In his Imagined Futures, Jens Beckert suggests four ways in which fictional expectations make an impact on the social world:

  1. They coordinate actors by providing a common focus to their action
  2. They are able to shape the future by conditioning what action happens
  3. The freedom involved in fiction means they are not constrained by reality and are thus capable of stimulating innovation
  4. They motivate real decisions which have consequences on the distribution of resources and the projects which actors have to pursue and contest them, including the attempts to influence expectations because of the consequences they have.

My notes on Facer, K., & Sandford, R. (2010). The next 25 years?: future scenarios and future directions for education and technology. Journal of computer assisted learning, 26(1), 74-93.

“Education is a future-facing activity” as Facer and Sandford put it on pg 74. Its future orientation ranges from young people making choices on what to study, through to strategic planning in schools and national debates about curriculum reform and educational priorities that look towards equipping the population for a changing world. The future is mobilised as a resource to legitimate and incentivise reform, raising the question of what this future is imagined to be. From pg 75:

In many policy fields, for example, the ‘imaginary’ upon which future-oriented projects are premised often takes for granted the contemporary existence of and con- tinued progress towards a universal, technologically- rich, global ‘knowledge economy’, the so-called ‘flat world’ of neo-liberal rhetoric (Friedman 2005). It is towards this imminent world that governments and edu- cators are exhorted to propel students and citizens; and it is this imminent flat world that is used to mobilize support for funding allocations, to justify investment in new technologies or to rationalize curriculum decisions.

The focus is on ensuring that “specific individuals or countries are enabled to keep up” (pg 75) and alternative futures are ignored or foreclosed. Technology is widely presented as a crucial tool to facilitate this keeping up, essential for policy makers trying to modernise an education system and upgrade their population. It implicates an idea of the future as a singular, inevitable trajectory in the face of which educators and citizens have no agency” (pg 75).

Foresights activities have become increasingly prominent within education at many levels. The paper reports on the Beyond Current Horizons project, commissioned by the UK’s Department for Children, Schools and Families, which brought together 100 academics from a wide range of disciplines to understand what society might look like in 2025 and the education pressures flowing from this. It was based on four pricinples:

  • Principle 1: educational futures work should aim to challenge assumptions rather than present definitive predictions. Futures work explores the relationship between possible, probable, and preferable futures rather than making definitive predictions about what will happen.
  • Principle 2: the future is not determined by its technologies. Technological determinism pervades a lot of applied futures work but the insights of contemporary social theory illustrate how untenable this position is.
  • Principle 3: thinking about the future always involves values and politics. Visions of the future operate as rhetorical devices and political tools. Therefore accounts of the future need to up front about their commitments and values.
  • Principle 4: education has a range of responsibilities that need to be reflected in any inquiry into or visions of its future. This work has to begin with a clear statement of what the purpose of education is seen to be.

The project involved a mix of foresight work (map projections of developments into the future and examine their implications) and scenarios work (developing a set of future scenarios used to examine current strategies and their assumptions). These principles mean that the project will avoid  articulating “a trajectory of future technical developments and read off a set of deterministic social outcomes” and instead “explore how social and cultural contexts might shape the production of new technologies, and reciprocally, how the clusters of capabilities (Williams 2006) offered by scientific and techno- logical development might be amplified, resisted or modified by a range of social and cultural developments” (pg 77). It began with a statement of what the purpose of education was seen to be. From pg 79:

  1. “qualifying learners to take on certain roles (requiring the development of knowledge and competencies);”
  2. “socializing learners to participate in wider community, family and social contexts;”
  3. “equipping learners to develop their own sense of selves, identity and agency”

It involved the commissioning 84 literature reviews across 5 broad areas of inquiry, with a focus on current trends in the field, long-term projections and areas of uncertainty. These were summarised in reports which aimed to provide an overview of probable futures within each of the areas. These were the foundation for specialist stakeholder interviews and workshops, with a view to identifying possible futures which weren’t contained within them. Then a broader online and face-to-face consultation with parents, learners and educators was elucidate preferred futures.

There’s a detailed description of scenario planning here which I won’t summarise but want to come back to properly at a later date, as I’m always been interested in more detail about how this works. It analysed the reviews and stakeholder events to identify (a) common features of all futures (b) possible developments which could divert things towards radically different futures. These are the developments which they concluded would have a long term impact on educational policy. These are all direct quotes from pg 83-85:

  1. The information landscape gets denser, deeper and more diverse
  2. Creating the personal cloud
  3. Working and living alongside machines becomes increasingly normal and our understanding of what we mean by ‘machines’ may change
  4. Distance matters less, but geography still counts
  5. Digital Natives grow up and need to keep learning
  6. Weakening of institutional boundaries
  7. The decline of the knowledge economy as a utopian future
  8. ‘Silver bullets’ are not expected for complex educational problems

They concluded there were three significant challenges to the future of educational systems:

  1. Challenge 1: should education continue to be organized around the unit of the individual learner?
  2. Challenge 2: should ‘the school’ retain its dominant position in assumptions about educational futures?
  3. Challenge 3: should preparation for competition within a knowledge economy remain a primary goal for education?

