GENEVA — One day last October, during the morning talk show on Swiss state broadcaster RTS, still groggy viewers were brutally awakened by a sentence dropped live on-air: "Schools train children who will be decimated by artificial intelligence." The voice that dragged them out of their reverie belonged to a French doctor and entrepreneur named Laurent Alexandre. His words hit their mark, so much so that the video clip instantly went viral on social media.
Laurent Alexandre doesn't have a monopoly on snappy sentences. "Humanity will change more in the next 20 years than in the previous 300." This prediction is trademarked by Gerd Leonhard, one of Europe's leading thinkers of the future. The website of this Zurich-based German thinker is worth its weight in divinatory herbs. In the background, a video plays on a loop, showing the spry 50-year-old in a dark suit with a sly smile and wavy gray hair. Leonhard's face turns in slow motion towards the horizon, his gaze plunged serenely towards the future. A yellow sticker that reads "Top 100 Wired" reminds us that Leonhard is among the world's most influential personalities on innovation. Visitors are then invited to "futurize their business', in other words, hire Gerd's services for a conference.
Each era has its own oracles
One last pithy pitch? "By 2045, human and artificial intelligence will have merged, and humans will live forever, in digital form." This is from Ray Kurzweil, head of engineering at Google and "pope" of the movement of transhumanists. For him, humanity is on the verge of "Singularity," a formidable technological leap that will make it immortal, either via a decisive medical discovery or the possibility of uploading one's mind onto a computer. What a future!
These and other openly undeterred optimists or grim Cassandras of technology are among us. Their prophecies abound on social media, and they themselves abound in the media. "They" are the futurists, experts who care so much about our future that they feel invested with an almost sacred mission to spread the good (or bad) word of the future. In the current era of technological developments and the questions they raise, such Prophets 2.0 disseminate their predictions to anyone willing to listen, operators of a fascinating social phenomenon.
Knowing the future has been a major concern for all civilizations. To know whether the hunt would be good, whether a drought or rainfall would hit the city or whether it was necessary to attack the neighboring kingdom has always interested humans, hunter-gatherers and powerful urban bigwigs alike. This thirst for the future is what paved the way for the druids, the magi, the shamans, the fortune tellers and the like, a way that's now occupied by professional futurists.
"Each era has its own oracles," says Nicolas Nova, a professor at the Geneva University of Art and Design and co-founder of the Near Future Laboratory, which specializes in foresight and innovation. "Since the end of World War II, there has been a more rational corps of professionals dedicated to these questions." It's something the Americans call future research.
The 1960s marked the golden age of futurology, although the predictions made at the time for the dawn of the third millennium now seem rather grotesque. We were told that we'd be using flying cars, though we're still rotting away in ground traffic. We were supposed to make the Moon or Mars colonies of the Earth, but they'll remain deserted for a long time. And what about visions of jetpacks, which science promised us, but haven't gotten past clunky and dangerous prototypes?
Laurent Alexandre introduced himself as a "televangelist" to a French Senate committee in January 2017 that listened to him talk about the future of A — Photo: Olivier Ezratty/TEDX Paris
In the midst of the Cold War and the excitement from the conquest of space, most of the predictions focused on space. But now, they are being replaced by artificial intelligence and transhumanism. "Futurists are opinion leaders. They are listened to, though they don't have any real scientific legitimacy," regrets Jean-Gabriel Ganascia, specialist of artificial intelligence and author of an essay that deconstructs the "myth of singularity." Could it be that, like their elders, today's futurists have it all wrong?
It's more complicated than that. "Their role is not so much to predict the future as to anticipate possible futures," says professor Nova. Futurists always make a point of reminding us of this. "I don't make predictions, but short-term forecasts over the next five to ten years," insists Gerd Leonhard. While Laurent Alexandre declares that his "thinking is rather nuanced, I outline several scenarios."
Futurists have a certain tendency to forget black swans.
To produce such scenarios, Leonhard, who says he reads five or six books each month, says he spends a lot of time gathering material and exchanging ideas with experts at his conferences. "If you look closely at how a sector works, you can develop forecasts, it's not that difficult," says the former guitarist and music producer, who rose to fame after the publication the 2005 essay The Future of Music, a book that got it right about how music would play out on the Internet.
While their predictions are sometimes confirmed, their rhetoric tends to underestimate the complexity and unexpected side of reality. In 2007, the philosopher Nicholas Taleb developed the "Black Swan" theory, in which this animal represents an unpredictable event with major consequences. "Futurists have a certain tendency to forget black swans," Nicolas Nova says. "Of course, they are very difficult to predict since they are, by definition, unpredictable. But to make good predictions, you have to integrate unexpected or harebrained events." In other words, and as risky as it might be to do so, you need to add some whimsicality if you want to be taken seriously.
Laurent Alexandre knows a thing or two about whim. He introduced himself as a "televangelist" to a French Senate committee in January 2017 that listened to him talk about the future of AI. And he went on with an almost theatrical intervention, delivering one quotable sentence after another: "We risk becoming the Zimbabwe of 2080!" The video of his hearing was viewed more than 1.4 million times on his Facebook page.
And never mind if he's got it all wrong. "We must accept that futurists don't think like everyone else, that they can say stupid things. If we block any debate on the future, we're not allowing the maturation of society to prepare for the future," says Alexandre, who has also been singled out for uninhibitedly calling for eugenic policies in a column for the French weekly magazine Le Point.
Gerd Leonhard and Laurent Alexandre sell their expertise at conferences and company seminars. Though they're sometimes gratis, these interventions — when paid — can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Alexandre says he gets "about ten requests a day," though he doesn't reveal any financial figures. Predicting the future is already a profitable business.
The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.
Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.
Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."
Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.
Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.
Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.
Oppressive home situations
As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.
Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.
Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.
Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.
"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."
Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."
Lack of spaces
Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.
"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.
The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out
Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.
Lockdowns force coming out
According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.
"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.
Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.
"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.
The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling
In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.
"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."
Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.
Medical care is dismal
Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.
Isolation triggered my depression
"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.
What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.
During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.
As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."
Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.
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