Imagineering

On picturing possible futures.

We live in the present, we’re surrounded by the past, but the future’s forever a mystery — and yet we’re headed straight for it, we’re building it everyday. A central question, then, it seems, is how do we build something — something we care to live in — which we cannot see? Something that, by its very nature, cannot be seen — cannot be known.

How one comes down on this question reveals a lot about one’s implicit metaphysic. If one thinks we shouldn’t sweat this apparent dilemma, and insists instead that we ought to just let things unfold as they do, it suggests some kind of Aristotelian, teleological view of how the future unfurls; a view that favours the inevitability of the future over the contingent conception of things. The opposite view suggests, quite naturally, the opposite metaphysic; it implicitly endorses a conception of the universe wherein the human will and intentionality makes a difference in earnest.

However Reality is ultimately structured, it seems as if the only prudent course of action is to take the notion of contingency, and the role our own minds and actions play in such, seriously. Whatever the underlying cosmic principle that governs History, we ought to at least pretend as if what we do, and don’t do, actually matters. Accordingly, we ought to do all that we can to envisage and enact the un-envisageable, to imagine and build the future.

This might sound like a contradiction, but it really isn’t. For while we can’t see the future proper, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try; that is, it doesn’t mean there isn’t value in trying. It’s actually a very simple — albeit mostly unfalsifiable — hypothesis: the future would be better, when it comes, if we spent some time, before it comes, getting clear on what kind of future we want — and how we might realise it. In our own lives, as with civilisation, I suggest, intentionally envisaging possible futures, so that we may coordinate our behaviours towards the most positive, is a valid, genuinely meaningful exercise.

The problem with talking about the kind of future we want to create, as a civilisation, is that there are too many details, too many threads to get hung up on. Having a civilisation-scale dialogue re our collective future, in the broadest sense, seems futile when we can’t even come to terms on such seemingly trivial things as the appropriate mode of governance. How could we possibly talk future, in the loftiest sense, when we can’t even agree as to how things should be run?

Now this would be a genuine concern if getting clear on the details was necessary in order to speak intelligibly, at a higher level, about how things should look and feel. Rather than working from the bottom-up, that is, trying to suss the details and then working back to figure how that might look and how we might get there, I suggest we ought to work the other way; that is, top-down. What this means, in practice, is that we ought to spend some amount of resources simply imagining — and then modelling, visually — possible futures. Aesthetics, trivial though it may seem, is as good a place to start building the future as any.

I say this for two reasons. First, aesthetics — though they may have an implicit politic — are, for the most part, apolitical; they don’t have a red or blue or any other coloured agenda. In orienting the conversation towards what we want our future to look like, literally, we allow ourselves — or at least, afford ourselves greater opportunity — to transcend some of the sticking points that generally impede enlightened conversation re our collective horizon.

Second, aesthetics is one of the most controllable vectors of the human project and yet remains, at present, one of the least controlled. Building the future is, on some level, a principally artistic/architectural project. Curiously, however, we have no collective vision for what we’re building, no master blueprint, no grand scheme. We’re merely stumbling, slapping concrete and metal wherever a dollar presents itself.

It’s truly a remarkable fact that this approach works at all. But that it works at all is hardly a sufficient argument for maintaining this approach in perpetuity. It would work better, I reckon, if instead of simply stumbling, we sat around and hashed things out a bit first. To be sure, we’ll always be stumbling, but we can stumble less and we should aspire to.

So why don’t we already do some version of this? Why, in other words, is ‘imagineering’ not yet a formal discipline? To begin with, I think there’s a sense that simply imagining things is an entirely frivolous exercise. What with all the real stuff going down — kids starving and the rest of it — how could we possibly spend our days playing with pretty pictures? We’re serious folk, after all, concerned with serious business! Leave all that child’s play to, well, children — and novelists.

I think this point just misses the essentialness of the enterprise, and the way in which virtually all successful human programs entail some amount of explicit visualisation. We’re simply not used to thinking in such terms at such scale. Moreover, I think our failure to instantiate — in our civilisational systems and processes — the value of imagination and creativity, reflects a deeper bias within western society, a bias — in fact it’s rather more a psychological imbalance — that may be correcting but that remains severe enough nonetheless. That is, the bias against the intuitive, the visceral, the aesthetic, in favour of the rational, analytical mode of being. It’s almost as if we, as a society, hold the non-rational aspects of Reality with high suspicion, for we consider them primitive and somehow a threat to the modern world-order. We are past all that mystical nonsense, we seem to say.

It’s as if modern intellectual life has rebelled against all that which it can’t adequately comprehend, all that isn’t amenable to the analytical gaze. What we don’t understand about ourselves we simply chalk up to the chance quirks of evolution.”Oh it must have conferred some evolutionary benefit,” and we’re done with it. Creativity and imagination, two sides of the same coin, are among the most mysterious aspects of this most mysterious cosmic dance we’re all participants in, and so — as if almost out of fear of conceding that we don’t have this thing nearly as figured as we’d like — we regard them as suspect. If not fear, we seem to at least marginalise that which we don’t understand. And so it appears the case here.

Above all, we don’t pay sufficient attention to the general architecture of our desired future, because we remain, as a species, myopically focused on the short-term. Having evolved in a context where the immediate term was the only relevant temporal frame, a world wherein one’s next meal was never guaranteed, we have developed a temporal focus that leaves the majority of human history — that is, all those years that are (hopefully) yet to come to pass — conspicuously absent. Yet to transcend the curse of quarterly thinking as we are, we fail to grasp the fact that it’s not only our own lives that we are architecting here, but the trajectory of earthly life writ large. Practically all the major problems that our cute little blue ball of a planet now faces are the kinds of problems that will require a scale of coordination, on every level, far exceeding that which we’re evolutionarily accustomed to. We must now, for the first time, learn to coordinate activities at the planetary scale. Climate change, AI, all your other favourite ex-risks (not to mention what’s positively possible). They all demand that we see beyond our own lives, that we accept that we are entirely different creatures than we once were, with an entirely different set of considerations and responsibilities. Thus there will come a point, if it hasn’t already, where planning nothing but the civilisational equivalent of our next meal — or quarterly earnings report — won’t cut it anymore. Though it was surely fun while it lasted, we can no longer afford to be monkeys. We must, at last, become fully human.

@fair