Towards Cognitive Revolution
Krzysztof Gutfranski talks to Eglė Rindzevičiūtė, an expert on post-soviet futurology about past and future present of Poland and Lithuania.
Krzysztof Gutfrański: To start at the beginning, how we can delineate futurology, futurism, and futures studies?
Eglė Rindzevičiūtė: People have been concerned with the foretelling of the future since ancient times – augurs, prophets and peasants, they all had their own ways and rituals to read what were hoped to be signs of things to come. The ability to predict future events emerged as a key task of modern, Newtonian science. Realizing the complexity of some physical phenomena, such as very small (quantum) or very heterogeneous systems (clouds), led to a post-Newtonian science of relativity, where predictive capacities are bounded by the universe itself. What is known today as futurology, futurism, and future studies are social scientific extensions of the predictive ambition of modern science to understand society. These fields acquired their identities after World War II (they rely on a combination of techniques and approaches that were developed earlier), and they developed on both sides of the Iron Curtain in response to the pressure of fast-changing societies and economies, which were growing increasingly complex. There is a plethora of methods that these approaches used: cybernetic prediction, game theory, systems modeling, scenarios modeling, statistical forecasting, prospecting, technology assessment, foresight that combines quantitative and qualitative methods, and so on. As forms of expertise, these fields also tried to brand themselves as distinction from each other to compete in the knowledge market in both public and private sectors.
KG: How do you see this innovation corresponding to the ongoing short-termism and social media's shrinkage of the present in developed economies?
ER: The reason why governments and people struggle so much with long-term horizons – any time period longer than 30 years – is that this sort of horizon only emerges in scientific models and not in everyday experience. Even intergenerational narratives struggle to bridge the 30-year limit. However, systems modeling has revealed the necessity to think hundreds and, in the case of nuclear waste, thousands of years ahead. The introduction of the concern with the long term into state socialist and liberal democratic political agendas was something genuinely new. If the modern media of radio, telephone, and television shrunk global space thus inspiring Marshal McLuhan to write about “the global village,” today’s social media have drastically shrunk time, compressing an individual’s attention to an instant and instantaneous “now”.
KG: Was this change in time perception related to the introduction of the computer in 1960s and 1970s? Did it also affect forecasting?
ER: The heyday of future studies was in the 1960s, when new computer technology began to advance at an ever-faster rate, inspiring futurologists to forecast structural changes of industries and societies. From this time on, one can speak of the emerging social and institutional inequalities with regards to time: if scientific experts, strategists, and forecasters entertained visions of long-term futures, lay people experienced their time horizons as shrinking, being caught up in what was perceived as a very fast cultural change, entailed by intense urbanization, globalization, and the onset of the information society. Sociological research on the personal perception of time has established that lower income and people with lower social status correlates with shorter temporal horizons, whereas higher income and people with higher social status correlate with longer temporal horizons. Those with few resources and little power, be they individuals, institutions or even states, feel little need for knowing the remote future. Time perception, in this way, is closely linked not only with the fast change in culture and technology, but also with an unequal distribution of power.
KG: One of your leading fields of research is Soviet futurology and the diverse technologies of future planning during the Cold War era. Did the futurologists of that time come up with predictions of what we now see happening with the migration crisis or in today’s Russia?
ER: Indeed, many early forecasters of future trends were concerned with the problems of population and security. In 1968, American biologist Paul Ehrlich published his book The Population Bomb, which portrayed a doomsday scenario of what at that time was an exponentially growing world population. The concern with the future world population was so intense that, as Matthew Conelly showed in his Fatal Misconception, even such conservative bodies as the Vatican embarked on racially selective programs of family control and sterilization, targeted mainly at ethnic minority families in the US and non-European countries. The history of eugenics in Imperial, Soviet, and post-Soviet Russia was recently magnificently outlined by Nikolai Krementsov in his With and Without Galton: Vasilii Florinskii and the Fate of Eugenics in Russia (2018), showing that Russian governments were facing a different problem than the Western ones – an insufficient population in a vast territory, particularly a great shortage of personnel for professional occupations. As Krementsov showed, the thinking of human population as a source of intellectual capital started as early as in the nineteenth century and solutions for the liberation of this capital were seen in the removal of social and religious barriers for marriage but also mobility. In this way the idea to forecast population growth and its dynamics seeking to glimpse the future of the economic prosperity is more than a century old (at least).
