Make technological utopia easier with this one weird trick

Kevin Kelly’s “desirable-future haikus” thing on Medium is a great example of what I believe to be the standard blindspot of ICT-focussed futurists, in that they’ve forgotten that anything other than ICT could possibly matter or make a difference to the way we live.

In a way, this points to a widespread and stunted understanding of the word “technology” as meaning “electronics and computers”, when in fact the Greek root of the word addresses techniques, skills and competencies alongside the tools needed to do the job. Agriculture is a technology; democracy is a technology. Technology does not begin and end in the garages of Palo fucking Alto. Technology is not (just) a smartphone with an app for locating a flunky to make you a sandwich.

Kelly seems to have finally hit the contemporary sf writer’s problem, which is that hardly anyone’s buying utopias these days, least of all the people who write them. So he solicits a bunch of hundred-word, hundred-years-hence “haikus” from his followers on Twitter that describe “a plausible technological future”of the something-to-aspire-to type, rather like a pared-down take on Stephenson’s Hieroglyph project. It should be noted that Kelly says he doesn’t actually know any of the contributors; they’re just folk who follow him who emailed in to his CFP, and is as such “a random sample of [Kelly’s] tribe”; it’s that very tribalism that may be the source of his problem.

What comes as no surprise is that the resulting scenarios (with a few exceptions) are packed full of all the standard transhumanist techno-cornucopian tropes (immortality! super-abundance! energy too cheap to bother metering! perpetual economic growth from the free-est algorithmically-managed markets EVAR!) with a few recent additions to the pantheon (the [blockchain/free-energy-device/fusion/Big Data/quantitative analysis] will save us!), all of which share two major traits: a misparsing of entropy and thermodynamics, and the belief that, if we can just invent or code up that one perfect bit of technology we’re missing, everything will fall into place. (Once you read enough of them, SilVal start-up manifestos start to remind you of the business model of the Underpants Gnomes.)

Underpants Gnomes business plan

The third major trait is that most of them read as ridiculously naïve, and that’s not just a consequence of the previous two. Kelly’s problem – the unwritableness of a “plausible technological future” – is implicit in his formulation; it’s impossible to write a believable future where technology has fixed everything because “technology” doesn’t make things better. People make things better – sometimes through the use of new technology, but certainly not exclusively.

Now, as a card-carrying Harawayian, I am in no way averse to ascribing agency to non-human and/or artefactual subjects; what bothers me about these scenarios is that they largely remove agency from human subjects, being variations on the Software Salvationism which believes that all obstacles might be overcome through the addition of EVN MOAR ALGOS PLZ*, and assumes (falsely, I hope) that people would like less direct control over the way their world works rather than more. But it’s kind of inevitable, really: when you ask “how can technology make a better future?” you foreclose (whether deliberately or not) on the possibility of making that better future with anything other than new technology; this is one of the epistemological bear-traps of technological determinism, which Kelly and many other tech-centric futures people have been circling around for decades.

But it’s easily enough stepped out of; all you need to do is take the “technology” specifier out of the question, and/or avoid asking it of people who identify with technology in either a entrepreneurial or quasi-religious manner (no beer for you, Ray Kurzweil). By way of example, here’s my own late submission to Kelly’s call, a 101-word haiku describing a desirable future:

No one goes hungry. No one sleeps outdoors, unless they choose to. No one is conscripted as a child-soldier. No one is maimed by land-mines made on the other side of the world. No one is exploited for the betterment or gain of another. No one is a second class citizen to anyone. Nothing is wasted. Things – whether material or digital – are made with care and thought, and are made to last a long, long time. We appreciate a plurality of systems of value alongside the legacy cash-money system, which we keep going as a honey-trap distraction for the instinctively acquisitive.

If that’s not utopian and desirable, I don’t know what it is. And as implausible, unlikely and peacenik-pie-in-the-sky as you might (very reasonably) choose to call it, it is possible — because it doesn’t require us to make a single damned invention or piece of software we don’t already have. We have everything we need already; it’s just, as Gibson didn’t quite say, not yet evenly distributed. That means my little scenario above is intrinsically more plausible than any future that requires a technological novum to make it work, because [Occam’s Razor]. And if you’re aching to say “but hang on, you’ll never get that to work because getting people to change the way they do things isn’t at all simple”, then congratulations –you’ve internalised the very point I’ve been trying to make all along. Have a cookie.

In short, then, and in hope of answering Kelly’s rhetorical question: the reason it is no longer possible/easy to write believable technological utopias is that we’ve had enough historical and personal experience with previous technologies failing to deliver on their utopian promises that we are no longer willing to take them at face value; we no longer believe that new technologies are an unalloyed good in and of themselves, and there have been sufficient charlatan futurists that we’ve started to assume they’re all charlatans until proven otherwise.

So perhaps we’re edging closer to utopia faster than we thought.


