TFW you ask your employers for a new computer, and they give you free choice within a generous budget. Hell, I’m even allowed to put Linux on it. Blessed be.
Some SOPHIST-icated reading, arf arf. Nice of them to give Tim Maughan some modelling work for the cover shot.
Go hard or go home.
It’s always nice to get an insight into the creative process from an expert, and this short bit on worldbuilding by Paul McAuley is exactly that. Worldbuilding as a concept is having a bit of a moment, or so it feels, having jumped out of genre fiction theory and metastasised more widely, following in the wake of fantastika as a dominant mode of storytelling; video games have helped a lot, but it’s bigger than that, I suspect.
Anyway, that’s a discussion for another day—let’s look at what McAuley’s actually saying, here. As I understand both positions, this is less of a counter to Mike Harrison’s legendary salvo against the “clomping foot of nerdism” than a demonstration of the way in which a better—or perhaps better to say less generic—creator approaches the problem of worldbuilding, so as to avoid said clompiness. And that way is iterative and subjective:
Worldbuilding is hard only if you pay too much attention to it. Less is almost always better than more. Use details sparingly rather than to drown the reader in intricate descriptions and faux exotica; question your first and second thoughts; set out a few basic parameters, find your character and start the story rather than fleshing out every detail of the landscape, drawing maps, and preparing recipe cards and fashion plates before writing the first sentence. Wherever possible, scatter clues and trust the reader to put them together; give them the space to see the world for themselves rather than crowd out their imagination with elaborate and burdensome detail.
Now, the purposes to which people working in my field of endeavour are putting worldbuilding are rather different to the primarly entertainment-driven concerns of a novelist—but nonetheless, a lot of these suggestions still hold fairly well. With the Notterdam guide, for instance, the speculation had to be bounded by the goals of the Paris Accords because that was how the project of which it was a part was bounded; but even were that not the case, we’d have still needed some sort of bounding scenario to start from. Indeed, I’m in the process of contributing to the structure of a set of design research workshops to be (hopefully) staged later this year, and the same challenge applies: the parameters of the bounding are up to you, of course, and if you want them to be really way-out crazy, well, that’s fine, but you still need to have them, however far out they may be. Creation requires friction and limits, and that applies just as much to the notionally more realistic creative practices of engineering: as I put it many years ago, the valorisation of “thinking outside the box” is counterproductive, resulting in placeless technological utopias which can’t be reached.
Also of note above is McAuley’s injunction to trust the reader. This is probably what many writers mean when they trot out the (well-intentioned but nonetheless not-always-helpful) admonition “show, don’t tell”; while there are clearly people who greatly enjoy having a richly elaborated Tolkeinean world handed to them as a finished orrery, effective worldbuilding exploits both the innate human capacity for sense-making and a culturally inculcated capacity for extrapolating imaginary worlds from telling details. My argument here is that we’ve learned to do the latter in increasingly more sophisticated ways, and that fantastika across a variety of media has been the training ground for that skill. Furthermore, that skill is what my academic work hopes to operationalise in the service of sociotechnical reconfiguration: if we want to build a world in which we do things differently, we have to be able to imagine it first. And that’s my argument against the technological utopia, too: the technological utopia is all tell and no show, the clomping foot of the notionally-objective god’s-eye-view.
But the utility of story goes further than that. McAuley again:
Discovering details essential to the story as it rolls out gives space and flexibility to hint at the kind of random, illogical, crazy beauty of the actual world; the exclusionary scaffolds of rigid logic too often do not.
You can’t just deliver a future (or a past, or a secondary world) in one big package; rare is the person who will just sit down with an encyclopedia and read the whole thing end to end. A future is a world, a timespace, and the human way of relating to timespaces—not an entirely unproblematic one, historically speaking, but nonetheless—is exploration. Now, a novelist has the challenge of making a guided tour feel like exploration, because the novel—with the exception of some liminal high (post)modernist experiments with form—is a linear thing, a single route through the imagined world preprepared by the author. But what’s notable here is that, for McAuley at least (and I believe for many other writers of sf, though certainly not all of them), that preprepared route is prepared through the writer themselves exploring rather more spontaneously. As such, serendipity and the happy creative accident are important—you need the initial bounding parameters, as mentioned above, but the detail emerges from responses to that initial set of constraining parameters. The writer explores the possibility-space defined by the bounding parameters, and compiles from their meanderings what they hope will be an exciting tour.
Furthermore, those responses are generated through the drives and subjectivity of the characters of the story: the sense that it’s an exploration rather than a tour is formed by the world’s being filtered through the limited (i.e. non-omniscient) point-of-view of the character who, while they know some things about some parts of the world, doesn’t know everything about it, even though the author (by the end of the process, at least) does:
… because the novel is written in close third person, everything is filtered through the sensibility of the main character, focusing on things that he would think important or memorable or odd, evoking the mundane stuff of his life by allusion or by borrowing the perspectives of others.
This is why I think that using the narratological toolkits of fiction can be a more effective and appealing way of depicting futures than the future-tense-passive-voice mode of corporate and policy futuring: it exploits the human desire to explore a timespace from a relateable (if not necessarily human) positionality, and it does so with devices and strategies which have evolved to make the best use of that instinct.
