The (contested) street, finding new uses for things

Paul Raven @ 01-03-2013

From a photo-essay/collection thingybob at The Atlantic: Syrian rebel fighters and their homebrew military hardware. There are lots of shots of chaps lathing mortar shells, as well as crude hand-welded onagers made from shelving and rebar; that’s your continuity verification, a through-line of human experience that you can draw through the wars of centuries past. But these two are the ones that tell you we really ain’t in Kansas any more:

Syrian rebel fighters using iPhone as compass

Syrian rebel fighter using games controller to aim gun turret


Science fiction and science, part II: smashing the crystal ball

Paul Raven @ 11-02-2013

So, last week saw me take the train down to London in order to give a presentation on science fiction narratives as strategic planning tools to the Strategic Special Interest Group of the British Academy of Management.

(That’s neither a topic or audience I’d have ever expected to address publicly, had you asked me eighteen months ago.)

It was an interesting day out; it’s always good to meet people from a sector of the world where you’ve never really trodden, and to find out how they look at things. It’s also nice to be able to talk to them on topics of great personal interest, and to exchange ideas. I think it went fairly well; some of the attendees had very complimentary things to say about my presentation, and given how nervous I was about giving it, I’m going to count that as a net victory.

Not everyone was satisfied, however. Also on the roster of speakers was veteran UK fan and fiction writer Geoff Nelder, who explained how he came to write his story “Auditory Crescendo”, a tech extrapolation piece in the classic sf mode based upon his own experiences with his hearing aids. His recounting of the day’s events takes me to task for the heinous sin of claiming science fiction cannot predict the future, though he has since suggested I may want to respond to his criticisms and clarify my standpoint.

And indeed I do – not only in response to his own criticisms, which are perfectly reasonable, albeit petulantly framed (I must have “thought it would be cool” to discredit sf’s predictive mojo, apparently, rather than, I dunno, actually getting up there and telling people what I sincerely believe), but because this is an issue that I increasingly feel lies at the heart of the imaginative/qualitative approach to foresight and futurism, and I think that lancing this particular boil (or at least stabbing fretfully at the buboe with a safety pin) might be a beneficial public exercise. As always, brickbats and other projectiles from the peanut gallery are very much encouraged, but (also as always), I’d ask you to please play nice.

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To be fair, part of Mr Nelder’s confusion may be the result of me trying to pack a very large argument into a comparatively small space in front of an audience to whom it was merely a qualifying sidenote to the main event. Mr Nelder later quotes my assertion that science fiction narratives can be seen as sandboxes, as dev environments for ideas, and I’m glad he can see that value; that was the core point I wanted to make, after all. I remain politely baffled, however, that he and others are unable to see how easily that value eclipses the false promises of prolepsis, so I’m going to have a stab at expanding my position here.

The thrust of my argument was not that science fiction never appears to make predictions, but that a) science fiction’s ability to make predictions is vastly overestimated by its practitioners, boosters and fans, that b) sf’s predictions look a lot less like predictions when one examines the real-world roll-out and compares it to the supposed fictional blueprint, and that c) predictions are effectively useless, especially in the context of a strategic planning conference, because they can only be verified by the emergence of the thing they predict, by which time their supposed prolepsis is a moot point.

To unpack that a little, let’s take Mr Nelder’s position – that science fiction can indeed predict technologies and/or phenomena which have yet to exist – as a given, and ask a simple question by way of response: “so what?”

It is certainly possible to go through a list of things which appeared in the pages of sf mags or books before appearing in reality; depending on your criteria, I dare say you could amass quite a number of them, though that also applies to the collection of counterexamples. Semantically speaking, this is a sort of prediction, which Oxford Dictionaries define as “say[ing] or estimat[ing] that (a specified thing) will happen in the future or will be a consequence of something”.

The point I was trying to make during my presentation, however, is that these predictions are in no way reliable. One could argue the numbers endlessly depending on the criteria used, but I feel totally safe in saying that sf has made plenty of failed predictions alongside its successes, and that – much like any extended exercise in the statistics of chance – it probably averages out to a 50-50 right-wrong split over a legitimate sample of a size worth considering. But even assuming a more generous split in favour of the proleptic, the more serious problem still pertains: namely that the success of a prediction can only be determined at the moment when its utility as a prediction has expired.

Let’s unpack another level and look at different classes of prediction, of which I would suggest there are basically two. The first is the banal prediction, wherein I make a claim which, while theoretically capable of being refuted by a statistically unlikely turn of events, is already considered sufficiently certain that predicting it is pointless. I can predict the sun will come up tomorrow morning, but I’d be an idiot to expect a cookie and a glass of milk for being proved right, and no one’s going to make their fortune off the back of my soothsaying. (If you want to send cookies anyway, though, be my guest. I like cookies.)