[ * The irony of people cheerleading for greater algorithmic management of human affairs (especially as a utopian response to a flood of dystopias which are themselves based around the premise of ubiquitous algorithmic management of human affairs, in direct artistic response to the increasing ubiquity of the algorithmic management of human affairs in the world most of us actually live in) is palpable, but joyless. It reminded me of this picture from a friend’s Instagram feed:

Because the best possible response to the ongoing problem of trash accumulating in the Pacific gyre is surely not to sort our shit out and stop filling the oceans with rubbish, but to fish some of it out, make it into clothes that cost more than some human beings earn in a year, and hire Panglossian celebrities to add an overcoat of aspirational gloss to the triple-sprayed greenwash base-coat of the initial concept!

To twist Marx a bit: the capitalist will gladly sell you your portion of the rope with which you, he and everyone else are collectively hanging themselves. ]


Staying untypically on-topic, the good folk at Rhizome are doing a series of future fictions under the banner Dystopia Everyday, using the software-dev format of the “user story”. The latest one is “Containers” by Adam Rothstein, and I commend it to your attention:

I woke up at the chime, looked at the mobile. New work available. I clocked in, made coffee, sat at the desk. Two hours of work right away, even before Twitter. Felt accomplished. I invoiced, and collected.

I met Sandra for breakfast. She’s in Miami. She had the ceiling open to let in the sun. She got into a new task queue, editorial work. It’s good work, she said, even though the pay isn’t quite as good as advertising. What’s the difference, I said, sipping my Bloody Mary. Different algorithmic authors, same algorithmic grammar problems.

It’s brief, bleak, and on-point — a great demonstration of the provocative mode in design fiction. I also like the way the user story format reads like a sort of day-job Hemingway, and wonder whether it’s an artefact of the style so much as Adam’s interpretation of it…

BONUS RELATED MATERIAL: how many shipping containers really get lost at sea? Quite a few, it turns out.

The role of utopian narratives in urban futurism

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.

A Viridian post-mortem, plus the rhetorics of futurity

“Three things make a post,” the saying used to go — so here’s three things.

First up, my first solo paper (“The future’s four quarters: Proposing a quadrant methodology for strategic prototyping in infrastructural contexts”) has finally wended its way through the tangled corridors of the academic publishing system, and is now in press at Technological Forecasting & Social Change. It’s basically an attempt to retool the nascent field of sf prototyping into something more than an unreflexive flight of solutionist fancy, but also to scale it up in order to explore systemic issues, rather than merely reiterating the Gernsbackian gadget-story mode with exploratory research findings and pretending you’re doing something other than R&D wish-fulfilment. (If you don’t have institutional access but would like to see a copy nonetheless, drop me a line and I’ll see what I can do.)

Secondly, I wrote an essay for Tim Maly’s 5 Viridian Years thing on Medium. Tim’s project was to rake over the coals of Bruce Sterling’s Viridian Design movement, five years after the Chairman decided to fold it up ahead of schedule. I won’t even attempt to sum up the collection, as the viewpoints and angles are gloriously various, but I definitely get an underlying vibe of “mission unaccomplished”; the Viridian problems haven’t gone away, even if the method had its moment and missed the mark. So here’s my take on the whole thing, which is basically that hairshirt-green primitivism and technological solutionism are both equally untenable answers to climate change and its related super-wicked problem set.

Thirdly (and related to both the secondly and the firstly), Sterling has a wee piece in Wired UK where he talks about the rhetorics of design fiction. Here’s the important bit:

“Suspending disbelief” means that design fiction has an ethics. Design fictions are fakes of a theatrical sort, but they’re not wicked frauds or hoaxes intended to rob or fool people. A design fiction is a creative act that puts the viewer into a different conceptual space — for a while. Then it lets him go. Design fiction has an audience, not victims.

The implicit point here is that there are a lot of things that use the techniques of design fiction without having that internalised ethics: political manifestos, corporate brochures, lifestyle-tech ads, transhumanist discourse, the list goes on. Some forms are deliberately hoaxy and/or seductive (cf. Dan Abelow’s hypergeneric “intellectual property”), while some are simply passionate people enthusiastically dining out upon their own delusional dogfood. If you recall my Improving Reality talk on infrastructure fiction, you’ll perhaps remember that I pegged Elon Musk’s Hyperloop as an unintentional design fiction; in Sterling’s terms above, of course, it’s not a design fiction at all, but I hold that understanding how design fiction works will furnish you the tools with which to take other futurist narratives apart and understand how they function (and what they’re really saying, which is rarely what they appear to be saying).

And given the proliferation of narratives of futurity, hoaxy or otherwise, a critical framework is much needed… so I’ll be working up a paper I gave back in the summer into a series of posts here at Futurismic, which will lay out my early efforts and let the public poke them with sticks. Watch this space, yeah?

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