instructions for inhabiting
imagined futures

by matt finch
Vinoth Chandar, Bird Flock In Vedanthangal, photograph, 2010. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This work builds on the IMAJINE (Integrative Mechanisms for Addressing Spatial Justice and Territorial Inequalities in Europe) Scenarios created to explore the future of regional equality in Europe by a team headed by Dr. Marie Mahon at the National University of Ireland, Galway. IMAJINE’s scenarios challenge contemporary understandings of regional inequality by presenting four visions of the world in 2048. Each scenario depicts circumstances in which inequality and injustice between territories has taken on different and challenging forms.

The text invites the reader to inhabit the bodies of four individuals from IMAJINE’s futures, beginning with a process to encourage awareness of one’s own present embodiment as a reader and a consumer of plausible futures.

Each future individual’s experience serves as a prism through which the body, self, and place can be observed. They include a complacently-wealthy centenarian whose health is tied to the medical services of their smart home; an Olympian whose body may offer a route to national salvation in a contest which embraces culture as well as sport; an inhabitant of privatised digital space where the physical self is almost forgotten, as consciousness merges with a global fleet of autonomous delivery vehicles; and a figure who seeks to reject local understandings of gender and identity in a fragmented Europe where microterritories have developed around wildly-different beliefs and values.

The aim is for the reader to experience the body of future individuals with reference to the situations, values, and logics of future geographies, chosen not for their probability or desirability, but for the ways in which they challenge our current understanding of the inequality between different territories and regions.

 

Find a calm, quiet place to sit. Take as long as you need to settle.

Leave behind your daily life. Allow your body to find stillness.

Turn fully into this moment. Pay attention to each of your senses. Let commentary, judgment, thoughts that arise, all float away.

Move attention through your body. Sense your jaw, lips, teeth, gums. The ceiling of your mouth, the floor of your mouth, your tongue. Notice the breath flowing through your nose and throat.

Pay attention to your left ear, your right ear, both ears at the same time. Your left eye, eyebrow, temple, cheekbone. Your right eye, eyebrow, temple, cheekbone.

Forehead. Crown. Back of the head. The neck.

Left shoulder, left arm, left wrist, left hand, fingers. Right shoulder, right arm, right wrist, right hand, fingers.

Pay attention now to your chest and back: the ceiling of the torso and the floor of the torso. To your legs, left and right: every sensation from hip to toe.

Relax, and let perceptions come to you, from ten, twenty, thirty years hence. New bodies, new futures, are waiting.


The first body is old, healthy, and strong. You sit in a comfortable chair at home, recharging — quite literally. The house’s contactless medical systems are checking your levels and recalibrating your implants.

You distract yourself from the process, though it is not especially unpleasant, by scrolling the newsfeed. Aid packages from Europe have arrived in the United States. Pop-up manufactories — vast, versatile 3D printers — are being set up on the outskirts of a shanty town in the deep snows of a refugee camp on the Canadian border. Aid workers are handing out products fresh from the printer’s maw to the hands of grateful Americans.

Swipe left. The next story is the usual trouble in the east: skirmishes between Russia and Belarus. The Russians have never forgiven their neighbours for joining the EU, though the conflicts remain petty. They knock our drones down, we knock their drones down.

Swipe left. You feel a twinge, but can’t tell whether it’s distaste for politics or just your liver implant rebooting. You smile. To be a centenarian and still in your physical prime! It was unimaginable when you were born, in the ashes of the Second World War. If Europe could rise from that, it can face any future. You may fret about the world your grandchildren will inherit, but it’s not as if you have to hand over the reins just yet.

There’s a soft chime as the cycle completes. The newsfeed is replaced by a diagnostic: green lights across the board. You pat the armrest by way of thanks as you rise. By far the best nurse you’ve ever had.



The second body. Much younger, less than a third of the age of the previous one. And fit! You’ve never felt so strong, so ready.

You rise early and make your way through the Olympic Village to the pool, swimming for half an hour, reciting familiar verses as you plough through the lengths. You can feel that race-day fear and focus at war in you, the strange moment approaching when you have to harness the anxiety and put it to work in your favour.

You’re halfway through the dodecathlon, yet every morning you face the same battle. Nerves are a wily foe. They know all your weaknesses. Every time you develop a defence, they find a way to counter it. They unerringly seek the weak point where your attention cleaves: half your mind on the track and field today, half your mind on the poetry event tomorrow.

