One of the purposes of good futures work should be “to make the future strange,” to push people out of their assumption that what is normal now will go on being normal in the future. One of my favourite exercise for this is Douglas Coupland’s “Reverse Time Capsule“, published in Wired magazine in the 1990s, that listed things in the present that would have seemed unlikely, or worse, 20 years previously. One favourite example from his list: the Japanese luxury car.
When I run workshops, I sometimes get people to bring objects that would have seemed unlikely in the mid-1990s, while discouraging the obvious consumer-techno choices. Having re-read some of the early history of the AIDS epidemic recently, and the way in which it wasn’t taken that seriously at first because the main victims were gay men and drugs users, in 2016 gay marriage seems a strong candidate for the current reverse time capsule.
The past is strange
But it’s also useful to remind people that the past is also strange, and there were two good examples of this in Bill Bryson’s book on Shakespeare, which I cantered through recently, both on the colour black.
The first is that black clothes, as seen in this portrait (probably) of Shakespeare, were a sign of wealth and status. The reason for this was that black dyes were much more expensive than other dyes. This was at a time when–according to James Wallman’s book *Stuffocation*–it took two months’ work to make a shirt, which would cost the equivalent of arounf £2,000 ($3,000) at current prices.
The second is more surprising. Sugar arrived in Britain in the Elizabethan period, but again it was expensive, and therefore only the well-off could afford it. The result: they ended up with blackened teeth (dentistry didn’t catch up until a few hundred years later). So the less affluent would blacken their teeth to pretend that they too could afford sugar, and were therefore wealthier than they were.
The image of Shakespeare is from Wikimedia. It was painted sometime between 1600 and 1610, perhaps by John Taylor.
The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge marks its 200th anniversary this year, and has a small exhibition of prints connected by that date: some from Turner’s print series Liber Studiorum, of British and European landscapes, some from Goya’s bullfighting series La tauromaquia, and Peter Cornelius’ Faust series.
1816 was also “the year without a summer”, following the vast volcanic explosion of Mount Tambora in Indonesia the previous year. According to the curators’ notes for the exhibition, written by Elenor Ling and Amy Marquis,
swathes of volcanic gas were thrust 40km skywards into the stratosphere, far above any rainclouds that could have sped up their dispersal. These gases and particles circled the planet and played havoc with the world’s weather systems.
James Meek offered a different account of the Robin Hood story in his recent London Review of Books lecture at the British Museum. Essentially, he argued that the underlying idea of Robin Hood, the apparently progressive notion that “he takes from the rich to give to the poor,” had been captured by pro-austerity politicians and rewritten as a story about the evils of tax.
Meek’s text has now been published by the paper, along with a recording of the lecture. In this post I’ve improvised a little around his argument before adding some reflections of my own.
Several things have come together in my mind recently which tell a story about the process of social change – first, an interview with the British radical politician Tony Benn in which he rehearsed his story about the process of change, second, the first screening in the UK of the PBS documentary about the Freedom Riders, shown in the US in 2011, and third the case of the Arctic 30 Greenpeace campaigners. Together, they seem to tell a story about the role in creating change of the body, the person, who puts themself knowingly in a place of danger. Tony Benn first. His quote goes like this:
“How does progress occur? To begin with, if you come up with a radical idea it’s ignored. Then if you go on, you’re told it’s unrealistic. Then if you go on after that, you’re mad. Then if you go on saying it, you’re dangerous. Then there’s a pause and you can’t find anyone at the top who doesn’t claim to have been in favour of it in the first place.”
Benn’s model of change, which I’ve blogged about before (though it seemed to new to the Guardian interviewer) seems to come from Schopenhauer via Gandhi. It’s a memorable idea, but it has a big gap in it: what is the mechanism by which ideas move through the phases?
