Last month Chris humored me for a trip to the National Steinbeck Center, a quirky exhibit in the heart of Salinas, California. It’s densely packed, verbosely curated, and delightful. Museums are places of discovery and reflection for me, and I set upon this one with a question.
John Steinbeck is up there among my very favorite authors, and is certainly my favorite among the non-genre literary writers. My question was: why? What is it about Steinbeck that I love just so much?
I love nearly all his books, but East of Eden has the distinction of being my second favorite novel (after Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed of course). Unlike Liza Hamilton’s bible, the eye tracks in my copy of East of Eden are uneven. I’ve been toting around the same dog eared and pencil annotated Classics Edition since high school. The first few dozen pages are especially worn. When I was traveling most intensely for work, about five years ago, I would carry it with me as a cure for homesickness. Steinbeck’s ode to those dry hills, and the wet years when people forget the dry years, remains my perfect reminder of California. Continue reading →
High off the creative rush of Inktober 2016, I wrote a short story the other day. I wrote it in the world of my desk-drawer-half-written-novel, in which the San Francisco Bay Area of 2115(ish) is blanketed by a soaring, window-filled arcology. I’ll get back to that ambitious undertaking eventually, but nothing stops me from worldbuilding in the meantime.
It starts like this:
Stories about people’s tattoos are the worst. Listening to them tell about the pattern and the inspiration is boring, repetitive, and whatever meaning they capture on a person’s skin is utterly opaque to any other person. The aesthetics though, can be pure. Clean. A statement of commitment. A moment of clarity captured forever.
No one asks me about my tattoos during my work day, or even out at public clubs with friends. It’s not that they’re hidden under sleeves or skirts, though some are. They are not for common display. Their aesthetics are private; selective. And they are not drawn in ink, but in light and cells.
The futurist debt I owe to the Institute for the Future for this story stems from two streams of work: the soon-to-be-released New Body Language research I led (UPDATED: listen to my release podcast with Mark Fraeunfelder!), and it’s continuation under my colleague Bradley KreitEverything is Media. We drew on signals from cutting-edge DARPA funded research on implants, artists and hackers, and entertainment both popular and fringe. We also included my talented colleague Jamais Cascio, who has long explored the notion of the panopticon and it’s participatory incarnations in the present and nearish future. My contribution this year was to think about the implications for intimacy, hidden meaning and interpersonal care. The contrast of these two streams of foresight research beg the central question of this story: in a world where everyone could be watching all the time, what would you do to have an utterly personal, strictly intimate experience?
But I was also inspired by extracurricular science and art. The morning I wrote this I was reading about this fascinating study about how plants use light. This small finding, about how light may be beamed from leaves to roots, helps us get closer to understanding how living organisms perception of wave-based energy (light, sound etc) interacts with chemical signaling (molecules in host and symbiote tissues) to go about the business of living and growing. Signals of light excite plants and set of more chemical signalling than photosynthesis.
I’ve also been thinking quite a lot about the skin microbiome, both professionally and on my own. Throw a little CRISPR on humans and epidermal chimerism in there, and you get the possibility of a tattoo that altered the substance of human skin and its interaction with different fungi and bacteria. In other words, tattoos that are completely invisible unless excited by certain kinds of light and promicrobial mists.
Finally, we’re already in a world where privacy is something that you pay for (one way or another). Private clubs have been the work-around for a variety of intimate experiences, up to and including sex, drugs, and rock and roll. What would be more intimate than sharing invisible tattoos and dropping acid with 20 strangers with whom you share nothing else?
In my line of work, it’s understandable to occasionally be confused about tenses. Lately, when that happens, I think about Isaac Azimov. More accurately, I think of a weird French animated film from 1988, Light Years aka Gandahar , the English translation of which Azimov happened to write. The tag line in English was, ” a thousand years ago, Gandahar will be saved.” The plot involves time travel, duh. But what made the biggest impression on me as a child was the way Azimov translated the speech of the Deformed, mutant Gandaharians who aid the protagonist in the various eons of his quest. For example:
There seemed to be no present tense in their language. A thing “was-will-be.” The concept of the present is just an anomaly in the continuity of what was in the past, into what will be in the future. This tickled my nerdy little mind as a child, in between bouts of utter distraction by the cracked out synthesizer laden soundtrack. Whenever I’m feeling despondent about some quality the present lacks, I think about history and when that quality was, and the future and when that quality may reemerge.
