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The Shock of the New – The Next Steps Forward

Five-day program concludes with participants presenting findings from focus group discussions

Participants of the Salzburg Global session, The Shock of the New: Arts, Technology and Making Sense of the Future

Participants of the Salzburg Global session, The Shock of the New: Arts, Technology and Making Sense of the Future

Oscar Tollast | 28.02.2018

A search for quotes about the “future” will bring up at least 3,000 results on Goodreads. Each quote, whether from the world of fiction or non-fiction, offers a unique perspective or poses a different question. Mahatma Gandhi, a primary leader of India’s independence movement, said, “The future depends on what you do today.” The science fiction author William Gibson, meanwhile, said, “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.”

It’s a topic not short of debate, and this difference of opinion was present in the exchanges at the Salzburg Global Seminar session, The Shock of the New: Arts, Technology and Making Sense of the Future. During a five-day program, artists, technology specialists and cultural practitioners convened at Schloss Leopoldskron, in Salzburg, Austria, to discuss the world’s future and the nexus between the arts and technology.

Panel discussions centered on artists at the cutting edge, design, the festival as a future lab, strategies for reimagining the future, and cultural institutions as catalysts for thinking about tomorrow. These conversations influenced the focus group meetings, which saw participants narrow down their interests and concentrate on different themes which had emerged. On the final day of the program, focus groups presented their ideas before providing recommendations on how to continue their work.

Arts and Creative Practice

How can art contribute to society? How can science be harnessed for art’s sake? These were a couple of questions several participants explored before they put forward the “Duck and Rabbit Manifesto.” The document's name pays tribute to the famous illusion in which both a rabbit and duck are visible in one image. One participant remarked that they wanted people, in the future, to see both the rabbit and duck, not just one or the other.  He asked how society could facilitate it so people could look at both images.

The manifesto states that the artist is not the PR machine of science and technology. Art can oppose governments and policies while galvanizing change. Participants in this focus group agreed art can exist for its own sake and not for an audience nor a market. Artists use text to protect the context of their work. Art is not the moral compass of a society.

Cultural Institutions Influencing the Future

During the session, participants considered the role of cultural institutions and what influence they might have on the future. One focus group presented the idea of potentiating an Institute of Foresight/Foresensing. While brainstorming, the group referred to the work of Harold Lasswell, Sohail Inayatullah, and Ziauddin Sardar. The Institute would be a “post-normal” organization, taking ideas from creative industries.

The speaker for the group suggested there is not one single encapsulating problem the world faces. Instead, there are a lot of smaller difficulties. Reaching out to the room, he suggested all participants had globally reaching networks, both formal and informal. If the group could remain intact, it could act as the cultural organization to bring about change. Alternative and compelling images of the future can be generated, in addition to new kinds of stories.  The presenter concluded the presentation by calling for a common language of and for alternatives future engagement.

Policymaking Spheres

The third focus group to present considered how to help inexperienced people influence policymaking. Participants created a framework which focused on policymakers and system structure. The presenter conceded the group had concentrated on policymakers as the latter approach had constraints concerning time and complexity.

The first step for someone who wants to influence policymaking involves mapping out the issue. This approach provides a deeper understanding of what the issue is and helps identify relevant stakeholders. By understanding who these stakeholders are, the person learns to tell different stories to different people. There is a range of ways to communicate a story, and it is essential for someone to know they can avail themselves of the full range of storytelling. Possible and preferred stories of the future are ways of engaging people.

A Global Lab for Creative Systems Change

What could a global effort for creative future thinking look like? What initiatives or labs already exist, and how can they be linked? Participants came together to put forward a global lab available for radical collaboration and transformative system change that unites communities, organizations, and policymakers to share insights to enact change locally and globally.

The lab would be community-focused and community-driven. It would profoundly and humanely understand global challenges, recognizing that people who sometimes affect change from the outside don’t understand the problems on the ground. During the presentation, one participant suggested this was a “real thing” which could happen. While details may seem vague at the moment, the idea could connect many bridges that already exist.

Tools and Tactics: Moving from Thought to Action

“The ‘thought to action’ group” is only as good as you make it,” proposed one participant, who tweeted ahead of the group’s presentation. Participants collaborated to create a checklist for ethical change-making. The list is a tool for colleagues to help them avoid pitfalls, generate action, and feel proud of their work. While presenting this checklist, one participant said people had to be open to listening to others. Not me, but we.

The list is about transparency, belief in others, resilience, courage, and information sharing. To quote the checklist’s description, “Ethical change-making is what happens when you, as a would-be agent of change, take on a role knowing you can deliver something that an impartial observer would consider a good result. This means measuring your strengths against the task at hand.”

Being Human in the Anthropocene

To listen, to talk, to maintain hope, to be conflicted, to love, and to be connected to nature and one another. These were just some of the suggestions put forward by participants when asked, “What does it mean to be human in the Anthropocene?” These ideas were put up on a noticeboard for everyone to view and consider. The group behind this presentation looked at the foundational things in human experience which could be used as an anchor for dealing with challenges ahead. The group itself concluded the “Seven C’s” of being human in the Anthropocene were connection, consciousness, control/care, choice, consequence, creation, and collaboration.

Participants questioned whether humans were evolving or devolving as they merged closer with technology. They also asked what kind of agency does humanity want to have over purpose, technological discovery, evolution, and loss. There is a growing awareness of how humanity’s actions shape others and the environment, but how does society deal with the effects it cannot control? During the group’s presentation, one participant remarked they saw a trend today of people wanting to hear more from others, and progression will come as a result of compromise and not making assumptions.

Defining Future/Futures

The final group to present had the small task of answering, “What do we mean by ‘future’?” As part of this presentation, all participants were asked to stand in a circle. A pillow was passed between them which was initially supposed to represent a newborn child. Each time the pillow was given to another participant, the child’s age would increase by one year. Participants had to provide a vision or lesson for each year of that child’s life. Visions and lessons were given right up until the "child" entered his 30s. The exercise highlighted how the future is understood differently in different places, as is time.

The group warned that when we imagine futures, we should be aware of agendas that might be personal, political or profitable. To create futures beyond us, participants suggested we should remove the ego from our lives. We, as humans, can be more empathetic and have the freedom to envision a better future, whether that’s with us or in spite of us.

The Salzburg Global program The Shock of the New: Arts, Technology and Making Sense of the Future is part of the multi-year Culture, Arts, and Society series. The session is supported by the Edward T. Cone Foundation. More information on the program can be found here. You can follow all of the discussions on Twitter by following the hashtag #SGSculture

Oscar Tollast