Australia 2050: an attempt at an explanation

This week I travelled to Canberra for two of the most stimulating and exciting days I’ve had all year. The Australian Academy of Sciences hosted a two-day conference / workshop as part of the Australia 2050 project, which I was lucky enough to participate in.

Australia 2050 is a collaboration between a group of scientists (some Fellows of the Academy, some not) who are searching for useful ways for Australians to think about and engage with their future. Their motto (or at least a refrain I heard repeated several times) is that ‘The future is uncertain, contested, and ultimately shared.’ We all have our own perspectives about what the future will hold, whether these are consciously articulated or not. These differenf perspectives often lead us to disagree on what is important for our country, what are the challenges we must face and how should we address them.

Scientists are in the business of thinking about the future, of making predictions and testing those predictions against the facts. However, the 2050 team were conscious of the fact that the science community is only a small sector within Australian society. Scientists may have useful tools for thinking about and understanding the next few decades, but they possess no secret knowledge about the future hidden from the rest of us, and no authority to insist we follow their advice.

With that in mind, the aim of the 2050 project (at least in this phase) was to invite people from other sectors of society to contemplate these questions, and to offer their skills and knowledge in this area to help us tackle them. The workshop consisted of 60 people from around Australia, from scientists to industry heads, from journalists and cultural commentators to politicians, from military personnel to artists. It was an intimidating crowd to be a part of, but also a huge privilege to see a cluster of incredible minds grappling with some big and challenging questions.

image by adam thomas

2050 is 37 years from now. In an eqivalent span of years from 1913 to 1950, there were two world wars, the world’s balance of power shifted dramatically, technology such as cars, aeroplanes, and new industrial practices transformed every level of society, and two huge superpowers were preparing to fight a global nuclear war. Across a similar span, in the 37 years since 1976 society has been drastically transformed by the rise of new technology like personal computers, mobile phones and the internet, globalisation has linked every nation on the planet politically and financially into one tightly connected super-society, and culture has shifted rapidly to embrace new artforms, media and lifestyles that would seem deeply alien to people in the mid-70s.

What I am saying is that a lot can happen in almost four-decades: trends can pick up or slow down, massive shocks and crises can hit us at any time, and unexpected things like ideas, technologies and political/social movements can arrive out of left field and knock the whole course of history on to a different track entirely.

No-one knows what will happen between now and 2050, and if you think you do, I respectfully put it to you that you are mistaken. Nevertheless, the fact that we don’t know doesn’t let us off the hook in terms of thinking about it – the future we get will be, in large part, the future we make. We’re not only experiencing it, we’re also creating it. We can’t predict the many bizarre shifts and shocks we’ll experience between here and the middle of this century, but yet we can’t afford to go forward with our eyes closed. We need to be seeking to build the best possible future for our country while being ready and prepared to handle the worst: how else can we leave our descendents a legacy we can be proud of?

One of the paradoxes in this field of science (as I understand it) is that you can’t predict the future, yet you need to plan and prepare for it. How do you resolve this tension and think constructively and usefully about things you have fundamentally no knowledge of?

The Australia 2050 team are practiced ‘future-thinkers’, which means, quoting from their website:

Thinking about the future has become a recognised discipline within social science and business studies. It is also called ‘strategic foresight’, ‘futures-thinking’, ‘futures studies’ and a range of other names. It has been used by businesses, governments, communities, and by both biophysical and social scientists at local, national, geo-regional, and global scales.

The discipline of futures-thinking is based on the assumption that no-one can predict the future, but if we draw on insights from the past and present we can forecast a range of future possibilities that can improve our ability to prepare for future challenges and opportunities.

These ‘future possibilities’ are also called ‘scenarios’, and the starting point for this two-day workshop was a cluster of scenarios. Four alternative visions of Australia in 2050 were proposed to us, each exemplifying a particular trend: Growth, Collapse, Restraint and Transformation. Over two days, we worked in small rotating groups to grapple with these four scenarios, doing our best to articulate what it might concretely mean for Australia to ‘collapse’ or ‘transform’, what the consequences of these changes might be for politics, economics, culture, the environment and the arts, and how we might conceivably travel to that destination from where we are in 2013. It was hard, demanding mental and creative labour, and it felt often as if we were only scratching the surface of what these different visions might mean.

The point of the workshop was not, though, to map out four fleshed-out science fiction alternative futures. Rather, our brief was to generate ideas and speculate broadly, populating these four scenarios (and every point in between) with meaningful and concrete examples. Not just projecting a future based on graphing trends, but rigorously visualising a range of different potential outcomes.

