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SciFly NYC // 114 // Hope & Speculation

Weekly Events 2/17 - 2/23

Hey SciFly Readers!

This week I want to quickly share a couple of ideas and connections from a new book I have started reading, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, by Rebecca Solnit.

I have been having a long hard week, pushing through a ton of stuff at work (in a short deadline) as my role takes on a new scope, trying to keep up with external responsibilities from a million directions, and generally hiding from news/politics, afraid that even a glimpse will drive me over the edge into rage at the WTF moment of history we are living in.

After a super long day at work last week, I decided it would be best to calm down a bit by taking a long walk (aka the bus never caught up to me) all the way from my apartment in BK to the 'local' Trader Joes, about 2 miles away. During this walk, I finally decided to check out Hope in the Dark, as it had just auto-downloaded to my phone from being on hold at my library.

I'm so happy I did! Sometimes an author feels like they are speaking directly to your heart, especially when you are having your own small struggles and really need to get a sense of perspective. That is what Hope in the Dark did for me. Remind me that sometimes, when we get mired deep in our own shit, our sense of perspective can become wildly skewed from what is important.

Hope in the Dark's central premise is that we should make a radical commitment for hope in a world whose future remains uncertain and unknowable. That this very unknowableness is actually the greatest strength the future has to offer, a clean canvas for us to write our hopes and dreams upon, reminding ourselves that yes, it can get better.

As Solnit writes, "Hope locates itself in the premises that we don't know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act." When you are able to recognize this uncertainty, you realize that you (or you and others together) might be able to influence the outcomes, and that even "...ideas at first considered outrageous or ridiculous or extreme gradually become what people think they've always believed."

I have been thinking a lot lately about why I really care about speculative design, strategic foresight, and futures practice more broadly. Why, out of all the things on this earth, is this the field, the community of practice, and the network of people that I feel closest to? Why are these the people I am content to just being around talking to, even as other bars and similar social gatherings feel more and more lifeless, or in some extreme cases, like a multi-directional echo of the same tired soliloquy "What do you do? Isn't politics depressing? Isn't the world bananas? [Insert X here] about how much late-capitalism sucks while playing with your $900 phone.

In so many settings, in so many cities I've been to this year, the revelry I see looks like hedonistic nihilism, a neverending conga line of frustrated apathy winding it's way from craft cocktail-bar, to food truck, around homeless camps and future climate refugees, under and over the trendily re-purposed yet ultimately crumbling infrastructure of industrialism, and eventually leading us down, down, down hell. A hopeless, powerless quasi-near future where nothing really matters, so why even bother trying to resist?

“Critical thinking without hope is cynicism, but hope without critical thinking is naïvete." - Bulgarian writer, Maria Popova

While reading the first few chapters of Solnit's book, mostly a catalog of wonderful ideas & quotes about hope, as well as examples of how even when things seemed like a huge setback (it was originally written right after the US declared 'War on Terror' and re-election of George W Bush), many small great changes were materializing, I started to realize that the very reason I feel so closely connected to people in the wide-ranging community of speculative practitioners is that in many cases, it felt like they, at least, had not yet lost hope.

Not hope as in, everything will get better, but hope as in the power to believe things can change from the margin, and the ability to recognize when it has. As Solnit says, "How the transformation happened is rarely remembered, in part because it’s compromising: it recalls the mainstream when the mainstream was, say, rabidly homophobic or racist in a way it no longer is; and it recalls that power comes from the shadows and the margins, that our hope is in the dark around the edges, not the limelight of center stage."

She positions hope in the frame of lots of small actions, undertaken by many people, over time, can lead to lasting change. Often, even in times of unprecedented change & upheaval (I would argue now) things that are happening suddenly actually arise from deep roots in the past, or from long-dormant seeds of the groundwork and ideas laid by 'hopers' and activists. In the end, it isn't about 'winning' as in ultimate-victory, but about laying the groundwork for the change in the future we want to see.

This is why speculation, no matter the field, is so important. In my mind, speculation is inextricably intertwined with hope. Those who build the muscles of speculation: looking for signals and trends today and in the past, understanding how those trends may come together to frame alternative possibilities, and using creativity, design, writing (whatever) to collectively imagine and steer towards preferred futures (IMHO) are much better at being hopeful. 

