Out of the Ashes
Editor’s Note: Dr. Riel Miller is currently the Head of Futures Literacy at UNESCO with decades of experience working with governments and intergovernmental institutions like the OECD; he is a visionary thinker whose work in shaping a Futures Literacy theory has inspired a growing network of practitioners that recognize the need to expand our vision of the present. Most importantly, he is a dear friend of mine. Riel writes this letter-essay to me in the shadow of the novel coronavirus, which has – as at last official count – infected more than 600,000 people and led to the deaths of nearly 30,000. This letter addresses the deep ontological challenges that the virus poses to our current social arrangements.
With his permission, I have decided to publish it and share it. I rarely – if ever – publish works that are not mine. I have made an exception here. Dr. Riel Miller writes in his own personal capacity; his views do not represent those of any aforementioned bodies or institutions.
March 28, 2020
I’ve been trying to figure out a way for me to make-sense of the shock currently being experienced world-wide. On the one hand, I feel the fear and strong desire for everything to go back to normal. On the other hand, I am delighted by the vistas that all of a sudden become evident when the future we imagine, even for a few months, changes radically. As usual, when I have a lot of thoughts twirling around in my mind, I want to play with them. Right now, I really want play in ways that take advantage of this amazing opportunity to do things differently – to challenge my imagination, inventing new ways for us to co-create using the power of the virtual. So here is a missive that I hope will spark plenty of creative fun using the vastness of cyberspace as our playground!
Okay, I don’t know if you recall, but in the 1990s I imagined what it might be like to “settle the Cyberfrontier”. An imaginary future, with ‘rules for radicals’ and without the ‘might makes right’ cattle ranchers of Google, Facebook, Amazon or the hands-off posture of the decrepit, continuity obsessed bureaucratic mastodons. This imaginary post-post-industrial world is rich with potential. Open to discontinuity, full of opportunities that are invisible or meaningless when our perceptions and attention are focused on projecting the existing industrial urban world into the future.
For instance, in a ‘business-as-usual’ future there is little or no point in establishing:
- universal ‘cyber-citizenship’ or a means for affirming and controlling one’s existence – on-line identity, avatars and reputation – in the virtual worlds made accessible by the net;
- production systems without offices, factories and commuting;
- accounting systems that measure the value of unique-creation (beyond supply and demand price setting);
- property right laws and payment systems that enable new business models based on tracked ‘credit for mash-ups’ and disintermediated ‘peer-to-peer’ transactions;
- value systems that are not rooted in the incentives and status mechanisms of mass-production, scale economies, and the efficiency of faceless inter-changeability;
- images of a world where the terms supply and demand only apply to a small share of human activity;
- a universal ‘commons’ (open access and semantic web) for all human knowledge;
- systems that enable everyone to claim credit for what they know how to do;
- ways of living that reduce the physical weight of human existence.
Over twenty years later, with our home (I mean planet Earth) offering so many clear messages of decline and emergence, I am struck by our inability (lack of the necessary capabilities) to appreciate the invitation that accompanies endings. Condemned by ‘poverty-of-the-imagination,’ the source of recurrent panics about the end of things, such as artificial intelligence and the ‘future of work’. Such a jobless future is a nightmare for those who project the industrial organization of life in perpetuity, but for others it is an invitation to creativity and experimentation beyond current organizational forms. It really is time to understand the damage done to and by our species because of our deranged effort to deny that things die.
Forests burn, dinosaurs go extinct, ‘civilizations’ fall, and what happens? The old makes room for the new. We live in a complex, creative universe. Uncertainty is the only certainty. Bayo, why do we think that the best strategy for our survival and well-being is to build heavy, imposing, rigid fortresses when we live in a swirling cloud? I blame, in part, this crazy effort to seek immortality, permanence. Think of pyramids and Empire State Buildings. Glory and permanence by building monuments. And gradually ‘work’ has become one of our most imposing monuments. Humans have organized their lives, and meaning, into a narrower and narrower form of ‘work’. Not work as life and meaning but as a supply side activity that produces something that can be sold in a market.
Of course, we must engage in activities that have ‘value’, provide meaning, in context – for survival but also for being, which should alert us to the absurdity of the billions of lifetimes spent ‘commuting’. Sitting in cars, slogging in subways, metros, buses, wasting trillions of precious moments. How many billions of people live and work in communities in which they are inter-changeable parts? Cogs in a faceless machine. Distant from the fundamental sources of well-being, the people we care about, and the living physical environments where diverse trees, animals and plants evolve with us in complex emergence.
Right now, with a virus ripping through the fabric of our current way of organizing, we have an opportunity. A shock that makes clear that the dominant industrial urban organization and the imagined futures that power its reproduction are not only unnecessary, but highly toxic. Our Earth, our home, with its climate and its viruses, is letting us know that we are fundamentally alienated from the world around us. Of course, we didn’t choose this path – it too emerged in complex experimental fashion. Thinking we create our futures is precisely the error that leads to non-resilience because it cripples the ability to sense and make sense of novelty. Thinking that we could and should play ‘god’ by imposing our will on the future is a form of madness.
