Peter Hayward

Futures Beyond Dystopia – Evolutionary or Revolutionary? A Review of Reviews

 Peter Hayward, Swinburne University, Melbourne

In the introduction to his book Futures Beyond Dystopia Richard Slaughter writes that, ‘politics, economics, trade and finance are all urgently in need of reconceptualisation and reconstruction’, and yet, ‘these powerful entities remain strongly resistant to any suggestion that their principles and practices should be revised in line with a different set of values, assumptions and preconditions’.[1] What is he calling for? Is he asking for our ways of knowing and acting to evolve to more effective, appropriate, rational and inclusive ways or is he calling for something more radical, revolutionary and un-rational? In attempting to answer that question this piece will ‘review’ the reviews of Futures Beyond Dystopia by five different authors to see how they have interpreted his challenge.

We assemble the world we experience through our minds. We receive sensory data from our environments while our imaginative processes originate their own conceptual data as well. This interplay of the sensory and the conceptual is managed, with various degrees of efficacy, by our consciousness and from this remarkable process we maintain our sense of ‘fit’ in the world. We ‘fit’ when what we interpret accords with our expectations. When we sense phenomena occurring that does not accord with expectations we either assimilate or accommodate these aberrations. Assimilation extends what we are capable of expecting. Assimilation evolves our schema of the world by elaborating how we currently know and act. Assimilation stretches our knowing and acting so we still fit. Assimilation is small-scale change. Accommodation, however, is revolutionary. The old schema cannot assimilate the aberrant phenomena and so a new schema must be constructed to maintain our sense of fit. Accommodation is uncomfortable because it requires new ways of knowing and acting to be developed. Accommodation is large-scale change. Are the reviewers of Futures Beyond Dystopia assimilating it or accommodating it? Is it evolutionary or revolutionary to their expectations?

The review by Yvonne Curtis assimilates the book into what has preceded it. She sees the book as outlining the ‘progression of futures studies’ that is culminating in practices and techniques that are ‘more comprehensive and inclusive’. The book’s theme is developed ‘logically and succinctly’ and is ‘well-argued’. The reviewer’s overall tone is comfortable with the book and finds it an ‘easy read’.

The Futures Survey review is technically thorough in its précised approach but that does not aid my analysis of whether it is assimilatory or accommodatory except to say that its ‘traditional’ review approach tends towards the assimilatory path. It is only in the author’s commentary at the end of the review that more is gleaned. The reviewer categorises the book/author as ‘righteous’, ‘free-swinging’, ‘ivory-tower’, ‘high-minded utopianism’, ‘bright’ and ‘critical’. Whew! This is edgy assimilation. The reviewer takes some issue with the author and the approach but also acknowledges that others who do not share the author’s ‘superior toolbox of methods’ will be ‘narrow and ill-informed’.

David Rymer, in his review of the book for Boss Magazine, is aware of a ‘gap’ that this book is looking to fill, a gap that he describes as ‘uncomfortable’. His review revels in Slaughter’s iconoclastic treatment of ‘western civilisation, unbridled capitalism and binary thinking’ and you can almost hear the reviewer cheering on from the sidelines as the ‘economic rationalists, marketers and technologists come in for some rough handling’. This reviewer is starting to edge out of assimilation and into accommodation. For him the book ‘is a blueprint for recasting the discipline on a more secure basis’. It’s not full-blown revolution but its not just evolution either.

Lynn Elen Burton’s review sees the book as a call for revolution. To her ‘the author calls not for a minor adjustment in course’. This revolution requires the adoption of conventionally unpalatable actions of ‘reasserting limits’ and ‘understanding some technological options should not be pursued’. The book is ‘provocative’ and does not ‘mince words’. For her the revolution will ‘diminish the weaknesses and build on the strengths’. It will ‘reach a level of emancipation heretofore undeliverable’. She acknowledges that the ‘future generations depend on us’. She closes with her own question. ‘As concerned futurists, the choice is ours. We can actively accept the challenge of helping to fashion a preferable future for humanity, or passively accept the consequences’.

The final review, by Ian Lowe, calls for ‘the crew of Space-Ship Earth to stage a mutiny’ as ‘those who are on the bridge’ are clearly not interested in accommodating a new way of thinking/acting. The book for him is manual about how to mount such a revolution. Like Slaughter, he is aware of the aberrant data around us. Those who are either unwilling or unable to accommodate that data, ‘stumble blindly towards global catastrophe, driven by economic imperatives, technical hubris, short-term thinking, ecological illiteracy and political irresponsibility. He also does not spare the field of Future Studies that he says ‘has been dominated by a narrow approach characterised by superficiality, conservatism and a lack of interest in alternative visions’. The reviewer is asking where he would find you on the Titanic? Are you in the engine room tipping more coal into the furnaces in order to get to the icebergs faster? Are you in the First Class bar feasting on the smoked salmon and champagne, secure in the knowledge that the cheque will not get to the bank? Are you one of the revolutionaries, with a copy of Futures Beyond Dystopia in your shoulder holster, who are prepared to establish a ‘new and potentially durable relationship between people, cultures, technologies and natural systems’?

[1] xxiv, FBD