Paris. The late 18th century. A restless heave of people moves through the huddled lanes of the old French capital, heading for the middle of town. Blood us up, voices rise, a thrill is in the air, expectations of watching something there will be no unseeing. A mortal excitement driving them on. Wanting to look. Compelled to witness.
Who knows, as their numbers build, what they expect from the fearsome entertainment they are about to watch, but this tide of people, swelling to some 400,000 citizens, emptying out of half of all the homes in the city, is a body of women, men and children alive in days when something fundamental will change, and no one’s perspective will be safe again.
At the Tuileries gardens, right beside the river, there is the great stage area, thronged by expectation, and Paris – the great audience herself – is now at a standstill, awaiting the moment with wrapt attention. Breath held.
Standing by the imposing central instrument of the show is Dr Jacques Alexandre César Charles. A scientist, mathematician and… balloonist. Because it turns out, on this particular day, shortly before Christmas 1783, France is waiting quite literally for the balloon to go up. For today is to be the… second ever manned flight in history.
Just ten days after the Mongolfier Brothers had taken the best brand publicity stunt for a paper mill ever buttoned together and elevated it to a whole new level by swapping hens for hommes, Dr Charles was going to go one better still and actually live the brand – by climbing into the gondola himself, to pilot his own 380 cubic-meter gas-filled balloon. It seems he’d been a bit of a scientific collaborator with Jacques-Étienne and Joseph-Michael Mongolfier but the King of France – Louis XVI, so loved by French crowds – had supposedly spoiled JAC’s fun by barring him from flying in their hot air prototype for safety reasons, so keen was the Roi Soleil’s great great great grandson to follow progressive ideas keenly, and keep the clever minds elevating France’s scientific reputation alive.
So, not to be up (up and away) staged, JAC, or Jackie Charles to you and me, had been developing his own balloon with some scientific tweaks to the idea. And, unlike the Mongolfiers’ one-small-step-slash-giant-leap a fortnight before which all the schoolbooks remember, he pointedly didn’t invite some debonair show-off actors who patently weren’t the patent holders to risk the biggest face plant on record as test pilots. He wanted to do it. Well, if you want to go down – or preferably up – in history, you have got to commit. So, along with Nicolas-Louis Robert, Dr Charles left the surly bonds of the right bank, with gasps from peasantry and aristocracy alike, and ascended to the heavens, looking for a whole new way of seeing… everything.
He made it to over 500m up and flew for some two hours. Which was a huge success, but then a little huger than planned when Nicky-Louis climbed out on the initial touch down of the craft in the countryside outside Paris and depleted it of some significant ballast in favour of some significant sudden buoyancy and the good doctor found himself aloft alone at 3,000m with earache. The crowd went bananas. Or would have done if they’d been able to see any of this on their smartphones.
What must the world have looked like from that height to the first humans to ever rise from the ground? A whole new world, surely? The immensity of the view; the smallness of everything known before. The precariousness of life.
No kidding. While Jackie Charles was using the recently named and readily enflamed hydrogen as his lifting gas, as opposed to the Montgolfier’s bold plan to use Setting Fire To Dry Straw In A Big Paper Bag, in anyone’s book fire in the sky and pilots, chickens and small livestock plummeting to the ground were sort of baked in significant possibilities to the concept of the earliest days of the aviation show. Risk was the staple diet of the frontiersman – especially launching into the, well, not quite final but perhaps penultimate frontier of the skies above the earth.
And where would this leave all of us? Merely gawping at the sky on an unexpected morning off?
So much for getting anything done. Now we can fly. Sure. It’ll change everything. Pfft. I need the loo.
Disruption. Change you didn’t see coming and probably can’t foresee the consequences of. If, as a modern person, you think you’re used to the idea, growing up in the days since the industrial revolution turned the floating paper years into the flywheeled manufacturing years and ultimately the motorised transport years, showing ordinary twerps like me and you the wonders of the whole world, your grumbles about grounded flights in snow or a bit of pushing and shoving on platform three when the 08:15 to Waterloo is late AGAIN will seem like business as boring usual you may be yearning for in the coming three decades from today. Perhaps the coming three years.
Because, if you stop to list out the changes supposedly approaching our daily lives and purportedly to even some of the fundamentals of how humans currently do everything, it might be tempting to rawly imagine that there will be no such thing as usual at all, any more. Not for those of us who’ve grown up in the current usual. Indeed, there are those who think that all aspects of our life on, above, orbiting and socially escaping from the Earth may be on a rollercoaster that’s about to jump the tracks. Not at all designed to fly. And it’s hard to look away.
In the blizzard of noise, ideas and arguments during this historic period of these very earliest years in digitally social living, just who are the crackpots or the visionaries? How can we tell? And how high will the balloon soar before… it… um, explodes? What cherished symbols of our identities may be more vulnerable to disaster than we’ve thought about much before?
Right now, will any of us caught up in the stories of disruption every day soon be able to tell which way is up any more? Or north, if the magnetic poles flip. But one thing at a time.
Welcome to the twenty-first; it’s going to be a riot of disruption on all kinds of levels at once.
And you are going to be responsible.
Unsee The Future is back. And we’re lighting the fires of revolution.
Okay, futurebrand tech priest, let me stop you right there – pause that withering tweet. The word disruption is, yes, a real eyeroller to anyone in, I dunno, R&D or cultural punditry or just the financial futures markets. It’s a vague and unqualified bingo word. In the speed of meme infection and ideas fashion we live in – where 2007 may as well be the peasant-terrorising chicken ballooning years – Disruption! is as cool a word to entitle your conference talk with as the subheading: Brought to you by PowerPoint! While I’m at it, I may as well just get it all out of my system and shout “insights” and perhaps “automation” and “immersive” and definitely “blockchain”, meaninglessly at passers by like a Dada performance piece and we can all knowingly sneer our way through the next half hour we’ve old-fashionedly bunked off work.
