Tag Archives: solutionism

A new narrative for narratives

A few days back a colleague linked me to this editorial at Nature about the use of full narrative forms in critical/speculative foresight work, which they link back to the establishing work of Brian David Johnson, who was at Intel at the time but now splits his labour between Arizona State U, consulting, and a fellowship with “a visionary innovation company that’s focused on growth”.

That latter vector of Johnson’s current employment probably sums up most of the issues I had with soi disant “science fiction prototyping” (SFP): it was framed quite explicitly as a product/service visioning process, was virtually devoid of methodology (let alone rigour), and made absolutely nothing of the critical potential of science fiction’s narrative toolkit. As such, it really didn’t stand too apart from long-established design paradigms, except for perhaps being a bit more honest about the “making stuff up and seeing where you might profitably take the ideas” aspect. My frustration with this rather shallow engagement with the potential of the narrative tools specific to science fiction has informed much of my academic work right from the start, arguably beginning with my first solo paper (Raven, 2014).

The Nature editorial largely rotates around a more recent paper in Futures (Merrie et al, 2018) in which the authors have taken the SFP idea and

… applied it to a topical environmental concern: the fate of the world’s oceans. The project paints four scenarios for 2050–70, each of which builds on current trends in oceans governance and the fishing industry, as well as ongoing development of marine science and technology. More-uncertain outcomes — the possible collapse of ice sheets and the formation of deep-sea dead zones as a result of onshore pollution — play out differently for better and worse.

In other words, they’ve balanced out the speculative/imaginative aspect of science fiction with the critical/contraPanglossian side — and it was extremely gratifying to find another of my papers (Raven & Elahi 2015) cited in their literature review, because frankly it’s felt like I’ve been beating my head against a brick wall on this stuff, at least as far as the mainstream futures scene is concerned (which, like BDJ’s employers, maintains an uncritical worship of the suitcase word “innovation”, and is focussed on delivering growth — or at least the immediately plausible prospect thereof — to corporate clients).

The Nature editorial continues:

Narrative has an important role in the communication of science, but can it also help in the pursuit of research? Purists may baulk, but stories already feature heavily, from the promised potential of work pitched in grant applications to the case studies of impact that funders increasingly ask for when projects finish. Climate-change science has long relied on emissions scenarios that diverge according to how future societies might behave. These rely not on extrapolation of current trends, but on imagined differences in, for example, whether nations come to cooperate or opt to pursue their own agendas. And climate-change policies are being planned on the basis of stories of future technology — carbon capture and negative-emissions equipment included — that many argue are pure fiction and will never materialize.

It’s a huge relief to see that said in such a well-known and well-read scientific organ, and not just for the sake of self-aggrandizement: I’ve been pushing those ideas for five or six years, but many others have been pushing them for at least twice as long, and it feels like all that effort might finally be paying off.

Solutionism, it turns out, is not exclusive to Silicon Valley — though I suspect that the Valley’s financial and political clout are complicit in its mainstreaming throughout the global policy scene, as well as the science and engineering ends of the academy (which, in the UK at least, have slowly been drawn into the gravity well of bloated full-service consultancy-and-outsourcing parasites like Carillion and its ilk). But also complicit are the Panglossian flatteries of corporate foresight consulting practices: after all, if you don’t tell them what they want to hear, you probably don’t get invited back to next year’s “visioning retreat”. It’s investor storytime all the way down.

But the cracks in that metanarrative are starting to show… which is all the more reason to keep chiseling.

Some speculations on speculation

I appeared on a panel about Speculative Design at LonCon3 over the weekend just gone, and one of my fellow panellists, architect and writer Nic Clear, mentioned that he had some misgivings over the use of the word “speculative”.

Definitions of 'speculation' from Oxford Dictionaries Online

It’s always had two meanings, after all: there’s the imaginative, extrapolative and science fictional sense in which we tend to use it today, but also the rather unfashionable (read as “historically tainted”) financial sense — think speculative building, for example, or the land speculations of the railroad barons.

We don’t talk so much of people speculating on the stock exchange as we used to; nowadays, one invests in the market. The nature of the game hasn’t changed, but the label has. Here’s an Ngram chart of word frequency over time:

Now look again at the secondary definition of speculation: “in the hope of gain but with the risk of loss” — my emphasis.

An investment, meanwhile, is “[t]he action or process of investing money for profit”; the word carries connotations of safety, security and foresight, especially by comparison with the gambler’s odds of speculation. An investment carries the promise of a return, not the possibility; as Chomsky is always pointing out, costs are socialised, while profits are privatised. Perhaps not incidentally, the archaic meaning of investment was “[t]he surrounding of a place by a hostile force in order to besiege or blockade it”. Plus ça change, non?

In another conversation, possibly one that followed the Body Modification panel, someone (to my shame, I can’t remember who — convention syndrome) pointed out the way the framing of Soylent as a product shifted over time: originally posited as a quick’n’easy occasional food replacement for busy people — sorta like Slimfast or protein shakes, but without the weight-loss or buffness angles — it only started being framed as a utopian replacement for a normal diet once the vencap money started turning up.

Ethan Zuckerman, describing advertising as the internet’s original sin — itself a curiously religious metaphor — introduced me to the concept of “investor storytime” by quoting from a speech by Maciej Cegłowski:

“Investor storytime is when someone pays you to tell them how rich they’ll get when you finally put ads on your site.

Pinterest is a site that runs on investor storytime. Most startups run on investor storytime.

Investor storytime is not exactly advertising, but it is related to advertising. Think of it as an advertising future, or perhaps the world’s most targeted ad.”  [Emphases mine.]

All selling is a game of narratives, a game of stories. To sell an idea to the vencaps, you need to tell them stories they like, stories that reflect their desires. We know the sorts of stories that the most successful vencaps like. Stories about strong ROI, certainly, but they have other interests: lax tax regimes, immortality, freedom from the restrictions of the petty mortals for whose trickle-down wellbeing they strive so hard. Capital-T Transhumanism and Singularitarianism are enthusiastically supported and bankrolled by these people.

Silicon Valley is where the two meanings of speculation collide, and Soylent is a metonymy of that collision. It figures a future where even eating is reduced to a purely economic act, a forex transaction: cash for kiloJoules. Texture’s extra, bub.

Not at all incidentally, “futures” is another word with two meanings: there are the futures of designers and writers and technologists, but then there are the futures in commodities and derivatives which are traded by HFT bots, their lightspeed speculative trades producing billions of tiny fragments of speculative profit; value without goods, signifier without signified. Marx called this “fictitious capital”. It’s a story we tell ourselves, loudly and repeatedly: a story about a world of infinite resources, a world with an infinite capacity to absorb all that we feel we have tired of, all of the dross and the waste… all of the risk.

It’s getting harder and harder to believe that story any more, despite its core fandom’s enthusiastic bankrolling of an ongoing series of ever more specious reinterpretations. Speculation births speculation. We are driven by the repercussions of financial speculation to speculate for ourselves, to dream of a different future to that offered by the neoliberal narrative.

Like all stories, it turned ugly when its tellers mistook it for truth.