Muddy Futures at Green Man Festival
A review of Nesta's My Other Future standup on tour
At this year’s Green Man festival, Nesta's Futurefest and Science Showoff put on a couple of standup gigs in a tent. The My Other Future comedy battles pitched pairs of first (or second) time comedians against each other. The audience’s favourite idea about the future wins a prize, which at Green Man was a festival-appropriate piece of organic fruit.
Each brave competitor had to make the case that their specialist subject, usually only discussed in research papers or business plans, could lead to big changes in the future. They had volunteered from an open call to the scientists and artists taking part in Einstein’s Garden at Green Man. Their chosen subject varied from synthetic meat to computer vision. Before the festival they got some training and guidance from Steve Cross, whose Showoff comedy nights get researchers out of the lab and into the spotlight.
We were experimenting with the idea that you don’t have to be a professional comic or actor to convey convincing visions of the future in the form of stand-up comedy. Visions of the future are rarely meant to be direct predictions, but they can be profoundly influential on what happens - or on the limits of what people think can or should happen. We liked the idea that more than just celebrities and business leaders should get the chance to have this kind of public influence.
We wanted the shows to include subjects that would intrigue an audience looking to be entertained, even if the standup wasn’t well-polished. The most successful five minutes presentations came from performers with working knowledge of an area. They had the familiarity required to speak fluidly on a subject even if it isn't their immediate area of research. They also worked hard to convert this knowledge into a vision of the future with their own stamp on it. They had a willingness to share what they care about deeply and why.
This long post reflects on the ways this fitted with some of the ideas I have come across associated with futures research and science communication practices. The experience was more similar to Government foresight projects than you might think; there had to be a careful balance between academic legitimacy and a simple story that a busy audience (or minister) could quickly wrap their head round. It was also more different to a Science Showoff event than you might expect. The focus on what we want to happen in the future made the event feel more obviously political, and more about the person behind the performance. I have divided my thoughts into two great moments and two niggling worries.
Two great moments
An audience covered in mud
The Guardian's 5 star review for Green Man festival reminded us that “the finest festival moments are often the unexpected ones”, and this is particularly true at this festival. I would add that Green Man is home to a lot of people looking for unexpected moments.
The audience in the tent for both My Other Future sessions was a mixture of people who happened across the tent and a dedicated crowd of that filled the three rows of benches. Both unexpected and expected audiences were generous with their time and concentration.
They were supportive, much like at our London events and Science or Geek Showoff shows. But there was also something else, something in the way the audience talked about the ideas after each set.
In her set, Jennifer Garrett, the founding co-chair of Bristol Nature Network, took the idea of rewilding our rural areas to an extreme conclusion: imagining the welsh mountains around the festival site repopulated by the wolves that reigned there thousands of years ago. Standing at the back of the tent after she finished, there was a whispered debate next to me about wanting to go back to nature vs. falling into the trap of unhelpful recourse to the past as greener, better times. This wasn’t just an audience there to be entertained. The audience in the muddy fields of Green Man were open to playing with new ideas rather than just listening to them.
And a muddy stage too
Suze Kundu, teaching fellow in material science at Imperial College London, argued in her set that in the future you won't need to be bitten by a spider or be in an horrific radiation accident to have superpowers. She wants there to be nanomaterials suits that protect us all from everyday, and some less everyday, danger. She argued that these plausible today, but that we need more than an evil genius’s imagination if we are going to make nanotechnology useful for most people.
Suze had that kind of honest, open style that comes from someone who wants to share the cool idea they’ve had. But she didn’t come across as someone who thought her idea was better - or more likely to come true - than yours just because she can explain more about the microscopic properties of materials. Her performance showed humility about the uncertain development of technology: she didn’t claim that anyone knows what will happen next, nor that scientists have any particular right to determine that.
Her performance showed humility about the uncertain development of technology: she didn’t claim that anyone knows what will happen next, nor that scientists have any particular right to determine that.
A couple of days before Green Man, Lydia Nicholas reminded me of Noah Raford’s blog post on glass and mud futures. Noah characterises glass futures as those that are explicit corporate visions of a clean, smart often hitech future. He uses a video literally made by a glass manufacturer as his example. This is different from a TV video about innovative ways to use mud as building material, a future that might be more relevant for most people.
Suze’s set was particularly good at bringing some of this mud onto the stage. She brought abstract often very glass-like idea like nanoscience and made it a bit more human - a bit more open for all of us to explore.
Did this really increase access to debates about the future?
These performances might have illustrated that you don’t need to be a CEO or a celebrity to have big ideas about the future. But the format and location of these comedy sets means they exercised two other kinds of privilege.