Science fiction has made many banal predictions, many of which have indeed come to pass. The value science fiction adds to general discourse by making such predictions – if any – is to be found in its exploration of their potential consequences. To use an example, it’s pretty facile to say “hey, if trends in mortality and healthcare continue, there’s gonna be a lot more people on the planet!”, but there’s something far more useful in saying “hey, if trends in mortality and healthcare continue, and there’s a lot more people on the planet, what might we end up eating?”

The second class of prediction is the prediction of potential consequence: the prediction that, if proven right, could radically transform the fortunes and fates of one or many people. By definition, these predictions are not easily made; if they were easily made, they would be of no consequence. They are, essentially, guesses – educated and/or informed to a greater or lesser degree, perhaps, but still guesses, imaginings, not pages from a Delorean’d sports almanac. Sure, some of them end up being validated by the events that follow their making. Some of them don’t. Again, we could argue the toss on the numbers either side of that split until the heat-death of the universe, and it would be a sideshow irrelevancy for one very important reason: no one knows in advance whether or not a prediction of potential consequence will come true or not. Validation can only occur at the moment when the prediction ceases to possess any utility beyond being a conversation point.

Or, to put it another way: science fiction is about as good at making informed predictions about the future as any card-sharp. You can argue that sf makes predictions all the time, but unless you’ve got a pretty good rubric for working out a) which predictions are predictions of potential consequence, and b) which of those predictions of consequence will come true, then these “predictions” are worthless to anyone other than a gambler (or a hedge-fund investor, which is essentially the same animal in a far more expensive and tasteful suit).

Science fiction’s supposed predictive capabilities are absolutely useless to anyone subject to the normal causal structure of the universe, which is, um, everyone. OK, you can go through the sf canon and pick out prediction after uncanny prediction; people have made a very successful industry out of doing exactly the same thing with the prophecies of Nostradamus. Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day, especially if you choose the right moment to draw everyone’s attention to it.

But again, let’s concede Mr Nelder’s point, and reiterate my question: science fiction does sometimes predict the future. So what? What use is that knowledge to anyone other than a gambler? Even the gambler would shrug it off, I suspect; if science fiction had any sort of statistical history of making better predictions about the future than any other domain of human endeavour, Wall Street and the Square Mile would have long since quanted the crap out of it. Science fiction may predict the future, but its predictions are functionally useless. They express possibilities, and nothing more.

My second point is one that I dealt with during my presentation, namely that most of what we’re told were sf’s most successful predictions turn out to be anything but. I’ll concede that this was a slightly straw-mannish argument on my part, albeit one furnished with endless regiments of ready-made straw soldiery practically begging to be wrestled to the ground, but the point I was making was meant to tie back into my grand theme, which was the inescapable subjectivity of narrative. Mr Nelder points out that Arthur C Clarke didn’t invent the geostationary satellite out of thin air, but did so in the context of his day-job as a scientist, and by building on the work of other researchers before him; this is demonstrably true. But my point as made stands very clearly: a quick google of the relevant search terms provides countless articles, some from reputable establishments or organs, (re)making the (false) claim that ACC “invented” the geostationary satellite. If anything, Mr Nelder’s revealing of the true source of the idea actually serves to support my point, not knock it back; the geostationary satellite is demonstrably something that is widely and repeatedly claimed to have “been invented” or “predicted” by science fiction, when it very clearly wasn’t.

And as such I maintain it was a suitable example, because the point I was making was that the core of a “prediction” may end up manifesting in a context which substantially changes its function, meaning or import. Clarke’s basic conception of geostationary satellites was sound, and did indeed inform the development of satellite telecomms, but he conceived them as manned space stations; writing in 1945, Clarke assumed, as many of his contemporaries would have done, that space travel would soon be as trivial and affordable as air travel. As such, the “prediction” bears little relation to its realization beyond the basic conceptual level, and the realization of the idea was only made possible by adjusting it considerably to fit the real-world context in which it was eventually to be deployed.

Interestingly, one of Mr Nader’s counterexamples also does a good job of undermining his position further, namely the “prediction” of robots in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. For a start, Lang’s gorgeous and groundbreaking movie was not the original text to coin the term; that honour falls to Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R. Furthermore, the programmable worker-automaton is a trope far, far older than either, and can be found in the mythologies of many earlier cultures. (The powerful have always dreamed of a working class who would never complain about work or slope off for a lunch-break, after all.) Can it still be a “prediction” if you’ve actually just updated a very old idea to fit your contemporary sociopolitical context? Is it still a prediction if your prediction is quite obviously and openly a metaphor for a social or political change mediated by technology, in this case the dehumanisation of labour?

