Kübra Gümüşay: perspectives on utopias

Can we create new, more useful visions of the future by opening ourselves to new perspectives? Kübra Gümüşay thinks so — and explains how we can do it.

Kübra Gümüşay is an award-winning writer from Germany. In the third episode of the NEXT–SHOW series 5, she explored how finding new perspectives can open the doors to new visions of the future we’ve never considered before.

Watch the complete episode

What does activism look like for Kübra Gümüşay? Her take is both thoughtful and analytical:

“What I try to do is analyse the patterns in the things that surround us and try to find out how they are responsible for the many injustices we face in our respective societies,” she explains. “And then try to connect the individual responsibilities that we have with the collective responsibilities we have.”

While she admits that this can sound very abstract, when it moves into analysis of active injustices like racism and sexism, or the climate crisis, a theoretical underpinning can really help connect research to practice.

“And then the activism is brought into effect, through a campaign, through a cool, through a project,” Gümüşay explains. “They are all forms with which you can help society, and open the door to alternative futures slightly.”

And if anything defines her work, it’s that desire to open up discourse about different visions of the future.

Making visions into actions

She’s a political scientist by training, but has been an activist and a journalist from the earliest days of her career. She loves writing and has always done so – but she also loves getting out into the field. And that fieldwork and research have led to some startling observations:

“I now see that people have become quite lethargic,” she says. Lethargic people don’t make the world a better place. “I want to contribute to the construction of what could be more than the deconstruction of what there is already. “

That said, she’s clear that it’s vital to analyse what’s there already – but that it’s also crucial to create room where we can practice alternatives.

And, right now, for her, that involves exploring real, emerging utopias. And she’s seeking them in the margins of societies, where people try to implement alternative values, norms, and ideals. “They’re called real utopias because they’re real, they exist now, but they are utopian because they don’t adhere to the norm of their respective societies.”

Futurology in practice

Through a combination of psychology and a deep dive into centuries of scientific forms of study, she’s trying to analyse what kind of impact visions of the future can have on our present. She’s working out how those ideals we claim can be put into practice.

But for that to work, we need those visions of the future. And we might not have them. The fundamental problem Gümüşay sees is a lack of discourse around alternative futures.

“The discourses we’re having at the moment about futures are dominated by gigantic tech companies, which are telling us AI is the next big thing. It doesn’t have to be. It’s up to us to decide what kind of future we want to live in.“

Capitalist companies, and industries and systems, have already colonised our futures, she suggests, and they say what we’ll be expecting in the future. We need to decolonise that future, and open the doors to the alternatives.

“Just opening those doors is, in of itself, an act of rebellion,” she says.

Language is perspective

When she was writing her book, a language that was all but extinct inspired her. Why? The indigenous people whose language it was, the Potawatomi in the US, had been all but prohibited from speaking it. They were abducted, separated from their families and forced into schools, where they were taught a different language.

Robin Wall Kimmerer ’s book Braiding Sweetgrass tells her story as a member of this community, who was finally able to learn this language. Kimmerer learns the word Puhpowee — the force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight. The entire context of the word is from the perspective of the earth. Yes, you can watch a mushroom from the perspective of the earth. This language doesn’t centre humanity in its perspective of the world.

“The natural world has its own set of perspectives,” says Gümüşay. “The Potawatomi are aware that as they observe the tree, the tree perceives you too.

“What if we spoke a language like that, that allowed us to watch ourselves from the perspective of plants? Or of a fly. It would allow us to re-evaluate our power.”

Would we work differently? Should we make different products? Could we create different answers if we perceived that we were being watched, and that our actions have consequences?

New technology perspectives

In her early 20s, Gümüşay was very enthusiastic about technology, and in particular its ability to bypass gatekeepers. She found much of the disruption positive.

Now? “We’ve stopped questioning the existence of these platforms,” she cautions. “Have we truly considered what it does to us to have our political discussion on social media, with our photos next to our words? What does it mean when we comment under something?”

“What does it do to us that whatever we write is there forever?” she asks. “Our words exist without context, they don’t age and change, they don’t look dusty old. It does something to us — and we don’t debate that.”

The tech platforms set the stage for us, she explains, and it’s fixed to their liking. The post is above, the comments are below. The picture and name are there.

“It’s like your words are tattooed on your face,” she says. “We have not thoroughly investigated these ideas.”

The ever-provisional Utopias

That’s why Gümüşay shies away from the idea that you can have a truly utopian space. You can never truly predict the outcome of your project. The communities she studies are always watching for those consequences, and re-evaluating their decisions in the wake of them. They make mistakes and learn from them.

A century ago, utopian projects were popping up all over the place – but there wasn’t enough space for them to truly learn, which is why they didn’t last.

“There’s no point in redoing things from scratch – because we have thousands of years of experience with some things,” she says.” We have proven that some things do work. But what things don’t work? What replacements for the latter can we explore?”

“Knowing what doesn’t work is very valuable knowledge,” she says. And we’ve still got an awful lot of learning to do about what doesn’t work.

Humbleness leads to learning

“We know so very little, so humbleness is crucial,” she says. “But we already know some things don’t work, and we need to make space to explore alternatives. We need to become a society that is open to learning constantly.”

Some writers and activists, she points out, don’t look widely enough because they fixate on a single issue which they see as the most important. “These issues are all interlinked,” she says. “A company can be internally diverse, but still exploit people in Bangladesh, or exploit nature, so that move to diversity can just gloss over problems. Sometimes the changes we push for don’t lead to transformation, but to maintaining the broken system exactly as it is.”

For example, her concern is that activist movements can get swallowed by companies, who can pretend to have learned, developed and transformed, without fundamentally changing at all.

“I would rather not live in a world with representation everywhere, but no truly different perspectives,” Gümüşay says. “A black person who is poor and struggles to get enough to eat has a very different perspective from one who has a lot of power, and pretending that a black person on a board is diversity is an illusion.”

We need to learn to live in society while being aware of a range of perspectives – even if those who have the perspectives have no power. We need to contextualise and embed ourselves in the world, being aware of these other perspectives.

Only then can we open the door to the provisional utopias of the future.

This is a summary of an interview with Kübra Gümüşay conducted by Ina Feistritzer. It was broadcast on the NEXT–SHOW on 30th March 2023. You can catch up with Kübra and her work on Twitter, Instagram, and the web.