We must develop news specific skill, “the ability to grasp the impact of our imagination on perception in the present“, and understand how to transition “from today’s obsession with becoming to tomorrow’s generous being”.

The words are those of Riel Miller, a radical thinker with a strong yet delicate touch, almost tiptoeing through his ideas, who explains in more detail: “Since the later-than-now does not yet exist, it can only be imagined, and because such imagining has a major impact on what humans are able to sense and make-sense of, it is crucial to understand the role of different kinds of imagining of the later-than-now. Particularly since different kinds of imagined future, not all about planning or preparing for later, have a significant influence on what can be perceived and invented.”

Riel Miller LD - sfondo nero
Riel Miller, Pioneer in the discovery of the theory and practice of future use, among the first to design the conceptual framework of Future Literacy and the Discipline of Anticipation

Valuing the present as a gift for the future

“I am trying to enhance our appreciation and awareness of the now – the present – and redress what I see as an inordinate, colonising, imperial approach to the future. So less about what we will become and more about how being now is a gift to the future”, he says bluntly.

His reasonableness and openness to dialogue make him gentle in exchanges, but his core conviction is a sharp sickle cutting through the forest of ideologies thought up by others.

“I started with a great suspicion of ideologies,” he says during a video call interview from his home in Paris, “because I am a child of the twentieth century. After what happened, I have no faith in ideologies. But it’s not obvious what to do as an alternative: how to move, what responsibilities to take on, what to dedicate oneself to. My life’s path has been unplanned; what I do emerged over time. I began searching for an alternative and accidentally encountered the future. I was asked to do some future-related work, and gradually it became increasingly clear to me that part of the power of ideologies is linked to the weakness of our imagination. If someone from Hollywood or a podium or a balcony in Piazza Venezia tells us ‘This is the future,’ it relieves us because their idea of the future becomes so powerful and strong that it gives us something to hold onto. However, I found it necessary to seek another answer. People need to become better at making their own imagination work. I learned this fairly early on, and it made me very cautious about giving people images of the future. I am not interested in scenarios, the ‘imagined futures’ we are constantly inventing. Instead, I am interested in people grasping the sources and implications of their imaginaries on what they are able to perceive – before the rush to making choices and instrumentalizing the future as a tool for planning.”

For over forty years, Miller, born in Canada in 1957, has been a pioneer in discovering the theory and practice of using the future. An educator, he was among the first to design the conceptual framework of Future Literacy and the Discipline of Anticipation. His aspiration, that gradually emerged from a 40 year career spanning the OECD, Ontario Government, UNESCO, and his own consultancy, is to put the richness of a complex creative universe at the service of humanity’s capacity to be free. His work spans numerous topics: economics, science and technology, education, territorial development, and the International Futures Programme. His list of academic publications and popular articles is extensive. However, there is a constant theme: he has never stopped questioning the meaning of his work and has delved into the significance of his research, finding new perspectives and insights.

Starting from the question that began this interview: after decades of studying the future, with its “summers” and “winters” for the discipline, the current period is again very positive. How can we do better this time?

“From my perspective, there are two different worlds for the concept of ‘better.’ One is obsessed with seeking the a goal, looked at from a causal, probabilistic perspective – the view that privileges planning and hubris. Achieving the objective, winning the prize, conquering everything from death and nature to other people and teritory, is paramount. As ‘reasonable’ as this point-of-view seems, I would argue that we have strong evidence that it induces a pathological response – one that is deeply unhealthy and alienated from the splendor and mystery and respect of change, difference, and ephemerality.”

“The mantra of ‘better’ is very different from saying, for example, I want to become better at being able to read and write. In this second case, I do not have a predetermined goal: I want to walk, but I do not know where I will go; I want to read and write, but I do not know what I will read or write. These two senses of ‘better’ are very different, and I am very attentive—and cautious—about both, I respect the idea of ‘better’ from the point of view of goals but I want to be sure to balance its pressure for causal certainty with the openness of a non-goal based capability that invites me to not-know, to constantly learn, to be thrilled by surprise and the creativity that differences, unexpected changes inspire.”

Change processes have limits and boundaries

During the conversation with Miller, an example of the future comes from a germ of social change that is entering society through technology these months. It is augmented and virtual reality in one phrase: “extended reality.” Slowly, very slowly in its decade-long development, it has now accelerated with the work initially done by Meta with Oculus and then especially by Apple with Apple Vision Pro.

