Unthinkable Futures: Kelly and Eno Reminisce About the Future

Kevin Kelly and Brian Eno’s fascinating, 15 year old futurecasting exercise “Unthinkable Futures” proves uncannily and uncomfortably accurate. Here are two of my favourites from Eno:

• “A new type of artist arises: someone whose task is to gather together existing but overlooked pieces of amateur art, and, by directing attention onto them, to make them important. (This is part of a much larger theory of mine about the new role of curatorship, the big job of the next century.”

• “News is understood to be a creation of our attention and interests (rather than “the truth”) and news shows are redesigned as “thinktanks,” where four interesting minds from different disciplines are asked the question, “So what do YOU think happened today?”

While hunting in my archives for something else I dug up this exercise in scenarios. It was a small game Brian Eno and I played to loosen up our expectations of what might happen in the near future. We were both struck at how improbable current events would be to anyone in the past, and how incapable we are at expecting the improbable in the future.

This list of unthinkable futures — probabilities we tend to dismiss without thinking — was published 15 years ago in the Summer, 1993  issue of Whole Earth Review. Our intent was less  to correctly predict the future (thus the silliness) and more to predict how unpredictable the actual future would be.

Unthinkable Futures

by Kevin Kelly and  Brian Eno


* A new plague seizes the world. As fatal as AIDS, but transmitted on a sneeze, and spread by airplane travelers, the virus touches billions within a year.

* Computer power plateaus. The expected doubling of power and halving of chip size slacks off. More computer power can be had, but it costs.

* Computer screens (both CRT and flat screens) are found to be dangerous to the health. Working at a computer is viewed as a toxic job.


* Everybody becomes so completely cynical about the election process that voter turnout drops to 2 percent (families and relatives of prospective politicians) until finally the “democratic process” is abandoned in favour of a lottery system. Everything immediately improves.[…]

* Ordinary people routinely employ publicists.

* Public relations becomes the biggest profession in wealthy countries.

* Sexual roles reverse: men wear makeup and are aggressively pursued and harassed by women in ill-fitting clothes.

* Video phones inspire a new sexual revolution whereby everybody sits at home doing rude things electronically with everyone else. Productivity slumps; video screens get bigger and bigger. […]

* A new profession — cosmetic psychiatry — is born. People visit “plastic psychiatrists” to get interesting neuroses and obsessions added into their makeup.[…]

* A new concept of “global Darwinism” takes root: people argue for the right of the human species to rid itself of weak specimens. Aid to developing countries ceases. Hospitals become “viability assessment centres” and turn away or terminate poor specimens.

* In reaction, a new definition of viability (based on memes rather than genes) is invoked. People are subjected to exhaustive tests (occupying large amounts of their time) to check the originality and scope of their ideas.

* A new profession, meme-inspector, comes into being.

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