Life, life support and the afterlives of (im)possible worlds
Stories and situations, echoes and premonitions.
Here, now, wherever you are.
Echoes from a symposium in Vienna on the 12th of May 2022.
In the resonant hall of the Alte Postsparkasse, we were listening to another, fainter echo. An echo from the first circuit-breaker in Singapore, as announced on the 3rd of April 2020. The sounds of closing borders, the creaking of an interconnected world beginning to shut down; an experience overlaid with announcements, opinions and statistics — transmitted and distorted by algorithmic concern and indifference.
As an overtone, heard with the sound, was a voice. A harmonic series. Vocal cords vibrating, coiling around words, sentences, and phrases formed from prompts, suggestions, quotes, questions and digressions… Sometimes they appeared to progress towards a conclusion, other times they circled around, stopping and starting again. Sometimes they came across as incomprehensible fragments or awkward pauses.
The digital and earthbound sounds, the flickering pixels, the posture and gestures of everyone weaving the fabric of an experience, "gathered and scattered". These words are only a tiny part of it. So, yourself into this thick, messy tapestry of text, visuals and sound. Find your own path through, and fill in the gaps.
The Great Pause, filled with many voices. Frogs, cicadas, anchored cargo ships...
The hushed sounds of physically distanced humans.
As human contact narrowed to lines of text and heads in square boxes. Words, words, words, everywhere.
Here are some words that mattered to us then and that will continue to shape worlds to come. Written and spoken by friends, authors or nameless government officials, compressed and repeated back to us by a neural network. Timelessness unravelled in the space of seconds.
Words compressed and repeated back to us.
Then, now and always, time flows and stories flow, acquiring their fluid cacophony of relationships.
Stretching, breaking, weaving and reforming, with no absolute origin or point of disappearance.
Just a tangle of propositions flickering in and out of existence.
Connections emerging and subsiding. Sonic echoes long past, becoming premonitions of things that will come to pass, again, and again.
Time becomes momentary, time becomes cyclic, time slips from the now into the now, and the now.
Cycles, and circling and recycling, as you watch the worlds that emerge from just a few words.
A sentence speaking to a scenario. Of archetypes, symbols, partially shared cultures. A disenchanted flock of partial GAN prompts. Generative. Adversarial. Interpreted and misinterpreted as occasions, singular glimpses into possible worlds.
The images reflecting and distorting our unconscious biases, filters and archetypes. Worlding into becoming something we could not anticipate. The worlds, the words, the screens illuminating uncanny valleys, seamlessly, awkwardly blending fact with fiction, awe and terror, the familiar and the strange.
Underneath the screen, other worlds flicker. A seething of conspiracies, the half-bakery boiling over with partial truths, easy explanations, and memetically sticky brainworms, ravenous. reeling. Through it all, a shimmering of kindred imaginaries, of hopeful futures brought to life. Glimmers of the possible in the gestures of the mundane.
You're surrounded by contradictory stories, some shared, some singular, fleeting and fragile. Some so large you barely see the curve of their narrative arc.
They seep into your everyday, often unnoticed. To navigate these stories, words and worlds you might reach for experiential tools, to complement your habitual techniques. The tools can be augmented, new habits can be learnt as old habits are overwritten.
You can rely on secrets whispered by friends, the cauldron of facts and fiction, the additive layers of scientific analysis, or myriad performative ways of being in the world. But that might not be enough.
What if you treat every statement as a hypothesis? A sketch, a scenario, a suspicion, an image of a world that appears internally consistent. A reality tunnel. Real for those within it. Real, but not necessarily true.
Navigating through shared reality tunnels requires both acceptance and questioning. From within and without, feeling your way along, testing assumptions and trying to discern which scenarios are already inhabitable and which can be brought to life.
Bringing futures to life requires being steeped in the messy details of the everyday. With tighter feedback loops between "what if" and "as if". Scenarios and situations, stories and experiences.
Going back-and-forth between a scenario and an experience of it can make apparent every moment pregnant with direction. Through this process, possible worlds will either wither or take root. Become more situated, embodied, grounded. They can become compost in which we cultivate seeds of the lives and worlds that might be.
Stories and scenarios are always incomplete. They are saturated with hidden assumptions and gaps in understanding. Like the market economy, they overlook inconvenient externalities. They can lull us into feeling that the future is distant, something that isn't here yet, so any concerns can be deflected to 'later'. The “future” can be used as way of maintaining a status quo…
Like a well incubated psyop, a scenario can be presented as seemingly complete, polished and self-contained. The deceptive nature of completion can be used to trick us into forgetting to prepare for everything other than a scenario. To forget to look elsewhere, to watch the finger and forget the moon. A smooth surface to deter the unease of multiplicity.
Neo-reactionary, new age or anti-vax conspiracies can establish cult-like followings, because they loudly claim certainty while collapsing complexity into simple dualisms. Black and white, Us vs Them, dictatorship or freedom, fake vs real. moonbats vs wingnuts. The sheeple and the shepherds.
But knowing this, they can be useful to question the assumptions, to pry apart the gaps, to unearth what's worth salvaging.
Knowing that conspiracy theories and foresight reports can offer a false sense of security, the seductive clarity of certainty, especially when easily translated into “action points” and “agenda items”. Knowing when strategic planning gets in the way, tactics no longer work as expected. When a step-by-step process becomes a stumbling act.
The experience of the everyday, for many people, is more akin to tumbling from one urgency to another, with little space for building a coherent narrative. Strategic unplanning. Histories written in reverse.
People frequently make decisions with incomplete information and face unintended consequences. Honing our skills to adapt to changing external circumstances and internal pressures. These skills are particularly developed in those of us with prolonged exposure to chronic uncertainty, be it through illness, conflict, migration, natural disasters, systemic discrimination or economic precarity.