Migration at that time was rather a problem for the methodology of forecasting – while the world population was exhibiting clear trends, national and regional populations could not be projected with a great degree of certainty, because of the migration factor, which was unpredictable. In the state socialist bloc, demographic forecasting was a vital field of knowledge, because planners wanted to have a good idea about the future population in order to anticipate labor force and industrial growth. To exaggerate somewhat, both for economic planners and forecasters migration was an irritant, a process that obscured the future. To predict migration flows is notoriously difficult.
One should not forget that, in addition to transregional migration, there is a nascent strong discourse of transtemporal migration – as Krementsov showed in his With and Without Galton, governments and societies have been concerned about population movement across time as well as across space. What genes will perpetuate themselves in the future? How can the health of future generations be controlled? If starvation and stress experienced by people in WWII could be traced in the genome for several generations to come, contemporary life in the environment saturated with plastic and hard particles will also extend into future generations. As Krementsov (2018) noted, although the links between eugenics and genetics were severed after WWII, the ambition “to improve humankind” has not disappeared but was advanced in the biological research leading to a new vision of life as “a molecular, a populational, and a planetary phenomenon.”
KG: And what about conflict management?
ER: Military planning was a different story. Forecasting very much emerged to respond to the needs of technology assessment, military logistics, automated weapon system design, and strategic decision-making in the situations of uncertainty. In the Soviet Union, forecasts of future conflict zones were part of mainstream research and were published. Scholars played with mathematical models trying to predict when and where the next communist revolution would take place, assessed strategic relations between the US and the USSR, and developed game theory models of strategic decisions. Geopolitical forecasts were deemed to be fairly reliable because they were based on stable factors, such as interests, the structure of the economy and availability – or shortage of – resources. A very important area of research was “conflict management” with the aim to prevent escalation, particularly of nuclear confrontation. How these conflict forecasts were used in the actual situations of decision-making is very hard to tell. Scientific forecasting was, after all, a projection of existing statistical data into an abstract future. There were other methods of future studies, such as expert questionnaires, mathematical modeling, scenarios, and systems analysis. In all, most of the interesting insights were generated in the prognoses of the future of the socialist state and global environment, a field that was relatively free from the ideological straight-jacket of Marxism-Leninism.
KG: This issue is mostly about the post-transformation future of Lithuania and Poland, I want to ask you several topics regarding your research but will start with a main question covering our issue. Can we assume that Lithuania or Poland will lose their memory/history in the next hundred years?
ER: This is a very good question. The question of memory and stability of existing structures is central to systems theory. According to systems thinkers, what we call “memory” in everyday language is an ability to stabilize and retain characteristics that are acquired. Memory, understood in this way, could be genetic and non-genetic. Non-genetic memory requires the process of coding, storage, and decoding – that is, a process that equally relies on physical and semantic structures. From this perspective, memory is a mechanism that enables some constancy of behavior, it is like a program that can be executed and recognized. Memory can be lost when a system undergoes a structural change, a catastrophe. Here the term catastrophe does not necessarily mean a horrible event, although it could well be quite horrible. Catastrophe refers to a deep structural change, when a system moves into entirely new parameters. This new parametric existence entails a loss of acquired features, the system’s memory.
Obviously, it makes little sense to use these conceptual lenses to study states and societies, because they are incredibly complex. Their constitution and identity are very unstable, a matter of interpretation. What is Poland or Lithuania? These notions referred to fairly different assemblies of people and territories at different times. On the other hand, we see loss of acquired programs all the time, as well as their reinstatement. For instance, the qualitatively new level of the introduction of AI could be expected to transform society in fairly substantial ways. Global climate change will lead to significant social changes. But also, the success of #MeToo could be seen as a shift in behavioral parameters of Polish and Lithuanian society. I am not sure, however, if the term memory is helpful at all to unpack and understand social change.
KG: Do you think these countries and this region have an important role to play in the global future?
ER: The importance of small and medium size countries in Eastern Europe, such as Lithuania and Poland, might be more important than one thinks for the global future. One of the issues that societies face in the context of global climate change is a scaling down of global thinking and awareness of global interdependencies and hinderances to individual action. Given that Poland and Lithuania are countries that have been managed to survive over a very long time in a transitory state, where personal identities and strategies had to be developed in a dialogue with diasporic communities as well as immediate social context, and also given that Poland and Lithuania have been undergoing a fairly recent industrialization and de-industrialization, I would think that these countries are well positioned to become creative hubs for thinking about the new, global, and anthropocenic condition. There is a lot of well-founded work but also stereotyping that has blacklisted these countries as primarily nationalistic cultures and polities. However, as has been shown very clearly in the field of contemporary art, the categories of the self and society, nature, and culture, the local and global are no less central to the region. I would like to see the Polish and Lithuanian thinkers among the future leaders in the creation of new intellectual frameworks of making globality part of the social tissue.
