Foresight for the distracted

When thinking about futures, the power of nostalgia and distraction should not be underestimated. We are living in a post-factual society, where mastering the art of distraction and appealing to nostalgia is a key advantage. Lying is no problem, as long as you follow one outrageous claim with another, more outrageous one, and back it up with a nostalgic view of the past. You can be a presidential candidate even if you speak the truth only 4% of the time, as long as you promise to bring back the good old times.

We are willing to do anything to be distracted from the complex present

Why is distraction and nostalgia so powerful? One reason is that the present seems so confusing that we are willing to do anything to be distracted from it, especially if the distraction leads us to a more simple world. Douglas Rushkoff calls this present shock, the feeling that we are alien in our present time. Digital technology is one culprit for this feeling, allowing us to be flooded with a constant stream of information and a feeling of responsibility to be everywhere at once, all the time. Smart phones and social media provide constant possibility to be distracted, to escape the present as well as the future.

Rethinking foresight

So what does this mean for foresight? Current best practices in foresight emphasize a systematic process, building shared visions and developing narratives for a handful of alternative futures. However, in a post-factual, distracted world grand narratives lose their power, thinking of complex systems seems cumbersome and committing time and attention to a foresight process is a trade-off many are not willing to make. Nostalgia is more tempting than thinking about the logic of new futures, or even the present. People are exhausted with existing novelty and thus exploring new possibilities is not high on their list.

In a post-factual distracted world grand narratives lose their power

In order to respond to the challenges set by distraction and nostalgia, we need to rethink how to do foresight. The purpose of foresight is to make good choices in the present by thinking through alternative futures. To soothe the anxiousness caused by present shock and combat the appeal of distractions, foresight should offer a calm, hopeful place to think about futures. This means allowing time for reflection and thinking as well as for meaningful connections and interactions between humans - without phones or other gadgets to distract us from the scary but pleasant interaction with fellow humans. Foresight should offer a promise that things can be different in a good way, without falling into naive optimism.

A shift from thinking and debating futures towards experiencing futures is needed. There are emerging research and approaches to support this shift, for example mediated scenarios and experimental futuring. The nature and purpose of participation needs to change from legitimization and consulting to co-creation or simply drifting together towards futures. Not everything needs to be controlled or have an explicit goal.

Things to try

Experimentation is all the hype nowadays, so here are some suggestions on concrete things to try.

  • When planning foresight workshops, schedule time for quiet, aimless thinking (without smartphones). Just ask how the future feels like. Participants can share their thoughts if they want, but that is not the point. The point is to calm down and orient towards futures.

  • If you want to do something more structured, try vision walks. Ask the participants to walk around the city/hospital/workplace of the future. Ask what they see, hear, smell, touch. What is surprising, what is familiar?

  • Plan a 10 day challenge. Each day, participants have to do a future-oriented task, e.g. think about a different short scenario on a topic. Having small, simple, achievable tasks creates a sense of control and achievement.

  • Talk to strangers. Treat humans as humans, try not to be prejudiced. Don't try to convince the person that you are right, just have a real conversation. Ask how the person feels about an image of the future you are developing.

  • Create a collage of short stories instead of a grand narrative. If a shared coherent meaningful vision cannot be attained, go for a patchwork of smaller ones. Perhaps it will give a more apt view of what the futures hold.

I congratulate everyone who managed to read this far without checking some notification.