But. I’ve headlined this word here because, at the start of series two of Unsee The Future, it just seems like it’s really rather worth taking a moment to get straight in our heads that it mightn’t be a bad idea to kinda prepare ourselves together for a bit of bother ahead. A season of new types of disruption. That may already be disrupting the actual seasons.
What is worth us bothering with, in the swirl of typical future chatter all around us today? And where will we find… our selves? In all this. Are we really looking at everything just falling to bits in a west end of days musical nihilism fever dream? Or does the TEDxpreneur’s vaguely Mystery Science Theatre 3000 sense of the word disruption actually imply some down to earth principles that might even help the handful of us left who don’t do a podcast?
If my instinct with this public research project of mine, or podular webcast if you will, is to put together a sense of the complete picture of our times – just enough to make some new connections of understanding in the choices I make and the stories I want to share while here in the middle of this human planet project as we all are for a short spell – then beyond the useful circumference of the UN’s Global Goals, which together structure out what we’re facing all at once, there are themes for us to explore I think that will be affecting the trends of our living in the next few years. And the consequences.
Now, I am a theatrical booby. Obviously. You’ve heard one or two of my tunes. Like to get carried away in the moment a teeny bit because it’s part of being alive and also because I’ve come to think that all successful human enterprise is theatre in some way. It’s how humans talk to each other so they’ll really get it. Plots, quests, characters, heroes, villains – you know, you’ve seen Question Time – monsters, simple high drama, comic relief, panto dames, impressive scenery. And hopefully some good timing. And a fair few tickets sold. All trying to purchase a little scripted meaning from the scrambled madness not contained within the proscenium arch, in the artless badlands of real life where we are all supposed to actually live. It’s rather more agreeable to process our feelings over three acts with a couple of intervals for a little fiddly ice-cream tub and spork and a pre-ordered glass of Cinzano Bianco waiting for us in the foyer bar.
Theatre is not just telling stories like ritual, important as rituals can be to the easily overwhelmed but habitual human mind, but it’s doing it immersingly well. Distractingly well. Definitely trying to coax the human’s fundamental emotional worm out of its cave to wrap around some idea or other like its life depends on it.
That’s when the brand truly owns us – SORRY! – that’s when we feel a little cathartically rejuvenated and able to go back to the cotton mill. SORRY! – I mean the marketing firm.
Now, for all this entertainment, and for all the unimaginable problems out there, I’m not interested in turning history into histrionics. History’s much more interesting than a bit of posterised propaganda – the problems, the perceptions and the possibilities. The multiple realities, all affecting each other. Which is why the edited story that histories always are can and should be retold and reanalysed across the generations, to keep the storytelling of who we are tethered to the facts as best we can, and avoid being tempted off into an extreme cartoon of the truth, all too tidy, cute and timeless – like a sensory-deprived virtual reality. If you’re still bumping into the coffee table at home with your Oculus Rift set on, you’ll have no chance against a real zombie apocalypse.
Within the potential emotional power of storytelling, if we get used to politically overblowing the drama, if we ping red flags at every blip in the data, we won’t spot the real threats. And we won’t, y’know, be able to have sensible conversations about much. It’s not the theatre but the laboratory where data is analysed so some cunning mitigations to problems can be actually built.
Because, in the general chaotic entropy of the mucky business of Being Alive for the short time you’re not dead, your constant challenge around Netflix binges is to work out how to turn disadvantages into actual advantages. How to find opportunities and build stuff around them.
Somewhere between the usual human business of making emotional connections that can motivate us and testing practical responses to problems, I suspect one of the themes threading through the disruptions already unfolding around us today is the idea of usual human business having to get used to looking for more than just short term opportunities. Like selling dinghies to people in climate crisis flood planes. But to develop some new long term trends of opportunity in a properly reappraised context. More cathedral-building thinking, at global scale.
We’re going to need to practically develop some bankable hope in new habits for new circumstances. But reappraising context, finding those new perspectives, that’s where theatre comes in. Playing our way into new ways of seeing. And waking up the worm to them.
Practiced together, this sounds like a big part of leadership to me. Confidence in vision and system. But it does look like we’re currently struggling to find much, um, good leadership in many of our supposedly leading players at the moment. In the Old Usual story we’ve been living in, the current status panto, few politicos seem to understand either truly good theatre or good lab work. Never mind actual good. From royal box to the cheap seats, is it any wonder we’re trying not to feel terribly lost?
Leadership as ownership by “ordinary nobodies” networked together en masse. Not lone-seeming fantastical historic figures. A quietly profound social disruption enabled by lots of other disruptions all coinciding on us right now. Some think it would be a logical next evolution of the techno-social shifts that opened up a radical new human space called socialism 200 years ago. But don’t mention that.
And the stage is set for it. Some would say, like political writer Paul Mason, that we are a new definition of human. We are a connected species now. Thanks to the converging technologies of the smart phone – just sufficient enough broadcast data speeds with the advent of 3G + powerful enough while small enough processors + touchscreen simplicity. With that convergence of technological emergences, we have digitally begun the migration from consumers to change creators.
And at the same time we’re in the middle of a lot of disgruntlement with the status quo. Right when we are already more agent than anyone who’s ever lived. Amid the shitestorm of our futureshock feelings, all the tools of revolution are at our fingertips. Sitting on the loo.
Either that or, right there in the loo, we will be subsumed into the corporate matrix, forever confused by oligarch-funded social media projects into bickering with each other and hoping to get heard over the noise of all of us talking at once and wondering who the hell we are and why the hell does no one recognise us and otherwise going back to our branded shopping habits.
Who knows which way it will go? All the ways, surely. But one other thing’s for sure. If instead of feeling useless you want to find opportunity, there’s one place to go be very observant. The place where Usual gets overturned and revolutions are lit.
Perhaps it’s long over due time that we all went actively looking for a good bit of trouble. Because we’ve never been able to do more with it.
Climate. War. Growth. Consumerism. Poverty. Privacy. Food. Refugeeism. Drug resistance. Protest. Engagement. The nature of work. The nature of play. The nature in shopping. What we wear, what is wearing us. What is inside us. Representation. Recognition. Division. Noses put out of joint. Businesses put out of work. In the gang economies of disappointment, it’s all up for smash and grab at the moment.
