes to the threat of future shock while, at the very same moment, intensifying all the problems they must deal with — war, ecological incursions, racism, the obscene contrast between rich and poor, the revolt of the young, and the rise of a potentially deadly mass irrationalism.” (Future Shock, p. 486)

Today’s “ecological incursions” are happening at the scale of planetary ecosystems. The global “contrast between rich and poor” is wider and more obscene than ever. Phrases like “climate change” or “mass migration” or “school shooting” were not even in our lexicon when “future shock” was invented, nor was “social media,” which has become the most powerful technology ever known for spreading “mass irrationalism” in the form of conspiracy theories and fake news.

Today the “runaway acceleration” of human history appears to be speeding up rather than slowing down. The ever-faster arrival of “the future” may have become less and less shocking to us since the Tofflers’ time. It may even be that the majority of humanity is not just accepting, but even desiring, of the “novelty and transience” they worried about.

But that does not mean that we have solved the problem of collaboratively making the future that we are creating more humane, more livable, more sustainable. In fact, we appear to have just caught up to the Tofflers’ vision of how we might start.

In the closing pages of 1970’s Future Shock, the Tofflers laid out a suggested program of activity that bears a striking resemblance to something that finally occurred, at the international level, in the years 2012 to 2015. They called for “a movement” that would “broaden and define in social, as well as merely economic terms, the goals of ‘progress.'” They imagined gatherings happening “in each city, in each neighborhood” whose purpose was to “assign priorities to specific social goals for the remainder of the century.” They even proposed the use of large-scale, participatory simulation games, involving thousands or even millions of people at a time, to help us “formulate goals for the future.”

In 2015, the largest-ever gathering of heads of state convened in New York City, at the United Nations headquarters, to formally approve a document that had been developed with the input of hundreds of thousands of people, from all around the world. Called “Transforming Our World,” the document included 17 broad “Sustainable Development Goals”, and 169 prioritized sub-goals, to guide global development through the year 2030.

It was not exactly what the Tofflers had in mind. But it was astonishingly close.

 

Additional sources to review:

Future Shock at 40: What the Tofflers Got Right (and Wrong)

https://www.fastcompany.com/1695307/future-shock-40-what-tofflers-got-right-and-wrong

Future Shock on Wikipedia

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Future_Shock

“Future Shock” Documentary Film on YouTube (starring Orson Welles):

Video: Transforming the Future: Anticipation in the 21st Century

This short video — a collection of short interviews with professors and consultants — summarizes a forthcoming UNESCO book that covers the field of “anticipation,” the latest way of framing foresight and future studies. It draws on the work being done in UNESCO Futures Literacy Knowledge Laboratories, all around the world.

Here are some notes from the video. Actual quotes are marked; otherwise the notes are summaries of statements made by the named expert.

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Transforming the Future (Open Access): Anticipation in the 21st Century (Hardback) book coverAnticipation is a new name for concepts like future studies, foresight, though there are nuanced differences in these terms. (Lydia Garrido Luzardo)

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The work of this group is based on the groundbreaking work of Robert Rosen, a mathematical biologist who was trying to understand “what is life.” Rosen developed the idea of anticipatory systems. He found “most of reality is anticipatory in one way or another.” (Roberto Poli)

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[Anticipation] is not about looking at a target future; it is about looking differently at the present. (Luzardo)

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“All our actions are based on predictions of their consequences. We see the world as a meaningful world, not a collection of objective atoms. We see the world as a set of possibilities for action. We see objects and things where we think that we can do something. This is the meaningful world that we operate in. But the meaning itself is all the time based on what would be the consequences of my action. The world is not out there to be discovered, but it is actually constructed by ourselves.” (Iikka Tuomi)

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“What people say is the future is just their story of the future. So storytelling, the words, can becoming important tools for imagining and creating the future.” (Kewulay Kamara)

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“You can only make sense of things after they actually exist. So you have to try to create the future — and then try to think what it means.” (Tuomi)

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We are trying to get people to the insight, I am *using* the future. Then they will ask, “if I am using it, what is it?” (Riel Miller)

