UT Students Write the World’s Worst Scenarios

By Jake Dunagan

What is the future going to be like? This is a question we are all concerned with—as individuals, as part of organizations, and as part of a society. We all think about the future, we just don’t often do it very well.

As part of the new Architects of the Future course taught in the Integrated Design program, students are introduced to the core skills and frameworks of experiential futures and strategic foresight. One of the key ways futurists think and communicate about futures are through scenarios.

Scenarios are stories about possible and preferable futures. They must make sense as stories—logically incorporating historical trajectories and emerging issues to elucidate landscapes of change. Scenarios are technologies to help us think more deeply and more effectively about what is to come.

Whether it is science fiction, religious prophecies or political punditry, scenarios about the future abound. The ubiquity of scenarios about the future, however, has not typically resulted in better scenarios. The list of fallacies, clichés, biases and sloppy thinking in stories about the future is long. Futurist James Cascio has compiled a representative set of rules for how to write an awful scenario:

  • One change at a time. Too many changes are confusing, so the only approach is to take a single point of difference from today to its logical conclusion.
  • The only changes that matter are technological changes. And by technology, you should mean consumer information technology.

And what terrible scenario would be complete without these tried-and-true techniques:

  • You only need to talk about the economically dominant social group in your own country, e.g., middle-class white American guys. Other groups and other countries will just emulate them.
  • It’s more believable if it’s depressing. Dystopian scenarios show you’re taking your subject seriously.

Scenario thinking can be daunting, even for the well-trained. So, in order to free students from the burden of trying to be good scenario writers, I first make them awful scenario writers. Forcing them to use as many of Cascio’s Rules (the full list can be found here), I asked the students to write scenarios about Austin in 2040. Here are sample of some of the more awful attempts:

In 2040, the environment of Austin will be bleak and overrun by plastic trash that no longer fits in just the landfills, so border meridians of streets will be lined with trash. We will all have Google Glass/VR glasses that overwrite the real environment with picturesque images. Google will run our lives as our mental overlords to reduce the capacity with which we need to think, so people will no longer need to know what we’re doing and when since Google will tell us what we ought to be doing at any given time. —Hannah Kwan

In 2040, there will be no such thing as UT Austin. Learning will be done through VR, and AI will be in charge of it all. UT will be nothing but an abandoned campus. UT Austin will be a virtual campus, like Sim City, and everyone will get PhDs. —Ismael Casaneda.

You know how good it feels when you walk down the street and the song seems to perfectly sync up with the day? We wanted that, and we got it. We get these chips installed into our ears that let us listen to music whenever we want to. They were great, but eventually other sounds started to come out of them. Advertisers were okay between the occasional song. But being directly fed propaganda was another thing. Especially when these things can’t be turned off, that’s how they work. They don’t really use electricity, they work like a vinyl needle, stimulating specific parts of the ear so “only you” can listen. —Alex Davila 

In addition to Amazon’s Whole Foods acquisition, they buy all other grocery stores, restaurant groups, individual restaurants, farmers markets, etc. The only way to get food is to buy from Amazon. They transport all food via drones. The location of production is unbeknownst to the public, and Amazon refuses to disclose this information. All of the production is performed by AI, so there is no human intel on the whereabouts or intricacies of Amazon’s methods of production. —Madeline Goulet

Artificial intelligence will take over music and create music for everyone, but it sucks and drives people crazy and people start getting hypnotized by the music, controlled by the AI, and kill each other, resulting in an extinction of the entire city of Austin. —Marwan Madi

If you’re like me, the thing that is more scary than the exaggerations, clichés, solutionism and techno-brand dominance, is just how familiar these tropes sound. Our mental real-estate is colonized with this sort of half-baked, marketing-led tripe—so much so that it is hard to for us to imagine plausible, original, better futures.

But that is precisely what we must do in order to break free from the narrow vistas we’ve inherited. This skill, in both broadening the landscape of possibility, and in increasing our focus on the finer details, is step 1 in becoming an architect of better futures.