Hands of a guy on laptop keyboard

Part 1 – Speaking of futures: Story-capsules

Published on 22 May 2024
Updated on 06 June 2024
Diplo Wisdom Circle

Part 2 – Speaking of futures: Que será, será  | Part 3 – Speaking of futures: Presuppositions

Diplo, true to its avant-garde spirit, has just launched a cutting-edge course on futures literacy, designed and taught by Anita Lamprecht. In a year when the UN will hold a Futures summit and UNESCO’s Framework for Futures Literacy gains traction, this timely course comes both as an opportunity and a relief! Many of us want to become conversant with this new theory on the block but few of us have the headspace to come to grips with its often-thorny terminology. Anita Lamprecht has done the heavy work for us and invites us on a readily accessible journey through the meaning of futures, what literacy involves, and why it is relevant to us now.

This blog posting offers a bit of relish on the side of Anita’s four lectures. It focusses on the way that our everyday use of language, and of individual words in particular, can colour our perception of a subject, often subliminally. The more aware we are of our unconscious biases, the more readily we can free ourselves to think differently. And thinking differently is at the heart of futures literacy!

The image shows three paper towel dispensers, with a cutout in the shape of South America. In the first the stack of paper is almost full, in the second it is half full, and in the third it is half empty, depicting the finite nature of natural resources.
The WWF campaign uses a visual metaphor of a paper towel dispenser showing the deforestation of South America (Ads of the World).

Futures literacy involves the ability to envisage multiple futures and to use those futures to look at the present with different eyes. Two questions immediately come to mind:

  1. Why is this important? In a word: agency. Our envisaged futures inform our present choices, encouraging us to become proactive in securing them. Although we can never eliminate the uncertainty inherent in the future, we can nevertheless adapt our attitudes and change our behaviour in line with our favoured scenarios.
  2. Hasn’t this always been the case? Yes indeed, more so for some people than others (short- versus longsighted individuals), for some cultures (future-oriented cultures such as China in Geert Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions theory), and for some forms of government (authoritarian governments have the edge over the increasing short-termism associated with democratic electoral cycles). The difference today is the exponential growth of AI and how that has both multiplied and complexified possible futures. I say complexified advisedly since emergent complex systems are a defining component of the futures we currently face, as Anita explains in the course.

But let’s get back to the palate-cleansing, thought-stimulating, brain-zinging relish of language – isn’t it just a colourful distraction on the side of our plates, a condiment to enhance the staple? The way I have framed the role of language states that language is merely an aside but demonstrates that it actually has the power to shape our perceptions! To the extent that you have visualised a relish and responded to that image with a smile, you have already been predisposed to see things as I do – or intend you to.

Language has the power to shape the way we represent reality. Think of coinages such as killerbot or chatbot: the former elicits fear, the latter affection. Our instant response to these terms, often subliminal, is one of aversion or attraction. Expand the semantic field of prefix-bot with murderbots, malbots, sexbots, slybots, lovebots, herobots (I have made up half these terms), and you find yourself envisaging what they might be and how they are likely to behave. Our tendency to tell a story to fit new words is an integral part of the way in which language influences our perceptions. In the case of compound-term neologisms such as these, we often carry over the connotations associated with the prefix (think of white lies). We are well advised to become aware of this tendency in order not to be brainwashed by some of the resulting concepts (clean torture, green oil, legitimate rape, honour killing).

As for the root, bot, it is derived from internet bot (an abbreviation of robot) and refers to software applications that can perform automated tasks quickly and at scale. The term bot is not itself loaded with either positive or negative connotations, though it is acquiring negative ones in certain contexts: in gaming it can be used as a slur for a bad player whose moves are recognisably bot-like in their (current) lack of human sophistication and a botnet tends to refer to a network of computers infected by malware.

The prefix-bot paradigm demonstrates two important features of language: first, that we are very creative in our coining of novel terms to describe new domains of knowledge, and second, that those terms often carry over connotations from their original usage. Think of these as viruses or remnant DNA, small but potentially significant. Deep data, data mining, and deep mining for instance all carry connotations of discernment, thoroughness, and other concepts which contrast with shallow or superficial.

The image shows, in the centre, the hands of God and Adam almost touching, from the ceiling painting of the Sistine Chapel in Rome by Michelangelo. On either side of this are two images of robotic hands in a similar pose touching laptop keyboards.
The hand of Bot? Many representations of AI do not only anthropomorphise bots but allude to Michelangelo’s Hand of God/The Creation of Adam.