“I’m more interested in how difficult it actually is to actually use our tools than the marketing hype-cycles promising contant revolution. For the most part new tools just slide into the repetition of old habits,  reproducing our known behaviours. It is repetition, a common tendency among all human beings. It is not a criticism but simply an observation. We replaced the typewriter with a computer and are now doing the same with extended reality, for example, by creating new types of virtual meeting backgrounds compared to those in video meetings, which in turn are linked to physical meeting environments. It is a form of continuity, incremental improvement.”

Incrementalism” is one of the key words, says Miller: “Indeed, it is necessary to understand that change processes have limits and boundaries. They require time and attention: they need different emotions than the previous moment because we are facing something different. The ‘different’ thing is something we do not know; otherwise, it would not be different. This relationship between our attention to different things and our pre-occupation with repetition is a theme I consider very important, especially in education.

The importance of humility in the role of the futurist

The deeper theme is thus related to the approach and indeed the very status of the future and futurists. A status requiring profound humility, explains Miller: “One must be very humble. I have been promoting the idea within the futurist community for many years that futurists know no more about the future than anyone else. In reality, the futurist’s position is very uncomfortable: when it comes to knowing the future, everyone is on the same level. That is, no one knows it. What I believe is that futurists can know more about why and how humans imagine – what are the diverse reasons, sources and implications of not just imagining for the future but also the imagining that escapes from yesterday’s futures. This is the study of anticipation; it is an exploration of the diverse forms, the different kinds of imagining that humans are able to engage in and the powerful role such diversity has on what we are able to percieve. Perception that takes place before choice or action.”

Here Miller dives into the centrality of uncertainty in a universe that is complex. Not more or less complex, but fundamentally in the state of constant creative emergence. This should be a reason for joy, since it is the fount of inspiration, diversification, experimentation, and ultimately resilience. Only Miller notes that instead we opt for a series of biases that constrain the mind. Particularly, the desire to always ‘know’ the future, to approach the world as if we only make bets.”

Opposition to uncertainty, limitation of imagination

“Our opposition to uncertainty leads us to seek certainty in continuity and repetition. This bias constrains our  awareness of the  lived diversity of our anticipatory systems and how we use our capacity to imagine the later-than-now that does not yet exist. Disliking not-knowing, conflating certainty with security, harms us in many different ways. In my experience, it is neither new nor linked to a single culture—European, American, Asian, or African. It is typical of human communities. The toxicity of this ignorance affects me emotionally: at the moment, it makes me feel disturbed and disappointed that we cannot take advantage of the diversity of reasons and methods we use to imagine the future. I yearn for our capacity to imagine the not-past, not-present to mature and break free from a recurring lack of awareness. To play a greater role in attenuating humanity’s penchant for conquest, colonization, and dominance.”

But maybe this time will be different. Right? What do you think of the now common view that the advent of an unprecedented tool, namely AI, artificial intelligence can change everything. Or not?

“When they invented radar,” says Miller, “the routines of air traffic changed, but there were still airplanes. Tools do this: they change routines. Certainly part of what the human imagination is about is the recognition and projection of patterns. It is useful for both predators and prey, certainly the appreciated capacity arising out of ‘blind’ evolutionary processes. But if the prey does not move, there is no pattern, and the predator finds nothing. If the predetor doesn’t move then the prey detects no pattern.  What are we doing with AI? The same thing: we are looking for patterns and on the basis of those patterns projecting more patterns. It is a tool that offers the great comfort of familiarity, we recognize and appreciate the pattern. But the most interesting aspects of this universe have no pattern, are not about repetition but difference, novelty in the emergent present. Compounding the illusions generated by this one-sided preoccupation with repetition, projecting the past into the future, is a curious and powerful fear of our inventions. Conjured and perpetuated by both ancient and more recent stories, like the one of Frankenstein’s monster, we terrorise ourselves with the ghouish fantasy of our tools taking ‘revenge’.  The current AI hype-cycle, along with its monster fantasies, are striking symptoms of what I call ‘poverty of the imagination’.”

The poverty of the imagination

I wonder what he means by ‘poverty’, is it the lack of good fiction? The inadequacy of our utopias and dystopias? Does everyone need to become a science fiction writer or a practicing foresight professional? Miller, clarifies the point. “No, ‘poverty of the imagination’ is not a failure to generate ever more fantastic or preminitional images of the future as a goal to be achieved or prepared for. Quite the opposite – it is the lack of explicit awareness and systematic practice of giving up goals, preparations, and extrapolations of the past into the future as vehicles for making bets, with the hope of colonizing or imposing today’s idea of tomorrow on tomorrow. This habit, a bias to plan and conquer across time and space, exacerbated by the ease with which technological determinism projects changes in form and function but not context, blinds us to patternless differences. It cements a profound alienation from the universe. Setting us up as exceptional or special, seduced by heroic stories of being able to play the role of small ‘g’ gods that can control everything.

