When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro

Paul Raven @ 10-10-2011

I’ve been writing here at Futurismic for well over five years, now. It feels like longer, somehow, but it also feels like I only just started. I’ve learned a lot of things, not least of which is the fact that, the more you learn, the more you realise remains to be learned.

One of the things I’ve learned is that there is a not entirely unwarranted mistrust of folk who call themselves “futurists”. The etymology of the word doesn’t help, of course, but the core criticism is captured well by Jamais Cascio; when people hear “futurist”, they see some guy who gets paid a lot of money to go to conferences and make bold sweeping predictions about what’s going to happen in the next few decades… predictions that either play to the audience’s desires, or that fail to come true, or both.

The more time I spend looking at social, political, economic and technological change, the less certain I become about what tomorrow will look like. The only lingering conviction – the one that strengthens every day, while the others fall by the wayside – is that, as a species, we face a growing number of challenges and threats to our survival. Caught between the rock of a uncaring universe and the hard place of our primate-origin psychological legacy systems, we nonetheless somehow keep escaping sudden extinction or rapid decline. Eventually, of course, we’ll fail an important saving throw, and our game will be over. But we can strengthen our stats and broaden our skill-trees against the probability of having to make those rolls of the dice, building up our character sheet as the campaign continues. But where should we spend our XP? What tools, weapons and armour should we buy?

I don’t think any one person will ever produce a satisfactory or useful answer to those questions. I remain convinced that a sustainable human future depends on our ability to work together to secure it. To accomplish that, we need to combine the speculative foresight component of the futurist’s discipline with achievable and practical solutions to the most pressing of problems. It’s a fine thing that we can conceive of and work towards a future where technology liberates us from scarcity, mortality and the lingering psychology of otherness; my status as a cautious fellow-traveller of transhumanism remains unshaken. But I’m also convinced that there are many short-term problems to be overcome on the way to that future… and with that awareness comes a sense of frustration, a feeling that sitting around and flapping my lips on the internet isn’t really achieving much. Conversation is valuable, sure, as is raising awareness… but if I’m so convinced that there’s real work to be done, surely I should put my money where my mouth is, get my hands a bit dirty? Otherwise I’m just being a sort of low-rent version of those futurist pundits, the technological equivalent of the scraggle-bearded guy wandering the town square with a THE END IS NIGH OMFG sandwich-board.

So I’ve been searching for a way to make a difference, or at least to try to make a difference: some sort of practical application of my largely impractical skill-set. There aren’t a lot of jobs like that around, it turns out.

But I found one. And I landed it.

As of today, I am an employee of the University of Sheffield’s Civil Engineering department; my job title is “Research Assistant in the Future of Infrastructure”. I’m going to be working on projects intended to analyse the infrastructures that hold our civilisation together, and find ways to make them more efficient, more fair, more resilient, more unified. Energy production and consumption is already a hot-button topic, and with good reason; the internet’s rapid ascent from novelty telecomms application to ubiquitous civilisational support system means that the availability of bandwidth is already being mooted as a basic human right; changes in climate and population patterns are placing our limited supplies of potable water under increasing load, and the commodities traders – not content to play casino games with the price of the food we eat – are starting to look at water as the last great tradeable asset. Most importantly, these utilities don’t stand in isolation: they are interdependent. Terrifyingly so, in fact.

It feels good to be putting my efforts where my mouth is, helping people smarter than I to apply their knowledge in useful ways to a troubled world. It feels good to have a job that lets me feel like I’m putting all the stuff I’ve learned to practical use. And it feels good to have a job, full stop; I know a lot of people are struggling without one at the moment, and I’m damned privileged to have one.

The funny thing with confirmation bias is that understanding the concept does nothing to change its power. The last year of my life looks, on reflection, like the coming together of numerous threads which I never assumed would ever be connected. Today also sees me starting my Masters degree in Creative Writing, where I’ll be learning how to tell stories that connect with people on an emotional level – stories like the ones that opened my young mind to the possibility of worlds other than the one outside my window.

It’s an exciting time for me, and a bit of a scary one, too. But here I am, with a job title that sounds like it leapt from the pages of a science fiction novel, working in a world that increasingly feels a few page-turns away from dystopia or disaster. I can’t write the future on my own, of course; nor can anyone else. But by putting my efforts in alongside others, maybe I can help keep the plot from going off the rails. That seems like something worthwhile for me to be doing.

As far as Futurismic itself is concerned, things will proceed pretty much as they have been over the last six months or so: my posting schedule will continue to be irregular (and probably a little less frequent), but this here blog is too big a part of my thinking process to be mothballed. Plus people keep asking me to write about interesting things, and here seems as good a place to put them as any.

Futurismic is also the thing that has brought me into contact with a vast range of smart people with similar outlooks on the future, some of whom are probably reading this right now. So to those friends, sparring partners and fellow travellers, I’d like to say thanks, and ask you to keep reading and stay in touch – especially if your own adventures turn up something you think might connect to my research topics!

Without you and your engagements with what I’ve done so far, I’d not be writing this message at all. So please, keep the pressure on me. 🙂

Thank you.

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16 Responses to “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro”

  1. Jonathan M says:

    I am positively puce with jealousy. An excellent job for a thoroughly excellent individual… congratulations 🙂

  2. Fabio says:

    Excellent news! We always need to move on, Paul. Good luck to you and to your future projects – but don’t leave us, man! 🙂 (already applying pressure here, as you can see)

  3. Mark Dykeman says:

    Congratulations Paul! On to the future!

  4. Gareth L Powell says:

    That sounds awesome. Well done, that man!

  5. m1k3y says:

    I’m totally gonna let you take me out for dinner one day as a business expense. But also seriously, can’t wait to see how this new experience informs your thinking and writing. You rock!

  6. Darren T says:

    Vest and echoing congratulations! I know how much you really, really wanted this gig and I’m delighted you landed it. Celebratory IPAs on me the very next time we’re in the same meatspace.

  7. Richard Palmer says:

    Congratulations, sir. Well deserved.

    🙂

  8. Sarah Brand says:

    Congratulations on the job! That sounds fantastic. 🙂 And it’s good to hear that we’ll still be getting your thoughts here at Futurismic.

  9. deadmanjones says:

    A cavalcade of bravissimi on this stupendous news

  10. Clark Richardson says:

    Good for you. As an optimist who gets worn down by my observations of the realities of our future I am always heartened by by your insights and now by your position. Perhaps it will only take our hopes and the dedication of a few good men.

  11. ConfidentlyDubious says:

    This actually sounds like the perfect job for you 🙂 I hope it will enable you to do both interesting (for you) and useful (for everyone) stuff. Congratulations!

  12. ShaunCG says:

    Fantastic work, my man!

  13. James says:

    Congratulations! The job sounds cooool.

  14. Stephen R. Smith says:

    Congratulations to University of Sheffield for having the good fortune of finding you, and the good sense to hire you. Looking forward to seeing where this takes your outboard brain (vis a vis – Futurismic).

  15. Michael says:

    Wow! All possible luck to you, and congratulations! And to think – we knew you when!

  16. Jetse says:

    Congrats, Paul! Good job!