In the world as we live in now, our main gift to future generations is steel and concrete, fear of uncertainty and hubris! We are monumentalists. Builders of pyramids, temples and walls. Our identity – the who am I mash-up – is miserably weakened by an insatiable craving for scale, status, continuity. Colonize Mars. Our tunnel vision is so bad, we can’t even detect or make sense of most of what is actually happening all around us. The ephemeral, transitory, unique phenomena of space-time specificity that are experience. Statistics and durability blot out the immeasurable up-welling of experiments, the raw material of change and resilience in a creative universe. Phenomena relegated to the trash-heap of not enough ‘hits’, insufficient mass-scale notoriety. We can’t even sense the stuff of life and meaning, each unique instance of being.
Now is the time to put an end to the delusion that we are engineers capable of imposing today’s imagination on tomorrow – as if we were colonialists determining the lives of future generations. Despite the pain, fear and losses being experienced worldwide, or perhaps because of these woes, the take-away is to appreciate the gifts and opening up of novel potential. Not because we enjoy loss but because immortality lacks both generosity and transformative creativity. The only genuine way to express love for future generations is to live our values now. Means are the ends. Death is a loss AND a gift. The quality of the compost we become is our only real legacy.
So, let’s walk the talk. No plan for colonizing tomorrow. Rather an invitation to improvise the potential of what is all around us with the lens of spontaneity, fluidity, birth AND death. Not death as selective triage to privilege the winner of the moment, or to seek the ‘best’. Nor as an excuse to ignore the inequity of precarity and choice perpetuated by the comfort and discomfort that snaps back into place as each cusp slams into the present, the tale of inertia. No, the capability that stirs my imagination is akin to a mirror, Alice’s looking glass, in all its multi-dimensionality. Look around you. What do you see, right now, March 2020? There’s a good chance you are at home. Not in a car. Not in a factory, office or other workplace. Does the unknown, uncertain future claw at many fears? Imagined tomorrows that menace continuity and yesterday’s familiar patterns. Imagined tomorrow’s that make it almost impossible to notice the potential of the present to be different from the past. This is the moment to ask where did that mirror come from?
Crossroads are perpetually before us, and the road not taken, the experiments that never were, so often refused on the grounds of the known. Power and habit opt for the path considered predictable, hence ‘safer’. But this form of safety is a recipe for path-dependency. An acceptance of a lazy and morally unacceptable complicity with learned aversions to difference. Sad confirmation of an infatuation with repetition. Startling evidence of an inability to embrace experimentalism, the rigor of improvisation and the exercise of the imagination made possible because our universe offers us continuous surprises. Indeed, the current surprise provides us with a learning-by-doing moment. An invitation to notice that if we change why and how we use the future we can see and do things differently.
The crossroad I feel here and now is that a significant part of the old way of living is dying. Forest fires, viruses, and bombastic nostalgia are all signals of endings. And beginnings. Births that we can nourish with the compost of two centuries of industrial-national-patriarchal-colonial organization. It is a fertile moment. But what should we plant, water, invent? Not to create the future but to cultivate the capability to live in a different way now. When I take a look in my imagination-ignited multi-dimensional mirror it shows that in the present the conditions are ripe. We are living a moment when it is easier to see the potential of the present for greater openness, non-ideological experimentation (without the colonizer, paternalistic controller teleology) that embraces a capability-based conception of responsibility and agency. I can imagine it, the fluid ‘assemblages’ of constantly emerging difference, in high-lighted contrast to the repetition that also surrounds us. Such perceptions are ‘affordances’ or entry points to seeing and doing that don’t fetishize standardization, inter-changeability, scale and durability.
This is where a story that is familiar to me swirls into focus: the idea of settling the Cyberfrontier. It is certainly not the only way of sensing and making-sense of the potential of the present. But it is an illustration of how liberating our imaginations enables us to grasp the moment, to experience improvisation, experimentation, and what it could mean to take a diversification strategy to resilience (difference as meaning and celebration). I have written elsewhere (Out of the Ashes 1; Unique Creation; Learning Productivity) about some of the new power structures and norms that I imagine as changes in the conditions of change. Hospitable to new dimensions and directions for sourcing meaning and identity, creating and sharing what we know, our avatars, inter-temporal assets, imaginations. Not least of which is the capability called Futures Literacy, in many ways the pre-condition for diversifying the reasons and methods for using our imagination. Changing what we see and do. Inviting us to understand our fears and hopes. Preparing, yes anticipating in that way, to improvise to novelty’s many tunes. Riffing, with confidence, to the melodies of emergent creativity.
That’s it, for now.
How about putting together some nifty virtual playground so we can bat these ideas around. Back in the day (early 2000s) there used to be ‘virtual places’ we could go to interact, build stuff, play with symbols, have fun. Maybe now we are able to see and do what was not doable back then. That’s one meaning of unknowable emergence – invention.
 Just a footnote to underscore the obvious, this is a letter to you Bayo and is just my opinion.