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06 December 2006

Jesters at the futurist court’s table

This post’s title refers to a statement once made by the author Bruce Sterling regarding the role of science fiction and other speculative writers in the larger business of futures analysis. However, those fools have several advantages that have caused them to be increasingly sought out by the “professional” prognosticators.

Firstly, they are unafraid to experiment and to push the boundaries. A good speculative writer has imagination and innovation at the heart of the work, something that naturally trends against the grain of the conservatism often found in other types of futures analysis. Commercial authors who write for entertainment value do not risk ridicule for odd ideas, but rather find their successes in the obsessive and fractal complexity of the subcultures out of which spawn the very drivers of futurity.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, despite the odd bells and inappropriate comments that interrupt the supposed gravitas of an official proceeding, these are first and foremost writers and storytellers. Both are something of a lost art in many shops - destroyed by neglect of poor hiring and training processes which do not value those skills, and deliberate suppression through the seven levels of editing and coordination hell whose only purpose is to produce the blandest of common denominator products with no remnant of voice.

It seems that our neighbors to the north, in an effort to explore their own pathways to transformation and the reinvention of a martial traditional into the post-modern hydra of peacekeeping and human security, also chose to seek the service of such a storyteller. Theirs was Karl Schroeder, and the work, Crisis at Zefra, can be found along with a host of other interesting material in their National Defense Directorate of Land Strategic Concepts.

It should be noted that no less an authority than Shakespeare recognized the crucial contributions of the jester, clown, and fool to the courts of power in many of his works. Given that entire industries have been spawned as men chase the visions of their youth’s idle stories, the role of those who can conceptualize such futures will be ever more critical. Unfortunately, like most truly good analysis, this is a difficult and often non-reproducible art outside of the few unique minds which have mastered it. But the cultivation of this human capital is possible with a little effort and investment, if the right breathing space for such creativity could be carved from the darker reaches of the stifling bureaucracies that would naturally crush such heresy.

In a related matter, we note and second the call by Zenpundit for the inclusion of others outside of engineering in the development of new tools for visual analysis: “Sometimes concepts or scenarios are alinear and are best conveyed by ambiguity and paradox and the input of actual artists whose processing may be more intuitive and actively visual might give the data an entirely different, possibly better, spin.” Undoubtedly true, and well worth exploring.

We hasten to add, however, that we do not wish to see further examples of the “Hollywood factor”, where set designers and other species of professional illusionist are called upon to craft the foundations of new efforts. While the results make for good visuals and press conferences, we should not be in the business of fooling ourselves. There is enough of the aura of the mystique wreathing these matters as things now stand. After all, when even the simplest of small plastic tools can take on totemic importance, we need no artificially constructed cultures. Those which are allowed to grow organically from within serve the purpose far better.

So between the boundaries of the absurd and the insight of the sublime, the jesters may help the community walk the troubled path of prediction. Some early efforts have been made to incorporate new types of individuals into analytical efforts, primarily dealing in alternative analysis and Red Cell efforts. Perhaps the increasing use of boundary spanning information sharing and communication environments for production, enabled by new technologies, will allow experimentation beyond the normal Delphic focus group approach and into new methodologies more closely integrated with the storyteller’s art.

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