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Foresight is used by both policy (“la politique”) and politics (“le politique”). … “There is autocratic foresight: you construct the future, and you require people to follow it.” These kinds of foresight — autocratic, ideological — always end badly, often in catastrophe. (Kais Hammami)

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“If we become better at appreciating complexity — seeing uncertainty as a resource, not an enemy (because of course it is an enemy of planning) — we can shift the origins of our fear, and construct our hope in a different way. And if we can do that, it allows our identity to be more whole with respect to our origins, that is the past, but also our aspirations. And that will make people happier, and more at ease with who they are, in this universe that has this amazing potential to change.” (Riel Miler))

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“Anything that perpetuates the status quo is basically a colonisation of our futures.” (Roumiana Gotseva)

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“It’s a very inclusive way to create knowledge, because no one has better knowledge than anyone else.” (Lizard)

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Forces from the past are just half the picture. There are forces, feelings, etc. coming also from the future, so to say. “The social sciences need to be rewritten to give equal weight to the past and the future.” (Poli)

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We tend to think that if we change the structures, we will change the way people think and behave. For me, it’s the other way around. If we change the way people think and behave, we will bring new structures naturally into existence. For the why is changing the assumptions underneath what we think change is. (Gotseva)

 

 

Notes: The Viridian Design Movement (1999-2008)

In 1999, science-fiction writer Bruce Sterling gave a speech in which he called the growing problem of greenhouse gas emissions “an aesthetic problem.” Our reliance on fossil fuels and other pollutants was creating an ugly world, even though it was largely invisible to our senses. He believed the best hack for starting an environmental revolution was not technical or political, but artistic.

“We’re in trouble because we live in filth and we can’t see it,” said Sterling. “We’re like eighteenth century people who lived before germ theory. We’re ignorant of the squalor that surrounds us, and we have bad taste.”

Sterling determined to attack the problem head-on, and he single-handedly launched a new design movement to “Change what people see. Change how they see.” Sterling wanted to use art and design to help people visualize a future that was a brighter and more attractive shade of green — and start making it real.

He called the movement “Viridian” because that was the name for a shade of green that was slightly unnatural — cool, techy, and  environmentally friendly without being predictably so.

Sterling’s initiative was bold and quirky, and he was well-known in sci-fi and futurist circles, so he immediately attracted a following. He wrote a manifesto and a set of design principles, and he declared himself the Viridian Movement’s “Pope-Emperor.” Then he appointed a “Curia” of friends, advisors and fellow-travelers, to help spread the word. (I was lucky enough to be one of these.) The Viridian Movement, operating through Sterling’s email list, quickly spawned a number of design competitions, whose purpose was to call into being the kinds of design innovations Sterling felt to be lacking — things like spore-based ink to help people “embrace decay,” or a graphic symbol to highlight the fact that we were already in a state of “greenhouse disaster.”

Being on the slightly more practical side, I decided to organize an international Viridian Design Competition around one of Sterling’s best-loved ideas (conceived with colleague Stefan Jones): an electricity meter that was actually fun to look at, and that would tell you clearly when you were destroying the climate, and when you were saving it.

With a $10,000 grant from an enlightened philanthropist, I ran the contest though Donella Meadows’ Sustainability Institute (where I was the unpaid Director of Arts & Culture) and in partnership with a prominent international sustainability network known as the Balaton Group. That group’s global experts in climate science, modelling, renewables, and energy efficiency were the judges. And our winner, Inci Mutlu’s “Wattbug”, went on to receive media exposure in the New York Times and Wired magazine.

So did the Viridian Movement help create the future — that is, the present in which we are living now? Did it “introduce something new into the probability stream” as Elon Musk puts it? Or just accelerate what was bound to happen anyway?

Today, “smart meters” that provide immediate visual feedback on energy consumption are everyday items in the world’s electricity grids — though none are as cute as the Wattbug, and they would have arrived, eventually, anyway. Sustainable design is an increasingly normal part of life, though not in the radical ways described by Sterling at the end of the 20th century. New, more mainstream-friendly design movements for sustainability have emerged such as the one I helped launch with the Norwegian government’s Center for Design and Architecture, organized around the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. (It’s called the Oslo Manifesto.)