We’ve been living in a time of consumerism. Don’t we know it. It’s been oddly paralysing, I think. Buying, eating, watching, disposing, forgetting. A time of unprecedented connectivity in a blindsiding culture of disconnection across the West. Is what I reckon. Born out of a lot of trouble that we’ve grown used to wanting to avoid. Like civil unrest. But, as any parent knows, when things go quiet, trouble is usually brewing.
The ballooning craze of the late 17- and early 1800s seems like a very quaint cultural moment alongside other kinds of disruption brought about by changing perspectives right then. The very year, the very time of year that manned balloons were taking to the skies over the French capital, the city was hosting the signing of the Treaty of Paris and the first big blow to the mighty British Empire, the founding of the United States of America. The home superstate of a republican new world order. It was a funny time of contrasts. A time when revolutionary change wasn’t achieved just by shopping a bit differently but by actually staging an armed revolt. And throwing tea in the soup. But also of going to coffee houses and discussing the nature of reason and individualism. An era that developed the idea that: “There could be a science of man and that the history of mankind was one of progress, which could be continued with the right thinking” as Robert Wilde puts it for ThoughtCo.
Because of course it was also the time that laid the foundations of our own times.
The era of the Enlightenment as this was lifted lots of perspectives and changed expectations with them. Science basically became a proper thing during this period, bafflingly little time ago from now. But amid all the engineering feats and philosophical revelations that followed, social and political life were ultimately disrupted enormously. And didn’t the French aristocracy soon know it. They actually thought they were being progressive – it’s why King Louis wanted to host the moment America made King George take a bit of the great out of Britain. To seem forward thinking. Part of the future. He had ten years left before the entire monarchy of France was brought down with his head.
Listening to your audience, mate. Basic theatre. Like making sure there’s cake in the foyer.
Yet, two and a half centuries later, old power structures may have changed less than we are used to imagining under the brutalist cladding.
As Farida Jalalzai and Meg Rincker put it in a FastCo article: “Power is by nature inherited in monarchies. But even in democracies – where citizens may choose their leaders in free and fair elections – belonging to a political family is a meaningful advantage” with their own study of world leaders between 2000 and 2017 showing that more than 1 in 10 of them came from political families. Some 12% of today’s political top dogs were born into it like royalty.
Our very idea of modern liberal democracy, tied as it is to that economic culture that produces government-dwarfing corporate multi-nationals, may be very held back indeed from giving us quite yet what it’s really promised. And it’s driving us mad with the dashed expectations. Like 1980s tech.
Have the dicky foundations of western wealth been sufficiently socially addressed yet, for us to really move into another new era?
In order to have breakthrough influence three hundred years ago, you had to know someone at court, or otherwise be part of an august institution. Today you can tweet your arse and have it trend to comments in the Commons.
But all this coarse shoutiness is rather disappointing, isn’t it, this digital revolution so far? And like endless zooming camera motion and CG in cinema, it’s pretty boring. And, well… meaningless. Should we in fact be looking for a bit more trouble than we’ve known recently?
As systems thinker Mark Modesti says: “If we don’t go looking for trouble, it will come looking for us…”
He suggests the idea that when problems loom there are two mental modes of response, the fixer and the builder. Or the wackamole and the highstriker. Which are you? Trying to put out as many fires as possible or planning how to light a fire of disruptive thinking in the middle of your way of doing things? Generally, having a go at anything involves a bit of both, but it’s invariably easier seeming to hide from trouble instead of going looking for it.
He sites a cringingly obvious example of fledgling internet streaming service Netflix supposedly approaching Blockbuster Video years ago about helping to take their business online – and they repeatedly refused.
“The business didn’t want to deal with the pain of disruption so they had to deal with the pain of displacement” he says flatly. Adding the often coughed belief that getting on for half the Fortune 500 businesses of today could be gone in the next decade. “And the main reason?” he says: “Failure to embrace change. Failure to look for and embrace trouble.”
Trouble is opportunity.
As the Future Laboratory puts it in the Resilience Movement: “embrace the unsafe, embrace positive discomfort, embrace the new awkward, embrace the right to fail” and “fight bubble wrapped existence, comfort zone living, space safe wisdom”.
So, are we all supposed to be husslepreneurs now, as Marcus John Henry Brown would put it? Here at the end of the world? Should we all be thinking like agile opportunists? Leaning into lean innovation over the underpass brazier? Bet you have it on your Linked In profile. If so, it’s worth remembering some business basics while managing your personal brand, selfie-ing on the San Andreas.
From balloon mania to the Dotcom boom with many volumes of hot air and inflammatory reactions in between, we know about floating ideas and bursting bubbles – to say nothing of milking mataphors. I’m not so sure we should be simply looking for the next big idea – for one thing, they tend to come looking for us. Better to understand that actual progress for the human planet often seems to proceed through a wrestle between emerging new technology and social restlessness. Attempted and unintended consequences. Intent and impact.
You bet, true disruption comes when a number of sympathetic new elements converge.
Today, freedoms and riches are, in a general historic sense, more widely dispersed than ever, thanks to the handy convergence of a bunch of historic happenings from Enlightenment times – the rooting of empirical practice, some burgeoning trade business jutspah coupled with some rock bottom human resource costs shall we say, an increasing interest in machines, and a few specific technical challenges globalising empires needed solving. As it all flowed together across the nineteenth century into a very confident, can-do culture, the way we see our lives began to change. Ultimately for billions of us. The world began to open up for more of us. So the story goes. The story of progress.
Of course, progress isn’t linear, right? It’s a spaghetti of chance with some silver threads of determination spun through it. Right now, many of us don’t even like that word. Why should we want to be progressive? As Church of England pundit Giles Fraser actually said recently: “Let’s go back to the past, it’s better.” In the atmosphere of my home country during the Brexit years such language is now not unthinkable but hanging in the air like the smell of gunpowder. Perhaps many of us would simply like to get back to ballooning; I know I would.
