Future Tense

How a Futurist Sees AOC’s Video “A Message From the Future”

A Q&A with Amy Webb.

Screengrabs of two images from the video: On the left, a woman of color stands while wearing a hard hat and holding a tool in a lush green landscape. On the right, an industrialized shadowy figure stands in a bleak rainstorm.
Screenshots/The Intercept

On Wednesday, writer Naomi Klein released a film on the Intercept’s website narrated and co-written by New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez titled, “A Message From the Future.” Over seven minutes, Ocasio-Cortez briefly recounts the history of climate science and imagines a future that follows the passage of the Green New Deal. The video then follows the story of a fictional girl who grows up during the “Decade of the Green New Deal” and speculates about how a solar-powered national smart grid and universal child care initiative might affect her life. Ocasio-Cortez’s portrayal of this future is definitely optimistic, though she admits that certain climate-related disasters are likely unavoidable at this point, such as floods that permanently submerge Miami.

Slate reached out to futurist Amy Webb to talk about her reaction to the video’s portrayal of the future. Webb is a professor of strategic foresight at the NYU Stern School of Business and the founder of the Future Today Institute. The conversation, below, has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Slate: What was your initial reaction to this video from someone who works in your line of work?

It was a scenario, which is something that futurists have always used to try to understand and reveal uncertainties.

What is a scenario, exactly?

It’s a narrative. The point of it is to reduce the number of uncertainties, to reveal uncertainties that we may not know, and to position us to make better choices. Scenarios have a fairly extensive background. They were used during the beginning of the modern era of foresight, starting in the ’40s and ’50s. Herman Kahn used them extensively in his work at RAND Corporation and to help leaders in the Pentagon understand the potential implications of nuclear warfare.

I think everybody’s been in a position where if you just look at a set of data, it’s hard to get emotional about a set of numbers. However, if those numbers are included in a story with many more details—that’s much more descriptive, that explores what all of the plausible outcomes might be—then it’s a bit easier to develop strategy and to feel a sense of urgency.

There are three types of scenarios. Usually you have a question or a central topic. There are optimistic framings, which is what AOC wrote. I think it’s a great example of an optimistic scenario, which is not: “The world is a happy, rosy, lovely, wonderful place.” It’s more like, “Given what we know to be true today, we made the best possible decisions that we could, and therefore we had the best possible outcomes.” A neutral framing is preserving the status quo. And a pessimistic or catastrophic framing is seeing the data and making terrible choices.

The best scenarios are plausible. That’s what distinguishes a scenario from sci-fi. And so in [AOC’s] case, what she wrote is not speculative fiction or sci-fi. It’s more representative of a traditional scenario because it is plausible and it’s based in data.

It seems like there are a lot of elements of futurism in what AOC produced. Would you consider her video to be a work of futurism, or does her analysis diverge from the discipline in significant ways?

In the last two minutes of the video, she created a very effective, plausible preferred scenario for the future. That’s a great tool. Rather than people arguing about climate change, she’s telling a story, she’s got a lot of detail, she’s done some world-building. All of those elements are what should be there for a scenario. Most of what leads up to that is a history of how we got to that point.

A true scenario has some different elements. Typically, there’s a defined time frame, and you stick within that time frame. They’re very data-driven. Whatever you’re saying has to somehow be supported by data and evidence from the real world. You would describe geopolitics, you would describe climate, state of the workforce, technology, things like that. You would address the major drivers of change. There should be a fairly significant focus on key stakeholders, which I didn’t see a lot of. This would be: “Who are the usual suspects when we have these conversations?” as well as “Who are stakeholders are adjacent and theoretical?”

She’s not a futurist, but she certainly used some tools and did some analysis to challenge people to think in a different way. Scenarios are all about getting us beyond our cognitive biases so that we can confront uncertainty head on and make better decisions. From that point of view, I think she did a great job.

One of the points of the video is trying to make is that society tends to be too pessimistic in our visions of the future, especially with climate change. Do you think this diagnosis is accurate?

No. So you have to look at, again, the optimistic, the catastrophic, and the neutral. But the way you create those framings is using data. If the preponderance of data and evidence point toward a more dystopian outlook, then that’s the analysis you got.

When people talk about the future, usually you put them into two camps. They’re either optimists, or they’re dystopian thinkers. Most of us [who do this professionally] are neither optimists nor dystopian thinkers. We’re pragmatists, because we rely on data.

What I have not seen happen is [climate change] stories prompting us to totally shift our thinking and developed preferred scenarios for the future, which is typically what would happen in a business setting or a government setting. You would typically see like, “This is the horror. If what’s beyond the horizon looks really bad, let’s create a salient, pragmatic, future that we think we can attain.”

But I totally understand the message, and I think there is some truth to it. If we get to a point with any subject where it feels as though everything is already preordained, and it’s negative and horrible, then the reaction is probably going to be: “There’s nothing we can do about it, so let’s just throw up our hands and give up.”

How would a futurist conduct an analysis of the Green New Deal?

There’s a lot of analysis on the front end to try to figure out what all the things are that we ought to be paying attention to. The idea would be: “How do we tackle the very real and well-documented issue of climate change and try to connect the dots between it and all these other potential sources of change?” This includes things like social shifts and geopolitical changes, and also advancements and all kinds of emerging technologies.

From my vantage point, we would try to calculate things like, “What is the rate of change in certain geopolitical sectors?” as a way to help us understand how quickly or slowly change might be coming in certain areas. That would all go into the back half of the methodology: If this is our idea, then what are all the flaws of the ways this could play out?

After the policy is written, we would go through the scenario-writing process. That usually results in not one scenario for the future, but potentially hundreds of shorter scenarios and a fairly sizable key stakeholders chart. Once we have that done, then we can do our final analysis: How’s it going to play out, and if we don’t do this, how does this play out?

Any other thoughts on AOC’s video?

The main thing again to keep in mind is scenario planning is an extraordinarily effective tool within any organization, big or small, when it’s done well. And the good news is that anybody can do it.

We’re very much focused on “right now,” and we continue to put off making strong decisions for the future. My great hope is that folks in D.C. find some inspiration in what she’s done. They may totally disagree with her politics, they may absolutely hate the Green New Deal, but at least recognize that scenario planning can be a very effective way of making smarter, better-informed decisions for the future.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.