It’s Wednesday, April 6, 2022 and a cold and sunny day in Portland, Oregon.
Let’s just get on with it, okay?
Last week, I signed up for Julian Bleecker and the Near Future Laboratory’s General Seminar 19 on Design Fiction (they’re super fun, you should check them out).
Julian and co bring together a group of up to 16 people, he gives us a prompt and then we break out into smaller groups to work on the prompt.
What would it look like to live in a world where Futuring is something that is learned as hygienically as we learn to color with crayons, or count from 1-10.
What if in primary school, we were taught with a reverence for futuring and design fiction that reflected its importance?
Would there be AP Futuring classes? Would Futuring Debate Clubs include prompts like: “The future of the Refrigerator! You have 30 seconds!”?
Reader, I did not go to an entirely rosy place. I mean, there’s the Good Place of “Hey! Spelling bees but for design fiction! Those STEM robot football championships but for design fiction and imagining futures!”
But I am not like that. When I think about a world where teaching people to be futurists and how to Do A Design Fiction is completely normal, this is where my head goes:
If there’s AP Futuring classes, then there are ways of Futuring in the same way that there are classes for essay composition.
If there’s futurism/design fiction in the way that there’s essay composition and you have to turn in your Futures homework, then there’s Futures Mills in the way that there are Essay Mills. Then there’s Futures Prep Schools in the way that there are SAT Prep Schools. There’s Futures Tutors (ha), and Kumon has a whole bunch of things they’ll make parents feel anxious about.
If futurism/design fiction is a thing, then it’s part of your college application. Your application to law college is going to include how you’re Good At Futuring and how that makes you the right choice for that college. If you want to be a doctor, you’ve got to have a good enough Futures Grade on your FSAT.
And then, what if? If suddenly everyone knows how to construct design fictions, what does a lawyer do with that, or what does a judge do with that? What do management consultants do with it?
Well, I’d like to hope that the management consultants make better PowerPoint decks. But a student writing an article for a law review might then have more tools to imagine the consequences or alternatives of a particular ruling or precedent outside the narrow, strict format of a law review essay. What’s the artifact exploring the consequences of this ruling? What’s the film? The experience? Does a Law Review move past text? If everyone was taught how to do this, would we see more things like how AOC pitched a Green New Deal?
Or I could go down another route: if futuring was such a thing, then what if it were as big as high school sports? What if the discipline was treated the same way as the high school football team? What if people like Julian and co were paid and courted in the way that college football coaches are? What do the homecoming king and queen look like in schools where futuring / design fiction is as part of the curriculum as what’s seen as conventional educational pedagogy?
The prompt raises a whole bunch of questions: what’s the point of futuring? How would you know if you were good at it? Is it to persuade people? Is it to effect change in the world? What’s the difference between talking about something, creating something that provokes different thinking, and then going out and making that change in the world? In my breakout room with Ryan Greene, I asked what the deal was with shop class: are you learning techniques, or are you solving a real world problem / creating a useful real world artifact for yourself or someone? Where on the continuum does what you’re doing in shop class fall?
And then if you are making something, then… where does it get shown? Is there a sad display cabinet in a hallway which has a few Future Artifacts in it? Or does it have the equivalent of a several-million-dollar new football field?
In the group seminar part, we talked a little about the job of design fiction as opening up adjacency and possibility, which made me think of the increasing number of Americans who’re speaking up after living in Any Other Country. Turns out when you’ve got Americans who go over to live in, say, Germany, for a while, they come back saying things like “Wait, there are other ways of doing healthcare! And they don’t suck! And it’s not hell here!” That idea of Americans, in general, not having enough exposure to Other Ways Of Life due to a lack of travel, but then… what kind of Exposure to Other might happen? Can we send you to the future for 6 months? Do we need to? Is the future just… a bit of Canada? Is it, like Gibson said, sending you to a place where it’s been distributed and you just happen to live where it hasn’t been distributed yet? Is it that America, in general, is in a sort of future well?
One thing that I want to note down from the seminar as well was building on the idea of “well, what’s the display case” or “is it just the science fair?”
And, well, I have this thing where because my wife is from the midwest I know about 4H, which (look, I’m not trying to be pejorative here) is the rural thing of education and training and practical work in stuff like animal husbandry and homemaking. But it’s not that now, it’s STEM and it’s, I don’t know, best practices in breeding and agriculture and I guess How To Do Organic Right as well as Here’s The Calf I’ve Been Looking After.
So there’s this weird feeling I have where I suspect it might be easier/faster to get from 4-H and state fairs to solarpunk than it would be to get science fairs to solarpunk. Not that it has to be a race because not everything has to be a race, but it would certainly be different if the 4-H crowd got there first, if they got to a hunter gatherer lifestyle but with space age tools before anyone else.
Phew. This came late, but also quickly.
How’ve you been?