(Although, in a way, you could say that Čapek and Lang got a lot closer to true prediction with R.U.R. and Metropolis than many other supposed sf “predictions”; their robots were a metaphor for the alienation and exploitation of the working class, and if you look at the panicked discussions around the economics of manufacture and automation in the news at the moment, you can see that they successfully went far beyond the simple claim that “one day machines will do all the work for us” by exploring the impact and implications of such a change on human society; it is the consequences of that change that they explore, not its likelihood. As I said in my presentation, an inventor or engineer is interested in what a technology does and how it does it; an artist is interested in what it means. It is the exploration of meaning and human impact – so amply demonstrated in Mr Nelder’s own story presented on the day, in fact – that science fiction does well, perhaps even uniquely well in certain domains. The prediction stuff? It’s a crap-shoot, and not even something unique to sf; any two-bit tech-pundit with their own blog can do it, and it’s no more or less effective.

And as I also said in my presentation (which may well be the bit that irked Mr Nelder so badly), and I quote verbatim: “anyone who claims they can reliably predict the future is a huckster with something to sell you, even if their product is only themselves”. I illustrated it with the following image.

The immortal Kurzweil

I stand by that statement absolutely.

So, there it is: if you really want to argue that sf can predict the future, I’ll concede your point, but I’d counterargue that the more time you spend stamping your foot and saying that “sf can so predict the future, just lookee here at these examples”, the more time you spend making sf look like a carney-booth thrillshow with massively overblown notions of its own purpose and utility. If we want people to take sf seriously for the useful things that it can demonstrably do – the qualitative and subjective exploration of possibilities and consequences, for instance – then we need to stop rattling on about the power of prediction as if it were something that could be harnessed in any rigorous and useful way whatsoever.

Which is why, when given the chance to talk to business strategists about what use narrative might be in their work, I started with the most important example of what use it isn’t, because I’m tired of being lumped in with shiny-suited consultants and SilVal Singularitarian woo-pedlars, the foremost and loudest proponents of the sf-as-prophecy meme.

Someone had to shoot the elephant in the room, and I fully intend to keep firing until the bloody thing dies.

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My thanks to the British Academy of Management for having me along and giving me a little soapbox time, to Dr. Gary Graham for organising the whole shindig, and to all the other participants, Mr Nelder not least among them; it’s by having my ideas challenged that I get the chance to improve them.


Science fiction and science, part I: you’re doing it wrong

Paul Raven @ 10-01-2013

*blows dust off microphone*

I’ve been absent from here for a while because I’ve been working on other things, but those things are very much related to Futurismic as a project, both in terms of what it has been, and what it will be.

More on that later, though. I want to get things back in motion by talking about one of the growing number of places where science fiction meets science. This is something I’m finding myself talking about a fair bit of late, being an sf writer and critic who now works as a researcher in an engineering department, and I have a paper under review with a futurism journal which is essentially an exploration of ways science fictional narratives can inform future research and/or strategic planning. “Are they any use at all, then?” is naturally something I get asked a lot. My answer is a qualified and cautious “yes”, but there’s a raft of caveats which I’m going to start working through here in the months to come.

But this post is all about the sort of alliance between science fiction and science that I’m having to push back against. Futurism has a pretty bad name in many places, and not without justification; there are a whole lot of hucksters and dime-store prophets wearing that hat. Why, look — here comes one now!

I got a LinkedIn message this morning; here are the opening ‘graphs.

I have recently become involved in helping a fascinating crowd-funding project called Dragon Empire which is now on Kickstarter during January. Dragon Empire is a science fiction novel by Dr Adam Weigold about a future world war between China and the US.

REDPERILREDPERILPEDPERILREDPERIL

What is really fascinating about this project is that it is helping to fund a laser physics experiment aimed at developing a revolutionary new “non-lethal” directed energy technology for missile defense applications (Laser Powered EMP technology which is described in the novel). This is in fact the first military R&D project crowd-funded on Kickstarter. The technology is non-lethal with potential for defensive applications only, and promises to render guided missile attacks from terrorists obsolete. Laser Powered EMP could ultimately make all forms of air travel safer.

Loving the scare-quotes around non-lethal; saved me the effort of putting them in myself. Laser-powered EMP, unless I’m very much mistaken, could be just as effective against aircraft as against missiles, what with both of them having a whole lot of electronics inside them. But I guess it’ll be fine so long as it’s only the White Hats that have it, AMIRITEZ? (See also: drones, nukes, pretty much anything else.)

Kickstarter plugs for skiffy novels by the justifiably unpublished are hardly rare (though I’ve been seeing a lot more for short film projects in my inbox of late), but there’s a definite novelty with this one: using the (probably very hawkish) novel to promote and fund the development of a proposed weapon system? Top marks for ambition… though given that military budgets are one of the few places that there’s still masses of cash sloshing around, and further given that the Pentagon is rarely shy of throwing wads of said cash at some of the most spurious blue-sky bullshit around, I found myself wondering why Dr Weigold decided to jump — somewhat late — onto the Kickstarter bandwagon. Because, let’s be honest, the book is a trojan horse; this is all about the PEWPEWPEW.

