Nudge, hold, spin

Via Andrew Curry, some sort-of-good news: if you’ve ever suspected, as I certainly have, that the marketing industry is locked into a perpetual arms race with our ability to realise when we’re being marketed at, then the news that “behavioural scientists” (also known as shills) are starting to worry that “nudges” (also known as dark patterns) baked into commercial website design strategies are actually becoming counterproductive. Turns out that cynically treating people as manipulable money-dispensers and/or metricised attention machines makes people cynical about your motives. Who could have foreseen etc etc? *eyeroll*

Bonus points for this closing paragraph, with its disharmonic mixture of aggrieved intellectual nobility and incipient panic:

We should also consider our responsibilities as we use behavioral interventions. Marketers should design nudges with more than the transaction in mind, not only because it is ethical or because they will be more effective over time but also because they bear responsibility toward the practitioner community as a whole. We owe an allegiance to the public, but also to each other.

Translation: guys, tone it the fuck down, you’re blowing our collective cover!

The kids are all right

Greta Thunberg interview at Teh Graun. Full of things I already know be true, but which I nonetheless struggle to articulate through the weary cynicism of four decades of life under capitalist realism. The killer line:

We must focus on what we can do. Not what we can’t do.

It’s true. It’s also difficult. That’s how you know it’s true.

She’s quite a character, Thunberg — in the literary sense. (Having not met her, I’ve no idea what she’s really like, obvs.) I worry on her behalf that she’s gonna be used — maneuvered into position as a media-cyborg figurehead, a living secular saint to which corporations and governments might genuflect as a way to perform a piety that does not extend beyond the surface.

But at the same time, I think that she’s in some respects more cynical than I am, and can see all that coming from a mile off. If she’s wise enough to pick the right allies, she might be able to judo those genuflections into genuine action. I worry more that she’ll endure a lifetime of monstering — and while she’s clearly wise to that already, it’ll make her life an endurance test of epic proportions. It takes a lot of guts to face that and not flinch; it takes guts to lead with actions rather than words. I won’t label her a hero, because as Rebecca Solnit (and Donna Haraway and Ursula Le Guin, and many more before them) have pointed out, heroes are exactly the problem. But she’s inspiring, and hell knows I need some light in the gloom. Maybe you do, too.


Quiet week here last week, as I was distracted by (among other things) the formalities of my doctorate graduation. I would happily have skipped the ceremony, in truth — and had a paper I sent out earlier in the year been accepted, I would have skipped it without hesitation. But the paper wasn’t accepted (indeed, the person running the seminar never received it, for reasons unclear), and so my mother and sister got the full ceremonial theatre malarky, complete with me dressed up like Raistlin™: The Early Years.

It’s not that I don’t value ritual; on the contrary, the power of ritual is a big deal for me. But rituals are about flows of power and energy — and when they’re scaled up, the power and energy flows toward the institution rather than the individual. Graduation is about your absorption, not your escape. I don’t regret going, but for me the important thing is the piece of paper that documents the conferral of the degree: that’s my passport, a thing that will help me get across the borders between here and wherever the hell it is I’m headed.

And much as I regret the necessity for such (not to mention the existence of borders where one’s papers are checked, whether literally or metaphorically), I recognise it nonetheless. Because as Thunberg points out, it’s time to get a move on — it’s time to do the thing(s) we can do.

The way out is through.

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.)

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