Some of the disruptions we’re facing now are, yes, tech-driven. Famously. Obviously. Inevitably. And you bet they’re interlinked. Duh. But in this aspect of human life today, it’s not the technology itself that’s the real driver of change – we’re way past mere worries of new fangled gagetry. Data is the disruptor. According to Angelo Apa, Technical Sales and Business Development Director at Lenovo.
As he said at a little VentureFest South Forum I was lucky enough to host at the end of March, the speed of adoption of technology has sped up dramatically in the last 80 years.
“Quite a while ago, God invented radio” he says. “And it took people a long time to decide to listen to it. Years. A while later, the devil invented Twitter, and it didn’t take very long at all. The rate of change in our lives, with technology the thing that underpins it, is increasing and increasing and increasing.”
And we’ve barely started. The components of the truly connected future are getting bigger, faster and smarter.
As Eric Schmidt, Exec Chairman of Google, apparently put it: “From the dawn of civilisation until 2003, humankind generated five exabytes of data. Now we produce five exabytes every two days…and the pace is accelerating.”
With GPUs, or graphics processing units, some 80 times faster than traditional CPUs, the big data we’re generating about absolutely everything we do is shifting zetabytes of information around. Imagine what will happen when, if it doesn’t kill us and we can work out how to install it, 5G brings us one hundred times the speed of 4G? It’ll unlock the augmentation of reality in time to plug in all sorts of new wearables. It will change the way we see the world again, blurring gameplay and reality habitually.
It means that, in everything we’re already used to doing, we’ll be expecting much better experiences. A lot better than texts, load wheels and other people’s Instagram holiday pics.
As Mike Hawkyard of Gamebrain said at the same event, this will take us somewhere properly weird. But it will start with a simple evolution of what we already do in online gaming, playing Fortnite with not just mates in different homes but the world.
“At school, by 2050 – easily, probably by 2030 – you’re going to have a football team, a rugby team and an esports team. No question. We’re going to be playing esports everywhere” he says. But the global reach of gaming in coming decades may see national lotteries gamify into online experiences for lottery-sized payouts, or government initiatives demand certain participation in such virtual Hunger Games. “Why wouldn’t your children want to develop these skills?”
And beyond these implications?
“We’re just at the point now where we can say soon, we will be able to upload ourselves” Mike says coyly. Cheat death.
Yeah. The coming techtopia.
Cheats for death.
It’s just, down the same road, it’s not only our play but the very nature of human work that’s famously under threat. Automation, which we know now is about so very much more than mere robotic assembly lines but bot thinking in everything we tap into our phones, is in the process of taking away our thinking, our problem solving, and our labour. AI is helping fill in significant gaps in our abilities, making sense of the data stream in our news feeds already and prototyping ideas in labs before anything is materially built. But if in the techtopian future we can’t get paid for our brains or mindless brawn, what can we get paid for to buy food and shelter? What are the skills we should be training children for to cope with this new world?
Is our education system getting to grips with this and adapting? How’s that going?
Turns out that living digital lives, with everything of ordinary life already connected remotely, isn’t quite as cool as it might have sounded in previous decades – as a friend of mine put it, there is no cloud, only someone else’s computer. And we seem socially happy to place everything of value to ourselves on other people’s computers. Bank accounts, photos of children, deepest late night thoughts, music collections, all transactions we ever do, showing where we live, where we go, what we buy, what we love. Our love lives themselves. Our art. All just uploaded. Surrendered.
Happy as we apparently are now to not simply buy the the products of global corporate industry but be the product.
As bots already outpace our democracies and emotional identities, how secure is any aspect of our lives like this? Cyber attacks could wipe out anything from nuclear facilities to, well, just you. Your identity. Because of where you store it. On someone else’s computer but you don’t know where. This is hardly likely to become less of a problem as this century progresses. Is. It.
Wait till your whole home is connected to someone else’s computer as all the spaces you live in join the internet of things – fridges, radios, digital kasis probably, all relaying even more data to someone else’s computer. Not just your news but your poos. They’ll be listening to us in every room next. Wait…
But beyond the insufficient and now rather quaint term digital, it looks like we are heading towards the kind of technological inevitability that is already becoming biological. That will have us manipulating our bodies and minds and their capacities dramatically as the century works through. Because this is really just an extension of the psychology of Facebook, merely enabled by our long-established comfort with joint replacements and embedded defibrilators. We’re happy to outsource most of ourselves.
We are on the threshold of changing what a human physically is, not just systemically, and this is just one reason anthropologists have adopted the term “anthropocene” for our present era – the climatic, geological, physical era where humans changed the definition of life on Earth. Tipping balances irrevocably. Fusing technology with biology in their own bodies and in their thinking.
Such power might even rename us to Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harrari’s calm description of what we will become. Self sculpted and totally dominant – the humangods.
Yet. This is comparative wallpaper. A Consumer Electronics Show, Wired Magazine VR game. So much futury theatrical scenery. There is much more than a coincidence of technologies happening around us. Because all this is happening in one context bigger than all others. The planet’s rapidly degrading web of life.
The climate crisis looks like it will be the world’s new Brexit in the next few years – all we ever talk about, hear about, worry about and do nothing about.
Disruption is often greeted with disgruntlement. And sometimes disbelief. Weeks before his own manned flight, Jacques Charles’ had launched an earlier unmanned balloon test from the Champs de Mars – which would one day be the site of the ‘temporary’ Eiffel Tower that all the locals hated as a monstrosity that would never catch on – and that unmanned balloon had flown very successfully all the way to the village of Gonesse, where it came down. But as Lily Ford puts it, in her gently spellbinding book Taking To The Air: “Upon its decent, the balloon so startled villagers that they attacked it with pitchforks and muskets. Believing it to be a demonic eminence, they called a priest to bless the crumpled shell with holy water.”
