Futures thinking with Bruce Sterling

In October Bruce Sterling gave a good talk about futuring at the Long Now Foundation. If you don’t know Sterling, he’s an important science fiction writer, nonfiction writer, and futurist. If you don’t know Long Now, they are a group focused on getting us to think in terms of longer timescales than we normally do.

As always, I enjoyed Sterling’s speech, and want to share it with you all. I’ll summarize the highlights below.

First, Sterling argues that futures thinking always involves a particular audience, a shared community that agrees to value a certain aspect of futuring. “To be futuristic is to perform the futuristic for somebody. It’s an act of communication from somebody to an audience.” Futures thinking without participating in a speech community is only a form of diary writing.

Sterling then recommends would-be futurists fit themselves into one of Stewart Brand’s Pace layers. Brand’s model separates different flows of time into strata based on the kind of things they deal with:

Pace layers

Starting from the top, the fastest later, that of fashion, Sterling cites Karl Lagerfeld as an example. Lagerfeld has the uncanny ability to anticipate changes in fashion. Under the less frantic commerce layer appear futurists who advise businesses and investors.

Within the governance layer Sterling reaches back for the example of Vannevar Bush. (I was surprised that he cited Science: The Endless Frontier, not “As We May Think.”) For infrastructure, engineers as well as those who do military planning.

In the cultural layer appears writers, which is how Sterling brings himself in, arguing for the importance of novels. He also recommends thinking in terms of the longue durée, citing Fernand Braudel. There’s a strange observation about the durability of the classics, which sidesteps both the instability of canons and the importance of popular culture.

Nature level: here Sterling breaks from Brand’s model, briefly arguing that nature is now too chaotic and capable of changing quickly. Sterling repeated his favorite aphoristic glimpse of the rest of the 21st century: old people in big cities, afraid of the sky.

Wrapping up this presentation, Sterling asks us to consider what the main benefit of being a futurist is. In his view the advantages are not political power nor a reputation for brilliance. Instead,

The major benefit is that when seemingly weird stuff happens you’re rather less weirded out than other people. You kinda saw it coming. You can even console them.

The rest of the presentation veers into considerations on Italian history, based on Sterling’s work on two European projects.

Overall, I think this how-to framing makes sense at a basic level. Sterling isn’t talking about forecasting methods – in fact, he sets aside scenarios and Delphi. This is a both a more fundamental model (the importance of futuring within a given community) and a bit of professional advice (picking out a pace layer to work within).

Unfortunately, my own work sits in both the culture and governance layers. On the one hand (or layer) I study the many ways and signals being sent by human behavior within education, how we conduct research and teach classes. On the other, I work closely with colleges, universities, governments, and nonprofits on how to structure their educational services: a slower pace to be sure. Then I also work with some businesses, which takes me to the commerce layer. And I track developments in deeper technology, which brings us to infrastructure. I think demographics is in that layer as well. On reflection, I’m not a good example of Sterling’s pace layer futurist model after all.

(thanks to Hugh Blackmer)

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