Platform 17 – Words & Works
As 2015 was the last year for Platform 17 on the Design Products course at the RCA we produced our own yearbook which included a text related to our projects. You can read my piece below.
We make plans and predictions all the time. We walk around supermarkets loading our trolleys with food based on how we think our week will pan out. It is never completely accurate, maybe you work late on Wednesday and end up grabbing a take away or you have a picky child who has decided he doesn’t like chicken nuggets anymore. But overall you can make those predictions work. If you were to stand in that supermarket a month in advance of the week you were shopping for, your agenda will change. There are perishable foods, the weather might change and that fussy eater may even like chicken nuggets again. You will have to decide on which of those factors are most important to your situation and then choose your food based on the most likely scenario of the information you have to hand.
Governments and businesses make these predictions all the time; it is hard to move things forward without any idea of where you are headed. Plans have to be made about imminent population increases or decreases, housing shortages or security threats but they’re always based on what we know now. These futures are the probable futures, this is what we can estimate will happen if we continue as things are and without a major cataclysmic event or upheaval.[i]
The notion of using futurist reports based on our probable futures to drive policy change has been ridiculed more than once. In an article in New Statesman, reporter Bryan Appleyard takes a quote from Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist and futurist, about DARPA in the US that “The only justification for its existence is to ‘accelerate the future into being’”. Appleyard points out that, no, the statement from DARPA Director Tony Tether back in 2002 is worded “We try to imagine what a military commander would want and accelerate that future into being…”. That is what we have to remember when consulting reports predicting our future. They have an agenda. There is information they have had to prioritise; there are influencing factors that were taken into account for the intended reader of their reports. Are those business led reports really what we want leading our futures? [ii] [iii]
In 1948 Robert K. Merton wrote about self-fulfilling prophecies and describes how ‘[prophecies and predictions] become an integral part of the situation and thus affect subsequent developments’. If a report written by foresight experts like The Future of Work: jobs and skills in 2030 report, by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills say that one possible scenario for 2030 is that the majority of employees are on zero hour contracts and hired on a project by project basis and then government and industry begin to prepare for that eventuality, does that make it a real future? [iv] [v]
The official DARPA statement from Tether goes on to talk about another by-line of theirs ‘DARPA prevents technological surprise” and that is how some futurists feel. By showing you these plausible and probable outcomes for how we are currently progressing, that foresight can allow us time to prevent the less favourable aspects of that imagined future. If we discuss those futures now we have more power to shape it.
We know that our future is not certain so should we just let it happen or try to approach it with a bit more confidence?
[i] Speculative Everything, Dunne & Raby
[ii] Why futurologists are always wrong, Bryan Appleyard, New Statesman, 10/04/2014.
[iii] Statement from Tony Tether, DARPA, http://www.darpa.mil/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=1778
[iv] The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, Robert K. Merton.
[v] The Future of Work: Jobs and Skills in 2030, UKCES.