Shaping the future we want

Eirin Evjen, ESST MA Student


Through science and technology, we have the power to affect the future. This has been true for a long time, but with breakthroughs in gene-modifying technology and the development of artificial intelligence it seems now that we have the power to shape the future.

A key question we need to answer as a society is what kind of future we desire and should try to create, and then ask how we can make that future happen. These scientific and technological breakthroughs grant us vast possibilities, but with it comes great power and responsibility.

Technologies such as biotechnology and machine learning might require politicians to look further into the future than they do today – and perhaps think more abstract. Gene-modifying technology and artificial intelligence are not only extraordinary because of their complexity and ingenuity. They are also different in that they allow us to radically change things that we have previously taken for granted: our social and economic structures, our genes and what makes us human. These types of transformative technology have the potential to drastically change the world and the beings that live in it, but in order to unleash this potential policy-makers might need to think about what type of future we want.

The act of envisioning what type of future we want is an important one, as it affects how we deal with society and technology today. John Urry suggests in What is the future? that envisioning the future is directly linked to the act of realising the future and is therefore linked to power. Because of the transformative and visionary powers of gene modification and artificial intelligence, the applied knowledge in these fields can give unforeseen power over shaping the future.

In her essay The Cyborg Manifesto, Donna Haraway gives us a peek into how truly transcendent technology and humans interaction with it can be. Haraway portrays a future in which technology has enveloped us, and the result is a society with new societal norms, social and economic structure and values. This essay challenges the divisions and boundaries of race, gender and humans in general, and in turn challenges us to think what we would like a world free form the social structures we know to look like.

All this now begs the question: who should have the power of envisioning the future? According to John Urry, this should be the social sciences. This is because futures are intrinsically social – they say something about our shared purposes and common goods. Envisioning the future entails (re)imagining how we want the society to be. This too, is the purpose of the government. How we want the future to be is therefore something we should expect the government and politicians to focus on, perhaps especially now that we have the technology with the potential to transform it.

There are multiple frameworks with which we can make sense of how our view of the future shapes policy today. There is for example sociology of expectations as put forth by Nik Brown and Mike Michael in their article with the tongue-twisting title Sociology of expectations: Retrospecting prospects and prospecting retrospects. This framework allows us to see how past expectations and views of the future shape policy today and how we view the future now. Further, the concept of anticipatory governance shows how future scenarios inform preventative and progressive policies. There is also Sheila Jasanoff and Sung-Hyun Kim’s notion of sociotechnical imaginaries, which tries to explain how shared notions of a collective goal or desired future co-produces policy today together with technological and scientific developments.

Envisions of the future, both desired and undesired futures, shape how we act and prioritise today. Desired futures tell us what we are optimising for, and undesired futures can either tell us what not to do or what we need to actively prevent from happening. It seems like gene-modifying technology and artificial intelligence has the potential to transform our reality, and therefore also our future. Because of this, we should not only think more about the future we want, but also start getting creative.