The role of utopian narratives in urban futurism

Paul Raven @ 01-10-2014

So here’s a brief thing from Ramez Naam at Slate, where he argues in favour of dystopian futures as a valid counterbalance to the more purposefully utopian offerings contained in Neal Stephenson’s new Hieroglyph anthology:

1984 may be an example of a self-defeating prophecy. It was David Brin, one of the Hieroglyph authors, who first introduced me to the idea that a sufficiently powerful dystopia may influence society strongly enough to head off (or at least help head off) the world that it depicts. That alone is a compelling reason for society to create smart dystopias.

I’m broadly on side with Naam’s advocacy, here, notwithstanding the hollow qualifier “smart” (which I’m assuming is acting as a proxy for “good”, rather than for the dubious futurity implied by the “smart city” meme); the cautionary tale, while surely an sf staple, is a very common cultural mechanism. We tell one another stories of bad things happening in the hope that we might all do better collectively at avoiding bad things. (This doesn’t always work, of course, but the frequency with which we do it suggests it’s a behaviour that has served us well in evolutionary terms.)

I’ve been (perhaps unfairly) dismissive of Project Hieroglyph, largely because it seems to recapitulate a rather tired Gernsbackian scientism; put plainly, I’m not convinced we have an innovation short-fall (so much as we have a wasteful doctrine of “creative destruction” and VC me-tooism that incentivizes smart people toward the development of staggeringly pointless software), and I’m even less certain that sf has any measurable role in inspiring human achievement (though there’s a great NESTA working paper that talks about the dialectic between sf and technoscientific production which is well worth a read).

But I’m definitely not down on utopian narratives in general — in fact, I think they’re a vital tool for thinking about the future, so long as they’re always informed by a sense of their essential impossibility. Or, to put it another way: utopias are terrible as blueprints for a better world, but brilliant as sandboxes in which to play with ideas for a better world.

Here’s a video of the Cities: Urban Play session from this year’s FutureEverything conference, in which I talk about exactly this intersection between science fiction, urbanism and futures; my bit starts at about 31 minutes in.

Also featured: the wonderful Liam Young (wrestling with technical problems, but still delivering some mind-blowing sensawunda from the far ends of the supply chain), Holly Gramazio (urban gamesmistress extraordinaire) and Team Zuloark (a group of charmingly mellow people who instantiated an urban community space in Barcelona). There are lots of other interesting talks from the conference that you can watch, too.

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One Response to “The role of utopian narratives in urban futurism”

  1. Ramez Naam says:

    I’m also unconvinced that there’s been an innovation slowdown. I’ll have a followup piece on that topic at some point in the future.

    I wouldn’t quite categorize Hieroglyph as utopian fiction. I’ve referred to it as aspirational. The stories are intended to depict achievement in human endeavors, particularly science and technology, but not perfection of human society.

    In that respect, I think pitting ‘dystopian’ fiction against ‘aspirational’ fiction may not really be pitting opposites against each other. It’s certainly possible to have novels that that show great accomplishments in the face of dark political or social or economic circumstances, for instances. (I would say that was somewhat the direction I headed with Nexus and its sequels, whether I succeeded or not. Certainly I was surprised the first several times someone referred to Nexus as ‘dystopian’. I think of it as politically dark but scientifically quite optimistic.)

    Cory Doctorow’s novels are another example. I called Little Brother and Homeland dystopian novels in the article, and they’re certainly warning tales, but they’re also aspirational in their depiction of the power of relatively disenfranchised individuals and groups to use technology to positively impact society.