We had 16 participants in four groups, who created a wonderful and diverse set of futures. I gave the participants (conference attendees) the barest of outlines: imagine the year 2040, and tell me a story where the humanities matter against the background of the neoliberal university. Participants were instructed to imagine themselves 25 years in the future or so, and come up with a series of events. Because we had an hour slot for the whole thing, a lot had to be truncated. I am still very impressed with the richness of the visions, even with the harsh time constraints that let only one group reach the final act of their story.
((And with apologies to my participants, this is my interpretation of a summary of one person telling a group story. Please correct my mistakes in the comments))
The first story imagined a dark world for the humanities, where anything that didn’t generate a profit for the university had been eliminated. A group of renegade academics, after a chance meeting in an alpine chalet, decide to create a piece of popular culture with subversive, i.e. intellectual values. When it fails, they steal their own work back from the corporate overlords and pirate it on the dark web, re-imagined as a kind of alternative reality game. Though one of the team becomes an international pariah, the work succeeds beyond all imagination thanks to its counter-culture cachet, and the globetrotting hard work of the rest of the team. They meet again, this time at a manor in the alps, to celebrate the birth of 21st century gothic movement.
In the year 2040, language has been debased to an internationalized English-Chinese creole. No one speaks their native tongue any more, everybody communicating in a rather flat trade language. The humanities have been decimated, with higher education focused on job training, tenure eliminated, and the whole economy shifted to “mechanical Turk” micro-gigs. A few holdouts in ancient languages, visual arts, and traditional interpretive techniques survive in communities that deliberate reject the global status quo by maintaining their own language and heritage. An Amish village that is sheltering three renegade scholars is visited by an NSA affiliated researcher in machine learning. Cue Morricone soundtrack...
Post-Trump Presidency and the Social Democratic backlash, being smart is cool again. Against a background of broad equality supported by a universal basic income, academics are like celebrities or athletes, having figured out how to successfully monetize their work and the work of their students through advertising and crowdfunding. The story centered around a virtual reality version of the Divine Comedy, where Virgil served the viewer a personal guide to the commercial web. The creator, Dr. Millspaugh, gets in a fight with the critical Dr. Robinson about the ethics of the VR Virgil. At HASTAC40, now a major red carpet gala funded by big companies and viewed by thousands, Millspaugh renounces ad-funded research. The entire group collaborates on a new project, which is crowd funded when an NEH grant falls through…
This group didn’t quite find a moment of crisis to explore, but thought deeply about automation, and what people would do with all their free time once jobs had been replaced by robots and a universal social welfare net. Discovering what it means to be human becomes the most salient issue; education and play and creation become intermixed to avoid become WALL-E like blobpeople.
This was best Eventuality session yet. I’d attribute the vast majority of this success to my participants, who really gave it their all, and courageously revealed some very interesting “known unknowns.” Familiarity with narrative formats, their own creativity, and immersion in innovation in the digital humanities, meant that this was the group that knew their stuff and was willing to experiment. A distant second was that this was by far the lightest version of Eventuality. One page of rules, and really only one rule. Draw a card and that’s how it turns out: Hearts and Spades are good for you, Diamonds and Clubs are bad.
There is still a lot of room for improvement. I had to cut most of the groups off in the middle of their most productive storytelling. It took about 15 minutes to get through the background and into the action of the story, people wanted to imagine their perfect future, rather than tell a messy story in it. The character sheets detracted from the objectives of collective storytelling, or at least people used them in entirely different ways than I intended. The part where data is collected during the workshop isn’t producing results as finely detailed as I’d like. The debriefing section was most severely impacted this time around by time constraints. The consequences cards added a welcomed random element, but there also needs to be room for judgement and criticism about the story. I really wish I’d had remembered to ask people to come up with titles for their stories afterwards. A moment of stepping back, of looking at the big picture, of having a third party come in to introduce a critical element or force the story towards some kind of crux, is definitely the difference between good and great stories that come out of Eventuality.
That said, I’d count this as a major success. The participants got the idea and did the workshop in an hour, and everybody had fun. When people are smiling, animated, and involved, the process is working.