Uncertainty in Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Changing the Rules of Magic
The deepest level of scenario planning requires a release of certainty. Not only is “lock-in a myth” (see What Scenario Planners Can Learn from Uncertainty in Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Myth of Lock-in) at the grand scale, but the best planners revoke the very idea of certainty. Any idea can be disrupted, any concept displaced, any institution challenged. Perhaps the biggest business/cultural myth today comes in the form of technology’s inevitable march forward. No one living today has existed in a world where technology failed to develop at a rapid pace, changing enormously during the space of individual the lives, changing the relationships between people and society, people and government—and constantly challenging assumptions about what we need to know.
The end of magic
Buffy the Vampire Slayer canon established rules for vampirism. These rules include death if exposed to sunlight, the retention of memories and much of the personality of the turned human, increased strength, heightened senses and accelerated healing. When it comes to human habitation, vampires must be invited into a personal residence before he or she can enter. Staked vampires dissolve into a cloud of dust.
But these rules prove not to be involatile in the Dark Horse books. When the Scoobies destroy the Seed of Wonder, eliminating magic from the world, newly sired vampires transform not into intelligent, demon-possessed versions of their former selves, but into mindless “zompires.” During this time without magic, the demons that possessed and reanimated vampires could not cross over to Earth completely. They had only enough strength to reanimate the corpses, not inhabit them. This version of vampire also seemed to expand its ranks by means of a virus.
When magic reignited, the zompires were no longer able to procreate, yet those who “lived” remained viable. But in yet another twist, the new rules of magic created another form of vampire, one that could live in light and shape-shift. They also possessed greater strength and better resiliency in the face of stakes.
We treat perceived social and technological constants like magic. In March 2018 the perceived dominance of digital downloads as the favored form of music consumption shifted, with CDs and vinyl outselling download [see Engadget story here]. Streaming now dominates. Facebook suddenly faced multiple issues following the Cambridge Analytics data misuse revelation [see The Drum story here]. While too early to tell, this incident could lead to social media losing its magic. A pedestrian death to a driverless uber vehicle called into question the magic of self-driving cars [see story here]. As Arthur C. Clarke so famously stated, sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. What he didn’t say was that social, political, environmental and economic forces push against the magic of technology. And that is why the STEEP framework for scenario planning is so important. The disappearance of magic in Buffy
Nobel prize-winning physicist Dennis Gabor wrote the following in his book “Inventing the Future:”
We are still the masters of our fate. Rational thinking, even assisted by any conceivable electronic computors, cannot predict the future. All it can do is to map out the probability space as it appears at the present and which will be different tomorrow when one of the infinity of possible states will have materialized. Technological and social inventions are broadening this probability space all the time; it is now incomparably larger than it was before the industrial revolution—for good or for evil.
The future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented. It was man’s ability to invent which has made human society what it is. The mental processes of inventions are still mysterious. They are rational but not logical, that is to say, not deductive.
In the Buffyverse, Giles leaves the old Slayer Handbook with Buffy before the end of magic. When magic returns, Buffy and Willow Rosenberg discover the book is now blank. The reconstituted Seed of Wonder not only restored magic, it reset the rules. Writing in the Slayer Handbook became a means of writing new ‘rules’ of magic. Those fighting for good and for evil both sought the book, wishing to use it to write the rules to favor their positions.
Some inventors believe that they have the power to invent new rules.
Those with ideas that sustain themselves into the future ride the currents of time, and whey they look back, what they see may lead them to believe they invented the future. But if they were to examine the influences on their product or idea, the forces in play shaped their idea as much as their idea influenced other factors. The fall of the Roman Empire in some ways acted as a reset, including a philosophical one, in which Christianity’s rules overwrote those of paganism. Islam’s rise didn’t coincide with historical events where a single state could influence so much of the world’s population, but it continues a mission to rewrite earlier rules. Both religions in their own ways rewrote the rules of Judaism, save those rules that they found served their new context. The future unfolds against different scaffolding at different times.
Along these scaffolds ideas and technologies don’t cease to exist, but they do cease to be relevant as contexts shift. We may study Greek and Roman mythology, but we no longer believe in those gods or practice their rituals. We convert governing rules of the past into history, objectify it and literally put it on a shelf. While some reading this still remember the telegraph, the world’s last telegraph was delivered in 2013 [see story here]. Computers, the Internet, and cellular technology rewrote the rules of communications. The once massive networks, the companies built on the telegraph and the skills of the operators hold no place in society outside of a computer history museums first room that displays the earliest forms of electronic communications.
The Buffyverse death of magic proves an apt metaphor for scenario planners. While we may not seek to anticipate a dissolution of some fundamental force, the forces in play do often deem irrelevant ideas and things that just days, weeks or months ago seems unstoppable and inevitable.
The power of scenario planning comes from its ability to permit people to see futures in which assumptions no longer hold and to imagine an alternative world of emergent rules. That very act of imagination itself influences the choices made after we imagine the new scaffolding.
For more on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Uncertainty see: