Lots of my reading lately has been around a couple of themes: hope, imagination, and futures. Since having my son, the thought of what future I want to leave for him (otherwise put, what being a good ancestor looks like) has been really present for me. It’s something that came up in the Wild Dreams group coaching program that I did in 2021, where we talked about our ancestors and ancestral wisdom, and I was introduced to the Seventh Generation Principle.
“Among the nations of the Haudenosaunee is a core value called the Seventh Generation. While the Haudenosaunee encompass traditional values like sharing labour and maintaining a duty to their family, clan and nation and being thankful to nature and the Creator for their sustenance, the Seventh Generation value takes into consideration those who are not yet born but who will inherit the world.
In their decision making Chiefs consider how present day decisions will impact their descendants. Nations are taught to respect the world in which they live as they are borrowing it from future generations.”
I’m still trying to adjust to thinking along this much (much!) longer time scale than I’m used to. I’m also realising that working within civil society for so long really shaped the constraints of my imagination, and I’m trying to unlearn some of those constraints. I spent so many years thinking about what was possible for me within an organisation, within a timeline of certain funding – now, thinking broader and deeper feels much more exciting and uncertain, too.
And on uncertainty and hope, Rebecca Solnit’s work is ever-inspirational:
“Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists adopt the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It is the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterwards either, but they matter all the same, and history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone.”
There’s so much of this kind of thinking that is actually very within our control to shape, even if it might seem like it’s not. The title of this blog post is taken from Mariame Kaba’s book, ‘We Do This ’Til We Free Us’, where she writes:
“Hope is not optimism… The idea of hope being a discipline is something I heard from a nun many years ago who was talking about it in conjunction with making sure we were of the world and in the world. Living in the afterlife already in the present was kind of a form of escape, but that actually it was really, really important for us to live in the world and be of the world. The hope that she was talking about was this grounded hope that was practiced every day, that people actually practiced it all the time.
And so, I bowed down to that. I heard that many years ago and then I felt the sense of, Oh my god. That speaks to me as a philosophy of living, that hope is a discipline and that we have to practice it every single day. Because in the world which we live in, it’s easy to feel a sense of hopelessness, that everything is all bad all the time, that there is nothing going to change ever, that people are evil and bad at the bottom. It feels sometimes that it’s being proven in various, different ways, so I get that, so I really get that. I understand why people feel that way. I just choose differently. I choose to think a different way and I choose to act in a different way. I choose to trust people until they prove themselves untrustworthy.”
(Emphasis my own.) This idea of hope as a discipline, hope as a choice and as a practice – and ultimately, as a choice that some people have no choice but to have, because the alternative is unthinkable – has really stuck with me, especially with the trashfire of politics we have around us.
I’ve also enjoyed Ella Saltmarshe’s ‘The Long Time Academy’, an extremely well produced podcast + accompanying project, the fifth episode of which explores what alternative futures might be like.
There’s so much that we could know, or keep in mind, that could (should?) help us in being hopeful, and in building or imagining what we want to happen, too: in Marcia Bjornerud’s fantastic book ‘Timefulness’, she writes “thoughtless disregard of the geologic past means we cede control of our own future.” What must we know about the past, in order to imagine our own futures?
Which brings me to the topic of imagination – like adrienne maree brown’s work on how we’re in an “imagination battle”, from her book Emergent Strategy:
“Imagination has people thinking they can go from being poor to a millionaire as part of a shared American dream. Imagination turns Brown bombers into terrorists and white bombers into mentally ill victims. Imagination gives us borders, gives us superiority, gives us race as an indicator of ability. I often feel I am trapped inside someone else’s capability. I often feel I am trapped inside someone’ else’s imagination, and I must engage my own imagination in order to break free.”
I’m enjoying following along with the Emerging Futures work that Sophia Parker is leading at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation – her question of “who gets to imagine the future” seems incredibly fundamental to a lot of this work. Who has the headspace, the time, the privilege, the stability in their lives to imagine the future?
The importance of imagination for what we want to happen – and not what we don’t want to happen – is coming up a lot in some of the consulting work I’m doing right now, too, and I’ll write more about that soon. But in short, I’m finding that much of the digital policy work and activism around our digital spaces has been largely reactive. Activists are pushed into lobbying against a policy change that could harm people, against someone else’s imagination of the future, mostly because Big Tech just seems so… big. And powerful.
In the face of the largest and richest companies in the world, it makes sense in a way that much work thus far has been on mitigating harms, rather than reimagining new worlds. Relatively little work is proactively making space for what we want to happen in our digital technologies. (and then – who is we? Who gets to imagine that space, and how do we make those spaces possible?) Some exceptions to that, though, are efforts like New_Public, “for better digital public spaces”, or the work that Numun Fund who I’m also working with, will hopefully fund in the not-too-distant future.
One thing that seems very clear, though, is that some strong collective imagination will be necessary to overpower the existing strength of Big Tech and the work they’ve done to design (or invade!) our digital infrastructure and digital spaces.