Category Archives: Science Fiction

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No such thing as magic: misinterpreting Clarke’s Third Law

Over the weekend John Naughton at Teh Graun provided some much-needed deflation regarding the religion of machine learning and “AI”. I am in full agreement with much of what he says — indeed, I have been singing from that songsheet for quite a few years now, as have a number of other Jonahs and Cassandras.

However, I feel the need to take polite objection to Naughton’s misrepresentation of Clarke’s Third Law. (You know the one: “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.) While it’s quite correct to say that the thought-lords of Silicon Valley (and their PR people) have peddled Clarke’s Third as justification for and endorsement of whatever it is they’ve decided they’re trying to do this week, to assume that’s how Clarke meant it to be used is to do the man a disservice, and indeed to misparse the aphorism in exactly the same way that the techies have. (This seems to happen surprisingly often.)

The thing is, no one believed less in magic than did Clarke; those of a similar age to myself may recall him as a dogged debunker of woo and myth, both in books and on television. Firstly, Clarke’s Third does not conflate magic and technology; on the contrary, it merely points out that to anyone not initiated into either mystery-system, both mystery-systems are equally opaque with regard to cause and effect. Or, in other words, both magic and technology seem miraculous unless you have an understanding of how the trick is performed.

Which leads us to the second point: when Clarke said “magic”, he meant stage magic: illusion, prestidigitation, misdirection. He didn’t believe in the supernatural (though he took a while to come to that position, admittedly, after an early fascination with the paranormal), but he understood the power of showmanship when combined with a lack of knowledge in an audience — and he recognised that technology’s appeal lies exactly in its seeming magicality, its something-out-of-nothingness; that’s how you sell it.

It was true in the time of Edison and Tesla, and it’s still true now, that “technology” (which is itself a suitcase word that has come to refer to shiny consumer products rather than sociotechnical systems of practice) is largely an obfuscatory front-end to the provisioning capacities of infrastructure. That’s why Edison, cunning bastard that he was, worked so hard on developing usable light-bulbs: he understood that infrastructure is too abstract a proposition, but that applications are an easy sell. As such, Clarke’s Third Law is best understood as a proleptic critique of solutionism — though I suspect Clarke himself might have balked at that characterisation. (He was rather more an optimist than I am.)

There’s a lot more to this riff, and I’m currently rather too busy trying to find some gainful employment to write about it at length — but if you’ve 45 minutes to spare, and you’d like the full unpacking of Clarke’s Third Law as it relates to technology and infrastructure in the 21st Century (all wrapped up in a furious critique of transhumanism, which is basically Clarke’s Third elevated from mere business model to the status of a religion without a god), then y’all might want to watch the this video of a talk I gave in Munich last year:

Stating the bloody obvious

… those tech creators and tech billionaires who are influenced by Science Fiction seem to assume that because things in Science Fiction work in the society and culture of those created future-set universes, there is an expectation bias that they will work in our real life and present, without much testing or oversight.

Gadgets, services, and technologies work in Science Fiction because it is fiction. They work because it is a narrative, and as such, their authors or filmmakers showed them working. They work because in fiction, it is very easy to make things work, because they aren’t real and don’t need to actually work.

Realizing the unreal from fiction will not make that realization work in the same way in real life. It can’t. The context, timeframe, and people are different. Most importantly, Science Fiction is fiction.

Astonishing, really, that this even needs to be said — though it clearly does need to be said.

However, the author’s relentless capping of Science Fiction betrays what is likely the same superficial engagement with the genre demonstrated by those they are criticising: there’s plenty of science fiction in which the tech doesn’t work, and indeed which is totally about the tech not working, or working in ways orthogonal to its maker’s and user’s original (or at least originally stated) intentions; it’s also hard to square this piece with the effectively mainstreamed (but nonetheless totally wrongheaded) punditry to the effect that science fiction has gone too far in the tech-negative dystopian direction. But hey, when your research needs publicising and a venue has an obvious hook for your pitch, well, we’ve all been there, amirite?

That said, the author’s call for companies to hire social scientists to deal with these sorts of issues is something I’d support — though yer man Damien Williams makes the case far more effectively (not to mention eloquently). Meanwhile, re: science fiction, the distinction between the technological utopian mode and the critical utopian mode was old theory when I picked it up back in 2014, but it’s as relevant as ever. If people are going to turn to narrative forms as spaces of inspiration and reflection — and they clearly are, and clearly always have done — then we might as well use critical narrative form to counter the uncritical stuff, no?

Represent the world without reproducing it

science fiction is fundamentally a metaphorical literature, because it seeks to represent the world without reproducing it. Now the structure of metaphor as such is the knight’s move, my favourite manoeuvre in chess: leading you in a certain metonymic direction, the logically correct A to B to C, and indeed sometimes it leads you quite a long way down that consecutive path, but only in order to leap suddenly, not arbitrarily, but poetically, expressively, marvellously, in an unexpected direction.

It’s the way the carefully world-built society of Asimov’s ‘Nightfall’ falls apart under stellar Sublimity, or the way the intricate anthropological detail of Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness is leavened by actual supernatural foretelling—a.k.a. magic—as a correlative to love, which is that novel’s wondrous theme, wondrously handled. It’s the way the scrupulously rational computational logic of Clarke’s ‘Nine Billion Names of God’ steps, in its last sentence, into amazing impossibilities. It can be the beautifully unexpected outgoing, as when Ellie Arroway enters the alien world-construct at the end of Contact, or it can be the beautifully unexpected homecoming, as at the end of Kij Johnson’s superb ’26 Monkeys, also the Abyss’. It is the famous jump-cut in 2001: A Space Odyssey, when the hurled bone that turns, unexpectedly, impossibly, yet somehow rightly, into a spaceship.

