By Robert Hickson 27/05/2019

No one needs telling that the Future is Coming. But there are different perspectives and attitudes toward it.

Some see the future as “dark and full of terrors” – The machines are taking over; Democracy is dying; We are doomed!

Others see nothing but light – Technological utopianism; Singularities; Becoming an interplanetary species; Or a delight for the “world of yesterday”.

Still others resist facing up to change, or have an unrealistic hope that a wall, real or metaphorical, will keep it at bay.

Sociological vs Psychological Stories

I got on this train of thought after reading Zeynep Tufekci’s commentary, in Scientific American no less, about Game of Thrones. She notes that a sociological style of narrative is more powerful than a psychological one. A psychological narrative is one where the interest and emphasis is on characters. When they go the story, or our interest, ends. With sociological stories institutions and events, and how the characters respond to these, are the important focus. Characters may come and go, but the story goes on.

She suggested that Game of Thrones “lost its way” when it shifted from sociological to psychological storylines. I’m not here to criticize or defend the merits or otherwise of a fantasy series, so what’s this got to do with science, technology and the future?

Zeynep writes that how we make sense of real life change is also influenced by the style of stories we use:

“Our inability to understand and tell sociological stories is one of the key reasons we’re struggling with how to respond to the historic technological transition we’re currently experiencing with digital technology and machine intelligence …”

What she means is that we tend to focus on the personalities of key technology leaders and traditional hero/anti-hero narratives, or technologies that will “save” (or “destroy”) the world, ignoring the broader situation that they are set within:

“… personalities matter, but only in the context of business models, technological advances, the political environment, (lack of) meaningful regulation, the existing economic and political forces that fuel wealth inequality and lack of accountability for powerful actors, geopolitical dynamics, societal characteristics and more.”

The sociological narrative links to what social scientists call “socio-economic transformation” – the informal and formal institutions that influence behaviour. These need to be considered to understand change.

Why aren’t more people more deeply engaged in thinking about the future?

Scenarios about the future have a tendency to “tell” (i.e., inform) rather than “show.” Like bad science fiction they can suffer from being simple or simplistic.

 They often focus on a thing – autonomous vehicles, killer robots, surveillance, smart cities – rather than a social system.

Scenarios can describe social, economic and/or political transformations. But too often scenarios seem to be passively accepted, or rejected. The choices are too clean and simple. Simplistic scenarios aren’t any good for complex futures.

It’s unheard of, as far as I can tell, to have scenarios develop passionate fan bases, who engage and argue amongst themselves about them. Debating their weaknesses and strengths, the details that really resonate and bring them to life. Isn’t this they type of involvement that we want when thinking about what the future could be?

It is unrealistic to create a complex multi-volume scenario, except for entertainment. But why, when there are important choices to be made can’t we generate at least a modicum of the engagement that good stories do?

They don’t need to be lengthy, dense, well-crafted worlds, but they should take more effort in showing depth and complexity, recognising socio-economic as well as technological changes, and the inevitable multiple shades of grey in life.

Many of the steps that go into creating scenarios, if done well, can delve into these – looking at second and higher order consequences of change, for example. But they tend to get left out in scenarios. Those involved in creating scenarios also often don’t have much skill in story telling.

Most futures scenarios are just elaborated visions of preferred or rejected futures. These have various states of usefulness for busy decision makers, but don’t create strong visceral and mental connections. Such connections are required to retain attention and action. Most scenarios, and futures thinking, fade away quickly leaving little to show for their efforts.

As we see with the more complex stories being told in televised series, there is a growing appetite for nuanced, convoluted and grittier stories. Futures thinking needs to follow that narrative arc as well.


Featured image created in part with the Game of Thrones Font