A spot of social history. I was doing a little light research on the folk singer Wizz Jones after seeing him live, and came across this news report from the BBC’s Tonight programme from 1960. It’s about the steps being taken by the Cornish resort town Newquay to exclude a small group of beatniks from the town – making sure they couldn’t get work in the town or buy refreshments. What’s striking about this clip is the clothes and the hair: the unwanted Beats wouldn’t look out of place in any European or north American city now, 50 years later, whereas the clothes of everyone else place them firmly in the 50s and 60s.
It made me wonder what people are wearing now that won’t have dated in half a century.
For students of British journalism there’s also the sight of the reporter Alan Whicker, mostly remembered now as a parody of himself, forensically getting the leader of the Council to admit that the ban that he had organised had no grounds other than prejudice.
It’s well past cliche to commend Johannes Gutenberg for his invention of the printing press, but it was only when I read Just My Type, by Simon Garfield, that I realised how inventive he had been. As the management theorist Peter Drucker once said, innovation is about building a whole new system, not just having a single good idea. As Garfield observes, “Gutenberg’s vision concerned automation, consistency, and recycling.” He set the mould for printing technology for almost 500 years – a long time for a technology innovation to remain dominant, and he was the first person in Europe to use mass production. (more…)
I’m indebted to a letter in The Guardian for this account by J K Galbraith of the history of the American economy between 1929′ the year of the Crash, and 1932, the last year of the Hoover administration:
“Gradually interest rates were brought down. The rate at which banks could borrow was 1.5%, hardly a usurious charge. Bonds were bought on a considerable scale and the resultant cash went out to the banks. Soon the banks were flush with lendable funds.
“All that remained was for customers to come to the banks. Now came a terrible discovery. The customers wouldn’t come. Even at the lowest rate they didn’t think they could make money. And the banks wouldn’t lend to those who were so foolish as to believe that they could.”
And people say that history never repeats itself.
The image is a 1932 cartoon mocking Hoover for asserting that prosperity was just around the corner. It is from the Princeton Alumni Weekly, and is used with thanks.
Mrs Thatcher’s only been in Hell for 30 minutes, and already she’s closed three of the furnaces and another three are on strike.
It wasn’t on Twitter, or on a political blog, but on the listserv of some football fans – fans, as it happens, of a club in a former mining area in the north of England. As Hugo Young said in his posthumously published piece on her (he died in 2003) in Tuesday’s Guardian, “Thatcher was a naturally, perhaps incurably, divisive figure.”
For my part, I think you need only one chart to understand her influence on Britain, which shows the step-change in inequality during her time in power. I’ve published this here before, when I blogged on the 30th anniversary of her first election victory:
One of the best workshops I’ve run in the past eighteen months was with a group of museum curators, held in the Whitechapel Gallery in the room holding Goshka Macuga’s Guernica installation. The documents assembled for the exhibition seemed to permeate the workshop; everyone seemed to take extra care because of it. The project that the workshop was part of has now published a collection of reflections from participants. I contributed the short essay below, on the role of the past in futures work.
Franklin’s failed expedition to the Northwest Passage in the 1840s teaches us a lot about organisations and resilience.
I spent some time on holiday this summer learning ‘Lord Franklin’, the 19th century English song made popular in the 1960s by Martin Carthy and by Pentangle. The English love their heroic failures, and Captain John Franklin was one of the great heroic failures of the 19th century. In 1845 he took two British Navy ships, Erebus and Terror, and more than 120 officers and men to try to navigate the Northwest passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The ships were trapped in the ice and all of the men died.
As the song puts it,
Through cruel hardships the mainly strove
Their ship on mountains with ice was drove
Only the Eskimo in his skin canoe
Was the only one that ever came through.
When he disappeared, the Navy sent search parties and offered a huge reward. There were searches by others as well, more than 40 in all. Later, statues of Franklin were raised in his home town of Spalding and in central London. The passage was successfully navigated by boat 60 years later by Amundsen, brought up on stories of Franklin’s doomed voyage. The contrasting stories of the success of one and the failure of the other tell us quite a lot about how organisations can use resilience to manage complex and unpredictable environments.