As you dress, as you train, your lips mouth the stanzas of the work you’ve composed for the bardic event which will conclude the contest. Your grandparents came to Europe from Peru, and you’ve included a refrain in Quechua by way of tribute to them.

Where they worked menial jobs in the Madrid of a dying capitalist age, you find yourself here: beneath the air-conditioned domes of Kuala Lumpur, Europe’s great hope for a gold in the new Olympiad.

There’s so much at stake here, not just for the people who’ve pinned their hopes and dreams on your fortunes in this contest, those folks back home with all their yearning for something beyond the endless dread of this burning world. Your family’s fortunes ride on this week in Malaysia, too.

A medal, any medal, would bring the chance of taking them all from the hollow, haunted city with its floods and outbreaks of disease, finding them a place in the still-green hills, among those who have already progressed on the long, slow climb out of the pit of the Anthropocene.

Today’s exertions will be your contribution to that climb. You stretch, touch your toes, shake off the fear and find your focus. Step into the stadium, the cool, conditioned air of the climate-protected city still unfamiliar. Fulfil your role: hopeful champion of an entire continent.



Your third body is less important than the suit you pull on. It clings so tightly that when the final clasp is in place and you bite down on the mouthpiece, you forget it is even there. It syncs to your smart lenses and the gloves tingle momentarily as you begin to sense the virtual world, space beyond space.

The AI assistant has your task list ready. You taste the priorities, salt and sweet: the algorithm flavours the most pressing tasks to increase their appeal. It works for kids tending virtual pets in kindergarten and the haute cuisine version works for you now. Labour can always be savoured.

In generations past your role — in logistics — might have seemed dull and routine. Then the machines got smart enough that your predecessors were only there to watch for errors or serve as troubleshooters. Then the world got more complex again, and now it’s a virtuoso’s job, to inhabit and coordinate swarms of autonomous agents, physical and virtual, as they traverse the world. A more fanciful colleague has called it “conducting the music of the planet’s circulation.” For you, it’s enough to know that you get the job done.

You soar into the skies to look down on your charges through a satellite’s eye. You’re not so unpoetic that you fail to admire the world. The Earth is green, blue, and silver: forest, ocean, and solar farm. Between its cities and factories move data, goods, raw materials: whole fleets are at your command.

Such power is only possible because the vehicles do most of the thinking for you. Your augmented sensorium alerts you only to problems beyond their capacity to resolve: the nagging ache of an intricate weather pattern over the Pacific, a recurring tickle from the Norwegian charging station which is running below spec, a toothache signifying a possible incidence of piracy in the Antarctic.

As a child, you used your first smart lenses to watch birds in the wetlands of Tamil Nadu. You became so absorbed in their beauty that you would lose yourself in the movement of the flock. From there to the flight of the machines, sometimes seems no distance at all.



The final body is denied. You walk in it, you live in it, but the labels are all wrong. You feel like the opposite of an invisible man: you can be seen, acknowledged, you can play your part in the world, but inside there is nothing.

In the last days of trust, people could barely agree which way was up. Screens told the stories their viewers wanted to hear. Maps rewrote themselves to accommodate prejudice: disputed territories named according to the preference of their viewer.

When lands could be contested, so could bodies. The language of who we are proved infinitely open to rewriting. The same flesh could be burdened or lifted by labels. The continent became a patchwork of values and beliefs: whom you could be, whom you could love, where you would be recognised.

You’ve heard whispers of a place where they don’t speak of men and women anymore. There are different labels there. Would they suit? It’s ten days walk, and you’d have to cross the border.

You don’t know what name you wish for yourself, only that you must slip the bonds that have been placed on you here. They must weigh everyone down, mustn’t they? Yet no one else seems to complain.

The same whispers say that in the north, they’ve given rights to smart machines, to prevent their abuse. That’s barely offered to a dog in these parts; they are low in the hierarchy of Creation. So where do you rank?



Return now to the present, to the body you inhabit. Find your way home. The futures you’ve visited are not places of hope, nor places of fear — at least, not exclusively. Each one presents opportunities and threats to every body within it — and each body will feel and know those opportunities and threats differently.

Breathe. Remember. The future is not yet written.

Matt Finch is a writer and foresight researcher helping communities and institutions to explore the futures they face. He is an associate fellow of Oxford University’s Saïd Business School and an adjunct research fellow at the University of Southern Queensland.