Past futures / participatory panopticon revisited

It’s a head-spinning experience to think back and recall how I started the journey to where I’m at now, in terms of what I do for a living, not least because I had no idea where I was going.

Well, that’s not strictly true – I decided circa 2004 that I was going to have a proper crack at this whole being-a-science-fiction-writer thing, and wandered online to start practicing the skills I thought would be necessary. And I suppose we could say that I am now a science fiction writer, albeit one whose fictional output is, uh, not exactly prolific… and further that the skills I practiced have turned out to have another application that’s fairly adjacent to being a science fiction writer. I very rarely identify as a futurist any more, because that puts you in a box with Shingy and a whole raft of dubious hucksterism, but there was definitely a period during which I was orienting myself in that sort of direction. And that was largely due to encountering Jamais Cascio, whose blog I used to follow, and who I briefly enticed onto Futurismic as a columnist. Cascio was one of the first people I can recall reading who was doing what I think of as “black-sky thinking” – contemplating the darker possibilities of sociotechnical change, in a way that seemed to me to combine the best and most interesting aspects of sf worldbuilding along with the real-world critique that I was slowly coming to see as an urgent political project in reality.

Cascio is still kicking about, of course; he’s one of the Institute For The Future people these days (and, to be honest, one of the few folk there whose output doesn’t make my eyes roll so hard I nearly pass out). Last month he was reflecting on some thinking from that period in which I was just starting to venture out into futures-y spaces, which not only reminded me of the length of this journey (fifteen years!), but also of how we were talking about tomorrows in that particular yesterday. Anyone remember the participatory panopticon? Yeah, that was a circa-2004 jam… and Cascio argues, fairly reasonably, that we got a fair bit of what we thought we were gonna get, just not quite in the form that we thought we were gonna get it: the tech and its functions were clear to see, but (to borrow a well-worn Gibson riff), we didn’t quite see some of the uses the street would find for these things. Plot twist: turns out that “transparency” might have a problematic expression when rolled out at drastic scales! Says Cascio, “that’s the ugly reality of the Participatory Panopticon: it was never going to change who we are. It was really only going to make it harder to hide it.”

But ain’t that always the way? Cascio continues:

Foresight (forecasts, scenarios, futurism, etc.) is the most useful when it alerts us to emerging possible developments that we had not otherwise imagined. Not just as a “distant early warning,” but as a vaccination. A way to become sensitive to changes that we may have missed. A way to start to be prepared for a disruption that is not guaranteed to happen, but would be enormously impactful if it did. I’ve had the good fortune of talking with people who heard my Participatory Panopticon forecast and could see its application to their own work in human rights, in environmentalism, and in politics. The concept opened their eyes to new ways of operating, new channels of communication, and new threats to manage, and allowed them to act. The vaccination succeeded.

It’s good to know that, sometimes, the work I do can matter.

That vaccination function is a much neater way of summing up my argument in favour of the necessity of dystopian extrapolations: as much as utopia is necessary not as a destination so much as a direction of travel to be constantly reassessed in light of the changing terrain, dystopia is necessary as a sort of “here be dragons” motif on the perpetually-updated map of the territory which we use to orienteer ourselves.

No map can ever be the territory, of course – but at the same time, we can’t operate without some approximation of what’s nearby. This is why I increasingly think of what I want to do as being tactical foresight, rather than strategic – which is a riff on de Certau, to some extent, as well as an implicit rejection of the managerial God-trick perspective of corporate futures. I am not a leader, nor do I want to be one; there are too many self-styled leaders already, which goes some way to explaining why we’re marching in circles. Instead, I see myself as a scout – and while he might not characterise it in the same way, I see what Cascio does as being a form of scouting, also.

(I also believe that our work matters, though it’s still very hard to make the case for it to that gaggle of squabbling “leaders”, who tend to see it as little more than an attempt to undermine their assumed authority. Which it is, of course… but it’s also much more than that.)

Weird futurings in the academic hinterlands

Vibrations in the web suggest that folk I don’t yet know are trying in various ways to force a bit of weirdness into the academic futures literature. I’m particularly taken with this title and abstract:

Sport hunting and tourism in the twenty-second century: humans as the ultimate trophy / Wright, Daniel W M (2019)

This paper aims to address the potential of hunting humans as sport tourism activity in the twenty-second century. The paper explores past and current trends related to sport hunting, animal extinction, human violence and the normalisation of violence via fictional media. This paper paints a provocative picture of society with the aim of encouraging dialogue across the wider community regarding the challenges facing society in relation to practices related to sport hunting and tourism.

Regrettably my institution doesn’t have access to the journal Foresight, so I think it’s time to ping the author and ask for a copy.

Here’s another paper from the same journal:

The future persona: a futures method to let your scenarios come to life / Fergnani, A (2019)

The purpose of this paper is to formally introduce the future persona, a futures method to let scenarios come to life. A future persona is a scenario-specific fictional individual living in the future scenario (s)he is meant to depict. The paper provides a formal, systematic and clear step-by-step guide on how to create engaging and effective future personas after a scenario planning exercise.

As I and others have noted before, futures studies and strategic foresight is severely hampered by its nigh-complete refusal to engage with narratology, despite the centrality of narrative to the work it aims to do. Which is presumably why this scholar has proudly announced their reinvention of the focalising character

Thick skein

You can’t talk about every possible future in one work of science fiction—that would be crazy. But what you could do is tell a bunch of stories that are relatively plausible, that are set in the near future, and that describe a course of action that readers can imagine in a kind of “thick” texture. Where you really feel like you’re there. There’ll be some contingent events and some characters that are representative, but they are also individual characters with their own quirks. There’ll be a story, and yet the reader will also say: “Well, yeah—this could be one way forward.” This way, you have the utopian strand of describing things going right. Do we have a sense that things could go right? Even if it’s physically possible, the question is: Is it politically possible, and is it humanly possible?


I would invite everybody to think of the Green New Deal as it currently exists (a document which is quite impressive in its amount of detail and substance) as a science-fiction story. It’s a utopian science-fiction story written in the form of a proclamation or a blueprint for action. In my short-story collection, The Martians, I experimented with all kinds of formats, including a short story in the form of the Martian Constitution and a short story in the form of an abstract in a scientific journal. In the case of the Green New Deal, and in the best possible way, I want to suggest that seeing it as a kind of science-fiction story is what we need. We need that kind of vision.

Kim Stanley Robinson

Re: the upper paragraph of this quote, cf. my piece for The Sociological Review (originally posted back in 2016) in which I argued for sf as a tool for speculative ethnography, providing a “thick description” of reconfigured sociotechnicalities; that argument was extended in my (open-access) paper for Energy Research & Social Science from 2017.

Regular readers will know I’m not a fan of the blueprint utopia per se, but note that KSR is here advocating specifically for multiple such blueprints, rather than simply advancing a single vision; that plurality is one way of avoiding the pitfalls of the solutionist technotopia. But it’s interesting to hear a fiction writer arguing for the treatment of policy documents as fictional forms, even if only in part; that understanding of the transposability of narratological approaches into political imaginaries is something my colleagues and I are working to develop further, and it’s good to have someone with the profile (and, let’s be honest, the charm and candour) of KSR arguing the same case.

Science fiction, science fact, and all that's in between …