Future Horizons

From now to then, or from plausible to utopian, different time scales suit different ways to imagine the future
15 Mar 2016

It isn’t uncommon to hear about the future like it is a single, unified, static thing that can be held in a petri dish and precisely analyzed or worse, quantified. We see futures as multiple, fluid, fuzzy constantly undergoing change. They reflect and extend today’s richness and become scaffoldings for building tomorrow. If we are to learn from them, we must approach futures not only with an open mind (see agnostic futurism), but also with an open map.

The futures cone, imag­ined by Han­cock & Bezold and updat­ed by Joseph Voros, shows the field of pos­si­ble futures as a cone enlarg­ing as time goes, with the most prob­a­ble ones at the cen­ter. It shows ‘prefer­able’ futures, which like the notion of a sin­gu­lar ‘today’ should be ques­tioned: prefer­able for whom? The idea of prefer­able futures usu­al­ly goes togeth­er with the notion of utopia, and its more recent evil twin: dystopia. How­ev­er, if we look at the ety­mol­o­gy, utopia is not the ‘good place.’ It orig­i­nal­ly meant the ‘non-place’: an island in time that can only exist through the imag­i­na­tion of its author and readers. 

While such ideals pro­vide excel­lent plat­forms for debat­ing and com­par­ing people’s expec­ta­tions of a ‘per­fect soci­ety,’ it goes with­out say­ing that nei­ther can exist because such absolutes don’t, and shouldn’t hap­pen in real life. Every­thing has trade-offs. Now, the cone shows not every bit of futures is sim­i­lar­ly locat­ed. Some are fur­ther to the cen­tral axis, indi­cat­ing a less­er degree of plau­si­bil­i­ty. Oth­ers are fur­ther from the start­ing point: they are fur­ther in time. We pre­fer not to use dates, because they come with expec­ta­tions. So let’s stay clear from such for­mat­ting and call today Hori­zon 0. 

HORIZON 0 — Now Now

Con­sid­er today our start­ing posi­tion. If you were to place it on a time­line, it would be reduc­tive to view it as a sin­gle point — our world is com­plex, full of con­tra­dic­tions, and con­flict­ing agen­das. There is no rea­son that any point in time should be sim­pler — if any­thing, entropy wants things to get wilder with time.

HORIZON 1 — "If we told you this exists somewhere else, you would believe us"

Our next stop is the near future, or the short range. This is where most spec­u­la­tion occurs regard­ing "what might be." What is hap­pen­ing today impacts what is to come in more mea­sur­able ways, so we can extrap­o­late sig­nals of change and imag­ine how they would play out in the near future. On this hori­zon, inno­va­tion is rather pre­dictable and one has a good sense of what is plau­si­ble. What isn't pre­dictable, how­ev­er, is how peo­ple will respond to such changes. That makes it an ide­al play­ground for more provoca­tive ideas, espe­cial­ly look­ing at social impli­ca­tions. That way, unique pos­si­bil­i­ties open up to depict new and com­pelling tech­no-social phe­nom­e­na. Like in Char­lie Brooker's Black Mir­ror, fic­tion can probe what's accept­able by mak­ing things feel immi­nent or as if they were already hap­pen­ing elsewhere.

HORIZON 2 — The Land of Hopes and Dreams

Fur­ther in time is Hori­zon 2: the far future, which is far too remote to be rea­son­ably guessed, and can only be imag­ined. That hori­zon, how­ev­er, has the pow­er to influ­ence the present by spark­ing new imag­i­nar­ies about what *could* become. It is the ter­rain of social and polit­i­cal ide­al­ism, and yes, in gen­er­al that of utopias. But it is dif­fi­cult to visu­al­ize — at such a dis­tance, visions get blurry.

In essence, our prac­tice con­sists in pulling a red thread from the long range visions (Hori­zon 2) to the near future ones (Hori­zon 1) — a process known in future stud­ies as 'back­cast­ing.' We take visions that can seem like wish­ful think­ing, and make them ‘feel’ as like­ly as pos­si­ble through a form of reverse-engi­neer­ing of ideas. We like to use the anal­o­gy of Future Fish­ing: we cast our line as far as pos­si­ble — we imag­ine, and there­fore cre­ate, a Hori­zon 2 future — and when we have caught some­thing with some weight we reel it back clos­er to look at it, and maybe catch it by pro­to­typ­ing parts of it. This makes our futures more tan­gi­ble (link to design fic­tions) and lets us turn abstract ideas into visions that can be looked at crit­i­cal­ly. We always pri­or­i­tize objects that exem­pli­fy con­flicts of inter­ests; the kinds that solve issues but come with tradeoffs.