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The lie of the future?

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A current exhibition, 'The lie of the land', at Milton Keynes Gallery looks at the founding of the city in which the OU is located. Some of the issues raised by the exhibition, about past visions of the future, link to novelty and the classic concept of 'emergence', the focus of a seminar organised by the Culture and Social Psychology group with other social psychologists, from the University of East London. This week's blog for social psychology and DD317 introduces the concept and some related issues.

As the Open University celebrates its 50th anniversary, there is a different kind of commemoration of its location, Milton Keynes, in a new exhibition, 'The lie of the land', at MK Gallery. The exhibition presents changing images of the British landscape, including the development of Milton Keynes as a built environment that was intended to be 'a city greener than the surrounding countryside'. The exhibition includes a short film, co-funded by the Open University, in which the artist Gareth Jones looks back over early plans for the city. He suggests that the optimism which surrounded its original development derived from a combination of two social revolutions, the post-war reforms that established the welfare state as part of a vision of a fairer society, and the events of 1968, including student protests, which are often seen as initiating significant contemporary values and freedoms. Jones shows that many of the original designs for Milton Keynes were never followed through, including a sculpture park, elaborate public playgrounds and a lakeside disco. Other dramatic features that did get built, like an elevated pedestrian tunnel, have subsequently been demolished.

The film prompts reflections on the complex relationship between past and future, such as how earlier futures can disappear or go out of date. (A notable feature of the drawings is the distinctive 70s fashions worn by the 'future' people.) More prosaically, the film reminds us of the difficulty of knowing the future. This is a particular issue for social psychologists because so much of the project of psychology is about attempting to enable prediction, for instance, by tracing cause and effect, modelling processes and outcomes, or examining people and their behaviour in great detail. A major attraction of the discipline is its implied promise to explain us to ourselves and, as a logical extension, offer the possibility of managing the lives ahead of us and reducing our future problems. Yet there are strong arguments, including from some psychologists, that such a project will inevitably fail. Our lives are too complex, there are too many factors in play, any model can only be a simplification.

These issues prompted the Culture and Social Psychology group at the OU, CuSP, to organise a seminar with social psychologists from the University of East London in order to discuss emergence. Emergence was defined by the psychologist G.H.Mead as 'the occurrence of something which is more than the processes which have led up to it and which by its change, continuance or disappearance, adds to later passages a content they would not otherwise have possessed.' Emergence is therefore about novelty, futures and the unpredictable. The specific concerns of the seminar's presenters include emotion, mental health, Brexit and the ways that psychological research can be conducted.

You can find information about CuSP and other events here http://fass.open.ac.uk/research/groups/cusp  http://fass.open.ac.uk/research/groups/cusp

This week's blog has links to ideas discussed in the new module Advancing social psychology (DD317). For more information about the module, you can watch a video here  https://youtu.be/dbzF4hBeBkk You can also look at the new Open Learn course course DD317_1 Social psychology and politics: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/health-sports-psychology/social-psychology-and-politics/content-section-0

You can find information about the exhibition at Milton Keynes Gallery here https://mkgallery.org/


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