There is no getting away from the fact that a comedy gig has one person on stage, speaking for most of the time and hoping their verbal dexterity will win over the crowd. This is why people come to watch and why they stay. It also means that these events put the expert and comedian in a privileged position. They have the soap box.
Similarly, open mic future-speculation attracts a narrow audience. At Green Man, it may be a different audience to the one that would go to a science festival or the upstairs room of a pub in London. But there was still a sense of tribe illustrated well in the way the performers addressed the audience. Steve Cross’s warm-up joke obliquely referenced the Labour party leadership election. Joel Gethin Lewis assumed that the audience would share his opinions about reducing digital surveillance and fears about military technology. I realise now that this was also implicit in our selection of acts. Karl Byrne, senior programme co-ordinator at Cheltenham Science Festival, pulled apart the plausibility of a future with the technology imagined in Star Wars. When faced with three options, I wrote at the time that I preferred this one because it sounded like “the kind of thing that would go down well at Green Man”.
This kind of event doesn’t favourably compare with more formal exercises for public engagement with science like those that might accompany a Government foresight project. By formal engagement, I mean exercises designed to inform decisions that affect development of science & technology directly, whether that is environmental legislation or nanotechnology research funding. Benchmarks for successful public engagement include an equal, open conversation between scientist and public and engaging with diverse audiences. The privileged of the performer and the kind of audience you have at Green Man mean that this kind of event will never meet these ideals.
Kate Stone, CEO of Novalia, could be seen as the most successful My Other Future talk by these standards, even if it didn’t contain the most jokes. She talked about a magical future where the surfaces we touched we enabled with lo-fi electronics that produce sounds. She has been creating these kinds of materials for a while. She wants the technology it produces to make us feel the kind of delight found in Mary Poppins or Harry Potter. The prototypes Kate passed round started a conversation that continued after the standup session. Kate was also doing demos elsewhere at the festival. Like the National Physical Laboratory’s guess-the-weight games and the live experiment on cigarettes vs vaporisers at Green Man, her approach was clearly aimed at starting a conversation with the audience. Her set mitigated against some of the the privileges of the soap box format and didn’t make as many assumptions about how the audience should respond.
Common issues with how we talk about the future
The tradition of good foresight & futures research includes several approaches that involve imagining a set of different scenarios for the future. Creating a selection of scenarios illustrates the multiple ways the world could change, given what we know today. This is very different from consciously arguing for something you really want or don't want to happen. The construction of My Other Future means that the performer has to create this kind of single vision. They also have to tell a quick and clear story about the future, usually an extreme - often utopian or dystopian - version of reality because that is easier and funnier. This means losing some of the complexities that you might find if you asked each performer for an essay rather than a manifesto.
They also have to tell a quick and clear story about the future, usually an extreme - often utopian or dystopian - version of reality because that is easier and funnier. This means losing some of the complexities that you might find if you asked each performer for an essay rather than a manifesto.
But some performers at these events in London and in Wales shied away from all-out manifestos. Matt Allinson from the Royal Society publishing team was one of the most consummate performers we had on stage. He made everyone squirm, describing a future where synthetic meat is so normal that you might serve your friends a steak made from cells copied from your body. But at no point did he say whether or not he wanted this to come true. He eschewed a direct argument for or against a particular future, moving between a handful of suggestions.
He did less work to explain what motivated him to talk about this subject. Yet I felt like this got closer to the kind of practice that goes into a successful scenario planning exercise. He was playing with an idea and the way it might manifest itself in the future. This meant he had time to ask more of the ‘what if?’ questions rather than arguing for a very specific set of circumstances.
But and yet
To come back to the mud at Green Man, these events did a fairly good job of communicating the fallibility of the people on stage. There was little sense of the know-all expert. There was a general respect for someone who has made the effort to turn their very personal big ideas into something entertaining. Understanding scientists and the human decisions behind the research is one of the aims of contemporary public engagement. Seeing a researcher and their dreams upclose about the future is an important part of the jigsaw.
But most of the time the event did not challenge those dreams. Only the most discursive performances took away more than a prize from the audience. And those ones were not the ones that made most people laugh. You could say those were the ones that engaged the fewest people.These gigs illustrated a common tension in science communication - between reaching more people and having a conversation that feeds back into scientific developments.
Yet there was a surprise too - one that was very welcome after a nervous train ride to Wales. At 1pm on a rainy Saturday in August, somewhere between the Bloody Mary stand and the new music stage in a muddy field near Abergavenny, there were 100 people happy to argue, whoop and cheer about who owns the future. And that’s pretty great, even if it’s hard to work out what we do about it.