In 2008, Sterling himself seemed to sense that the Viridian moment was over and abdicated from his self-appointed overlord position,  four years ahead of the movement’s scheduled “Expiration Date.” Having an expiration date was itself a Viridian idea; but the zeitgeist was also changing. Al Gore and the IPCC had won the Nobel Peace Prize, which reduced the need for specialized awareness-raising on climate change. The economic meltdown now called the “Financial Crisis” was hitting its peak, which reduced interest in flashy new design ideas for a time. Sterling had just published a thoughtful book on design, called “Shaping Things,” that he considered “very Viridian without coughing up that fact in a hairball.” (Sterling, who is from Texas, has both a large personality and a penchant for colorful metaphors.)

Meanwhile, both the ideas and many of the people from the Viridian list had been absorbed into a then-new thing, called a “blog”, that went by the name of Worldchanging and promoted the alternative phrase “bright green.” (I was part of that, too.)

So in his final “Viridian Note” — the epistles that Pope-Emperor Sterling had been regularly sending out to the masses for nearly a decade — he gracefully admitted that “the world has become a very different place,” and that the growing calls for change in finance and politics went a bit beyond the design focus of Viridian. But his parting words were still a broadside against traditional green thinking or the notion that we should just consume less, an approach that he disparagingly called “hairshirt-green” (after the very uncomfortable goat-hair garments that Christian penitents and ascetics used to wear).

“Hairshirt-green is the simple-minded inverse of 20th-century consumerism. Like the New Age mystic echo of Judaeo-Christianity, hairshirt-green simply changes the polarity of the dominant culture, without truly challenging it in any effective way. It doesn’t do or say anything conceptually novel — nor is it practical, or a working path to a better life.”

Sterling challenged his readers, in a more open-ended, less green-authoritarian way, to simply “re-think your relationship to material possessions in terms of things that occupy your time. The things that are physically closest to you. Time and space.” You spend a lot of time with your stuff, and it takes up space. So acquire quality. Ditch what you don’t need and don’t use. This was ultimately far more important, opined the author of the Viridian Manifesto, than whether the object in question was “green.”

From this future vantage point, I can see the “streams of probability” that Viridian touched, as it tried to create a certain quirky vision. It lifted the topic of green design out of the environmental muck and into flashy, digitized lights of Silicon Valley. It was a brilliant act of conceptual art, the impacts of which are impossible to measure. I know it affected a certain moment in my life, inspired certain of my actions, and that it did that for hundreds of other people, who then went on to affect (or infect) other people, with the idea of making “green” more attractive, cool, and relevant. It probably “accelerated the inevitable.”

But the boldness of Sterling’s vision — his willingness to just write a manifesto and launch a movement, armed with nothing but an email account and some name recognition — inspires me still today. I doubt, for example, that we would have thought up the Oslo Manifesto in 2016 if my Viridian memories hadn’t been lurking, quite unconsciously, in the background of my mind.

So hats off to Viridian! It may have expired — but like true design classics, it never actually went out of style.

Quote: A branching stream of probabilities (Musk)

I look at the future from the standpoint of probabilities. It’s like a branching stream of probabilities. And there are actions that we can take that affect those probabilities, that accelerate one thing, or slow down another thing, [or] introduce something new into the probability stream.

— Elon Musk, TED interview, April 2017

Quote: To transform the world (Krishnamurti)

To transform the world, we must begin with ourselves; and what is important in beginning with ourselves is the intention. The intention must be to understand ourselves and not to leave it to others to transform themselves. This is our responsibility, yours and mine, because however small may be the world we live in, if we can bring about a radically different point of view in our daily existence, then perhaps we shall affect the world at large.

— J. Krishnamurti

(Cited in the Balaton Bulletin, Winter 1999)

Quote: If the world were merely seductive (E. B. White)

If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.

— E. B. White, as quoted by Israel Shenker in the New York Times, 11 July 1969