The next stage for Australia 2050 will be to absorb and somehow synthesise the 500+ ideas that were captured over the two days on laptops scattered around the Shine Dome. This content will be the basis for a wider series of public engagements as the 2050 team begin conversations with stakeholders from all backgrounds, all round Australia.*

nothing says future like holding your conference inside this weird edifice

An opportunity to get to take two days out and consider the broad arc of the future was always going to be a pleasant experience. What I wasn’t anticipating was how much I learned, how many weird and feasible and brilliant ideas were unfolded in my hearing, and how lovely and generous the whole crew were. Huge thanks to everyone involved for an extraordinary experience.

And now the tricky bit: trying to digest and make sense of it all. I will be chewing on this, for a while.


image by adam thomas

*I’m stoked that an earlier iteration of this most recent workshop was held in Canberra in March as part of the You Are Here festival. Footage from the event is online here, and I pinched a couple of Adam Thomas’ photos of the event for the above post if you’re curious as to what a public forum about the future might look like (though judging from this most recent experience, they don’t all look the same).

That Place of Infested Roads

andrew galan, the man hisself, image by adam thomas

This week I had the wild-at-soul privilege of performing at an extremely special event – Mr Andrew Galan launched his first book of poetry, That Place of Infested Roads, at the Phoenix this week. Launching any kind of book, anywhere at any time, is a pretty rad achievement, but this one sat particularly close to my heart as Andrew has been carving out a really phenomenal voice and style over the last few years, and I’m excited that this book can act as a kind of snapshot for where he’s at now. In two more years he will have changed completely, this much we know for sure.

Right now though, Mr Galan’s poems are weird unsettling stabs from the outside. He strings together disparate images in a strange, halting, sometimes stumbling flow. Sometimes stanzas rush and surge and tumble, and then trip you when you come to the end of a line and realise the poem has shifted under your feet.

There are dense clusters of references – pop culture, high culture, places and people – but knowing who or what Galan is referencing doesn’t by any means decode the poems – he uses these symbols in counterintuitive ways that confound any simple readings. Sci fi authors such as Frank Herbert, J.G. Ballard and Ray Bradbury take part in eerie military actions amid ‘squeezebox drone’, just to take the first example I find when I open the book.

What I love about Andrew’s writing is that it circles around a deep, passionate, almost scary emotion. There’s so much heat and urgency in what he’s writing, you know it straight away. At the same time, he never wades in and announces anything directly, never gives you the answer to what he’s striving to express. Reading his work, and listening to him perform it (which is a whole other visceral experience) forces you to switch off certain sense-making parts of your brain and try instead to see and feel the ideas he’s unpacking.

A few lines from one of my favourites in the collection, ‘S.T. Picard’:

Two-AM, a rust stop sign
beside a rough wheelbarrow
that has just one handle
the other wood is lost
on an island of men missing
parts of limbs, parts of faces, parts of hearts
she ministers the wounds of these casualties
from eleven dimension midnight alley knifings.
She is S.T. Picard
she puts high-heel boot on
ahead of dark leather boot on
Gamma Road
at will caffeine appears in her hand
triple fire, she is leaving
lemon in the sheets
with a hiss and a purr

Anyway, this is not a review nor was meant to be, this is just me expressing my appreciation and admiration to one of the most distinctive and exciting artistic voices in the ACT scene, as well as one of the warmest and most generous people I’ve ever worked with.

For the launch, Andrew gave each performer a poem from his book to interpret and perform. Mine was ‘The upstairs food court’, an image-rich depiction of (what I took to be) the second level food court of the Canberra Centre shopping mall. It’s a sparse, measured poem with a devastating final line.

a less good dude, also imaged by adam thomas

My approach was to type out the poem into a word document, then sit throughout the performance adding in new lines, comments, snippets from other poems, scraps from the conversation around me and the MC interludes. And then I performed that. It worked well on the night but it’s not something that holds up well after the fact, I think, because it relies so much on the circumstances of the night. Still, there were some lines I enjoyed – this is one.

2am on an island full of men
missing parts of faces parts of limbs parts of hearts
she puts high heeled boots on
once and twice so she does not violate relativity
and if you’re lying where the mice have crept
the animals wept
amelia burned and slept
the pack of rats lived
the soap encrusted bathwater tap
cause this is her
carcass to carcass

give them the things
that they deserve
give them the shots of caffeine
the magic mystery
the last clutch of the redhead scratch
the amazed the head on the pillow
and with each precise stilleto
I see galan poised there in a courtyard in madrid
we might all be symbols
and adam says well that was the best thing
is it a personality that wounds me? when we met at andrew’s place to eat ice cream?