The term hallucination is a revealing example of the subliminal power of connotations to seduce us into narrative building.  In the field of medicine, a hallucination is an aberration that can be treated. Yet in AI, hallucinations refer to fabricated and false data that are presented as fact: lies, in other words, or falsehoods if you remove the intention to deceive. The portmanteau ‘hallucitations’ plays on both the meaning and the sound to refer to fabricated citations. Hallucination in AI still retains the meaning of delusional thinking but couches it in relatively inoffensive connotations. It invites us to tell a story of ‘poor AI, it’s a little delusional at times, but with a bit of help it will get better’ and distracts us from the equally plausible narrative that AI-generated data may be riddled with falsehoods which are dangerously misleading and which, in a human context, would strip the perpetrator of any credibility. When an existing term is borrowed from one field to another, we, as laypersons, are invited to frame the new usage in the light of remnant connotations.

The same insight applies to metaphors, that figure of speech which allows us to speak of one thing (usually an abstract one) in terms of another (more concrete one). Time as space, for instance, is an everyday metaphor illustrated by expressions such as a long or short time, the years ahead, the experiences behind us, to put time aside. When we speak of the future as an as yet unexplored frontier that lies ahead of us, we elicit a notion of the Wild West, a land open to exploration and colonisation. This metaphor may be helpful in helping us to anchor something as abstract as the future into something physical and visible, but it introduces entailments which may be misleading: the future is not actually available for colonisation, as Anita explains in the lectures.

Similarly, when we speak of time as money, in that it is valuable, we mustn’t waste it, or spend it thoughtlessly, or give too much away in case we run-out of it, though people who are generous with their time are often much loved, and when we speak of time-rich and time-poor societies, we invite a framing of time as a commodity. Again, Anita explains why this may be a harmful frame, one that may lead to an undesirable future.

The poster shows sushi wrapped in plastic, symbolising ocean pollution contaminating our food (Syracuse University).
The poster shows sushi wrapped in plastic, symbolising ocean pollution contaminating our food (Syracuse University).

Metaphors abound in language and are often so integral a part of our everyday speech that we don’t notice them. But in failing to notice them we fail to recognise how each metaphor frames the world in its own way, inserting its own entailments which may or may not be relevant or helpful. There are always other ways of framing any situation (the future is neither a Wild West to be colonised, nor a commodity to be traded, but an emergent property in a continually evolving multiverse. Or maybe it’s a wormhole. Or a projection of our own minds on the cave walls that our genetic makeup has shackled us to!).

Metaphors are story-capsules packed into a single word and then elaborated through the many sentences in which we use them. Connotations are also story-capsules, simpler ones that elicit a good versus bad gut feeling. Similes and analogies are the same! These story-capsules can be found everywhere, even in Diplo’s FL course. When you are invited on a learning journey, you are not just travelling from A to B but engaging in an exercise of discovery, growth and maybe even enlightenment. The term inner journey further accentuates that sense of enhanced self-awareness and spirituality.

Similarly, the term intelligence in artificial intelligence frames our perception of machine abilities in terms of human aptitudes, leading us into thinking that machines can think, that they may have intentions, preferences, agendas, or dreams of domination. A single word, when unpacked, tells a whole story. And that story can then grow legs and run. It can also run havoc. Or so we tell ourselves, because we too are intelligent and want to protect ourselves from the by now inevitable destructiveness of AI that the word ‘intelligence’ catalysed.

Even the term literacy as in futures literacy is a figurative extension of the narrow meaning of ‘being able to read and write’. It has come to refer our knowledge and competence in a particular area and our recognition of its value to society. We use it in such compound terms as media literacy, cultural literacy, computer literacy, etc., and we see it as a good thing. Notice that the term futures literacy presupposes that futures exist, just as media literacy presupposes that there is such a thing called the media. Once again, our use of language frames the way we perceive the world in subtle and often subliminal ways. The King of France’s beard presupposes that there is a King of France – pure hallucination!

In this blog, I have looked at how individual words can function as story-capsules when they are used for their connotations, or used as metaphors, similes, and analogies. I have illustrated how we can build up an entire narrative on the basis of a gut reaction (goodbot vs badbot, hallucinations, deep,) or a story-capsule (time, journey, intelligence, literacy). These narratives will carry a momentum of their own, readers/speakers often buying unthinkingly into the entailments associated with seemingly simple words. In the next blog, we will look at the framing power of larger-than-word units of language, such as logical fallacies, parables, cautionary tales, and other stories. But for now, let us know if this little helping of relish managed to titillate your palate!

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