#AbyssGaze and Grand Hotel Abyss
You’ve got to give it to Warren, releasing a book called ‘Normal
’ in 2016, in which futurists try to deal with staring so much into the abyss that the abyss stared back and now they are in a sanatorium. He established the Hashtag #AbyssGaze
for it, which I already have used more often this year than I ever wanted to. It just fits too well. (Btw. Normal comes out as a paperback at the end of this month, and I highly recommend reading it.)
Two weeks ago, I finished a book called Grand Hotel Abyss
by Stuart Jeffries. It’s a new biography on the philosophers of the so-called Frankfurt School. The likes of Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, etc. I knew very little about them, but their names keep coming up. So when one of those darn Verso newsletters promised 40 percent off, I ordered it and then soaked it up. It is really, really well written in my opinion. Jeffries tells the stories of the philosophers while providing broad context historically and philosophically. Having read this one, I now feel much better prepared to read other, more challenging books like Wark’s Molecular Red
. But as the title suggests, the Frankfurt School wasn’t exactly all hopes and dreams. They practiced the #AbyssGaze of today’s futurists on a whole different level.
Although it was not a pleasant experience, reading about #AbyssGaze and dealing with my version of it helped to deal with the US elections. The most common sentiment coming from the US in the weeks before election day was exhaustion. Igor and I already suspected that it wouldn’t be over on November 9. We started talking more about self-care in the days leading up to the election. Over the last years, I observed how our instincts tend to get ahead of our minds. We still didn’t think that Trump would win. Only my partner Nicola called it. I tried to convince her that electoral math would prevent that. I kept checking FiveThirtyEight every morning.
On Wednesday, I got up at 2 am to follow the election. I’ve never done that before. Somehow I felt that I wanted to follow this event live because it would be historic. At that time, people were mostly demanding that Florida should get its act together. Over the next hours, Igor and I connected via chat, observing the NY Times’ needle of doom slowly moving from left to right. And with each hour, it became clearer that the world was turning upside down. The next day was mostly about something that you could call Future Shock when the consequences of the election result began to sink in. Not only domestic but international. Nato, the Iran nuclear deal, etc.
I don’t know why, exactly, but in those situations, I’m able to move from WTF to ‘challenge accepted’ quite rapidly. Maybe I’m not taking enough time to mourn and sit with it. But in general, this kind of situation tends to give me a lot of energy. It helps me to focus and act.
What was taken for granted
I reached out to my family. One of my sisters told me that the kids in my nephew’s class were freaking out. It’s not only parents in the US, who had some explaining to do.
This incident reminded me of an article by a father in a German weekly a couple of months ago (probably after Brexit). The father described how he never really had a conversation on society and politics with his kids. He was so used to a general climate of freedom and prosperity that he had taken it for granted. The natural order of thing.
When I talked to my family, I couldn’t tell them that it will be ok and “it’s always the darkest before the dawn,” because I don’t believe that. I think that we will have to fight for every single bit of freedom and rights that we want. It will only get easier again, in the way that we get used to the struggle again.
Here we (as in white, cis, and in my case, male) have to step back and listen to those who never had our privileges and thus are very used to the struggle. The privilege that father felt was not shared by all of society. And karma is a bitch.
So, over the last days, I’ve tried to stay away from the daily news and the anxiety about all the immediate reactions to the election. I’m pretty sure about a couple of things: most politicians won’t learn anything, most media won’t learn anything, most citizens won’t learn anything – in the US, Germany and anywhere else. German newspapers quote polls like nothing happened and Nate Silver will still have his job, Facebook still can’t resolve the huge gap between its mission and the actual effect of its platform; big data is still considered a valid technology, forecasts of all kind will still be used to plan. This is the reality we have to organize for, not matter if Trump deports 3 or 11 million immigrants.
Agency and Alternatives
Instead of following the daily news in detail, I tried to find the insightful voices that looked at the bigger picture, history, and in-depth experience. Like the French philosopher Alain Badiou, who gave a speech
(text & video) the day after the election, providing one of the best overall analysis of the current state of the (formerly known western) world.
