1: A visit to Norway Prime
In October of 2019, the University of Oslo’s Department of Media & Communications organised a workshop on the future of schools in Norway. Academic researchers, teachers, government officials, staff from tech firms and non-profits, plus other stakeholders from across the education sector, came together to devise scenarios for the future of digitalised schooling.
By imagining plausible futures, we aimed to test current expectations about what may lie ahead and highlight blind spots. When, in subsequent weeks, COVID-19 moved across the world, locked us in, and froze us down, it also merged the conceptions of time we had brought forth in our workshop.
Thanks to the coronavirus, the anticipated passage of time accelerated and grew turbulent. 2050, the target of our imagined futures, fell into, and grew out of, 2020. The futures we had conceived and the present we sought to strengthen collapsed into one.
Our project had envisaged three scenarios for 2050. One saw children and teens self-educating in a heavily digitalised post-capitalist world ravaged by climate crisis. Another featured a “rustbelt” Norway where economic crisis had put an end to oil wealth and moved Norway towards populist authoritarianism. The third was “Norway Prime”, where people had traded much of their agency for material comfort in a heavily surveilled, corporate-dominated future. In this last scenario, work and domestic life had merged, with careers and education managed to the smallest detail through algorithmically-coordinated infrastructures and logistics.
This last scenario took on a life of its own after the workshop. “Norway Prime” had posited parents resisting the algorithmic management of their children’s schooling and daily routines in the realm of children’s health. As machines scrutinised, analysed, and judged children’s well-being and parents’ caregiving – issuing sanctions for the slightest lapse or deviation from prescribed norms – parents and carers found new symbolic and symptomatic ways to assert their right to make decisions about their children’s health and wellbeing.
During the scenario process, we had explored types of unwellness that would challenge a data-driven health & care system. We landed on “factitious disorders” – deliberate cultivation of injury or sickness in oneself or others – which would not easily yield to number-crunching. We imagined parents battling authorities over such small decisions as deciding when a child was old enough to wipe their own nose – but also increasingly turning to extreme and perverse measures, such as Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy, to assert themselves against the claustrophobic and pervasive authority of the system.
In such a state, we imagined, parents might start acting pathologically within a Deleuzian ‘society of control’ which could not otherwise be revolted against, because it was also the giver of care1. Scenarios exist not to aimlessly contemplate the future, but to conjure visions which can inform decisions in the present, and show us aspects of our current context which we had not fully addressed before. In the case of “Norway Prime”, the emerging scenario showed that the battle between parents and institutions over the right to determine children’s health and wellbeing would be a key tension of the digitalised era.
2: 2050 arrives in 2020
The workshop outputs were elaborated into scenario texts over the end of 2019 and beginning of 2020. Within days of publication, however, COVID-19 arrived in Norway and, with it, 2050 came to 2020, too. The first tentative signs arose in March, when the Norwegian newspaper Verdens Gang reported that parents were lobbying the City of Oslo to send children home, while authorities continued to insist that schools were a safe place for them. That the terrain for this battle was the digital realm, as parents and carers organised via Facebook to assert against the authorities their right to decide what was best for their children, created an even stronger sense of déjà vu for us. With more and more posts ticking in and pressure thus building, it almost seemed as though some Norwegians were appealing to Facebook itself as arbiter of the decision about children’s health – an “impartial” intermediary between the Norwegian government and its citizens?
Schools and kindergartens subsequently closed and, with little information about the virus’ impact on different age-groups, families found themselves confined to the home and tied to a digital infrastructure provided by the “usual suspects”, the major tech companies. Via the latter’s platforms, the responsibility for kids’ educational progress was distributed between parents as newly enlisted facilitators of learning, and teachers whose task was to structure and shape it.
In this situation, frequently tense negotiations ensued between parents, teachers, and school administrations: over the syllabus and curriculum, quantity and quality of homework, the structure of the remote school day, and the meaningfulness of formal schooling under such circumstances at all.