Okay, maybe when it come to the ‘big picture’, the unpredictable and constantly suprising emergence of new elements, processes, and configurations of human communities, there needs to be more humble. But don’t you think there are plenty of areas where we can plan and do plan and should plan. Such as the Sustainable Development Goals or applying new technologies to important objectives, like improving education?

Here Miller makes an appeal to reconsider old habits

“I am not making the case for standing on the ‘other’ leg, giving up the leg of planning to hop around on the leg of emergence. What I’m saying is that we are unbalanced. For millennia humans everywhere on this planet have furiously engaged in a monoculture of the imagination and as a result biased our perceptions, our hopes and fears, towards the making of bets. In effect we never escape from what I would call the anticipatory sytems of childhood – the ones that for survival purposes are exclusively about probability and goals. A baby crying to get fed. A child learning to not touch a hot stove. That then get reinforced by the goal of getting the right answer on the test and other prevasive activities like going shopping so we can cook dinner or planting a crop so we can harvest it later on. We do not nurture the anticipatory systems and processes, the functioning of our imagination, that lets go of the past, abandons goal seeking, and tries to soak up the richness of a creative universe that gifts difference not repetition. When do we practice getting better at embracing ambiguity, not-knowing, empherality, spontaneity, improvisation?”

Surely this does not mean we stop trying to redress the ills of climate change or poverty? So from a practical perspective, why does this matter? Here Miller underscores the dualism of change as both continuity and discontinuity. He takes the example of education. Did the arrival of television change education? Certainly. Do films and documentaries change education? Certainly. But have they changed it in ways that go beyond how it was done before and beyond the limits of previous systems? More fundamentally, can systems such as education be intentionally transformed and are tools drivers of such change?

The narcissistic version of agency

Miller circles back to his antipathy to ideology, asking “What is the evidence for humans being able to consciously, intentionally, rationally ‘revolutionize’ or even ‘transform’ anything? In my view this hubris, a narcissistic version of agency or our power to shape the world, not only obscures the world around us by imposing blinders on our perceptions, but fuels panic like imperatives to promise and accept the proposition that we can – to quote the Silicon Valley slogan – “create the future”. What an invitation to be disappointed, resentful, constantly anxious – because in the back of our minds we know that no one can deliver the revolution. Transformative change cannot be known in advance and does not happen by design.”

So if neither tools nor designs drive change, what can we do? Just sit around and wait for things to happen? Is there no scope for human agency?

“Of course there is, but what we need to realise is that we’re in a bit of a jam. We’ve built up so much inertia, path-dependency and lousy habits that it seems impossible to stop running faster and faster to make things better and better (not). Locked in our alienation and ‘executive’ role, perched on the top of the monumental pyramids we have been building for millennia all around the world, there doesn’t seem to be any choice but to continue colonizing tomorrow. And obviously people are afraid, of climate change, of war, of the gollum who might devour us, of radioactive waste that will be around for tens of thousands of years. Which is why taking a capability based approach is so strategically central – yes, I’m offering a scenario and a kind of goal. Only this goal is not a goal with any specificity. No preferred future in terms of values, lifestyles, activities, environment. Just a scenario where the conditions of change have changed to include the competency called Futures Literacy. Meaning the general skill that everyone can acquire, with differing degrees of expertise, to understand the different reasons, methods, and contexts for imagining the not-past, not-present. Futures literacy is the broad based competency, scaffolded on study of the diversity of human anticipatory systems and processes, that encompasses all Futures Studies and allows us to distinguish divination from forecasting, foresight from emergence. It is incoherent to conflate perception and action when it comes to the role of anticipation in enabling humans to sense and make-sense of the world.”

Cultivating a transition…

Right, I understand from Amratya Sen, Martha Nussbaum, and others, that the ‘capacity to be free’ is not the same as maximizing some welfare function. So I understand the openness you are suggesting. Who knows what the person who learns to read and write will do with that competency – write poetry or hate literature or both? Still, there are urgent problems of so many kinds that need solutions now, based on plans forumulated and implemented now, all based on the expectation, even the calculation that ‘all other things being equal’ it is probable that the plan will succeed.