As Solnit says in her book, "We write history with our feet and with our presence and our collective voice and vision." Even when things might seem dark, we often have to question why. Often "...everything in the mainstream media suggests that popular resistance is ridiculous, pointless, or criminal unless it is far away, was long ago, or ideally both." 

To me, speculative practice is really about this, hope in the service of resistance. Telling alternative futures, presents, and pasts is a way to reclaim this uncertainty as a place where our actions CAN make a difference, no matter the complexity of the technology, the society, or the systemic, even existential challenge. 

Probably my favorite quote mentioned in the book comes from Virginia Woolf, who wrote in her journal, six months into the First World War in 1915, "The future is dark, which is on the whole, the best thing the future can be, I think." Solnit points out that often it isn't just the future that can feel dark, the present can be as well, since "...few recognize what a radically transformed world we live in, one that has been transformed not only by such nightmares as global warming and global capital but by dreams of freedom, of justice, and transformed by things we could not have dreamed of... And so we need to hope for the realization of our own dreams, but also to recognize a world that will remain wilder than our imaginations."

When I think about why I'm so excited to be part of an international community of passionate speculators, why I take unpaid time out of my life (often to the detriment of my free-time, my relationships, and even sometimes my health) to talk about speculation, organize events, publish this newsletter, and find prompts, platforms, and ideas to connect our Speculative Futures global meetup community, the only reason I can actually think of is because the art of speculation ultimately makes me better at being hopeful. And right now, I can't think of a more important thing for a person to be. Hopeful.

As Solnit writes, "Sometimes one person inspires a movement, or her words do decades later; sometimes a few passionate people change the world; sometimes they start a mass movement and millions do; sometimes those millions are stirred by the same outrage or the same ideal, and change comes upon us like a change of weather. All that these transformations have in common is that they begin in the imagination, in hope. To hope is to gamble. It’s to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty is better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk."

Maybe it's naive, or maybe I'm wildly optimistic, but the reason I'm part of this community, this practice, and hopefully one day this profession (and I say that super loosely) is because I want to help others to be more hopeful through speculation as well. In the face of despair, of complexity, of powerlessness, we have to remember that "Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope." (Solnit)

Yes, it's hard, but "without a minimum of hope, we cannot so much as start the struggle. But without the struggle, hope dissipates, loses its bearings, and turns into hopelessness. And hopelessness can turn into tragic despair. Hence the need for a kind of education in hope." ( Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Hope: Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed)

I've always said my mission was to educate and empower others to leverage emerging technology and speculative practice to imagine more sustainable equitable futures. What I didn't realize until now, is what I'm really talking about when I say this, is educating others how to hope through speculation.

Anyway, I know that was a long, somewhat free-associated and rambling discussion of all the things Solnit's book brought up for me. But really truly, the messages and examples in her book helped to breathe some oxygen back onto my speculative flame and help me remember that even in the face of seemingly impossible challenges (whether personal, professional, or even existential) that the best way to stay hopeful is by staying speculative, keeping the future 'dark', and meeting others who want to work together in that darkness to imagine what could be better.

Thanks again for listening and keep reading for great speculative events!

"The future is here, now let's distribute it." 

Doc Martens

SciFly is a design studio dedicated to leveraging speculative design and science fiction to imagine and prototype alternative futures enabled by today's emerging technology.


Monday | 2/17

Tuesday | 2/18

Wednesday | 2/19

Thursday | 2/20

Friday | 2/21

Saturday | 2/22

Sunday | 2/23

OnGoing [classes, exhibits, shows etc.]


What I'm Reading

Here is a quick snapshot of my favorite books, podcasts, and articles this week.

Could a USB-C Charger’s Chip Get You to the Moon? This Guy Did the Math so You Don’t Have To
by Jason Dorrier

SciShow Explains Cardiff’s Potential Universal Cancer Treatment
by Brian Wang

This 'Cyberpunk' Bracelet Jams Any Spying Microphones Nearby
By Victor Tangermann

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