Using our knowledge of the workings of human memory to create alternative futures

From Ross Robertson, “A Brighter Shade of Green: Rebooting Environmentalism for the 21st Century”, EnlightenNext magazine.

Earlier in 2016, this essay was published in a book of perspectives on memory in the 21st Century. It originated from 2013, when I had recently left the Royal Society and had just written my first report for Nesta. And it covers the themes that that convergence led me to think about — linking discussions about 21st Century challenges from ex-Royal Society President Martin Rees, contemporary thinking in psychology and neuroscience and the futures methods I was starting to unpick at Nesta.

I felt echoes of some of the same themes in a workshop this week. This might have been because I am again in transition, moving onto a new job (with the Dubai Future Foundation, who were running the workshop with Tellart), and so thinking hard about the value of different kinds of future-gazing. But it was also because I was with some people who reminded me of the ideas and examples mentioned here: Daniel Wahl on the need for a regenerative ecological movement in the face of Climate Change, Scott Smith on the history of foresight, Dan Hill on New Atlantis and Angeliki on the relationship between space tech and fiction.

The essay is a bit out of date now. I have since written more about the difference between accurate and ambitious visions of the future, the power dynamics of the new space industry and on the importance of many, diverse imagined futures. But the main point still stands. I have highlighted in bold what I think that is.

I have left in the references to other chapters in the book, as they’re quite helpful if you want to find out more. Small additions and references are inserted.

Our final century?

There is a well-known story that describes the twenty-first century as our final century: global ageing and youth populations simultaneously explode exponentially; geopolitical complexity grows to the point that there isn’t a conference table big enough to sit round; and energy, water and food will be so scarce by 2050 that no one can remember the days of careless consumerism. In Our Final Century: The 50/50 Threat to Humanity’’s Survival: Will the Human Race Survive the Twenty-First Century? (2003), Martin Rees offers a scientist’s warning about the threats to humanity in the twenty-first century:

even if global warming occurs at the slower end of the likely range, its consequences competition for water supplies, for example, and large-scale migrations could engender tensions that trigger international and regional conflicts, especially if these are further fuelled by continuing population growth.

Another scientist recently ended his play about the unprecedented planetary emergency in the twenty-first century with the line ‘I think we’re fucked’ (Stephen Emmott, 10 Billion, 2013).

The challenge of avoiding this catastrophic squeeze on our planet’s resources is bestowed on an emergent generation of the technology savvy in their late twenties and early thirties. This generation graduated during the 2008 economic crisis that exacerbated the apocalyptic climate; they’ve grown up with instant, constant and relentless access to the front line of natural disasters and violent uprisings through internet video news. Yet, they look on from the side-lines as international climate change negotiations fail again and again. The burden of this perpetual crisis weighs heavy on their shoulders: what are they going to — or what can they do to re-direct the path towards this pervasive and seemingly unavoidable but unequally distributed and unjust instability?

As part of this generation, I find the oddity of growing up with a story of doom is that, like a character in a novel, there is a feeling that the future pages of your life have already been written as Mark Currie explored in Chapter 22. Personal details are missing, and there is no sense of [the exact details of] who I will marry, what kind of work I will do or where I will live. From this perspective, the future is open and full of possibilities. But, at the same time, I see one of the curious paradoxes of our time emerge: in the light of earth’s expiry date, any sense (misplaced or otherwise) of authorship of my life narrative has been removed. I feel like a bystander waiting for a future that is already written. And, with it, I lose some of the feeling of agency when I consider my future, and, more perniciously perhaps, some of my desire to change it is diminished.

For sure, my generation is better off than those that grew up a century before us. The First World War violently removed much of individuals’ autonomy. That generation, and the one that followed them, was dominated by supporting highly structured military efforts. Their identity came from national allegiance and culture was more about conformity than lifestyle choice.

