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.

#

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.

#

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.


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.


The Future Always Wins

Paul Raven @ 22-02-2012

Soooooo, yeah – I’ve been busy. Did you miss me? New job, Masters degree… doesn’t leave a lot of spare time, so it doesn’t. But it’s been quiet here too long, so it’s time to dust down the soapbox and run a mic-check. One-two, one-two.

The Future Always Wins

OK. So you may have caught wind of the launch of ARC, which is a new sf and futurism e-magazine from The People Who Bring You New Scientist; issue 1.1 was launched on Monday, and the various ways you can buy it are listed on its masthead website. Yes, it comes via an app or via the Kindle, and as a result it’s DRM’d; this is not ideal, I know, but this ain’t an ideal world. You can buy a POD dead-tree version, too, but it’s fairly pricey by comparison.

Why would you want to buy it? Well, it contains fresh new fiction by Margaret Atwood, Stephen Baxter, M.John Harrison, Hannu Rajaniemi and Alastair Reynolds, and non-fiction essays and articles by Simon Ings, China Miéville, Sumit Paul-Choudhury, Leigh Alexander, Simon Pummell, Adam Roberts and Bruce Sterling… oh, and some guy called Paul Graham Raven, too, but don’t let that put you off.

ARC is being touted as something a bit like OMNI reborn. The important thing to note here is that this is a proper paying market for both fiction and non-fiction, and it’s a professional Big House magazine publishing fresh stories by Big Name science fiction authors. So here’s my request, which I’d be making even if I weren’t enjoying the privilege of being on that TOC: buy a copy.

Seriously. If you’ve ever lamented the dwindling number of venues for professional sf sales, or the editorial policies of the Big Three magazines, or if you’ve ever thought that you’d like to read a magazine that took a long professional look at the sort of stuff Futurismic talks about – buy a copy of ARC, and keep buying them. £4.99 in Airstrip One money, which is maybe eight of your Yanqui Dollah; that’s not a bad quarterly price for what you’re getting, I hazard to suggest, and comparable to the prices of extant magazines. So support a brave new market, why don’t you? By doing so, you also support writers and the sf short fiction scene in general.

OK, plug over. :)

There’s No Tomorrow

My article in ARC1.1 is about the Collapsonomics crowd – those voices online and on the ground who’re insisting that Capitalism1.0 is nothing but a shambling zombie of a thing, and trying to map a way forward into a very uncertain future. (Long-term followers of this here blog will certainly recognise some of the names and ideas that get mentioned.)

Due to the nature of the publishing process, most of the research took place in the latter half of last year, in the aftermath of the London riots and the emergence of Occupy, and all the other upheavals that will make 2011 a banner year for the historians of the future… provided, of course, that we actually get a future wherein “historian” means what we currently think it to mean, rather than “addled bard with vague handed-down memories of life before The Fall”.

Ah, it’s still so easy to joke blithely about imminent civilisational collapse… but it feels more and more like gallows humour every time. As a species, as a race, as an ecosystem, a civilisation, a genome, however you want to categorise it – we’ve grown right up to the edge of the petri dish. Everything is running out, including – or perhaps especially – time. Peak Oil is just the start, but it’s an exemplary start. The assumption that infinite exponential growth is not only possible but laudable is very close to running into the brick wall of reality, if it hasn’t already.

I want you to watch this [via ClubOrlov]. It’s not cheerful, but that’s why it needs to be watched. We can’t pretend this stuff isn’t true any more.

I’m sure some of you will have refutations of things that get mentioned in that video; if so, I’m happy to see them in the comments, but they’ll need to be supported by links and citations. Any “[x] is a Liberal Leftist Conspiracy OMFG!!!” stuff will be deleted without prejudice; I’m all done tolerating scientific myopia and wilful ignorance in the name of politeness and deference to the shibboleth of “balanced debate”. This isn’t about left and right any more. It’s about what Bill Hicks memorably referred to as “working out this whole food/air deal”.