Jess and David Read Kerouac’s Essentials of Spontaneous Prose

Jess Bellamy is one of those people who is not just a brilliant writer and a fucking hilarious observer of the world, she’s also a compassionate and beautiful mind with an extraordinary creative impulse. Her writing is incredible. Her writing is incredible. Her writing is incredible. Seek her out.

The only problem with Jess is that she lives in Sydney, and I don’t, and consequently we don’t get to see each other or collaborate or hang out as much as I’d like. We’ve worked together for the last couple of years on a series of insane pop culture triologues with Hadley (Tokyo Tween Knife Brawl and You Are Here vs Teen Makeouts) and we were in Manila together in August working with Sipat on LoveNOT, but still. Few and far between.

THEN: two weeks ago, I was in Sydney for a couple of nights, staying at Jess’, and we took a morning out and sat in a cafe with Jack Kerouac’s list of Belief and Techniques for Spontaneous Prose. I don’t want to proselytise about Kerouac, you either dig him or you don’t, but I should acknowledge that I think he’s incredible, and one of the reasons I write at all. The list of Belief and Techniques is basically a set of commandments for how to write, which is as exciting and inspiring as words ever get.

Anyway, Jess and I sat and talked through the list, and then we sat down next to each other and wrote, and what we wrote we have now compiled into a single script, entitled JESS AND DAVID READ KEROUAC’S ESSENTIALS FOR SPONTANEOUS PROSE. The two pieces, hers and mine, run along parallel lines, each touching on different elements of our conversation and moving at different speeds, highlighting different moments, retelling parts in different voices, and feeding back to the list itself.

Included in the script is Kerouac’s list itself, so I won’t include it here – but what I will include is a couple of short lines from Jess’ piece. There’s so much in there, I don’t know where to start or what to say about it except I’m so fucking grateful to get to write with people like Jess, to share this sort of work. Dig this:

Today is Tuesday the 8th of October 2013 and it is nicer to start my day with that than with a Hebrew prayer and today is an important day, important enough for me to sit up and stretch and name it so. Here are the things that matter to me on this exact day, in the order that they catch up with the swimming turtle and fish in the ocean of the DJ with attitude:
–    expression
–    creativity
–    friendship
–    French toast with salted caramel
–    New sprigs on my plant to celebrate spring
–    Text-flirting
–    The perfect amount of sun for everything
–    A horizon that warps and bubbles a little with excitement.

There is chaos and it will be ok or it will not.
There is fear and it will be ok or it will not.
There is uncertainty and it will be ok or it will not.
There is panic and it will be ok or it will not.

Well, yes.

Download Jess and David Read Kerouac’s Essentials of Spontaneous Prose.doc

we’ll cause a revolution in the world of hairdressing

–    and in the same way that gramophones displaced the local performance artist by allowing a few singers to be mass-produced and thereby gain a disproportionate share of the market, so we’ll do the same for hairdressers

–    I’m into your ideas, these are great ideas

–    because at the moment, the reason there are hairdressers everywhere

–    there are hairdressers everywhere

–    that’s right!

–    that’s right

–    because you can’t mass-produce a haircut the way you can mass-produce a pop record. think back to 1890, if you wanted to hear a band you’d have to wait til the local band did a performance somewhere you could get to. then with the advent of the gramophone you could just buy a copy of the recorded music by one of the established best bands in the game and that was it, why then would you pay money for your local band any more

–    I don’t know why you would, you wouldn’t

–    and that’s when a few key artists gained a massive slice of the pie, and it wasn’t necessarily the best artists that came out on top, it was just the artists who happened to be well situated when that technology became available

–    it was a revolution in the production and consumption of music

–    a revolution

–    a revolution not paralleled in the world of hairdressing

–    well yeah, the hair industry is still trapped where the music industry was pre-1890, there are good hairdressers and bad hairdressers, but for most customers it’s not a question of who’s the best, it’s a question of who’s accessible

–    so what you’re proposing is to mass-produce the best haircuts on the market

–    record those best haircuts to a recording device

–    the equivalent of a microphone

–    yes but not a microphone, obviously, then people will be able to buy the best haircuts on the market, anywhere, instantaneously

–    that seems like the most sensible idea

–    it’s the only idea, really, that I have

–    the challenge for me is visualising what that would look like, mass-produced haircuts

–    well like imagine a pop record but for haircuts

–    yeah I get the analogy, I’m just not sure how it translates