Against a background of looming sickness, claustrophobia and cabin fever, the constant niggle of screen-induced headaches and an overall predisposition towards psychosomatic symptoms, a complex combination of moods, constraints, compulsions, and necessities slowly condensed until it resembled the real presence of a future we had dreamed up in the recent past: the world of Norway Prime. There was a slight difference in that it was Microsoft, not Amazon, that had managed to secure the deal for schooling in Norway: in April 2020, the corporation announced that its “Teams” tool had more than doubled its user base from around 20 million users in November 2019 to 44 million, seeming to confirm Norwegian parents’ impression that this was determining their and their kids’ reality.
When schools and kindergartens reopened, the battle continued, with some parents organising resistance against sending their kids back. The struggle for authority over children’s health that we had imagined as a plausible, yet distant future was playing out in a timescale of days and weeks.
3: The Breaking Wave
Our respective interests as a scenario planner and psychoanalytic researcher had converged in the production of the Norwegian school scenarios. During the workshop, the question of factitious disorders and a perverse battle over children’s health emerged from the desire to explore issues which were avoided or overlooked in the present. The scenario planner uses future visions to help people attend to their strategic blind spots, the places they are unable or unwilling to look when considering their future; the psychoanalytic researcher addresses equivalent territory when exploring forbidden words, thoughts, and acts – the domain of taboo.
Yet our Norwegian school scenarios did not so much pull secrets from forbidden depths, as broaden the net with which we trawled for new signals of emergent change. Many of the concerns about the future expressed in our scenarios could already be found around us quite explicitly – in popular culture rather than the “realistic” frame of policy discussion. We had joked about the dystopian TV show Black Mirror while drafting these scenarios, and elements of our Norwegian school futures clearly resonate with visions found in such texts as Children of Men, The Road, Logan’s Run, and Wall-E.
In soap operas, crime dramas, viral social media, video games and science fiction films, fears and fascinations which have relevance to our social future – yet seem implausible when applied to “real life” situations – may already have risen to the surface. As Ursula LeGuin put it, articulating a sentiment also expressed by Frederick Jameson and Slavoj Žižek: “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art” – or, perhaps, the cultural industries.
The scholar George Lipsitz, in his book Footsteps in the Dark, talks about sifting popular culture to elicit hidden information about social and political history. He uses the notion of the “fetch” – the distance a wave travels in the ocean from its origins to its exhaustion – as a metaphor for how pop culture churns through the ages, reemerging in different forms and contexts.
While Lipsitz’s cases are drawn from popular music – for example, conceptions of nationalism in merengue songs by Dominican migrants in the US – the scenarios developed during our workshop seem resonant with TV shows and movies that connect to waves of conspiratorial thinking. Vaccine skepticism, for example, has been surging again since the early 1980s after a quiet period post-WWII. While “Norway Prime” imagined similar phenomena of distrust in relation to a surveillance-capitalist social setting, the pandemic has now made the widespread reality and currency of such skepticism visible.
The weak signals of change which scenarios amplify might be more detectable in pop culture than policy discourse. Like the movement of the sea, a small disturbance can gain amplitude over time and distance, building, in some cases, to tsunami proportions. The future does not come at us from over an unknowable horizon, but emerges from the development of small currents which are already building in the present – if only we knew where to look.
What had seemed fanciful and far-fetched during our workshop of 2019, the stuff of science fiction brought into the realm of policy discussion, was now all around us in lived experience, demanding to be addressed by our choices in the here and now. When COVID surged, crashing 2050 into the shores of 2020, did we surf one of Lipsitz’s waves – catching it for just a short stretch on its journey from the pop cultural past to a troubling future?
1 This aspect might also be explored in terms of Foucault’s “pastoral power”, exercised by institutions that offer care, support, and redemption.
Steffen Krüger is Head of the Screen Cultures initiative at the Faculty of Humanities, University of Oslo, and Senior Lecturer at the Department of Media and Communication (IMK, UiO).
Matt Finch is Lead Facilitator on the Scenarios Programme at the Saïd Business School, University of Oxford and an Adjunct Research Fellow at the University of Southern Queensland – see more at www.mechanicaldolphin.com.