One planet, folks. That’s all we’ve got. The way I see it right now, that leaves us two basic choices: either we stay here on the mudball, which means we need to sort our shit out with respect to the distribution of resources before the ecosystem around us takes population adjustment into its own hands (which won’t be any more pleasant than a global war for survival), or we scramble out of the gravity well to an environment where our greatest addiction – energy – can be sustained for (maybe) long enough to solve said addiction.

Make no mistake: if you want a future humanity that has all the fun things and glorious technologies we enjoy at the moment, and if you want that future humanity to last for more than a couple of centuries, then we have to recognise the limits of our environment, and either work within them or work to transcend them.

The universe doesn’t care whether we live or die. I don’t want to hear that any more than you do, but that doesn’t make it any less demonstrably true.

There is no “business as usual” any more. Deal with it.


BOOK REVIEW: Technicolor Ultra Mall by Ryan Oakley

Paul Raven @ 07-10-2011

Technicolor Ultra Mall by Ryan OakleyTechnicolor Ultra Mall by Ryan Oakley

Edge SF&F (Canada), 2011; ~280pp; C$14.95 RRP – ISBN13: 978-1894063548

Budgie is a Vidicon, a member of one of the countless drug-fuelled gangs who fight to the death for territory and prestige in the red levels of the T-Dot ultramall. He sends the last of the Dog Goblins northwards in a gory streetfight, but not before his enemy dispatches his patrol partner Sputnik with a poisoned blade to the jaw. The glory of the kill accrues to Budgie, and Vidicons are no strangers to murder and its consequences, but emotion, sentiment or friendship aren’t covered by the rulebook; there’s no profit in regret or compassion. Gang stuff is just business.

Or so it’s supposed to go, anyway. But after hauling his partner’s dying body to a performance surgeon who fails to save him, Budgie has to face the consequences of the Vidicon lifestyle in something other than the abstract, starting a long painful chain of questions whose answers don’t get any easier to stomach. Meanwhile, the alpha and beta males of the Vidicon hierarchy have their fingers in more rarified pies, like running red-level raves that cater to the slummers who come down from the green levels for a forbidden taste of danger and dirty hedonism. Gammas like Budgie are just disposable tools in their projects, and even as Budgie starts trying to go straight and find a way out of the red levels, he gets entangled in machinations that will not only destroy everything he cares about, but the mall itself.

The consumerist mall-as-dystopia is not a wholly original idea, but I can’t remember ever encountering one so unflinchingly brutal as Technicolor Ultra Mall. From the opening blaze of profanity-peppered violence to the bleak cataclysm of its conclusion, Oakley never eases the pressure, tearing aside the glossy veils of commerce to reveal the cynical profiteering beneath. This book is yet another data point for the adage about science fiction novels being about the time in which they are written more than the time in which they are set, and as the global economy goes from bad to worse it’s only going to look more timely. We already live in Oakley’s mall, sealed off from the over-polluted outside world like the arcologies of the classic satirical RPG Paranoia, everything we see or hear or feel mediated by businesses interests, our politics a polarised red vs. blue puppet show that distracts us from the real game being played by the high rollers, our lingering primate instincts and tribal urges leveraged in order to maintain and prop up a profitable hierarchy.