KG: And what about historical politics: can manipulation with history and national symbolism be seen as a new, brighter future?
ER: The answer to this is far from straightforward. Some solid knowledge of political history can certainly help some to identify and avert situations of high risk, as well as to imagine opportunities for new futures. However, as Madeleine Albright has recently argued in her Fascism: A Warning (2018), the new generation of populist dictators are very good in learning from history and each other. Therefore, the importance of values that are continuously changing and socially negotiated every single day when individuals meet is of the highest importance, much higher than just learning history, I would say.
KG: In The Power of Systems you write that the Soviets found it difficult to accept such terms as futurology or “global” as categories. How did they envision the future, was it more of a creative bricolage or creatio ex nihilo?
ER: The wonderful lesson that we learn from the history of communism and the East–West divide during the Cold War is that there is no such thing as ex nihilo. There is no authentic basis for claims of a new, communist system – Lenin built the Soviet economy with the help of German and US managers and engineers, Stalin and Beria lured Nazi scientists after World War II, and the late modern Soviet Union learned from the RAND Corporation, Coca Cola, and the French Planning Committee. Social studies of science and technology have also showed that without bricolage, without translation, there is no development and innovation.
Now, it was the highly symbolic and political role of science that posited the great struggle to introduce some concepts into a Soviet context. New approaches were polarized according to political ideologies, thus futurology was a bourgeois science, while scientific prognosis was an activity suitable to proper Soviet scientists. “Globalism” was identified with US expansion, where “internationalism” was a communist project. The global powerfully entered Soviet discourses through the rise of Anthropocenic thinking thanks to the philosophy and science developed by Soviet and state socialist climate scientists in the late 1970s-early 1980s, which I outline in Chapter 6 of The Power of Systems as well as my recent article “Soviet Policy Sciences and Earth System Governmentality.”
KG: So, what did Soviet futurologists learn from Coca Cola? How was the bourgeois experience of global corporation translated to the communist reality?
ER: One lesson that was learned, clearly, is that governance and organization are fields of human activity that are complex and that they demand research and professional intervention. That efficient government of a complex industrial and post-industrial society cannot be achieved on political grounds alone. Moreover, perhaps an understanding that organization and management are not an expression of social class interests, but fields with regularities and laws of their own was gained – and this is at the same time when the Chinese communist party keenly borrowed from the West all approaches that promised to increase productivity of industrial and public service sectors. Please see Yuen Yuen Ang’s wonderful book How China Escaped the Poverty Trap (2016) and also Julian Gewirtz’s Unlikely Partners: Chinese Reformers, Western Economists, and the Making of Global China (2017). However, these lessons came too late to the Soviet Union, which in many ways was a good thing, as the window of opportunity to overthrow the authoritarian regime was identified and put to good use. Sadly, liberalization was managed very, very poorly, particularly of Russia itself – please see Lilia Shevtsova’s excellent study Lonely Power: Why Russia Has Failed to Become Like the West and the West is Weary of Russia (2010). In my recent and forthcoming articles, I have tried to identify and examine some of remarkable cases of progressive intellectual thought and internal dissensus among Soviet experts and technocrats (please see articles by Rindzeviciute in Modern Intellectual History (2018) and History of Political Economic [forthcoming, 2019]). While Lithuania and Poland benefited from the European accession, the Russian transformation was managed particularly badly and an entire generation of responsible expertise with global outlook was lost in the turmoil.
KG: Has forecasting of the future changed through the very last moments of the USSR?
ER: On the one hand, there was an absolutely clear disappointment with the scientific ambition to glimpse the future, but also recognition that economic and social prognoses cannot be made with any degree of certainty in an authoritarian regime. Soviet forecasters were asked to provide insight into complex then-present and future trends, but they were denied access to data and their statements had to be politically adjusted. On the other hand, the dire and deteriorating ecological situation in the state socialist bloc raised genuine concern across many different sections of society and opened up an opportunity for real scientific breakthroughs in modeling the future of complex human and nature systems. The awareness of complexity and that humankind is part of a biophysical environment originated in systems modeling that advanced significantly as computer technology improved from the early 1980s. Soviet climate and environmental scientists modeled the future of East European forests, swamps, seas, and oceans as well as global climate change. What at that time was a niche and highly specialist science turned out to be a public laboratory where the new ideas of social identity and future were articulated. Many historians wrote about the significance of environmental movements in the breaking up of communist regime. My work shows that this was not only a mass movement, but also an epistemological revolution, that moved in stride with Western counterparts.