And this was not an unusual reaction in the earliest years of ballooning. Who had ever seen such a thing before? What the hell did a giant wheezing blob falling out of the sky mean? Well, it certainly meant a lot of drinks sold in the local or Bob ain’t ton oncle. But the good folk of Gonesse weren’t stupid, they’d just had their worldview punctured.
Interestingly, ballooning did go on to follow a bit of a classic adoption curve in the human imagination.
After a bit of pitch forking and praying, the first couple of decades for the lighter-than-air sector rapidly became a huge success in the popular imagination, and spawned whole theatre spectacles of demonstrations. Souvenirs and balloonic design appeared on everything for a while, from plates to pianos, and bright posters drew big crowds to launches well into the 19th century. Then the air kind of went out of the idea for people as they simply got used to the notion of humans aloft, and the balloon’s ultimate vulnerability to fateful winds seemed to render it no more than a novelty.
But it wasn’t the end of the story of flight, was it? Turns out the story was not really about balloons.
So what could flip the public mood from beating the skybeast of progress with pitchforks to turning vegan, weaving our own kitchenware and ditching the diesel sedan for a family bicycle? If that’s your vision of the future. At the moment, it seems the politicians riding high are jabbing forkians, all across the democratic world. Because of the bullshit of progress, as millions are feeling it. Not many officially elected voices have found an alternative inspiring vision for the future yet. Is this because the status quo that millions feel has failed them is the status MTV – the time of moderates? Who don’t seem to care much about fights for social and economic fairness. Or the bother of clearing out bullshit.
As congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says, rising hopey-changey system irritant to her own Democrats, as well as Republicans, and now leading proponent of the Green New Deal in the US: “Moderate is not a stance. It’s just an attitude towards life of, like, ‘meh.”
Meh, has been our political vision.
“We’ve become so cynical, that we view … cynicism as an intellectually superior attitude, and we view ambition as youthful naivety when … the greatest things we have ever accomplished as a society have been ambitious acts of vision. The ‘meh’ is worshipped now. For what?”
The meh, the culture of docile disconnection that ironically links the whole globalised world in the influence of neo-liberal democratic financialised growth culture, looks like the planet-sized behaviour system that created the climate crisis. The sixth great mass extinction. The plastics tsunami. The machine farming of animals. The persistence of poverty. The wars for oil. The silencing of local voices. The dehumanisation of industrial economics. And to power all this, the dumping of carbon dioxide and methane and multiple channels of mindless waste into a life web that’s just 36,000 miles in circumference, in total isolation in the universe.
In this disrupting, disconnecting, noisy society, how on Earth can we talk to ourselves anew?
I think of two things in the face of this question.
Firstly, collectively it’s hard to really see the long term implications of new ideas, or always spot what is a true disruptive element in the progress of human ways of living. Certainly where it will take us. Who really saw all this coming?
And oh yeah, balloons meant we realised WE COULD FLY NOW. You never know what might emerge from a crazy bit of creative marketing.
But secondly, a key component in the idea of flight catching on in engineering sheds was audiences. Ballooning was before anything else, spectacular theatre. And it lit a fire under the imagination of problem solvers as a result of filling the eyes of the masses for a bit.
As David Buckland of international art-science initiative Cape Farewell said to Costing the Earth. “People don’t like to being told what to do. But they love to be seduced.”
We shouldn’t be simply thinking like entrepreneurs. But artist citizens.
Have you heard of a weird chap called Elon Musk?
I have a local mate who, it’s gotta be said, has done some terrific work with her knickers lately.
A friend from the wider artistic family in the Bomo bay area, Lorna Reese is a creative, performer and theatre developer who has moved into a notable new medium of late – and yeah, it’s pants. Protest pants. ‘Rebel knickers’.
Lorna’s local MP in Christchurch is one Christopher Chope. If you’ve not heard of him, I’m not sure many outside Lorna’s town had until he came to prominence for blocking Wera Hothouse MPs Private Members’ Bill to make ‘upskirting’ a criminal offence. A widely supported bill by MPs and the public that Christopher Chope blocked. On grounds of procedural scrutiny to the bill, he said.
A little scrutiny into Mr Chope’s voting record left some feeling he was, well, not exactly jovially progressive on some matters and so, she said, in anger at his decision to block the passing of such a socially mindful bill, she decided to string up various pairs of her underwear across his constituency office door, sporting the text: “No one should photo my pants…”. And it got photographed and made the newspapers.
As Julia Bullas blogged it: “Her anarchistic act attracted broadcasters from ITV to BBC, amplifying the chorus of cross-party anti-Chope condemnation and sparking copycat bunting outside Chope’s Westminster office. When the MP stalled another bill which sought to support victims of female genital mutilation earlier this year, Lorna once more deployed some defiant pants to his door.”
Art as protest. Not simply making some angry vandalism, but making some cleverly creative marks about injustice – and doing it playfully well enough to get noticed.
Which wasn’t always so fun for Lorna herself.
“I’ve had some horrible Twitter abuse” she said, with the range of it from condescension to threats of violence. Such is social media age free speech. But Lorna – who is an energising sort of joy-enabler in all her creative work, I think – feels emboldened not diminished in finding a way to take a personal stand for her values. In speaking up for kindness and equality.
“It just made me realise that we don’t have to do huge things to make a difference” she said.
Speaking out can have that kind of funny effect. Perhaps like getting tattoos – I understand one bit of ink always leads to wanting more. And it’s something I think we are going see more and more of us ‘ordinary’ folk having a go at in the future – not ink but protestink. Not simply feeling needled but wanting to make a lasting change to the world we live in. Because the future is worth fighting for, I hear.
And it is art, I would argue, that is our real weapon of salvation here, whatever we’re trying to champion. To wake us by with kinetic learning. But then I would, wouldn’t I. It’s kind of become my thing.
Founder of the Women’s March, Sophie Flicker, says: “Sometimes we can have a greater effect changing hearts and minds with art than we can on an aggressively political level. The arts establish a different entry point for individuals to get involved.”
