From punctuated futures to permafuture

Etech09: Chris Luebkeman of Arup

At the Long Now London meeting yesterday (my rough notes here) I asked Stuart Candy a question about the language he was using.

I was intrigued that he was interrogating what ‘Future’ meant to people as part of his practice of exposing them to scenarios and futures in the hope of encouraging more habitual longer-term thinking. He said that he was interested in reclaiming the word “Future” from the more corporate and financial associations it’s had during late-capitalism.

My question was prompted by the fact that Candy’s fellow futurist and friend-of-this-show Jamais Cascio has recently stated that he’s going to stop using the term “long-term”, swapping it out for “multi-generational”.

It’s a subtle but important substitution:

When we talk about the long-term, the corresponding structure of language — and thinking — tends to bias us towards a kind of punctuated futurism, pushing us to look ahead to the end of the era in question while leaping over the intervening years. This skews our perspective. “In the long run, we are all dead” John Maynard Keynes famously said — but over that same long run, we will all have lived our lives, too.

I’m increasingly convinced that, when looking ahead, the focus should be less on the destination than on how we get there. Yet that’s not how we discuss long-term issues. When we describe climate change as a long-term problem, for example, we inevitably end up talking about what it would look like down the road, after some “tipping point” perhaps, or at a particular calendar demarcation (2050 or 2100). Although there’s no explicit denial that climate change is something with implications for every year between now and then, our attention — our foresight gaze, as we might think of it — is drawn to that distant end-point, not to the path.

This has made me think about the rhetoric of ‘futures‘, written, spoken – and as I mainly deal with – the visual and designed. The ‘punctuated futures’ we often imagine and illustrate.

I’ve also recently been thinking about the ‘permaculture‘ movements that have been rehabilitated in recent times from their hey-day in the 60s and 70s.

Permaculture thinking – looking for closed loops of living systems that have the fewest negative impacts as possible on the health and longevity of the systems that they are in turn embedded within – has often been characterised as at-odds with technology. As being anti-futurity perhaps.

But it seems to me that recent trends in emerging technology, as illustrated at Etech ’09 (have a look at Phil Gyford’s notes over at Overmorgen) last week – personal and product informatics, the spimeworld, low-cost rapid fabrication, biomimicry, new materials, cradle-to-cradle thinking, eco-urbanism – understood and deployed in linked and learning systems thinking manner at small scales – say, through a more technologically-oriented approach to the transition towns concept might to address this.

They would seem to be promising technologies of the multi-generational task ahead.

Of the path, not the punctuated end-point.

They could be forging Bionic Permacultures.


Time to start illustrating them.

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