Futures Friday: Why are these letters all messed up?

Understanding Transformation Scenarios

There is a particular smell and a certain sound I notice when walking into a public library. It is almost like you can smell the past. The books enclose you in their protective bindings and shelter you from the sounds of the world outside.

Inside are rows and rows of shelves, each with more books than you could ever read, exploring science, fantasy, history, and everything in between.

Photo by Dollar Gill on Unsplash

Walking into a library can feel almost like walking back in time. Sure, there are some modern items such as computers, electric lighting, and new media such as DVDs, but for the most part, the libraries of today have changed very little over the past few hundred years. Most of us would find a library in 1822 to be very familiar to us in 2022. Books have information and books are on shelves and organized.

The real question though is how would someone from 1822 view our libraries today? Would they be able to find the information they needed? Would they understand the general paradigms of how a library works? It is still just books on shelves.

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Meet Henry, he is a 19th century time traveler and just arrived at a city library in 2022. He is learned and speaks several languages, including his native English. He is a scholar of sorts and is very familiar with libraries.

Henry walks into the 2022 city library and has a bit of future shock. What are all these people wearing? Why is it so bright inside? And why are there women in here? The shock is temporary though and Henry is able to easily adapt with little instruction or guidance. Books on shelves, that is the essence of the library, and Henry finds the book he is looking for, An Illustrated Guide to Women’s Legs.

This is what we might call a Baseline or Continuation scenario, an archetype used to help understand possible futures. Henry’s view of libraries in 2022 is a continuation of his view from 1822.

There are various models of futures scenario archetypes generally based on Jim Dator’s scenario archetypes. Many include this common archetype of Continuation, a way of seeing a future that is predictable from our own present. Most models also include the archetype of Transformation.

Transformation is very different from Continuation, so much so that it is unrecognizable when it is realized. There may be some elements that are tied to its past that seem familiar, but without some guidance it is difficult to see a transformation scenario as the same system.

Being the adventurer that Henry is, he decides to wander around the library. On a table he sees a strange box with light coming from it. Words bounce around inside the box that say “City Public Library.” In front of the box on the table is a small rectangle with a bunch of letters and numbers and another small object with some sort of rope or string attached.

Henry looks at this with wonder and confusion. How is light coming from this box and what magic makes the words move, at one point from left to right until the hit the side of the box and then bounce down to the bottom of the box. Looking for something familiar, he glances at the small rectangle with all the letters. Why are they all out of order? The numbers are correct but the letters… Q-W-E-R-T-Y — do they speak some sort of new language in this future?

Henry does not know it, but all of the knowledge in the books behind him are in this little box, including An Illustrated Guide to Women’s Legs. And if Henry knew how to use this box of knowledge and searched for women’s legs, he might be in for a real future shock. So perhaps we are fortunate that Henry does not know how to use box.

The box is, in essence, a library. Yet it is 100% unrecognizable to Henry. He has no way to work this new system, it is transformative. So a Transformation scenario should be unrecognizable compared to Continuation. However, if it truly is unrecognizable, how do we get there or even visualize it in the first place.

Photo by Alexei Maridashvili on Unsplash

Enter the futurist, Sarah. Coincidentally, she works at the same library that Henry is visiting. Sarah notices Henry’s confusion at the box and walks over to help. Sarah sits down with Henry and guides him through how the box works, why the “keyboard” has the letters arranged the way they are (both agree at the stupidity of it all), and helps Henry navigate this new future of the “web.” She uses knowledge of his past to help him find the metaphors and symbols Henry needs to make the connections.

The rest of Henry’s story is not so great so we will leave his further adventures for another day (spoiler, he ends up making a series of rather strange TikTok videos and gets escorted out of the library).

Sarah does for Henry what professional futurists do when exploring possible futures. In order to make a Transformational future plausible and recognizable, she uses research and data to find a path that leads through a series of horizons to a distinct future. She uses impact analysis to help her clear that path and “discover” this future. She uses scenarios to help communicate this transformative future to others.

Sarah is able to use her skills in foresight to create that path, to make this future more than simple speculation. Want to entertain someone — tell them a fantastical story of a future. Want to wake someone up and see their eyes go wide, tell them how we reach that future. That is one of our jobs as futurists, to explore what transformation might look like and provide the map to get there.

Transformation is a journey into the unknown and futurists are the guide.

JT Mudge is a professional futurist and data consultant. He is a member of the Association of Professional Futurists and writes and speaks about data and futures. He works as a Data Strategy Consultant at productOps.

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JT Mudge

JT Mudge

I am an innovator, storyteller, futurist, and problem solver. I have a passion for sustainability and social justice. https://www.linkedin.com/in/jtmudge/