Of course, we’re a lot more used to being passive consumers of culture than makers or responders; how many teeshirts and decorations of protest do we wear and hang on the wall without living any differently. But Sophie says it’s not about trying harder to be properly radical.
“An entry point doesn’t just mean physically showing up to a protest or rally. It also involves creating language and ways of thinking about things that might be different from how we thought of things before. It means creating an opportunity to share a piece of music or visual art or a television show that not only depicts an underrepresented group but also helps you think differently.”
Art is partly about representation. And this is a huge aspect of encouraging equality – the power of being seen in shared culture. Characters, stories, perspectives that you relate to. Coaxes emotional connection. And so motivation.
And as my own artistic explorations have coaxed out of me, what else does the human planet arguably need right now more than new ways of seeing everything? Re-lensing our culture. If our culture is behaviourally what triggered the climate crisis. And built economic habits that have changed the world but are costing the Earth, disillusioning millions of us by this stage. Selling out millions of us. How do we see all that differently?
Well, we could always hear it, instead.
“I started talking to computer Stanford music research director Chris Chafe about sonifying my green data for a string quartet” says behavioural economics researcher and music maker, Nik Sawe.
He was responding to some of the data sets that research scientist Lauren Oakes had collected studying the effects of climate change in the Alaskan wilderness, hooking up the complex numbers to musical charts. By attributing different instruments to different species of tree, for example, listening through the piece just brings alive a sense of the transformation going on in that part of the world.
“To hear the patterns that it took me years to understand was incredible,” said Lauren. ( https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/tree-loss-is-put-to-music-audio/ )
Or what if we told stories with smell?
Artist Michael Pinsky created an installation called Pollution Pods – a series of interlinked geodesic domes that: “contain carefully mixed recipes emulating the relative presence of ozone, particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide which pollute London, New Delhi, Sao Paolo and Beijing.” And it does sound like a visceral soup of realisation, moving through and breathing in the experience.
“We cannot articulate smell in the same way we can articulate our visual scene, which means that it goes straight in at an emotive level” Michael says. “Whether that produces change in our behaviour because we haven’t embraced it intellectually, I don’t know yet. Perhaps this research will help to discover.” But, he says:“I think it’s very important that art remains open ended.”
It was a project produced as part of Climart, a four-year multidisciplinary research project of: “studies assessing how audiences are affected by climate-related artwork and engagement.”
Highlighting these projects for BBC’s Costing The Earth, Tom Heap says this sort of work is about Neuroeconomics as Nik Sawe explained to him.
“Neuroecomics is about studying decision making using brain imaging. What really seems to power pro-environmental behaviour is the emotional centres of our brains” he says. Blue Planet, anyone? But, he says, when we engage the bits of our brains that calculate value and do cost-benefit analyses, we tend to follow more selfish actions.
“Art and music, if we can faithfully represent what’s going on in the world, allows us to translate that into something that’s intuitive and emotional and connects people with something that’s otherwise very large in scope and very hard to grasp” he says.
As Jess Worth from Art Not Oil also told Tom Heap: “We find that using art, using theatre, using song, using movement, we’re able to connect with audiences in a way that maybe traditional protests can’t manage.”
Art can visualise, bring things suddenly alive by wanging the senses. But it’s hard to strike a meaningful balance across our arts between challenging us with new awarenesses and doing what the whole permaculture and sustainable circular economy and environmental movements are really implying – reconnecting us to natural beauty.
“There’s two kinds of activism” says Zoë Svendsen of Metis Arts. “There’s one to get people engaged and there’s another to work out what we’re going to do and how we’re going to respond and who we’re going to be. Bringing very different voices from very different backgrounds together to think about that is a role of the arts.”
Zoë’s creative work aims to engage ‘research in public’, learning things by engaging people with very visible new experiences. “It makes sense to be thinking about these questions rather than a kind of cultural amnesia. When I think about the world my children are growing up in, I do think we’re going to look back and say: Who the hell were we? The generation that let all this happen? And when I don’t see that reflected in the news and in the culture around me it’s really disturbing. But art can create a space that’s cathartic around recognising what’s going on.”
And she quotes Indian writer Amitav Ghosh’s book, The Great Derangement, which expects future generations to surely hold politicians and world leaders accountable for what they let happen to the planet in this age, but also asserts that: “they may well hold artists and writers to be equally culpable. For the imagining of possibilities is not, after all, the job of politicians.”
Art is meant to be disruptive testimony. And as I’ll explore more as Unsee The Future evolves, re-occupying it as a mode of all our living, not just that of supposed creative priests, will be a crucial re-culturing of us to respond to the 21st century world. All of us, expressive explorers, cultural testifiers and community-owning citizens. Confident to articulate it all.
And the thing is. It doesn’t take many of us to disrupt.
Erica Chenoweth wrote her PHD on how and why people use violence to seek political goals. And she came to the initial conclusion that, well, to overthrow oppressive regimes, you might have to stage some armed intervention. Fight fire with gunfire.
As she reports on Rational Insurgent, which researches into how civil resistance can be an effective force for change in the world, her conclusions were challenged at a workshop run by the International Centre on Nonviolent Conflict. As she puts it herself, at that point, her view on such perspective was that: “it was well-intentioned, but dangerously naïve.”
Challenged to look at the data empirically, Erica ended up spending two years collecting information: “on all major nonviolent and violent campaigns for the overthrow of a government or territorial liberation since 1900” adding simply: “and the results blew me away.”
For over a century: “nonviolent campaigns worldwide were twice as likely to succeed outright as violent insurgencies.” A trend increasing over time, she claims.
“In the last fifty years civil resistance has become increasingly frequent and effective, whereas violent insurgencies have become increasingly rare and unsuccessful. This is true even in extremely repressive, authoritarian conditions where we might expect nonviolent resistance to fail.”
Erica’s data suggests that it takes just 3.5% of a population to mobilise against a state for it to fail. Many, she says, succeeded with less.
