« Catastrophic Risks Presentation | Main | Climate Lawsuits Ahoy »

Legacy Futures

Reading a talk given by science fiction author Ken Macleod, I came across this bit:

I used the term 'legacy code' in one of my novels, and Farah Mendlesohn, a science-fiction critic who read it thought it was a term I had made up, and she promptly adapted it for critical use as 'legacy text'. Legacy text is all the other science fiction stories that influence the story you're trying to write, and that generally clutter up your head even if you never read, let along write, the stuff. Most of us have default images of the future that come from Star Trek or 2001 or 1984 or Dr Who or disaster movies or computer games. These in turn interact with the tendency to project trends straightforwardly into the future.

What immediately struck me is that we all have this kind of cognitive "legacy code" in our thinking about the future, not just science fiction writers, and it comes from more than just pop-culture media. We get legacy futures in business from old strategies and plans, legacy futures in politics from old budgets and forecasts, and legacy futures in environmentalism from earlier bits of analysis. Legacy futures are rarely still useful, but have so thoroughly colonized our minds that even new scenarios and futures models may end up making explicit or implicit references to them.

In some respects, the jet pack is the canonical legacy future, especially given how the formulation (originally from Calvin & Hobbes, I believe), of "where's my jet pack?" has become a widely-used phrase representing disappointment with the future instantiated in the present.

People who follow my Twitter stream may recognize another example of a legacy future: Second Life. While the jet pack never really became part of anything other than Disneyfied visions of Tomorrowland, over the past five years or so Second Life came to represent for professional forecasters and futurists the vision of the Metaverse. Even though Second Life has yet to live up to any of the expectations thrust upon it by people outside of the online game industry, it has doggedly maintained its presence as a legacy future.

Just like legacy code makes life difficult for programmers, legacy futures can make life difficult for futures thinkers. Not only do we have to describe a plausibly surreal future that fits with current thinking, we have to figure out how to deal with the leftover visions of the future that still colonize our minds. If I describe a scenario of online interaction and immersive virtual worlds, for example, I know that the resulting discussion will almost certainly include people trying to map that scenario onto their existing concept of how Second Life represents The Future.

Sure, Second Life futurism may be a particular irritant for me, but the legacy futures concept can have much more troubling implications.

We can see it in discussions of post-petroleum transportation that continue to elevate hydrogen fuel cells as The Answer, even though most eco-futurists and green automotive thinkers now regard that technology as something of a dead end. We can see it in population projections that don't account for either healthcare technologies extending both productive lives and overall lifespans. We can see it in both visions of a sustainable future reminiscent of 1970s commune life, and visions of a viable future that don't include dealing with massive environmental disruption.

All of these were once legitimate scenarios for what tomorrow might hold -- not predictions, but challenges to how we think and plan. For a variety of reasons, their legitimacy has faded, but their hold on many of us remains.

This leaves us with two big questions:

  • How do we deal with legacy futures without discouraging people from thinking about the future at all?
  • What scenarios considered legitimate today will be the legacy futures of tomorrow?

  • Comments

    What's particularly interesting about the SL legacy is that as soon as I saw that some people were doing interesting things with it, I immediately created a superstructure around the idea of SL in education (omg visionary genius!). I had no idea it had been around so long, or that SL futurism had become a cliche. I had to pass through the five stages of legacy disavowal in my own private grieving process, apparently.

    On the offchance that you haven't read it already, I have a book recommendation:

    Imaginary Futures: From Thinking Machines to the Global Village, by Richard Barbrook.

    Ties into your theme of apocaphilia, Jamais. How about "Legacy Apocalypses"?

    Also reminds of Bruce Sterling's theme of "legacy people" from one of his sxsw speeches. People who will never accept the ever-changing futures horizon.

    I'm not really answering your question, but as forecasters should:
    1) think less about micro and more about macro
    2) stop fetishizing contemporary life (both in terms of technology and society) and integrate more historical comparative analyses into our projections
    3) avoid oversimplified futures (typically caused by considering a small set of factors and failing to anticipate black swan, disruption and convergence scenarios) and instead engage in data collection and synthesis, and offer a wider variety of plausible scenarios.

    I've been reading about Badshah Khan and the Northwest Frontier Provinces under the British Raj and Pakistan. Today, at a panel discussion at Harvard, either Barnett Rubin or Steve Coll mentioned Pakistan should recognize the Durand Line. Maleeha Lodhi, a former ambassador from Pakistan, agreed, with some privisos.

    The Durand Line was a result of British pressure upon the government of Afghanistan in 1893. If memory serves, it was drawn by a lieutenant in the British military without reference to the indigenous cultures and tribal boundaries.

    "The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past." The way the British governed the Raj has quite a lot to do with what is happening there today.

    I asked the panel about using the Islamic non-violence of Badshah Khan and modifying the nearly one million solar/dynamo radios we've distributed in Afghanistan so that they can charge AA, C, and D batteries, making a battery switching network for low voltage DC electricity. They had absolutely, positively no idea what I was talking about. Afterwards, I talked to Barnett Rubin and he basically rejected any relevance for Badshah Khan's non-violence and assured me that everyone in Afghanistan has access to a radio. A very smart and learned man with not one clue as to what I was pointing at.

    I thought it was from the old TV series of The Flash, where a character who gets defrosted from decades ago asks: “Where are the rocket packs, the home helicopters, and food pills? ... The monorails, the undersea cities, the moon colony. Where’s my future?

    Maybe something from Herman Kahn(don't gag)in the 60's may be useful. He talked about the main trend, and then wild cards. Wild cards( the unforseen) reset the long term trends. At least that is how I understood his writing then and remember it now.

    The "where's my jetpack" question is explored at length in Warren Ellis' graphic novel sequence 'Doktor Sleepless'. Well worth a look, if you're not already aware of it - also for the many websites offshooting from the book, notably grinding.be, which blogs news items that are 'outbreaks of the future'.

    Speaking of legacy futures, read F.M. Esfandiary's vision of our nearly immortal, space-faring lives in that far-off, mysterious year 2010 as it appeared to him back in 1981:

    "Up-Wing Priorities:

    The only mistake of FM-2030 was binding to a certain year, 2010, which turns out to be toj early. Probably this was made to inspire FM's own generation (born in 1920-30s) who played a large role in 1981's politics. And as for the whole 21st century, this is close to reality. The real value of that article is its cultural breakthrough, not scientific precision.

    this reminds me of terrence mckenna's saying that you can't think a thought that your language won't allow you to think. it reminds of watching a blind person navigating their living room. they know where the couch is and don't bump into it. it's the same with our legacy thinking about capital, about consumption, about giving.


    Creative Commons License
    This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
    Powered By MovableType 4.37