onsdag 18 september 2019

The future through the present (seminar)

I went to a seminar at Stockholm University of the Arts earlier today. The topic of the seminar interested me and for some strange reason I had the whole afternoon free so I went on a lark:

The future through the present

Work has an almost religious function in our lives as the most meaningful activity we should devote ourselves to. In the near future, this may be incompatible with new technology that makes work superfluous. Can creative documentaries prepare us for this outcome? Can depictions of the contemporary create projections into the future?

Erik Gandini (professor of documentary film) and Roland Paulsen (sociologist and author) present "The future through the present", an interdisciplinary research project in collaboration with Jyoti Mistry, professor of film at Valand.

"The future of the present" is an interdisciplinary project that combines creative documentary movies and sociology. Erik Gandini discussed a few questions that he as a filmmaker took with him into the project:
- How can a documentary film based on the present and recoded in contemporary times create a projection into something that does not yet exist? A universe of ideas, assumptions, imaginary notions of what yet is not but can be?
- How can a new documentary aesthetic for the future be formulated that is not an imitation of fiction or of the science fiction genre but instead based on the documentary's own narrative element?

The seminar also treated the topics of "work" and "the future of work". Some of the questions that were raised in connection to this were:

- Is the ethical superiority of work (compared to non-work/unemployment etc.) really untouchable?
- Can we think of a different future? Can we imagine what a post-work society look like?
- What will we do when we do not need to work?
- Can creative documentary prepare us for this outcome?

Several other provocative ideas were aired at the seminar, for example:
- A pro-work argument that is repeated all the time is that "we can't afford to work less" (because fewer people will have to work harder, more and longer in order to support more "non-productive" people now and even more so in the future (the young, the old, the infirm, the unemployed, the unemployable illiterate immigrant etc.). Roland Paulsen pointed out that the discussion always seem to glaze over the fact that we have progressively grown wealthier for a very long time.
- Research results indicate that people prefer to work rather than not to work and that it's better to have job than not to have a job taking physical and mental health into consideration. Roland pointed out that these "facts" could be the result of the current "workfare" regime where the alternatives to work (unemployment etc.) have been designed so as to make the alternatives to (full-time) employment unpalatable and punishing.

Erik discussed the phenomena of countries that have become filthy rich (Norway) and showed us footing from an upcoming documentary of his about Kuwait which was very interesting and thought-provoking. All Kuwaiti nationals apparently has the right to get a (well-paid) job - but they don't have  a right to get a meaningful work and many people flounder or suffer as they (sometimes) drag their butts to a workplace where there is nothing to do but to kill time. Erik also mentioned that ultraortodox jews in Israel get a stipend, "a sort of universal basic income", and spend all their time being religions and reading holy texts and apparently also score very high on any and all happiness measures. That's a way of thinking of Israeli ultraortodox jews that I certainly hadn't thought of before...

The seminar also took a for me very unexpected turn when both Roland and Erik at one point started to talk about "counterfactuals" - about worlds that could be (or might have been) as a way to open up our imagination to the currently-unimaginable. I made sure to mention our just-approved research project that starts in January and that involves counterfactuals!

I also learned something new. In psychology, the noble-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman has written about about ("upward" and "downward") counterfactuals. I immediately ordered a copy of a 1982 book chapter and an 1986 article of his about counterfactual! In a break, Roland also mentioned to me that the radical marxist sociologist Eric Olin Wright had used/written about counterfactuals, using the term "real utopias". Wright apparently wrote a (for me must-buy) book, "Envisioning real utopias" in 2010 and there is also a "Real Utopias Project" that started more than 25 years ago:

"The Real Utopias Project, begun in 1991, explores a wide range of proposals and models for radical social change. The basic idea is to combine serious normative discussions of the underlying principles and rationales for different emancipatory visions with the analysis of pragmatic problems of institutional design. The project itself consists of a series of conferences sponsored periodically by the A. E, Havens Center at the University of Wisconsin."

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