“But” she adds: “Get this: Every single campaign that did surpass that 3.5% threshold was a nonviolent one. In fact, campaigns that relied solely on nonviolent methods were on average four times larger than the average violent campaign. And they were often much more representative in terms of gender, age, race, political party, class, and urban-rural distinctions.”
That’s simply going to be representing more corners of society.
At this point, online as I speak, I randomly see a Guardian article forwarded by my local Green party highlighting this: “By 2pm five London landmarks – Waterloo Bridge, Marble Arch, Parliament Square, Oxford Circus and Piccadilly Circus – had been blocked by thousands of protesters bringing widespread disruption. The protests are planned to continue for at least a week.”
Extinction Rebellion. As a mate of mine said: “Yeah, I wonder if they’d block the main roads near where they live…” but they’re getting noticed.
“The group is calling on the government to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2025 and establish a citizens’ assembly to devise an emergency plan of action to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss. Waterloo Bridge was blocked to traffic and turned into an impromptu garden bridge, with people bringing trees, flowers and setting up a miniature skate park. At Oxford Circus thousands of protesters danced at the normally busy junction and a life size model of boat was parked in the middle of the crossing with the slogan Tell the Truth emblazoned on the side.”
With this instant one example in mind, then simply think of Greta Thunberg. Still years away from eighteen, this autistic schoolgirl has allowed her neural diversity to empower her and open up the way the world sees what’s possible, helping change the very nature of the climate debate with her Schools Strikes 4 Climate Action. She got invited to Davos, aged 16. And she told it straight:
“Some people say that the climate crisis is something that we will have created, but that is not true, because if everyone is guilty then no one is to blame. And someone is to blame. Some people, some companies, some decision-makers in particular, have known exactly what priceless values they have been sacrificing to continue making unimaginable amounts of money. And I think many of you here today belong to that group of people.”
Fluff me. I have been asleep my whole life.
Erica Chenoweth effectively concludes, we need a new way of seeing how to resist and disrupt. Whatever the culture change we’re looking for.
“What if our history courses emphasised the decade of mass civil disobedience that came before the Declaration of Independence, rather than the war that came after? What if Gandhi and King were the basis of the first chapter of our social studies textbooks, rather than an afterthought? What if every child left elementary school knowing more about the Suffragist movement than they did about the Battle of Bunker Hill? And what if it became common knowledge that when protests become too dangerous, there are many nonviolent techniques of dispersion that might keep participants safe and keep movements resilient?”
The single-minded modus of violent action takes a particular human energy. It’s as hard to start as it is to stop – it’s risky and effortful. It’s often an overflow of sheer caged anger. Non-violent action tends to end up working out more flexibly, creatively. Not just showing up en masse sometimes – which is occasionally vital – but doing things less visibly co-ordinated as well. Disrupting in more creative ways. It’s more sustainable – feels more energising to more people. Especially given the power of organisation and ideas spreading that social media gives us. And that’s before we get to the technology that’s coming.
Something we should feel empowered to do, by engaging bolder creative testimony in our lives with the confidence of such influencing principles, is to push for much better creative design thinking in our problem solving. A return to first principles, wherever we have an intractable problem. I think crises demand this. No simple slapping on of another layer of wallpaper like our parents all did.
Paul Willoughby is a designer and graphic artist from Human After All, who among other things publish the beautiful Weapons Of Reason magazine. He used to make the equally gorgeous Little White Lies film publication and he came to talk at AUBHuman this March to essentially pose the question: What IS really possible, when you’re not constrained by iteration and existing culture? If you didn’t just keep patching new thinking on top of old, what could you do by working back to the core problem-solving of first principles? More than you think, is usually the answer.
He found not so far into his creative career that he was draining of purpose in his advertising work. And it got him philosophical about how to find answers to problems.
“Design creates culture. Culture shapes values. Values determine the future” he said, quoting Robert L Peters. Before quoting mystic poet Khalil Gibran: “Your reason and your passion are the rudder and the sails of your seafaring soul.”
Reason and passion. Very personal responses to a troubled world.
Design thinking is about working out the perfect resonance of beauty and functionality by asking the most fundamental questions we can about a problem. Emotion and logic together – where the human life is optimised.
“Don’t be a fixed mindset person, have a growth mindset” Paul said. “Embrace challenges and persist; fail early and often to get to Good quicker.”
It’s this kind of active, empowered thinking that has elevated the former Paypal founder Elon Musk to one of Forbes magazine’s most powerful people on the planet. First principles digging and a goodly sense of the showman – in vital need of an audience.
Musk has radically shifted the entrenched worlds of cars, energy, space exploration and global travel by asking questions less bound by cultural habit, and by weaving inspiring new stories out of the results. It’s literally changing the human planet, whether you think he’s personally nuts or not. And, while few of us are as relentlessly curious as the Boring Company boss, design thinking represents principles anyone could reach for. If you let your values become both your passion and your reason.
Balloonist Jacques Charles himself quickly went on from first successes in lighter than air experiments to design one of the first dirigible balloons that would ultimately turn into the sky leviathans developed by Count Von Zeppelin a century later. And while that technology came to a dead end rather explosively by the middle of the 20th century, in times of propulsive disruption such as those we’re facing today, a modern take on the airship might turn out to be a very future-minded idea for some modern roles. Which an airship fantasist like me would obviously propone forlornly but still, there it is – new ways of doing things can turn out to be new ways of doing previously abandoned things. A theme all around us in the search for more circular economies and bio-mimicking sustainable solutions. Going with the grain of nature, and rediscovering old wisdoms that progress buried.
But to make sense of this, our disruption lives will have to also involve disrupting the unedited flow of culture vomit into ourselves. Managing our emotional resources. Seeing that kind of wellness, mindfulness, as central to the task. We’ll need to learn how to survive disruption, so we can surf it.
Alan Jacobs says: “It is hard to imagine a time more completely presentist than our own, more tethered to the immediate; and is hard to imagine a person more exemplary of our presentism than the current president of the United States. He is a creature of the instant, responsive only and wholly to immediate stimulus – the social media ecosystem is designed to generate constant, instantaneous responses to the provocations of Now.