The thing is: this structure I’m describing here as formally constitutive of science fiction is also formally constitutive of the joke. The structure of a joke is a knight’s move: it leads you along a particular narrative trajectory only to finish with a conjurer’s flourish of the unexpected. The joke can’t be capped with a merely random or left-field unexpectedness, or it won’t be funny: but the flourish at the end must work. This is not to say that SF needs to be full of jokes to work. I am not talking content, I am talking form; and the point of this form is that the unexpected twist releases a quantum of joy. That’s why jokes are great, and that, although its content is very different, is why SF is great.

Adam Roberts on sf as a metaphorical literature. Mostly parking this for further thinking later on, when life is marginally less hectic; that form/content distinction he’s making seems like it could unpack in lots of interesting (and critically useful) ways.

I’m thinking in particular of an echo I’m getting from a riff of Clute’s in which he argues that capital-S Story “is inherently non-mimetic”; that Fantastika is coextensive with Story, and has “an inherent non-allegorical bent”, being a genre wherein the work “is a kind of representation of itself”; that Fantastika is “pure Story: not a lesson, but the thing told”. As I recall, Clute denies sf as being inherently metaphorical, but I think perhaps he and Roberts understand that term slightly differently; the form of the joke, after all, is also “not a lesson, but the thing told” (or so it seems to me).

The Roberts riff on the magician’s flourish above also opens up the possibility of rereading Priest’s The Prestige as a work of metagenre… though I suspect that doing so would only incur the writer’s wrath.

It’s about data and smugness.

In practice, I don’t know that mainstream economists really care that much about the “ends” side of things. For instance, when they talk about “demand,” they aren’t talking about how many people actually want something or how badly they want it. For these guys, “demand” is the quantity of a commodity that people are willing and able to pay for, at a given market price. If ten thousand people in a wasteland are dying of thirst, and they have no money and no way of getting any money, what’s the “demand” for a sip of water in this particular market? It’s zero.

I’m talking about mainstream economics here. Since the so-called marginalist revolution at the end of the nineteenth century, the discipline has tended to ignore idle speculation about why we value this or that. There are exceptions, like hedonic shadow pricing, or research on entrepreneurship, or maybe some market design stuff. But mostly we’re just too weird and ornery. And besides, everybody’s different! Friedrich von Hayek is the big cheerleader for this perspective. And that shift was part of a bigger shift whereby mainstream economics became increasingly mathematical and “scientific.” The word “science” appears in Robbins’s definition, for instance. Much of the discipline, some would argue, also became increasingly less grounded in reality.

By contrast, science fiction — and other kinds of literature — is obviously extremely interested in getting inside people’s heads and hearts, and figuring out not only what people desire, but also why and how, and what it feels like. And how desires might change. And the deeper significance of those changes. When you write a novel, you’re not going to start off saying, “Okay, I am going to assume that my characters preferences will remain fixed.” So maybe that’s one reason the meeting between science fiction and economics can be quite fruitful. Science fiction has the same love for abstraction and modelmaking, and shares a certain sense of what “rigor” is … but it’s fundamentally about actual human experience in a way mainstream economics just isn’t.

The inestimable (and brilliant, and loquacious) Jo Lindsay Walton, interviewed on the intersection of economics and science fiction by Rick Liebling for The Adjacent Possible; a long read, but full of gems.

The above recapitulates, albeit in JLW’s own style, the argument I’ve been making for narrative prototyping in my own academic work: a model must be exposed to the social dimensions which it has necessarily externalised. Human behaviour is inherently unquantifiable — and indeed, the more we attempt to quantify it (and “manage” it on that basis), the more inhumane the results become.

What applies to economics applies equally to infrastructures; it’s wicked problems all the way down, and solutionism is a wicked problem in and of itself (as Keller Easterling also appears to be arguing). Until we understand the role of desire — in the DeleuzoGuattarean sense, but also to some extent in the weaponised-behavioural-psychology-AKA-marketing sense — in sociotechnical change, we will achieve nothing but an accelerating accretion of “solutions” which turn out to be new and intractable problems in their own right.

(See also Tainter on increasing complexity as a strategy for addressing problems arising from existing complexity; to paraphrase very broadly, it works, but it works ever less effectively every time, and only until it no longer works, at which point you’re wandering around the ruins of your civilisation wondering where it all went wrong.)

To interest, amuse, or instruct

Many definitions of story emphasize the fictional part. However, there’s one major definition that gives a wider, and in my view more accurate, interpretation: “A narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the hearer or reader.”


But back to hypotheses — and vocations. People become scientists because they want to tell stories, preferably exciting, original ones; and once trained in their discipline they weave stories without cease — stories that attempt to explain how the universe and its inhabitants are made (they also explain why, unless someone insists on intelligent design or intent). Before the stories go into the testing crucible, they’re called hypotheses. Observations or measurements are done in the framework of a story at its hypothesis stage. If a story jibes with reality, it gets renamed to theory. To put it succinctly, science cannot be practiced without stories, without the call and response between story and world. The stories dictate what experiments/observations get done; the stories, to some extent, dictate what conclusions are drawn (and thereby can bias the venture, as all powerful stories do).

Athena Andreadis, who knows whereof she speaks. The sociologically-minded will note the clear echoes from e.g. Haraway and Latour and other STS headz in this description of (techno)science as a narrative endeavour. However, the importance of the “sensawunda” aspect doesn’t always make it through, and I’m interested in working with the notion of the technoscientific imaginary to see if there’s a way to bring that forward.