Miller pauses, embracing the adage from Bayo Akomolafe, ‘times are urgent, slow down’. “There is no avoiding learning voyages and living the experiences upon which a greater awareness of the power of our imagination depends. I repeat, I am not suggesting we trade hopping along on the leg of ‘anticipation for the future’ for hopping along on the leg of ‘anticipation for emergence’. What I’m suggesting is that we need to cultivate a transition. Nurture the reflection, research, practices, and experimentation that begins to build up the leg that has been immobilized for so long. Then, with a bit more balance, quite a bit more humility and receptivity to change, difference, ephemerality, and spontaneity, we can also begin to experiment with the relationship between the two legs.”

“The reason I think that this is a viable strategy”, says Miller, “is that it has consequences and implications for how power is woven into our identity. If our understanding of the impact that our diverse imaginaries have on perception is democratised, I believe it changes the way people see things, that is, it changes perception itself. I think imagination plays such a central role in our perception: motivations, fears, hopes that by cultivating this capability we alter the practices of our relationships to the world and each other.”

… becoming wiser in the use of imagination

Miller’s activity at this time is oriented towards these discussions: the differences between anticipation of the future and anticipation of emergence. And then observing that through experience, humans can become wiser in how they use their imagination. And it is something important that is actually very much needed now. “Because today,” says Miller, “education in schools and universities is not about wisdom, which is scarce today. So, what I advocate is creating an environment conducive to wisdom. First, by defining it. What do I mean by wisdom? I do not know the history of the philosophy of this word because, for me, it simply means the lessons acquired by exercising our desire and ability to learn. It is the fruit of experience, the benefits of experimentation, encounters with successes and failures, a way to learn the lesson but not permanently, rather in a continuously open way. Moreover, wisdom is impossible without humility and modesty. It is fundamental to appreciate not knowing, which is the opposite of what is wanted today. Today, that is, people are expected to know, to have the answers, to know what they want to do. Today we have a very strong dominance of knowledge. Wisdom, on the other hand, is fundamentally connected to our cultivation of not knowing. And if we return to the discourse of repetition I mentioned earlier, wisdom is the ability to make sense of differences, that is, to transform differences into resources rather than threats. Uncertainty, the unknowability of emergence, is not the enemy, but something that sparks the search for understanding, for re-thinking.”

The idea of differences re-enters the discourse cyclically. As does experimentation. Also, because the universe is made up of diversity, discontinuity, but not so much the stories we tell ourselves: “There is a very deep bias in the thinking of industrial-type economics. A fetishism of economies of scale, the glorification of those at the top of the pyramid, the winners of the ‘power-law’ identified by Machiavelli long ago. Success and power are associated with scalability and generalisability. For instance I sometimes encounter the desire for a future that I find it really strange: one where everyone speaks the same language – the overthrow of the curse of the Tower of Babel. It is an idea that makes no sense: even if we spoke the same language, there would still be many differences. Deams of unity, standardization, homogenization, ‘normalcy’, are traps. I would turn the problem around: how can we be more comfortable and capable of moving gracefully and finding joy and mystery in differences? It is necessary to understand this because we live in a creative universe, and we too are expressions and express this creativity.”

The school and the educational system fit into this discourse. Miller is critical of the contemporary school system. It is not a matter of accents or technical adjustments: it is a more radical critique. A system he defines as “terribly destructive” that keeps people engaged for 12-15 years going in time, following a teacher, taking one test after another.

“I think that school in many ways is an impediment not only when a person is at school but even after they leave because that experience will limit them forever. I think this limit is toxic, dangerous, creates damage, and weakens us all as a species. I am deeply and radically opposed to the current way we transmit knowledge between generations. I am not an expert in alternatives, but I believe there are other human communities that have transmitted skills and knowledge in a profoundly different ways than we do now. We have become very cautious and conservative, maintaining this mechanism for centuries and trying to repair it. But we must understand that the current system for transmitting knowledge from one generation to another is wrong. It is a product of industrial society, but there is also something older, pre-industrial. It is very convenient for those in power that younger generations come to believe that their security depends on repeating what we know from the past, planning it to be better, because such repeatition carries the same power structure as the past (even if those at the top may change). It internalises the idea that it is in the interest of new generations to repeat the past, which incidentally leaves those already in power sitting pretty. It is a self-serving and benevolent reason to maintain the current power structure. I do not think it is a system invented by a single person, mind you, but it is the result of evolutionary processes, a series of experiments we have seen repeated in different parts of the world. Perhaps now is the time for us to grow-up, escape from the viscious circle of always trying to control the future and genuinely embrace the magnificence of our creative universe?”

Written by:

Antonio Dini

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