KG: Can we say, then, that the term Anthropocene as we know it now was inspired by this Soviet forecasting?
ER: This is my argument in my article “Soviet Policy Sciences and Earth System Governmentality” (MIH, 2018). The term “Anthropocene” has very many antecedents – a systems view proposing that humankind is changing the geophysical structure of the Earth dates to at least the nineteenth century. What was special for such Soviet global thinkers as Nikita Moiseev, the research director of the All-Union Academy of Sciences Computer Center, was that in the early 1980s, he sought to create a new conceptual framework for governance of the anthropocenic condition. In this respect, this was an important and genuinely remarkable innovation globally, but also a significant innovation locally, showing that communist political ideology is no longer fit to address the new societal problems.
KG: In the text “A Struggle for the Soviet Future: The Birth of Scientific Forecasting in the Soviet Union” you wrote that: “[T]he Soviet future was defined as consisting of both material and social components – technical structures, people, and behavior. An important addition here was behaviorist time control, developed in Russian time and motion studies.” In another article you argue that in the 1970s Soviet futurologists introduced computer modeling that used early computers which merged East and West. How did they use the data? And can we say that the computers allowed them to accommodate capitalist and communist futures in a one-world model?
ER: Indeed, the desire and a very real organizational need to have some idea about the future called for a sort of epistemological realism that rejected Marxist-Leninist dogmas as well as Cold War partition. The world economies were becoming increasingly interconnected and these connections had to be studied and known in order to keep the rusty ship of the command economy afloat; even some Soviet leaders must have been aware of this need. This epistemological realism opened a small and highly restricted space for Soviet scientists to study the long-term consequences of economic and geophysical changes. Soviets, in this way, sought to participate in the making of world models, following the Meadows’ report The Limits to Growth (1972); indeed, Dennis Meadows visited the Soviet Union many times to teach students the techniques of dynamic modeling. Here computer technology did play an important role in establishing contact points between East and West: models had to be aligned, data had to be shared, informal strategies of interpreting modeling results to be developed. All this was to ensure that East and West would become mutually predictable.
KG: Writing about the history of global modeling you also mention a story of the emergence and spread of particular informal groups of both scientists and policymakers in the Soviet Bloc. How did their ideas and connections with the West survive the transformation?
ER: World science is shaped by politics and money, it cannot happen in the absence of either. This is clear from Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature (2015) on Alexander von Humboldt, and the fate of post-communist scientists speaks volumes about this. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, many leading Soviet Russian scientists went to work in Western universities. In the Baltic states and Eastern Europe, scientists who were engaged in social and economic predictions actively participated in the first governments drafting programs of transition. However, the local future power/knowledge assemblage faltered when not supported by capital: it was the expertise of international organizations that counted most. New power asymmetries emerged.
KG: What were the dynamics in confrontation between the claims to influence different strands within futurology research into the Soviet bloc? Were there any Baltic or Polish experts involved in these circles?
ER: Indeed, future studies is a very interesting field where national political differences were played out. Scientific concern with the future very clearly reflects the power. For example, global modeling was only done in Russian centers – Moscow, Leningrad, Novosibirsk, and Vladivostok. However, the resistant members of the Soviet Union, such as Estonia and Lithuania experimented with future studies in their own territories and excelled in the development of complex territorial planning methods. Estonians were the only ones to have their own future studies institute directed by Erik Terk in Tallinn. In Lithuania, some interesting work was done to model and plan forestry where world-leading expertise in this field was developed. In turn, Polish scientists followed Daniel Bell and wrote a long-term forecast, Poland2000, seeking to map the long-term trajectory of the Polish economy and society. Regarding Eastern European futures, interesting and important work was also done at the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), located in Austria. At IIASA, scholars from Eastern Europe could engage in experimental modeling of alternative futures, for instance, what would happen if Poland joined the European Economic Community in the 1980s? Much of these debates took place behind the closed doors, among experts. These debates did contribute to the expansion of political imagination, no doubt about this, but, at that stage, they rarely engaged the wider public.
KG: Were there any particular plans related to Lithuania and Poland in Soviet future planning? Do you see any cybernetic reference?
