In 1937, a few years after the Great Depression, an extraordinary movement emerged in Britain. It was called mass observation. Its idea was to mobilise thousands of people in the systematic observation of their fellow citizens – to describe how people lived, how they talked, and how they ate.
Its founder was a remarkable anthropologist called Tom Harrison, whose career ranged through ornithology to fighting as a guerrilla. The movement pulled in filmmakers, poets and writers of all kinds, and hundreds of volunteer researchers, and inspired people to look at the world around them with fresh eyes.
Mass observation petered out in the 1960s. But the discussions around FutureFest have made me wonder whether we now need something equivalent, but oriented to the future as well as the present. After all the world of futures has become very much an elite activity – with specialist think tanks working for the biggest firms and the richest governments. Futurism today tends to be an insider's game, for Silicon Valley billionaires at the Singularity University, or Davos conferences, and reflects their values, myopias and hopes to a remarkable degree.
It wasn’t always like this. In the early 19th century there were movements of the people concerned with the future, and a belief that the world was theirs to shape. Utopias were to be found on the streets as well as in top strata of society.
One example of many was the movement prompted by Étienne Cabet’s writings on the utopia of Icaria. His utopia promised absolute cleanliness and absolute symmetry, helped by laws to specify everything from food to dress, and with all citizens engaged in government (as well as voting), supported by a Department of Statistics to provide them with the facts they needed. This may sound like a rather weird vision of the perfect future. But Icarian societies spread in working-class communities all over France, and then in the United States, where communes were set up in Texas, Louisiana, Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, and California. That was a time when much of the elite clung desperately to the past, fearful that their world was soon to be swept away – a diametrically opposite sentiment to the swaggering confidence of today’s club class elites.
Mass observation was built around methods. So what might the methods of mass futurism be? Perhaps it would be to observe the things around us that might portend possible future worlds: new ways of talking; new ways of thinking or dreaming; lifestyles; interior decoration; cooking; loving.
Some of the really interesting examples will be somewhat invisible, woven into the texture of life. But perhaps that’s what will make them most interesting – how a family thinks about their diet or their links to relatives spread across the world, for example. We might then map etiologies, the journeys made by these novelties as they weave their way into the mainstream. Some of this would precisely mirror mass observation, which mapped the new behaviours and vernaculars as they emerged. But it would also prompt us to ask how the best emerging futures could be spread more quickly.
Doing some mass futurism might be fun. And it might be a healthy expression of a self-aware democracy that refuses to submit to fatalism.