ABA’s virtual Snow Days conference warmed up with an opening keynote by Palo Alto-based game designer Jane McGonigal, who led more than 500 participants in a few rounds of “mental time travel.” ABA CEO Allison Hill, wearing a parka and ruffled by a breeze, welcomed Snow Days attendees from a wintry New York backyard before turning the proceedings over to the California keynote—not exactly time travel, but a significant geographical leap.
McGonigal, the author of Reality Is Broken (Penguin Books, 2011) and SuperBetter (Penguin Books, 2015), researches and develops games with the nonprofit Institute for the Future. She explained that she studies “what happens in our brains and bodies when we try to imagine the future,” and she writes about these physiological and psychological shifts in her forthcoming Imaginable: How to See the Future Coming and Feel Ready for Anything—Even Things that Seem Impossible Today (Spiegel & Grau, March 22). Her title, Imaginable, hits back at the millions of English-language news stories that use the negative terms “unimaginable” and “unthinkable”; she said these words point “not just to collective shock, but collective trauma.” Her goal is to generate what she calls “urgent optimism,” a mindset that lets people forecast problems and implement positive action.
One way to foster this attitude, McGonigal told attendees, is to “pre-experience” plausible events a day, a year, or a decade from now, whether on a personal or organizational level. Tomorrow morning, she said, is “a highly imaginable future… likely quite easy for you to envision,” but a morning a year from now is more challenging (“Your imagination is now working harder”), and a morning 10 years from today creates a sensation of “reaching for something that isn’t quite there…. Your brain opens up a blank space.” By filling in the blanks, and noticing our “pre-feelings” about the imaginary future, we start recognizing what changes need to happen.
How, then, is this related to the ABA and bookselling? McGonigal believes we “can bring wisdom back from future worlds” and, if we run these simulations in groups—for instance, as a workplace exercise—we see ways to “change our communities, change our industry, change our societies.” After introductory thought exercises, she invited the audience to peer 10 years ahead to our collective future in bookselling, a topic for the breakout session following her talk.
McGonigal suggested two games to aid in this process. In the first, she described a prompt to “design a new holiday” that might involve books, and proposed an annual Thank You Day of charitable giving where participants gave federally sponsored donations (and a book!) to registered organizations.
In the second, she recommended a game she called “100 Ways Anything Could Be Different in the Future.” (Instructions: “Pick a topic./ List 100 things that are true about it today./ Imagine a future in which any of these facts is no longer true. How? Why?”) . As an example, she asked listeners to think about a general topic such as shoes, list 100 truths, then “flip” the truths to see whether innovations are possible.
The subsequent online chat made clear that McGonigal was addressing a bookish, sci-fi-aware audience. While she posited that today’s low-tech shoes could be equipped with sensors detecting environmental impurities, the assembly proposed shoes grown from fungus, assembled from seaweed, or 3D printers. “All of our answers are so utopian and Jane’s are totally big brother,” wrote one. “If you choose to use the free (data tracking) shoes, you would also agree to use only these shoes,” said another. Listeners brought up George Saunders’s short story mentioning corporate-sponsored shoes and considered sneakers for outrunning zombies.
McGonigal might not disagree with those predictions. Among her projects is the Ethical OS, a toolkit to help developers evaluate the societal risks of technologies and assess ways tech products might do harm rather than improve lives. By predicting potential consequences of a developing technology, users of the Ethical OS take action against risks, much in the way mental time travelers test possible futures—whether they are solving the e-books/libraries conundrum, producing sustainable paper amid supply-chain disruptions, or unionizing big tech.
McGonigal's keynote took place Tuesday morning and was the lead event in ABA's Snow Days online conference, which is running March 8-10.