There is new irony in our current predicament. My generation is called to arms not as army recruits, but as innovators and futurologists. Through invention and intervention, and by making use of technological innovation, we are tasked to save our ailing institutions of power and the rapidly dating social infrastructure. At the same time, the helplessness fostered by end-time thinking pushes us away from thinking about the future as something we can change, and, thus, from the possibility of thinking of ourselves as innovators. It often feels as if the creative space that is needed is inaccessible. We need the imaginary tools to reimagine the future outside the grand global catastrophe narrative. We need to reconquer the future, not so we can all be Steve Jobs, but so we can turn it into a place worth living for the next generation.

A futures framework: forecasting, foresight and fiction

There are three different ways we talk about the future: forecasting, foresight and fiction. [This is a summary of a longer report (Nesta, Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow: a modest defence of futurology, 2013)]

Humans use data from the immediate past to forecast the near future. Through collecting and analysing ever growing volumes of information, forecasting tools have become increasingly sophisticated. The accuracy of three day weather forecasts in 1981 is now achieved seven days in advance.

And there is a crop of new internet-based analysis tools that predict very different kinds of events. For example, Recorded Future can predict the day that a riot will start. These ventures rely on access to vast numbers of online resources: company annual reports, media outlets and local social networks. [Cognitive Edge’s SenseMaker tool is interestingly different in how it pro-actively collects local views about the future; Philip Tetlock’s much discussed prediction tournaments do a good job using small groups of individuals responding toe specific predictions about the future.]

Forecasting works by using past patterns to make precise predictions about similar patterns in the future. It is the most abstracted, mathematical kind of thinking about the future.

More coarse-grained descriptions of trends are used to give us an idea of what the future will look like without attempting such precise predictions. Foresight, as a discipline, has been part of corporate and government planning since the middle of the twenty-first century. [Great article summarising this history: Angela Wilkinson and Roland Kupers, ‘Living in the Future’, Harvard Business Review, May Issue, 2013.]

Foresight analysis usually begins with a description of ubiquitous drivers of change. These usually include factors like population growth, changes in environment, geopolitical tensions and increasing access to new technologies. An exercise then continues by imagining different ways the drivers of change could play out and interact in the future. This leads to a series of plausible future scenarios: some with, say, universal internet access and a democratic utopia, and others where local politics dominates and the internet is divided into walled gardens of power. No particular scenario is expected to actually happen. The aim of such work is to prepare for the unexpected, to develop resilience to potential changes. Foresight exercises use plausible futures as a tool, helping make decisions today, which are also mindful of the changes tomorrow might bring.

Science fiction, but increasingly also mainstream literary fiction, explores deep uncertainties about the future: it imagines major disruptions to current trends, and distances itself from the most plausible future scenarios. Sometimes these fictional futures motivate the leap of faith needed to develop innovations that end up changing lives. An exciting fictional life can motivate the realisation of a particular idea in reality; literature can act as a rhetorical device by providing an attractive narrative for investors, designers and potential consumers alike.

Arthur C. Clarke wrote a detailed proposition for communication satellite in 1945, 12 years before the Soviet Sputnik and 20 years before the first commercial communication technology. [Arthur C. Clarke, ‘Extra-Terrestrial Relays’, Wireless World, October Issue, 1945.] His article was read by Robert P. Haviland, who wrote the internal memo that would lead to US Navy pursuing a manned space station. Douglas Adams’s fictional Guide to The Galaxy is inextricably tangled with the real life developments of the eBook, and the iPad. Narration is a tool for changing the future, for triggering and realising human desire.[For an expansion: Caroline Bassett, Ed Steinmueller and Georgina Voss, Better Made Up: The Mutual Influence of Science Fiction and Innovation, 2013.]

Accepting the indeterminacy of the future allows us the playful space to imagine stories about the ways the future might play itself out. In this creative space, where the future definition of objects and systems is not fixed, inventions are born: ‘semantic uncertainty … may lead to new attributions that may then be instantiated in new kinds of artifacts or agents’ [David A. Lane and Robert R. Maxfield, ‘Ontological Uncertainty and Innovation’, Journal of Evolutionary Economics, 15 2005]. All great ideas begin life as fictional objects in the imagination of their inventor, or, at least, as a new combination of existing ideas.