They offer a number of recommendations in response to these challenges. I found the account of ‘networked learning’ particularly interesting on on pg 86:

Such a curriculum would enable individuals to learn to work effectively within social networks for educational, social and civic purposes, and to develop strategies to establish and mobilize social networks for their own purposes. Such a curriculum might comprise: for example, opportunities for learners to learn and work within meaningful socio-technical networks not wholly within single educational institutions; to be assessed in interac- tion with tools, resources and collaborators; to develop capacities to manage information and intellectual property, build reputation and trust, develop experience of working remotely and in mediated environments; to create new learning networks; to reflect upon how learning is connected with other areas of personal, social, and working lives and manage and negotiate these relationships; to explore the human–machine relationships involved in socio-technical networks.

They end with a discussion of how research communities can show practical and intellectual leadership in relation to these changes. This necessitates moving beyond traditional institutional barriers, recognising learning outside of traditional arenas and ensuring collaboration between those who study it in different areas. It also requires a move from pedagogy to curriculum: “the question of curriculum – of which educational goals should pertain in the context of socio- technical change” (pg 88) What does it mean to “become human and achieve agency” in a rapidly transformed socio-technical context? This necessitates resisting educational technologies entanglement in ‘educational modernisation’.

There’s a fascinating mea culpa in Jaron Lanier’s new book Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. On loc 411 he describes how early design decisions, inspired by the libertarian ethos taking hold within the tech community, created the openings for the global monopolies we now see emerging:

Originally, many of us who worked on scaling the internet hoped that the thing that would bring people together—that would gain network efect and lock-in—would be the internet itself. But there was a libertarian wind blowing, so we left out many key functions. The internet in itself didn’t include a mechanism for personal identity, for instance. Each computer has its own code number, but people aren’t represented at all. Similarly, the internet in itself doesn’t give you any place to store even a small amount of persistent information, any way to make or receive payments, or any way to find other people you might have something in common with. Everyone knew that these functions and many others would be needed. We figured it would be wiser to let entrepreneurs fill in the blanks than to leave that task to government. What we didn’t consider was that fundamental digital needs like the ones I just listed would lead to new kinds of massive monopolies because of network efects and lock-in. We foolishly laid the foundations for global monopolies. We did their hardest work for them. More precisely, since you’re the product, not the customer of social media, the proper word is “monopsonies.” Our early libertarian idealism resulted in gargantuan, global data monopsonies.

If I understand him correctly, he is suggesting that these functions could have been built into the infrastructure of the internet itself rather than becoming services fulfilled by corporate providers. This passage reminded me of a recent keynote by danah boyd, reflecting on how utopian dreams concerning digital technology have come to seem untenable with time:

A decade ago, academics that I adore were celebrating participatory culture as emancipatory, noting that technology allowed people to engage with culture in unprecedented ways. Radical leftists were celebrating the possibilities of decentralized technologies as a form of resisting corporate power. Smart mobs were being touted as the mechanism by which authoritarian regimes could come crashing down.

Now, even the most hardened tech geek is quietly asking:

What hath we wrought?

This intellectual utopianism concerned the products of the original digital utopians themselves, innovators who sought to “disrupt the status quo, but weren’t at all prepared for what it would mean when they controlled the infrastructure underlying democracy, the economy, the media, and communication”. Recognising the role of dreams in shaping technology isn’t just a matter of how they inspire people to create but also recognising what happens when they go wrong. These aren’t just a froth of naiveté on the surface of a dark materiality lurking beneath. They are rather a force in their own right, changing the world they sought to improve as the ambitions underlying them curdle in the darkening reality they have contributed to.

An interesting CfP I’m saving for my future reference

*Imagining Radical Futures: Anthropological Potentialities?*
Princeton Anthropology Graduate Conference
October 5th, 2018
Princeton University

*“The facts, alone, will not save us. Social change requires novel fictions
that reimagine and rework*
*all that is taken for granted about the current structure of society”
(Benjamin 2016)*

Anthropology has traditionally practiced restraint to speak only of what we know by virtue of “being there”. Anthropologists have embraced the limitations of knowledge while demonstrating the power of attention to the specific and the particular, to contest positivism and moralizing normativity. Increasingly, governments and corporations attempt to mobilize anthropological knowledge about social change, geopolitical events, sustainability and resilience as a predictive tool. Yet productive recognition of indeterminacy that anthropological theory and practice evokes opens doors to the imaginary, the hopeful, the potential, and the dreamed. This conference will explore the potential of non-predictive futures in anthropological thought and the methodological complexities of imagining futures from the present. The binary of “dark anthropology” and “anthropology of the good” (Ortner 2016) belies complexities and tensions in anthropological approaches to social change: anthropology can report, embody, employ, and open toward or against utopian ideals. What are the implications of imaginative fictions for interlocutors, ethnographers, and the discipline? What radical possibilities can anthropology’s fundamental questions about difference, relationality, and power open for us as we attempt to engage with futurity?

