Alternative Editorial: From Virtual to Actual

Friday night I was in the British Library listening to a conversation between two stars of the media-sphere: Douglas Rushkoff, promoting his new book, Team Human and top environmental Guardian journalist, George Monbiot. What a treat: knowing both of their works well, for their insight into the relationship between infinite human capacity and  finite planetary limits, I was hoping for a deep dive into what we could do in this moment of crisis.

But possibly the most helpful words of the night came from Luke Robert Mason, Director of Virtual Futures, who hosted the dialogue. In his introduction to these two giants of publishing, Luke reminded us that the term Virtual does not refer to Virtual Reality – an artificial, alternative environment for us to move around in. Instead it refers to an ‘almost’ reality, one intuited but just not quite there. As in “the virtual absence of borders in Europe”

So Virtual Futures are what? The futures that are implicit but not visible; that have already taken shape, but are not recognisable. Like Jazz as a musical genre, maybe, before it started appearing on a stage near you. Or the internet as a means of mass expression, while it was still a tool for military organisation. The problem for materialists is, that until those futures are manifest, we cannot believe in them, let alone invest in them. 

Even so, there are innumerable ways for us to relate to ‘virtual futures’. Some, like the indefatigable and always provocative Luke, flirts with the futures that others offer with conviction. Asking questions, testing possibilities. Check the site for explorations into electronic empathy or robot sex as well as the FutureFest dialogues such as this between Rebecca Allen (with Ghislaine Boddington) on how to develop presence in Virtual space. Luke’s preferred action is to mediate: creating a bridge between a naïve audience and the imaginations of the players. 

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Others, like the UK Transhumanist Party are more like miners: exploring, finding models and prototypes, bringing them to the surface for all to see. Their intention is to identity the territory upon which the future can be built. It’s a campaign – a bid for power. 

But others seem less sure about their relationship with the future. So many of us are stuck in the world of could, should, must, need to – rather than is. We talk about ourselves as failing, inactive, uneducated. But is that really the case? Do we fall short of our potential all the time, or have we fallen for the mainstream media story that we are hopeless and powerless?

Rushkoff’s description of ‘being human’ as a ‘team game’ - rather than the pursuit of individuals - is an attractive meme. A new way of thinking about ourselves as capable of collaboration. But is it new? His book is full of evidence that, contrary to the mainstream view, people – in fact all of the natural world – is naturally co-operative. So why is it necessary to sell us this idea?

Monbiot too, in his beautiful book, Out of the Wreckage, talks at length about what we are capable of and all the new initiatives that have arisen at the local level to challenge climate change. But then he talks about the ‘need to change the narrative’, as if that is a task we should take on in the virtual future. Whereas, surely, the most powerful narratives are the ones that already dwell deep in all of us. The sense that we could be doing things differently all the time, is a protest that comes directly out of our conviction that we are better than this. What stops us acting?

Earlier in that day of the Monbiot/Rushkoff discussion, 15,000 UK children had played truant to be on a school strike for the planet – see the blog in our new AlterNatives strand, a report from the front line. Inspired by 16-year-old Greta Thunberg the school strikes have spread to at least 270 towns and cities in countries across the world, including Australia, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, the US, Canada and Japan. George Monbiot called it the most ‘hopeful’ experience he has had in the past ten years – with a sense that things are really on the turn regarding safeguarding the planet.

Yet however encouraged we are by the turn-out and the clarity of our “ReGen A” , we shouldn’t forget Greta’s words: “I don’t want your hope. I want you to panic. I want you to take action.”

At one point in the evening, both Rushkoff and Monbiot were asked, what should we do at this moment? Neither had a clear idea of what action to take – despite sharing huge amounts of research on what people were already doing.

Rushkoff suggested we ‘join something’ – a campaign or a school board. Monbiot, similarly was non-specific. Imagine, with the media attention that these two can muster between them, if they had been able to say: do this. Let’s not leave this moment of hope and possibility hanging, let’s become builders of the future from now, 

At The Alternative UK, we are committed to three courses of action: two of which you are already familiar with. Firstly building a new media space and as a result, a new narrative about the present as well as the future. Currently this appears as The Daily / Weekly Alternative UK. But next it will be a network of cosmo-local Daily Alternatives that capture the genius of each city or region, and readily compares it to other initiatives going on globally. 

Secondly, with others, we are networking the networks and integrating the system of systems. Even as we experience so many similarly driven initiatives as siloed, they could emerge as a full alternative personal-socio-economic system, at any point. Like a photograph slowly developing in a dark room. Check out CtrlShift 2, 8-10th May in Stoke-On-Trent.

And thirdly, as we approach our 3rd year since launching on March 1st, 2017, we are taking the experience of our collaboratories to step into building citizens action networks – CANs. These are not A/UK’s unique, branded prototypes: in many ways, CAN is a generic term for new forms that are appearing everywhere. But they only qualify as a CAN if they deliver what they promise. A place – both physical and virtual – that enables citizens to meet the eco-system of activities and services available in their city or region. And on the basis of this range of resources, take actions that directly address the crises we face. 

It’s early days for this – CANs are still at the design stage. But spurred on by the school strikes, Extinction Rebellion and our own commitment to moving thoughts into action, we have begun. If you want to join the growing group of organisations, social enterprises and entrepreneurs building with us, sign up on the co-creators page and get into action.