Paul HartleyComment

The Rise of Human Futures

Paul HartleyComment
The Rise of Human Futures

It is becoming intensely clear that interdisciplinary thinking is an essential component for pushing the boundaries of knowledge and the development of new methodologies for dealing with the world around us. Academic thinkers have been working in this direction for quite some time, and the rise of interdisciplinary institutes and pan-departmental centers have manifested this ideal within the university system. But in a practical sense, this approach has been born out of a system that is still invested in preserving the boundaries between fields and disciplines. This is out of professional necessity and the fact that to be a specialist one must be devoted to a singular tradition and perspective.

I have always thought that instead of an interdisciplinary model, we might be better served with a multi-disciplinary model--one built on collaboration and direct interaction between competing modes of understanding the world. The idea is to find a way to research, be in the world, and develop a view of everything that can only come from a plurality of perspectives and an intensive processes of collaboration between specialists. It is now not enough to talk to each other. We have to work together.

For quite some time now I have been working out our interdisciplinary team at Idea Couture on just such a thing. For the most part this has been an engaged discussion with our foresight team. We noticed that there was a great deal of overlap between the current articulation of foresight as a more qualitative practice and the view taken by contemporary social scientists. It was also clear that we share some intellectual underpinnings. We read the some of the same stuff--just in a different way. We examine many of the same things--only for different ends. We asked what could come out of the collaboration? We asked ourselves if we could develop a method of seeing the world together. Could we even produce a new way to look at the past, present and future?

Yes, and it is called Human Futures. Human futures is a critical perspective and methodology that is a way of examining phenomena through multiple lenses--a way of taking a holistic view of the past, present, and possible futures. The purpose is to bring an analytical and speculative lens to understanding human behaviour and the products of human agency and industry. This is something I have called anthrofutures in the past, but the concept has developed since then into something that has expanded beyond just an anthropological perspective. 

Not being content with solely looking at the past, or the present, the goal of an human futures research team is to track actions, beliefs, behaviours, materials, structures, and all of the currents of human behaviour from the past, into the present and to then project this into the future. This process can be applied to understanding the formation of socio-cultural, political, and economic phenomena and see how the processes that bring these things into being move through the present and into the future. It can also be applied to understanding the artifacts created along the way.

Here is where it becomes important for a business oriented study. If you want to understand how and why people interact with something, let's say a smart phone, you have to have a deeply engaged view that examines how this thing came to be, how people learned to interact with it, and how their current behaviours demonstrate what it is and what it will become.

Importantly, it is not enough to just look at the smart phone as a singular object with inherent qualities. The usual positivism is not helpful here. You have to understand what this object really is before you can begin to describe how people interact with it and what they expect from that interaction. But it is not a thing. It is the result of interactions and contingencies. This phone is not just a physical object with a set of capacities. Its form and function are the products of a dizzying array of behavioural, historical, epistemological, and technological currents. The existence of a device of this kind comes only from the point where all of these independent currents come together. It is the result of the development of a certain kind of plastic and glass. Its existence depends on developments in the divisions of labour, both practical and intellectual (especially economic and political). It owes its existence to the history of the notion of technology itself and how it evolved from the mechanistic perspective of the nineteenth-century into the less-tangible concept we use today. The smartphone owes its function to the convergence of the idea of a computing device and telephony. It even owes its current form to speculative fiction--without the communicator in original star trek phones might not exist as they do now.

What I'm advocating is taking a multi-disciplinary view of what contributes to a phone being a phone and then placing it in the context of what makes a phone user a phone user. With this body of knowledge one can then begin to speculate how, if these currents developed the phone as we know it now, can be pushed into the future to create new things and new uses that we have not even begun to image.

This is Human Futures. But it is something that cannot be done alone. Anthropologists cannot do it by themselves. Futurists or foresight practitioners cannot do it alone. It must be done together.

This is more than mere trend or signal analysis, especially because with a experienced anthropologist in the team the work can be grounded in the realities of the present and the past. It is more than the development of future scenarios, because it clearly demonstrates how there are no new ideas, just new combinations. A Human Futures process is a way to understand the world that mirrors the dialogic and discursive formation of the world itself. It makes use of interaction and collaboration to understand how interaction and collaboration creates us and everything else.

Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. Those who cannot see the present for what it is cannot understand the past or the future. Those who look only to the future forget what makes it all happen. Let's work to bring it all together and do something with it.