How to embrace the darkness

Forked lightning

In her book Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit offers a view of uncertainty that may seem surprising. Uncertainty might seem to go hand in hand with fear and even despair – the state of hopelessness which the book guards us against. But for Solnit, uncertainty isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, it’s more than that – it’s where hope can be found. We don’t know the future, it isn’t set in advance. “In the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act”. Solnit’s hope is active, not passive. It doesn’t pretend to know the future and it embraces possibility and openings.

Can we embrace this uncertain darkness, then? It’s more difficult than it seems. Taking on uncertainty means letting go of the temptation to try to control the future, to shape it according to a single person’s desires or dreams. Let’s start by trying to understand uncertainty better, then. Let’s be clear when we’re dealing with outright ignorance, ambiguity or plain risk. Let’s run the numbers, but only if the numbers are there to be run.

First, let’s acknowledge this: the future doesn’t exist, even if it’s always just round the corner. Hype about new technologies, from sex robots to driverless cars, presents futures that are inevitable. It’s about when, not if or how, new technologies will be ever-present and all-powerful. A central, but hidden aspect of this kind of hype is mystification. New inventions are presented as ever more complex. Clarke’s Law about advanced technology being ‘indistinguishable from magic’ still seems to apply. Victorian automata scared the public by appearing to be alive. In this age of AI and smart homes that talk to you, the boundary between living thing and machine is just as unnerving.

Promoters of new technology are the conjurers of our age, speaking new realities into being. Visions once crafted become material. The spells they weave offer a way out of uncertainty. Citizens become customers, ever more connected, bound by a collective and powerful imagination.

Our job now is to conjure different visions and in so doing bring different possible realities to light. How we do this is a hard question. One of the tasks of critical, interdisciplinary science is to bring together different forms of knowledge. This work needs to take seriously the fact that our visions don’t agree. They are bound to be different, and they are bound to have differences of power behind them. This isn’t the problem. The problem is when you pretend it isn’t a problem.

In embracing the darkness – in embracing uncertainty, we challenge two kinds of future: the straight roads, however shining and verdant, towards ownership and dominance, and the hopeless, fearful stumble into chaos. Wide-eyed optimists and prophets of doom take note. The future is not as sure as you think or fear. There are always cracks in it. Out of the darkness shine a million points of light.

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‘Hope is a​n embrace of the unknown​’: Rebecca Solnit on living in dark times