“These four points — the general and strategic domination of globalized capitalism, the decomposition of classical political oligarchy, the popular disorientation and frustration, and the lack of another strategic way — compose in my opinion the crisis of today.”
“The lack of another strategic way” is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot. In October, we celebrated
our sixth anniversary with Third Wave. For the first time since we started, we now feel comfortable to formulate a mission, the general purpose that we get to the office in the morning: Giving people agency in a digital world
. That’s what drives us.
We see it in clients, in the audiences we give talks to, in the German media and in conversations in general: an over-aching feeling of helplessness in dealing with a complex world. In the context of our work, it’s mostly a technological determinism. The sense of being at the mercy of Silicon Valley. This is what we’re fighting against. A couple of years ago, we printed this quote by Ramez Naam on our Christmas cards: “To understand a thing is to gain the power to change it.”
I was invited to a panel discussion recently by the Department of Commerce of the state of Saxony in East Germany to discuss their new digital strategy for the state. It was incredible to witness how only a few pointers at what the state could do to shape the digital world a bit more totally changed the atmosphere of the room. People sat up, eyes got wide and the room felt immediately energized. It was a manifestation of an audience getting agency.
Digital technology is only one area where our society lacks another strategic way.
RIP Forecasting, hello Foresight
this right after the election:
The US Elections were the third major event after Brexit and the Colombian peace referendum where the polls were utterly wrong.
German weekly Die Zeit did two scenario stories this year, in which they tried to paint pictures of — at that point — unlikely futures. The first one was Brexit; the other one was Trump. For both, reporters tried to talk to politicians, bureaucrats, policy experts, etc. in Germany and the European Union. Most wouldn’t speak to them, and a few only did off the record. They would say that they weren’t allowed to plan for these futures. That not only had no strategy but mostly not even possible scenarios. Our governments went rather unprepared into maybe the two biggest politically relevant events of this year.
In a world that has become too complex to predict, we need to facilitate new methods to plan for possible futures much more earnestly.
We are in desperate need of alternatives. Offerings alternatives is what gave that audience in Saxony agency. As Baidou said:
“So the return to politics is by necessity the return of the existence of a real choice.”
We need much more foresight to create choice. Over the last couple of months, we have started to offer workshops to some of our clients based on the future cone and backcasting
. We have already done scenario planning with clients like Deutsche Bahn earlier this year. But we can become much better at doing foresight work.
Over the last two months, I had been considering going back to university for this. The FU Berlin is offering a Master in Future Studies
. I’ve talked to some alumni and listen to a lecture by one of the professors to get a clearer understanding if this is the right thing to do.
We always joke with Third Wave that what we lack in skills, we compensate with attitude. This program will help me to hone my skills and balance things out. It will allow me to be much more precise and confident in finding and promoting alternative futures. Last week then, was the final push to commit to this path. So from next autumn on, I will split my time between the company and studying for the master for two years.
by Scott also explains very well why I want to do much more in foresight. On a side note: I recently was invited to discuss Scott’s talk with Ricarda Messner from Flaneur
magazines and Mathew Dryhurst
(partner of Holly Herndon) for the Berlin edition of the IAM popups
So, maybe the strongest sentiment in my filter bubble after the election was that now is the time to organize. And as I wrote above, I strongly agree. But what does “organizing” actually mean?
Astra Tayler wrote an excellent essay
for The Baffler a couple of months ago that explains very well the difference between activism and organizing.
“Organizing is long-term and often tedious work that entails creating infrastructure and institutions, finding points of vulnerability and leverage in the situation you want to transform, and convincing atomized individuals to recognize that they are on the same team (and to behave like it).”
Petitions and hashtags are fine. But to build a political force, it takes much more time and effort. It’s very much about the old mantra along the line of “go slow, grow strong.” So why not start with one of the grandfathers of old-school organizing.
A couple of weeks ago, somebody recommended Rules for Radicals
by Saul D. Alinsky to me. The subtitle is ‘A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals’ and it was written 1971. Legend has it that it was the book that inspired Obama to become a community organizer in Chicago. And reading it, I quite often thought that I now understand some behavior of Obama a bit better.
I ordered it from my local bookstore and had it on one of my many ‘to read’ piles until the election came, and I started reading it.