Emerging Words for the Future – Fall 2021 Edition!

Over the last couple of years and through my own foresight journey (as a social worker and a human)…I’ve found emerging language regarding the future to be really interesting, illuminating, sometimes troubling, and valuable. Sometimes there are words that are more “pop culture” words that emerge from the mainstream (they are a little like popcorn…not much substance). I’m less interested in these and more interested in terms that reflect some deeper shifts in the emerging world. Though sometimes words are themselves signals…they seem silly or superficial at first…and then shift to mean something very important. Some of you know that during the life of this blog, I’ve developed an “alphabet of the future” (linked below) with a cumulative accounting of this little project.

As always, when I’m learning about this concepts, I’m wondering how they fit in social work, if I see any trace of responsivity, relevance or connection to them – and if they’d be useful for us, and if so why. The list is always a work in progress – things that might refresh our perspectives and our imaginations. I haven’t posted one of these in a while. I gather up words as I hear them go by – if I’m not intrigued and curious…I let them go by. These have been gathered up over the last 12 months or so. When I’m done, I add them the full version (linked below).

Co-Bot – slang term for collaborative robot. This is a transitional kind of robots that interact with and require human/robot interaction – some suggest it is a wave of the future (at least for a while). Here’s a story about it. Here’s another that drills down into why they are desirable. Here’s another that explores what this means for the future of work. Still thinking through the frequently discussed dangers of making autonomous tech too “friendly” – which this term leans toward. Here’s a piece that dives into this idea. Yet others suggest that robots can/should address the need for connection among humans. This is a quickly developing space full of “inevitability talk” that may or may not be accurate.

Ecocide – mass damage and destruction of the living world. There is power for really naming a thing clearly that we all know is happening. There is an international group of lawyers endeavoring to get this term enshrined as a crime. You can read about that here. Here’s a global NGO that is organizing around this idea. Here’s a legal information hub to dive in deeper.

Ethics Washing – also known as “ethics theatre” is the superficial performance of caring about, asserting commitment to the issue of ethics (including dimensions such as racism, sexism, ableism and other justice-anchored ideas) but actually doing nothing about improving the ethics climate, or worse, actually accelerating unethical activities/behaviors. Most frequently utilized in reference to the technology industry (and specifically related to artificial intelligence), but relevant elsewhere too. Speaks to the shortcomings of “good intentions” and “window dressing” and points to the need for regulation. Here’s a call to action. Here’s a paper from the EU that goes into detail about the need for laws. Here’s a deeper scholarly analysis of this issue (specific to AI). This is an issue for all kinds of “emerging issues” that we are engaging with, without or with inadequate understanding of the ethical implications of what the impacts may be. I did a longer post about this this past year with regard to the (relatively unexamined) presence of AI in the social work practice ecosystem.

Intergenerational Justice – Intergenerational justice is essentially concerned with the duties and responsibilities that present generations have to past and future generations, and what moral considerations ought to be considered when thinking through these duties and responsibilities (Baer, 2011; Vanderheiden 2008) – as cited in this piece. This term is most often associated (in modern parlance) with climate-related issues. Here’s a foundation that has this focus (founded by young people). Here’s a piece that discusses why current environmental law is inadequate to address the climate change emergency we face. There’s actually a whole academic journal devoted to this topic. I recently ran across an amazing book I highly recommend connected to this topic with many terrific chapters – called Institutions for Future Generations. Worth a look. I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that Indigenous Peoples have long held sacred thought and action regarding the well-being of future generations. Most well-known is the “Principle of the Seventh Generation” which asserts responsibility for seven generations forward in time. I reference this book (Kayanerenko:WA – The Great Law of Peace) as an excellent overview of this (p. 357) and other important origins of “contemporary democratic thought and practice” (which is actually ancient…). The Great Law of Peace is the product of the Haudenosaunee (meaning “People of the Longhouse” – an alliance of Tribes including the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca) that shaped a new system of government to resolve conflicts in a democratic fashion (among other things). Worth learning about as an essential aspect of intergenerational textbooks.

Necropolitics and NecrocapitalismNecro comes from the Greek root nekros, meaning “corpse.” Necropolitics then translates to the “politics of death.” Philosopher Achille Mbembe describes necropolitics as “the capacity to define who matters and who does not, who is disposable and who is not.” (Cut/pasted from this piece.). This concept connects strongly with economic power sensibilities and points to lethal dimensions to racialized capitalism where profound power differentials inevitably leads to the power to decide (repeatedly) who lives and who dies, and even, who can profit from the deaths of others. Necropolitics frequently associated with prisons. Related to the concept of racial capitalism – here’s a piece that describes this in relation to covid-19.

Neo-Luddism – modern term about those who reject technology. Related to “ludditism” (a movement of workers in the 19th century which you can learn about here and here.). Neo-Luddism suggests that removing oneself from use and access related to technology is a form of activism or passive resistance in these highly technologically linked times. This piece suggests that as AI gets stronger and more ubiquitous, those who choose to live with “merely” human intelligences will be disadvantaged. This is an interesting space…with surely more to come. It sets up important and urgent conversations about the future of privilege, identity and agency.

Omnicrisis – I first heard this term this past year from Vanessa Mason, Research Director at the Institute for the Future. It refers to how many have felt this last two years…a time in history when everything feels like a crisis all the time with deeply blurry edges…one crisis blending into another. It does feel like that lately doesn’t it? And what is the natural human output of this experience…feeling overwhelmed. Personally I generally shift my overwhelm into several specific spaces. Rest (deep respect to the Nap Ministry and its founder, Tricia Hersey ), get involved in activism as an antedote, and/or dive into this social change ecosystem map and consider changing my perspective, activities and/or role in contributing to things I care about that can refresh and inspire me (deep respect to creator of this model Deepa Iver).

Prefigurative Politics – this term has been described as “be the change you wish to see.” Prefigurative politics is about creating and practicing sometimes radical changes in society collectively before they may be widely accepted by the larger world. Here’s a couple of basic articles about it – here and here. While it isn’t a “new” term – it is in circulation a little more than usual these days and for good reason. The times we live in call for even more creative and brave experiments with new ways of being in the world. Examples of prefigurative politics in action might be the practices of mutual aid, abolition and climate justice. What is beautiful about this frame is the degree to which it requires collective imagination to help envision and engage in the world that is desired…not just rail against the future that is unwanted. This is also closely associated with speculative and design futures.

Transition Design – suggesting that we are actually in a humanity-wide and planetary shift that is both social and ecological in nature, transition design is an approach that says the only way to overcome the “wicked problems” of our times is to intentionally design beyond them. Here’s a more indepth overview. Of course the whole concept of “design” as a set of epistemologies has not been without its critics, from a liberation-based or critical futures framework. While design can be a powerful aid to move things forward, it can only do so with explicit attention to a “design justice” frame (with a shout out to Sasha Costanza-Chock’s excellent book on this topic, which by the way, you can read fully online at this link).

Here’s my full “alphabet from the future” for the last few years.

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