“We cannot, from within that ecosystem, restore old behavioral norms or develop new and better ones.”
We will, he says, have to: “cultivate what the great American novelist Thomas Pynchon calls “temporal bandwidth”.
“In Pynchon’s 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow, an engineer named Kurt Mondaugen explains that temporal bandwidth is “the width of your present, your now… The more you dwell in the past and future, the thicker your bandwidth, the more solid your persona. But the narrower your sense of Now, the more tenuous you are.”
Increasing your temporal bandwidth perhaps starts with making sense of the past. Dwelling on past perspectives and lessons. Heritage. It does give you perspective. But in my own more recent explorations of it creatively, with folk such as Valise Noire Storytelling Theatre’s beautiful and oddly publicly resonant Cargo, it’s an awareness that inevitably seems to echo forward to me. It implies questions about the future. Responsibilities to it.
But if we’re always only feeling moment by moment, we can more easily miss what’s significant in its happening. As Jacobs puts it: “Some decisions that seemed trivial when they were made proved immensely important, while others which seemed world-transforming quickly sank into insignificance. The “tenuous” self, sensitive only to the needs of This Instant, always believes – often incorrectly – that the present is infinitely consequential. That frame of mind is dangerously susceptible to alarmist notions.”
It’s a situation Matthew Wilburn King says is not helped by our evolution-shaped brain biases.
“We lack the collective will to address climate change because of the way our brains have evolved over the last two million years.”
“Humans are very bad at understanding statistical trends and long-term changes,” he quotes political psychologist Conor Seyle, director of research at One Earth Future Foundation.
“We have evolved to pay attention to immediate threats. We overestimate threats that are less likely but easier to remember, like terrorism, and underestimate more complex threats, like climate change.”
But in this age, living only in the moment, in a jacked-up MTV news cycle from last century, we’ll go mad. “Those who work for (the current President) have had to learn that yesterday’s truth is today’s lie, and today’s lie will be tomorrow’s truth” as Alan Jacobs puts it. Which is, y’know Kafkaesque. And definitely Orwellian. Which you will need to have half read a book or two to understand, I guess.
“But this is a question that we cannot ask if our thoughts are imprisoned by the stimulation of what rolls across our Twitter and Facebook feeds.”
Waking up to this a little more consciously may be part of how we will develop something needed to face the world of disruption and actually seize its opportunities. A new kind of resilience. Maybe even a resilience movement.
‘Resilience isn’t just about toughening up,’ says The Future Laboratory co-founder Martin Raymond. ‘It’s about relearning, rebooting and recalibrating brands, businesses, corporations and, more importantly, ourselves, as we push back against the age of SAFE – sanitised spaces, anonymous branding, faltering organisations and erratic responses to those big questions of our age.’
“We have been living in a state of self-censorship, hyper-safe spaces and comfort- zone culture, nestling among the people, platforms, places and behaviours that make us feel like one of the crowd” the organisation says. “But this bubble-wrapped existence hasn’t worked. Self-care has turned into a social media performance, our responsibilities are outsourced to technology, and young people avoid social situations in favour of the safety of home. Yet anxiety and personal dissatisfaction remain prevalent – and people are pushing to make urgent change.”
It’s a principle that in an age where so much is about to coincide on us in new ways, we have to go looking for trouble like an ally. Being much more intentional; a lot less passive.
Nurturing mindsets of positive discomfort, tenacity, fortitude in failure. That kind of thing. To go along with a much more fluid state of social relationships and identities and a possibly freaky level of programmable realities coming. As Matthew Taylor puts it in Wired: “Technological change will continue to impact on our lives, but we will question it much more.” And for tech, I suspect read: Everything.
Disruption may simply become, for the empowered feeling, very consciously cultural. Believing perhaps that we can be evolution’s conscious mutation within the system.
Tracey Follows says that: “‘Trailblazers’ are very rarely inside the system, they say things people in power don’t want to hear or make them feel uncomfortable. They do unacceptable things and therefore are very rarely accepted or celebrated at the time, only looking back when their impact is clear.”
Few of us are a Musk or a Thunberg, right? Only, I’m not so sure, in the possible futures we need to envision.
With hindsight, prophets are usually murdered horribly or thrown into deep dungeons to languish privately, it’s been often true in history. And, hey, the maverick LP mocked by the record industry can become the game changer, because, buh, creativity.
But in another sense we are all in the system. Products of the human planet affecting little ways it does things all the time. So some of us working outside the status quo habits turn out to effectively be system mutations that catch on, sometimes with people who are working right in the heart of old Hollywood or even government. Even while institutions seem to most easily calcify around their founding ideas from other ages and just run out of relevance.
As Make It In Music quoted Sabri Suby: “Wake up every day with a clear, defined purpose and attack the things that will take you closer to your goals. Don’t let inaction kill your motivation and momentum – take violent action instead.”
If you really want it. The change. The recognition. The new way of seeing. If you can be bothered. Perhaps crisis and connective behaviours together are already spooling up a whole new habit engine for us. Where even sleepy old you and me DO want it.
Maybe together, we have an age of intervention and engagement coming that will allow none of us to make no difference. Maybe exceptional will be the new usual. Perhaps all becoming digital nomad consumers we will all find ourselves embracing a more engaged sense of place. To really transform the planet. Wrap your worm around that future.
However we are currently presenting, perhaps we should all admit we’re in transition.
Taking a leading role is not getting the old fairytale. The dashing princess. Or the beautiful buccaneer. It’s not stardom. Stardom only disrupts the individual’s life. A more hopeful future will undoubtedly be about empowering true community not just with emerging technology but emerging attitudes, inspired by crisis – finding a group of people to build a gondola big enough for that audience to come with you on the maiden balloon voyage. Not just gawp at the sky helplessly.
The individual taking ownership of their place in the planet and encouraging the geek love might turn out to be the mighty anonymity of really disrupting business as usual. Changing the world.
If you know how to lift people up with you.
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