For others, the capacity to adapt may have atrophied during decades of excess certainty. Adapting to an unfamiliar, uncomfortable situation can feel like an attack on the "freedom" to continue business as usual. Think of the incessant demands to "return to normal" during the current pandemic, no matter how abnormal it is and was, no matter many humans and other Earthlings this normality will happily sacrifice.
What are some other ways we could cope with the increasing complexities of daily life and the worlds we inhabit?
How can we rehabilitate a sense of agency amid chaotic change?
One approach is to work with futuring on a micro scale. With individuals, families, collectives. Translate the formal futures methods into conversational techniques. Combine futuring with active listening, coaching, improv, meditation and institutional therapy. Translate the conversations into real-life experiments. Future prehearsals.
Simple interventions in people's lives can work like acupuncture, unblocking energetic flows, revealing possibilities that are already present. Starting and ending in daily life, acting "as if" a future already happened, noticing how it affects relationships, routines, ideas and infrastructure.
Some prehearsals can take days, months or years, as the situation demands it.
A ship transforms into a mobile home and a post-national performance venue.
Admin becomes RADMIN.
These are a few of the many nurseries for seedling futures. Futures that are still too fragile to be planted in open ground. Nurseries for propositions to germinate. At small scale with limited resources, they can start to bloom. Until they can be transplanted into the wilder places beyond, where they will be exposed to the complex uncertainties of the now and the nearby.
Where you can explore the uncertainty from within. Notice that many acute symptoms of uncertainty ebb and flow, like pain. Learn to navigate the waves. Over time, recognise your instinctive reactions before they overwhelm you.
Most of us can find a way to live with uncertainty and treat its immediate symptoms. Sometimes, it's possible to address its root causes. Other times, uncertainty is so widespread that you can't control its progress. Long periods of global instability can feel like a chronic condition with no hope for a cure.
In such situations, it's worth knowing some emergency protocols and frontline tactics to survive well together. Triage, first aid, mutual aid, radical compassion, nonviolent resistance. Knowing when to run and hide. Retreat, regroup, live to fight another day.
Contrary to the positivist, pro-active attitude so prevalent in futures work, “giving up” does not have to be equal defeat. Sometimes, giving up is the wisest way to respond to an insurmountable situation. “Giving up” on what can't be changed to create new space for possibility...
Applying palliative care to possible futures can provide some comfort amid uncertainty. Reduce — rather than try to eliminate — the most distressing symptoms of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity in your daily life.
Compassionately guiding things to their end. A conscious closure.
A via negativa, knowing what not to do.
Knowing what to remove.
Knowing how to work with less, even less or close to nothing.
Knowing when to abandon what you think you know.
Knowing when to start again.
When circumstances become too hostile, some futures may need a refuge from the world. A seedbank. A sanctuary (or sanatorium) for the injured, unwanted and endangered futures that can not exist in the present. A place where hopeful, yet presently unattainable futures can be rehabilitated, regenerated and renewed. With intensive care and life support, with a steady trickle of resonant ideas and reciprocal relationships.
The existence of refuges for those who face external threats isn’t a uniquely human phenomenon. In biology, a “refugium” is a place that can support isolated populations that were once more widespread.
Pockets of old growth forests,
High mountain peaks,
Deep valleys or remote islands with their particular micro-climates.
In the age of climate change and mass extinction, refugia can provide hope for the preservation and evolution of endangered species and habitats.
How can we create similar refugia for the relict ideas and impossible futures?
For those who feel threatened by a narrowing of what is considered “real” or “normal”.
For those of us who are heartbroken by the fragmenting, polarising effects of intolerance.
For those of us who resist a dogmatic separation between art and science, theory and practice, animate and inanimate.
For those who remain naïve (or brave) enough to continue to live as if solidarity and generosity are inextricable qualities of being human.
For those who continue to hope without optimism.
For those who have courage to remain.
But, as palliative carers know, sometimes neither further exposure nor removal from the world are enough. Sometimes, impossible worlds fade away, passing on to an afterlife in the propositional penumbra.
For those who remain, a period of mourning begins. A transition starting with a separation from the previous existence. Gradually, heart-wrenching grief gives way to a more quiet acceptance. Tears dry up and exhaustion can create welcome moments of silence. Emptiness. At this pause, the darkness of the tomb can be transformed into the "darkness of the womb". Re-incarnated, re-integrated, brought to life.
It’s a barely perceptible shift. As brief as one breath. Then two. Then a few heartbeats. A pulsing liminality. From despair to love. A memory of love.
“Gradually, you will learn acquaintance
With the invisible form of your departed;
And when the work of grief is done,
The wound of loss will heal
And you will have learned
To wean your eyes
From that gap in the air
And be able to enter the hearth
In your soul where your loved one
Has awaited your return
All the time." —John O'Donohue
You notice that they, loved people, beloved imaginaries continue to exist in you. As memories, hopes, invocations of lives that might be. They abide, patiently, awaiting your attention. Your care.
Their futures might call on you in the tiniest qualia of experience.
A scent, a hint of light, a touch or a whisper.
An echo, a premonition.
They'll appear in the routines of the everyday, and on the frontline of cultural change. Unspoken, but experienced. Standing under before understanding.
A resistance. A quickening.
A quivering of the invisible strings binding life to itself.
For these futures to be brought back to life, part time care — an hour every now-and-again, or a few days here-and-there — won’t be enough. They'll need intensive care to transition into life or dissolve deeper into the afterlife. Long term life support. Support for risky experiments, imaginative initiatives and people leading by example.
Stories and situations, echoes and premonitions.
Here, and now, and tomorrow.
Quietly, persistently drawing your attention.
Can you hear it?
What are you hearing?
Created: 18 May 2022 / Updated: 20 May 2022