So, here’s the website for LightningGun.com, Weigold’s company — which appears to be Weigold and his father. (They’ve certainly stayed frugal on the webdev side of things.)

From the ‘Our Future’ section of said website:

Lightning Gun is now developing ways to generate funding to establish the research infrastructure required for large scale LGPE experiments. [...] the estimated cost of large scale experiments will increase by a factor of 20 to more than US$5 million over 2-3 years. We intend to raise this funding via a combination of (a) Crowdfunding Projects, (b) Sales of Science Fiction Publications and (c) US Government Research Grants. At Lightning Gun Inc. we want to turn science fiction into reality using an organic business model with no reliance on bankers or venture capitalists. In short, we want to do it our way!

Weapons research with minimal oversight from investors? That’s sure to be well-intended! Though some market research might have been helpful; ain’t no money in selling science fiction novels these days. I suspect the real prize is in those gub’mint grants, and options a) and b) are about scaring up enough cash to hustle for said grants.

This is all conjecture, of course; I can’t claim to know the motivations of people I’ve never met. But in the absence of solid knowledge, one must judge an animal by the spoor it leaves behind… and so, for your elucidation, here’s a post by Dr Weigold at BigScaryIdeas.com entitled “Can pollution save the planet?”. To give him the benefit of the doubt, you should maybe read the whole thing, but here’s my own precis:

Carbon dioxide causes global warming but we can’t stop it now and we’re past the tipping point and anyway we all breathe out carbon dioxide so what do you want to do, brick up our mouths or something, you MONSTER? Anyway, if we’d just kept burning the dirtiest carbon-based fuels, all that lovely smoke would have lowered the planetary albedo and helped cool things down a bit, so the obvious solution to global warming is to burn more dirty carbon-based fuels. But that’s an unacceptable suggestion because [massive liberal sandal-wearing science conspiracy]! JUS’ SPEAKIN’ TRUTH TO POWER, YO.

I find myself with a hypothesis as to why Dr Weigold has moved from Australia to the United States; the former is slightly (but only slightly) less a haven for Big Fossil shills than the latter, after all. Note the crafty rhetorical positioning: he’s not a Denialist (sorry, sorry, “Skeptic“), but nor is he a Believer! Plus, climate change is basically just a question of how the atmosphere works (O RLY?), and apparently the only real authorities on climate change are the atmospheric physicists. (Pack up and go home, meteorologists; you’re just wasting your time, and your kids probably haven’t seen you in weeks.) It’s been interesting watching the rhetoric of denial shift over the last few years, rather like that slow motion video of a man dropping a cat; outright attacks on climate science have started to be counterproductive, so cherrypicking is the new (old) game in town.

Of course, Dr Weigold is entitled to his opinions, and perhaps he’s right; maybe pollution is the solution!

"No, no, dig UP, stupid!"

Anyway, enough of my snark; I’ll end by pointing out that the Dragon Empire Kickstarter fund drive is currently at $531 out of $20,000 with 24 days left to go. I realise that I may be supplying the oxygen of publicity to the tentative new flame of crowdfunded technopork, but I’m working on the assumption that anyone daft enough to cough up cash for a book and a baseball cap because [terrorism] probably has more money than they need.

Science fiction and science can do interesting and valuable things together.

This is not one of them.


Hope for a Global Spring?

Brenda Cooper @ 14-03-2012

Perhaps it’s because of the economy is beginning – finally – to pick up in the US. Perhaps it is because I’m sick to death of bad election-year politics, so I’m looking at anything else that comes along of interest. Maybe it’s even because I wrote about creative destruction the last time I did a column here, and I’m ready for the transformation that follows that practice. But I’m feeling a bit more hopeful this month, and I’m seeing signs that I’m not the only one. Continue reading “Hope for a Global Spring?”


The only way to change your past is to steal someone else’s

Paul Raven @ 08-03-2012

I get a fairly regular flow of emails about independent film projects. Most of them, to be honest, bounce straight off me – which says less about their quality than it does about my own taste in cinema. Independent cinema – like independent music and literature – has lots of promise over the long term, but a lot of what I see is people trying to replicate Hollywood aesthetics on a budget, rather than turning their back on Hollywood and seeking something new, something different. Which is fine, of course. Just doesn’t push my buttons enough to mention it, is all.

Anamnesis, however, looks very different. They’re looking for postproduction funding on Indiegogo (which is a Kickstarter equivalent); take a look at what they’ve done so far, what they plan to do, and why they want to do it. Then chuck ‘em a few dollars if you think you’d like to see it finished the way they want it.


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