Rethinking memory for imagining alternative futures

How we remember plays a role in how we think about the future. Joanna Bryson (Chapter 23) reminds us that ‘the capacity to plan what you might do tomorrow emerges at the same point in development as the capacity to remember what you were doing yesterday’. This makes sense in terms of day to day forecasting. Remembering where the traffic jam was yesterday helps with planning the journey to work tomorrow. There is a very basic way in which memory affects our comprehension of the future.

This dynamic relationship between the past and the future could deliver more imaginative visions of the future. This is because the way that we use memories to predict the future is a much more complex process than simply recalling a set of facts from the past. The father of memory classification, neuroscientist Endel Tulving, first distinguished between episodic and semantic memory in 1972. Semantic memory allows us to recall facts: for example, the proposition that ‘there was a traffic jam yesterday between Adder and Better Streets’. Episodic memory is the ability to consciously recollect previous experiences from memory — the colour of the car in front of you, how late it made you and that Cutter Road was clear and would have made for a quicker route. Episodic memory is used to construct stories about the past. It is a very similar biological process to imagining; every time we remember an event we put together the scraps of sights, sound and emotions differently, much like the way we construct an imaginary world. Tulving’s theory has been disputed over the years. But the distinction between memory of fact and memory of experience has become part of the accepted wisdom in neuroscience. Reviewing his work in 1997, Tulving said

Although mental time travel is clearly related to memory, it is interesting that in very few of the countless articles, chapters and books that have been written on the topic of memory have researchers paid attention to the conscious act of remembering personal experience We propose that the ability to mentally travel through time is an expression of the episodic memory system of the brain and that this ability is not shared by other systems of memory.

[Mark A. Wheeler, Donald T. Stuss and Endel Tulving, ‘Toward a Theory of Episodic Memory: The Frontal Lobes and Autonoetic Consciousness’, Psychology Bulletin, 121(3) 1997.]

Nick Carr’s chapter (7) highlights the plasticity of biological memory: it is ‘anything but a database’, he notes. Memories are written and rewritten, associated with constantly changing concepts, emotions and contexts. They are of course constrained by their place in the past; there is no sense of the ‘conjecture and expectation’ that Mark Currie attributes to the unknown future in his section. Modifying memory is re-imagining the past, but not altering it.

In a world where the future feels like it is already written, we could harness the power of episodic memory help us take charge of the future. Therapists have begun to purposefully modify memories. As Martijn Meeter discusses (Chapter 42), treatment for patients suffering from traumatic memories modifies the way the recollect those events.

Could we create a therapy that helps us reimagine our future, to start to own the rights to the creative space that uncertainty about the future gives us? What would this futures therapy look like? A more creative foresight method might do the trick. Taking the template from twentieth-century foresight, this exercise would need to start with a sense of the trends and drivers of change in the future. These would then be translated into more visceral and material ideas, in parallel with the group of personal experiences that make up episodic memory. These designs would then be arranged and rearranged into different stories about the future.

There are already projects experimenting with this. United Micro Kingdoms, a recent Design Museum exhibition, is a design fiction imagining four future counties or micro-Kingdoms in the UK, each with a different realisation of political, social and technology trends. It made it fun to spend a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon arguing over which world we would like to spend our future in.

To become more than just fun, to become properly empowering to the user, similar exercises in the future will need to help participants immersive themselves in these futures, ultimately with the chance to imagine their own. New Atlantis was created in early 2015 as an immersive theatre show in London’s docks, where the audience are part of a group of agents in 2050 guiding humanity through the most pressing issues of the twenty-first century. The production was small and ran for only one week, but the ethos behind it fits more closely with the idea of us all as agents of change. Even if New Atlantis and United Micro Kingdoms did not result in immediate action, they introduce plural, mutable futures that can be shaped and modified. Such imaginations are an antidote to our often stubbornly singular visions of the future.