Technicolor Ultra Mall is primarily about class. The metaphor is as unmissable as it is overamplified for effect: the underground red levels where the gangs roam free along streets full of bars, bordellos and shooting galleries (both kinds), and a crude code of honour is brutally enforced; the middle class green levels, where the warfare is more subtle and your good standing as a (seemingly) upright citizen is equivalent to the rep of a red level gangster; the rarified blue levels, which – fittingly, and true to life – we see very little of at first hand, and whose machinations manifest as turbulence in the layers below, like the vortices caused by a dragnet sweeping through a fishtank. But while class may be the bedrock theme, there’s plenty of other stuff salted away in the plot: radical transhuman technologies (for those who can afford to pay, natch) and their potentially dehumanising side-effects; the psychology of sales and persuasion, and the engineering of consent; satirical critiques of constructed and performative gender and class roles, and of psychiatry-as-character. A selection of vignette stories that feed into to the main narrative make a point of showing how easily manipulated all of us are, even those of us who think ourselves immune to the crude importunings of marketeers; Oakley has evidently studied the art of persuasion very closely, and it’s perhaps Technicolor Ultra Mall‘s greatest triumph that he manages to convincingly portray its insidious power while making it transparent enough that we can see the psychologist/wizard behind the curtain. As a debt-defaulting gambler discovers to his peril, the casino always wins; our statistical illiteracy and blindness to zero-sum games makes marks of us all.

While Budgie’s tragic Orpheus-esque arc is complete, there are a few dropped threads and unexplored alleyways; a late introduction of the possibility of transferring minds between bodies (a fine opportunity to extend the critique of both radical transhumanism and class, of the body as commodity) goes underdeveloped, for example. Some of the anarchist rhetoric comes across as a little crude, but that’s to be expected given the naïvete of the characters giving voice to it; likewise, the underlying metaphor comes on heavy-handed on more than a few occasions, and reading them is like being kicked around a gravel car park by a guy with a point to prove. Technicolor Ultra Mall is inescapably radical in its political outlook, and that alone will put off a certain section of the traditional science fiction market, even as it aligns Oakley along the same refusenik axis as sf authors as diverse as Ballard, Doctorow, Sterling and Dick. There will doubtless be accusations of hypocrisy – how can you critique extreme media sensationalism by using extraordinarily graphic violence? – but there is no glorification here. Quite to the contrary; the violence always serves to illustrate the moral bankruptcy or desperation of its perpetrators, and anyone who can read it as glorious is probably beyond help.

While reading Oakley’s savage prose is like riding the fight-or-flight limbic buzz of an amphetamine high, fans of redemption or happy endings should walk away now and never look back, because Technicolor Ultra Mall will break your bitter heart before hawking it to a black-market organ recycler. But as you do so, consider that your flinching from the cruelty of consumerism’s consequences is exactly what enables them to exist. We all know the mall is cruel, but we all know that it’s easier to play our roles than question the script. Oakley knows how the script ends, but so does anyone else who’s willing to think about it; trouble is, that knowledge comes freighted with an eschatological sense of futility. Technicolor Ultra Mall is a funhouse mirror, and the joke is that we all want to believe that the leering face that looks back at us is anyone else’s but our own. It’s also a rugged and angry début novel from a writer who isn’t afraid to turn the spotlight onto complicity – his own, and everyone else’s. To paraphrase one Michael Franti, “hypocrisy is our greatest luxury”; Oakley dangles the possibility of redemption, or at least individual escape from the system, only to snatch it away at the last.

The comparison isn’t exact, but Technicolor Ultra Mall belongs to the same dystopian school as 1984; Oakley may not yet have that Orwellian mastery of prose, but he has the required acuity of vision, and – most importantly of all – the willpower not to look away as a designer-label bought-on-credit boot stamps on a human face, forever.

[ In the interests of full disclosure: Ryan Oakley is an online buddy, courtesy an introduction from M1k3y of grinding.be, who said something along the lines of “you should really be following this guy, he’s sharp as hell”. It’s a fair description; Oakley’s as keen-eyed, angry and iconoclastic as his novel, and quite possibly the most distinctively-dressed anarchist one could ever hope to meet. ]


Personal Information, Part 2: episode 15

Sarah Ennals @ 18-09-2011

Personal Information - 2.15.1Personal Information - 2.15.2Personal Information - 2.15.3

Personal Information is a serial sci-fi webcomic from Sarah “Does Not Equal” Ennals. Wondering what’s going on? Try winding back and reading from the start…


Next Page »