We seek contributions from graduate students in anthropology whose work contributes to understanding imagined futures and extends the anthropological imagination. How can anthropology treat the imaginary as both a heuristic and a space of futurity? What social role can anthropology play in voicing potential futures otherwise? How can ethnographers engage differently with interlocutors’ imagined futures?

Potential areas of inquiry include, but are not limited to, the following:
– New technologies
– Queering Progress
– Novel Fictions/Anthrofictions
– Nonhuman futures
– Creativity and imagination
– Climate and environment
– Hope at the margins
– Aging
– Temporality of Markets
– Policy

Interested applicants should submit an individual abstract (250-300 words) in addition to brief biographies on or before July 1st to Limited travel funds may be available TBD.

Benjamin, Ruha. “Racial Fictions, Biological Facts: Expanding the
Sociological Imagination through Speculative Methods,” Catalyst:
Feminism, Theory, Technoscience: Vol 2, no. 2 (2016), 1-28.
Ortner, Sherry B. “Dark Anthropology and Its Others: Theory since the
Eighties.” HAU : Journal of Ethnographic Theory: Vol 6, no. 1
(2016): 47–73.

A disturbing scenario from John Urry’s What is the Future? From loc 2996-3045:

The final scenario involves the development of the Fortress City. Rich societies break away from the poorer into fortified enclaves. Those able to live in gated and armed encampments would do so, with much privatizing of what were, in many societies, public or collective functions (Davis 2000; Graham 2011; Leichenko, Thomas, Baines 2010: 142). Outside the enclaves would be ‘wild zones’ which the powerful would pass through as fast as possible. Systems of long-range mobility would only be available for the super-rich. Bauman maintains that one key technique of power is: ‘escape, slippage, elision and avoidance, the effective rejection of any territorial confinement’ –to have the power to avoid being trapped by others, to escape into ‘sheer inaccessibility’ (2000: 11). There are many examples of such elites exiting from where obligations would be extracted. The elite, we can suggest, are increasingly ‘absentee landlords’ with potential for exit mobility, if and when the ‘going gets tough’ (Bauman 2000: 13; Urry 2014a).

This future involves ‘fortressed’ walled cities and an extensive ‘security-ization’ of populations, similar in some ways to cities in the medieval period which provided protection against raiders, invaders and diseases. Those outside the enclaves would be unable or unwilling to travel far. Long-distance travel would be risky and probably only undertaken if people or machines were armed. The rich would mainly travel in the air in armed helicopters or light aircraft, a pattern already prefigured in contemporary Sao Paulo, as noted above (Budd 2013; Cwerner 2009). Futurists Gallopin, Hammond, Raskin and Swart thus argued: ‘the elite retreat to protected enclaves, mostly in historically rich nations, but in favoured enclaves in poor nations, as well …Pollution is also exported outside the enclaves, contributing to the extreme environmental deterioration induced by the unsustainable practices of the desperately poor and by the extraction of resources for the wealthy’ (1997: 34). 

Such an energy-and knowledge-starved city would entail falling standards of living, a greater focus upon the ‘products’ of the increasingly privatized security industry, probable re-localization of mobility patterns, towns and cities built for visitors deteriorating into ghost towns, and an increasing frequency of resource-related ‘new wars’ (Kaldor, Karl, Said 2007). These would involve private mercenaries as well as statist military forces; de-professionalized armies (sometimes made up of ‘boys’); the use of cheap weapons bought through the market/ internet; an asymmetry of military force with no fixed ‘fronts’ or treaties and peace processes; the military targeting of civilians through, inter alia, suicide bombing and drone attacks; the role of warlords combining entrepreneurial and military skills; and the tendency for such wars to last interminable periods of time. Lives in the Fortress City would be conducted with the continuous spectre of warfare, the militarization of young men and the raping of women and girls as constant threats to a decent life. 

This is a ‘neo-Mediaevalist’ vision of cities of the future. As in the Middle Ages, there would be little democracy, limited state power to govern legitimately, many non-state bodies with a mix of military and ideological powers, much illegal movement of peoples across borders, various empires, many new wars and intense conflict over scarce resources. City lives would be as in Hobbes’ Leviathan: ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’. Lovelock points to the ‘peaking’ of oil, gas and water, as well as ‘western life’ more generally. Shortages will make economic production and social lives more local than appeared likely during the increasingly mobile twentieth century (see Chapter 3 above).