Learning how to practice mindfulness has been a struggle for me, as my teachers seem to discount the future as a distraction from the present. The future is…well, really pretty important to me. This has caused some bouts of rebellion, against myself in my attempts to re-wire my brain into something generally more resilient.
Vivian and I used to debate whether there was such a thing as “mindful futures thinking.” We generally concluded “no.” But I think the long view of the Deformed, their fusion of acceptance and patience, is that elusive idea of mindful futures Viv and I were searching for. (Although I didn’t remember it clearly enough at the time to make my case. I’m reading Ready Player One now, so my head’s all twisted around the 80s sci-fi of my childhood. The rest of the 80s pop culture references sill allude me.)
When I started writing fiction as a child, I almost always wrote in the past tense. It was just easier that way.
When I started writing as an anthropologist, the past tense was the way to go for almost everything, except for brief vignettes or seriously highfalutin theory.
My current challenge is learning to write well in the present tense. The perpetual, perfect, perplexing, maddening present that infuses every sentence I write with a question lingering in my mind about WHEN IT TAKES PLACE. Take this meta paragraph, which describes how I have-will give scenario presentations:
I walk up on stage. I’m thinking about my first line. It’s in 2012, in the present. I’m thinking of my fifth line. It’s in 2022, in the future, and I have to bring the whole audience with me. In four sentences, we have to know we are here and now, and then agree to believe we’re some other time, some other place. I’ve done this before, many times. Sometimes it worked, others, not so much. When we talk about the future, all sorts of traps get sprung in people’s heads. We try to get around them. I’m trying to get around them. I’m trying to bring people into the future, while fooling their brains into listening to it for long enough to suspend their disbelief that the future won’t look like that and that won’t happen and just…imagine. The future is now. The future is the present.
If all the tenses in that paragraph confused you, welcome to my life. Unless you write futures, you have no idea. If we’re now in 2022, how do you talk about the now-past-then-future, say, things that happened in 2018? If you lapse into past tense here, you’re likely to give your audience temporal whiplash, and generally lose the non-native speakers completely. The solution here is to stay in the present tense, carefully dancing around pseudo historical land mines.
But despite all that challenge to our tense constructions, scenarios let us wrap our heads around futures. Even if they’re wrong, less likely to be accurate, less plausible, than other forms of foresight, they’re more tangible, and I think in many cases, more useful, in my opinion. But is it the best solution to the tense problem when writing and speaking serious futures?
When I first started interning at IFTF, I discovered the challenges of writing in the future tense. Tenses. At that time, there were hardly any scenarios in the recent IFTF cannon. A vignette here and there, a lone report, but mostly there were forecasts. Descriptions of trends. Reports from the perspective of the present about future possibility. There’s the strong forecast tense, ” this will happen.” There’s the weaker iterations, “will likely/may/might happen.” I got the hang of these pretty quickly. But there’s some really interesting evidence emerging that there may be some drawbacks to framing futures in this way, with the strong distinction between present and future. My colleague Gabriel Harp gave this a much more thorough and nuanced treatment than I will here, under the provocative heading, “Does talking about the future make it less likely to happen?” Now this research is based in cross-cultural linguistics, which is all kinds of fascinating, and makes my muddled tense rant above seem shockingly ethnocentric. Dr. Sohail Inayatulla has some pretty awesome lectures on his youtube channel about cross cultural concepts of the future and how they shape thinking, which is similarly all kinds of fascinating.
In short, “what is the best tense” is totally the wrong question. Even “how can we keep this not confusing” isn’t nearly ambitious enough. The real question is, how do you know, based on your audience, what the most provocative, comprehensible and persuasive tense will be? How do you develop cultural agility for futures thinking?