ER: Interestingly, during my research, I have not located any such references, but I was looking at global models, where the world is divided into large regions. Small regions at that time could not be modeled because of technological limitations. Now it is different. An exception is an acid rain model (RAINS), developed at IIASA in the early 1980s. Highly industrial Poland was a significant polluter of Europe at that time and East–West scientists were looking for ways of how to project reductions of pollution while taking into consideration local economic impacts. It can be said however that leading Soviet computer modelers of the world future were fairly ignorant – or at least uninterested – in political divergences within the Soviet empire. Chinese and African futures interested them more than the Polish or Baltic ones.
KG: In part of your research you focus on the transformation of the Baltic countries’ zone, their infrastructure, and attempts to turn it into a transnational zone. You have written about futurology infrastructure, geopolitics, and the cybersecurity of the region. Who or what, in your opinion, projects the future of post-transformation up to today’s Lithuania and Poland?
ER: A very good question. Future expertise is reserved for the elite scientists and decision makers, that’s for sure. This is because this type of knowledge requires intense cross-sector cooperation, significant funding, social power and mandate to act. Not everybody can afford future studies, so to speak. Today, advances in science and technology remain key drivers of future prognoses. From this point of view, the relevance of natural resources, for instance, is completely determined by the needs of new technologies. Similarly, new technologies will us determine how many people and what competencies will be in demand. The new demands could be, by the way, agricultural competence! The long-term future makers represent national and international scientific institutions, and international organizations. Short-term future forecasts are made by consultants and foresight departments. Cultural institutions could make important contributions to thinking about the long term, but this would require as much a new type of organizational activity as intellectual orientation.
KG: And when we look at the history: in which of these various utopias do you see the greatest potential for a long-term return – Dausuva, Intermarum, or in the Paulaua Republic?
ER: I am sure that the new generation will come up with much more interesting proposals beyond colonial, geo- and ethno-centric visions.
KG: Do you agree with Ernestas Parulskis’ thesis that there are a lack of museums featuring Jews and Poles in Vilnius? Is it possible to go forward beyond historicizing in Lithuanian–Polish relations?
ER: I agree with this completely. There is a big lacuna in the landscape of cultural heritage where the history and legacy of Jews and Poles, and Roma, and Tatars, and women and, may I say, Russians, are not properly explored and represented. This said, one cannot expect museums to appear as mushrooms overnight. Heritage culture moves at a glacial speed. However, it is important that changes are beginning to take place. One such important step was the renaming of the Museum of the Victims of Genocide in Vilnius into the Museum of Occupations and Fights for Freedom in 2017. According to UNESCO, the number of museums in the world has more than doubled since the 1970s from 22,000 to 55,000, which is encouraging, because museums are a central resource for democracy. Lithuania and Poland have some of finest European museums and there is a new and vibrant generation of museum thinkers and makers emerging, such as, for instance, the initiative to establish a Baltic Museum of Architecture, following the joint effort that resulted in the Baltic Pavilion at the Venice Architectural Biennial in 2016. I am typing these lines in my pristinely minimalist office at the School of Public Administration in the University of Gothenburg, where I am spending this week as a Visiting Research Fellow. Two days ago, an exhibition Młoda Polska opened at the Art Museum of Gothenburg and I was very pleased to see such names as Ferdynand Ruszczyc among the displayed artists. The intersections of Polish and Lithuanian modernism, but also the intersections of infrastructures and geophysical systems, I am sure, makes for a very exciting resource for the future. I believe in cultural diversity and that in terms of cultural institutions more is always more.
Eglė Rindzevičiūtė is senior lecturer in criminology and sociology at Kingston University, London. Prior to that she taught at the Paris Institute of Political Studies. Her initial training was in art history, management, and political science having studied at the Vilnius Academy of Arts, the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences, and the Central European University in Budapest, before completing her PhD in Culture Studies at Linköping University in Sweden.
Following her PhD she taught and did research at De Montfort University in Leicester, the Gothenburg Research Institute, Gothenburg University, Sweden, the Department for Studies of Culture & Social Change, Linköping University, and Sciences Po in Paris, France.
She has held visiting research fellowships at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI), Bremen University, Humboldt University of Berlin, and Gothenburg University.
Her last book, The Power of Systems: How Policy Sciences Opened Up the Cold War World (Cornell University Press, 2016) explores how East-West scientists used transnational social networks and computer technologies to create an intellectual and institutional framework for global governance. She is currently working on a monograph "Predicting Russia: The Politics of Anticipatory Governance."
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* Coverphoto: Eglė Rindzevičiūtė, photo: Agnė Gintalaitė.