The one about wantable futures


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Ready? Alright. I am Rob. You are here. Sit back. Relax. Let’s do this.

If there’s something I like, it’s people with expansive minds. People who don’t just settle for a single version of how they see the world, but instead contain – and indeed explore – multitudes. So, a while back, when I asked Matt – himself the definition of an expansive mind – who I should interview next, he quickly pointed to Jay Owens.

Jay – AKA @hautepop on the socials – is a researcher and writer who's interested in media, technology and what it means to be modern. Based in London, she works as a freelancer in consumer insight and innovation research, alongside writing for the Guardian, design publications and working on longer-form non-fiction projects. She's helped tech companies, universities and NGOs navigate the ‘culture wars’, understand millennials, and negotiate the dynamics of communication and attention online.

In this chat, we talk Twitter, personal and collective aspirations, making futures people want, and looking at life’s big picture. Enjoy.

Welcome, Jay. How did you get to where you are?

Perhaps the story begins in 1913, when the British government manoeuvered its way into a contract that made all Iranian oil its property. And a farmer’s son from Norfolk, my great-grandfather, went to work for the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. Or a couple of decades later, when a young man who grew up learning to write in the sand on the beach in Northern Ireland (my grandfather) got a job with the British Overseas Airways Corporation. Without the fossil fuel age, imperialism, and the Second World War, my family wouldn’t have been able to afford the private secondary school I went to (a wildly competitive all-girls’ establishment in Surrey), and I would not have had the few thousand in inheritance that funded my Master’s degree.

I had an exceptionally good education, and my ability to think in novel and interesting ways stems from that. But it feels like the least I can do is recognise who paid for it.

I’m also here (wherever here may be) because of Twitter. I graduated in September 2008, but the 2010s student protests and The Really Free School were my real graduating class. Twitter is how the people I’d met at occupations and teach-ins and demos kept talking afterwards, and we caught the crest of an interesting moment (which has perhaps already closed, or is closing) where, if you were halfway good at thinking aloud in public, you could build a network, and an audience, and get to talk to people far more senior and influential than yourself as a kind of peer.

Opportunities followed: I got my previous full-time job by being interesting on, and about, Twitter. Without Twitter’s open API there wouldn’t have been the social media research capabilities that have been a substantial part of my commercial career. Learning social network analysis changed how I think about what it means to be social.

TL;DR: It’s all relationships, isn’t it. We are nothing without the people around us. 

Why do you do what you do?

I’ve basically always wanted to find things out and tell people about them. It’d be nice to claim there’s some altruistic purpose behind this but no, no, it’s largely hedonic. When I was ten, I thought this might take the form of academia or journalism. Yet I also always knew I wanted ‘a room of one’s own’, and it became evident that the only way to achieve this was commercial work.

How do you speed your brain up?

Two cups of black coffee in the morning.

How do you slow your brain down?

Pen and paper. Ideally the soft cover Moleskine Classic in size XL, and any black biro.

Whenever I’m stuck on a project or presentation or essay, I take a step back and ask two basic questions: “What is your actual point?” and “So what? Why is that important?”. It’s always astonishing how quickly jotting the structure of an argument down on paper allows you to unblock it and move it forward.

I also find journalling more useful than therapy.

What’s something everyone could do with a bit more of?

Thinking more about what we actually want.

This might seem a funny thing to say: isn’t wanting – consumerism, capitalism, growth – what’s got us into our present ecological predicament? Does enlightenment not lie in practising non-attachment? Is desire not the root of all suffering? 

I don’t know: I think desire’s actually pretty glorious. And I like ambitious people, people who’re hungry. But you’ve gotta think about why you want what you think you want: what’s the real want, beneath it? What are you actually trying to achieve with that promotion or publication or vintage Prada jacket? Once you know that, you might be able to steer through all the societal noise about what you’re supposed to want. And decide what you really want to do. I also think there’s a wider societal need to think about what we want collectively.

One of the pressing challenges of this present moment is imagining the good life of fifty or a hundred years hence, or even just a decade. Right now there is a void: younger people imagine crop failures and mass migrations and fascist death camps at the border. Meanwhile, many Boomers have forfeited the future entirely as something not their concern.

More near-term, after the election, some of the attitudinal polling and focus groups and doorstep vox pops showed just how entrenched an attitude Mark Fisher called ‘capitalist realism’ was. People just didn’t believe a genuinely redistributive social-democrat settlement could be possible. It’s derided as impossible the idea that education might be free (as it was just a couple of decades ago), or that there aren’t homeless people camped on every high street corner.

We cannot imagine a world where eight men aren’t as rich as half of humanity. We cannot imagine a world where Amazon pays tax. As such, there is nothing to fight for, and you might as well vote for the scruffy blond man on the telly because at least he seems like a laugh.

We need to make futures that people want. We need to show people that there can be a good future, that a sustainable world – one with far less air travel and significantly more modest consumption, a world of zero or negative economic growth – might actually contain as much or more of the things that actually make us happy.

What’s something everyone could do with a bit less of?

Worrying about what other people think, because they’re not thinking about you at all.

What’s the last thing you changed your mind on?

Hm, hard to say. It’s both a strength and a weakness of how I think that I try to acknowledge complexity and uncertainty and unknowns. And also my own ignorance, and the inevitability of a gap between ‘what should be’ and ‘what can be’ done. So on a wide range of topics, I don’t really have ‘an opinion’, as such. More a series of ‘if X then Y’ statements, some of them mutually contradictory, and none of the Xs resolvable.

This modus can be a weakness, because sometimes situations demand judgement. Particularly moral judgement. And “it’s complicated” thinking persuades no-one. It’s typically more useful to be able to communicate good, discerning, simplifications.

As a child I despised my parents for not being able to muster a clear opinion on the existence or otherwise of God. So I should really try to get over this.

Everyone’s a bit mad. How are you mad?

An absolute refusal to perform the ‘manic pixie dream girl’ kooky-craziness that would probably be expedient.

What gives you hope?

The really big picture. Studying anthropology gave me some understanding of the scope of human variation and the countless different ways to live. Since then, reading and writing about dust (in my newsletter Disturbances) has me thinking about geological time and the unimaginable depths of space.

It seems like life has an urge to survive.

People have lived through the end of the world dozens of times before.

Life goes on.

Thank you, Jay!

You can find out more about Jay Owens on her website.

Stay safe – and sane. 😘


PS: See you on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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