So my SB challenge and so many other things have been on hold for the past week. I’m not done grieving, and won’t be for a good long while, but I do need to start writing again. My kick in the pants came from the realization that it was Viv’s turn to do the regular blog post in our blogifying map forecasts series.
I started writing it and then I stopped. I decided to share her words instead. It still took me most of the day to track down links and proof and whatnot. It was both cathartic and helpful to tiptoe around the cognitive dissonance of writing about forecasts bathed in optimism bordering on hubris with ruminations on mortality rattling about my brain.
Regenerative medicine will replace, restore, maintain, or enhance tissue and organ functions, dramatically improving patients’ health and quality of life, and potentially reducing the cost of their care. Tissue engineering will heal diabetic foot ulcers, reducing the need for amputations; organs grown in a lab will ease our dependence on donor transplants; and tendons, cartilage, and bone regrown with autologous cells will be used to repair injuries and joints. Advanced prosthetic devices and biomechatronic-based limb replacements will interface with the body’s nervous systems to give users a range of natural function and movement.
When we first presented this forecast at a conference, our colleague Vivian told a story that illustrates the potential, and some possible pitfalls, of the growing capacities of regenerative medicine. It was part of a complicated dance of vignettes and exposition with Vivian, Bradley and myself that will remain one of my fondest memories of working here.
Image by Rachel Hatch
Of course, when you get sick enough, you end up having to go to the doctor for help.
That’s what finally happened with Eric, who has Type 2 Diabetes. He is a very successful 56 year old lawyer. He has a history of working too much and not taking very good care of himself. He was overweight, ate poorly, and didn’t track his blood sugar levels consistently. As a result, he has had some serious complications from his illness. Last year, he developed a foot ulcer that just wouldn’t heal. The doctors had to amputate his foot. His eyesight also deteriorated because of damage to his retina. And his doctors have been warning him that he may need to go on dialysis. Eric’s body is failing him.
I’m sitting on my patio right now, surrounded by my latest attempts to grow some beautiful and tasty things before the spider mites kill them, listening to the rain. I’ve spent a lot of time out here the last few weeks, enjoying my favorite smell (rain on pavement) and sound (rain and wind on tree leaves), reading, thinking, and writing.
Sometimes it just does take five months to get around to your New Years resolutions. I resolved back in January to write a post about my intent to write more. Ha! Truth is I’ve been in a survival mode over the last several months, desperately clinging to some semblance of work-life balance and chasing inspiration across one (or more) too many projects. But I am emboldened by the last few weeks, which were dominated by the beautiful words DONE and NO. I’ve traveled halfway around the world and back, gone from about 12 outstanding tasks to 5, and said “no” successfully no less than four times, which is some kind of record for me.
And, unlike previous bouts of emerging-from-under-the-rock syndrome, I feel like the words are more uncorked by my relative productivity than spent. I hope I can turn this into a new norm. Knocking on wood.
There was WordPress. And then there was me, and you: my own little corner of the internet. How sweet.
I’ve always wanted to own a blog—but always also hated blogging. It’s like those proverbial puppies you take home and convince your mom to let you keep. You have to feed it. Take it on walks. Pay its vet bills. Keep it from killing too many squirrels. Keep it from attracting trolls. If you’re good you give it to a friend or something. If you’re bad you leave it in a Dumpster somewhere.
Well, now I try again. I like cats, maybe a kitten will work better.
Hi, little kitteh. I’m Miriam, and this is a place for me to collect my musings. I’m an anthropologist and a futurist (why must “anticipatory anthropology” have just SO many syllables?) and an Easily Distracted Generalist. I work at the Institute for the Future, forecasting about health and well-being and food systems. I’m married to an Archaeologist who also thinks about food systems (I get the live ones, he gets the dead ones).
The next several posts will probably be pretty scattered, as I point to a bunch of things I’ve written recently elsewhere, repost writings I like that got mired in failed blogs past, and generally get my footing before things settle into normal. I have very little idea what normal will look like, but I promise to feed it this time, for real.