Of course, there are issues of teleology and intentionality that complicate this comparison—and I dare say that many creative writers might see this as cheapening of the art, just as many more “rational” futures people might see it as frivolous and artsy dilettantism. (I’d be lying if I claimed I don’t have days where those doubts haunt me, too, from both directions.) But it seems clear that we are going to continue to collectively imagine and advocate and dispute futures, not least because we’ve been doing it for yonks—at least since the fall of eschatology as the primary relationship to futurity in the so-called West. And if we’re going to do it anyway, and if—as seems equally indisputable—some folk are going to step up with futures (whether political, sociotechnical or otherwise) that we don’t want, then we have to get good at presenting the ones we do want.
It’s a war of stories; perhaps it always has been. While there are certainly ways of prosecuting that clash of narratives which are morally repulsive and destructive—*gestures at, well, everything*—I have come to the conclusion that refusing to counter the darkness with some sort of light is to let the darkness triumph. Utopia as method, innit?
- Hesselgren, M., Eriksson, E., Wangel, J., & Broms, L. (2018, June 28). Exploring Lost and Found in Future Images of EnergyTransitions: Towards a bridging practice of provoking and affirming design. Design Research Society Conference 2018. https://doi.org/10.21606/drs.2018.324
- Wangel, J., Hesselgren, M., Eriksson, E., Broms, L., Kanulf, G., & Ljunggren, A. (2019). Vitiden: Transforming a policy-orienting scenario to a practice-oriented energy fiction. Futures, 112, 102440. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.futures.2019.102440
These two papers both deal with Vitiden, a speculative-design futures project whose final output (as a PDF) can be found here. This review, as is often the case on this blog, is more aimed at extracting useful and transferable conceptualisations and methodological frames than digging into the details of method, but if you’re at all interested in design research as applied to energy futures, or any futures-oriented work whatsoever, I recommend getting hold of both of them, along with the final document linked above.
Hesselgren et al. (2018). “Exploring Lost and Found in Future Images of EnergyTransitions: Towards a bridging practice of provoking and affirming design”
I’m going to start with Hesselgren et al., a conference paper whose full title uses the term “bridging practice”, which feels to me like a clear echo of Auger (2013; reviewed here) without Auger, so to speak; it may well be that the term is sufficiently canonical in design research that it can pass without the need for citing a source. But the real merit of this paper in light of my ongoing work is its concretisation of cognitive bridgework in the emergent (sub)discipline of transition design (TD hereafter), which is also defined and positioned herein.
(Note that the publicly accessible version of this paper has no page numbers, and that all page references here presume a count that starts from 1 on the title page thereof.)
Here Hesselgren et al. address the gap between emissions reductions pledged and actions actually taken, and refer back to earlier studies re: resistance/avoidance of addressing even locally obvious instances of climatic change; this is interpreted as showing that “it is not lack of information that upended action […] but that people tend to shut down information that makes them uncomfortable. Through avoiding negative emotions and refraining from thinking about the future, climate change is actively (although not consciously) made into a ‘back-of-the-mind’ issue” (p2).
[Supplemental note-to-self: there is presumably a literature concerned with the dynamics and side-effects of such subconscious repression of the immediately and environmentally obvious, which would be worth looking into, particularly if there’s a CC-oriented thread thereof.]
The authors also cite various sources for claims that an excess of “alarmism” depersonalises climate change (CC hereafter) in such a way as to prevent engagement and action; fear of CC consequences is noted as a potential driver of pro-environmental action, but “many people suffer from a perceived lack of agency and alternatives”, such that fear leads instead to “feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and inaction” (p2).
While I have yet to finish and review it, it’s worth noting here that Garforth’s Green Utopias (2018) includes a strong swathe of citations counterarguing that climate dystopias (can) serve to breach the BAU-trap of “adaptation/mitigation” discourses, opening up imaginative space for radically alternative futures through the articulation of necessity. This is dystopia less as a goad, exactly, and more as the hazard whose envisioned presence encourages us to steer away from it—the Scylla across the strait from the Charybdis of technosolutionist ecomodernism, to use a metaphor I’m growing increasingly fond of.
Hesselgren et al. briefly try to thread that needle, marshalling citations whicha) favour of the “concretisation” of CC consequences made “more specific” and more spatio-temporally immediate, b) note the lack of “positive images of […] low-carbon futures”, and c) point out the parallelism of catastrophic dystopias on the one hand and, on the other hand, solutionist futures which are “devoid of loss”, which can also block or distract from efforts to instigate change (p2).
Thus this paper positions futures studies (FS) and TD as “empowering tools” for mitigation efforts, and seeks to “explore ways to identify and articulate what people see as lost and found in the transition to a low-carbon society […] ways to confront the lost, so this seems less threatening, and to mentally and emotionally invest in the found, to make the transition more appealing” (p2, authors’ emphases); in other words, something rather like the critical utopian modality in sf, navigating carefully (and contingently!) through the difficult strait of Messina invoked above.
The project is framed within the field of transition design, a transdiciplinary branch of design research aimed at “exploring and enabling transitions toward more sustainable futures”. Drawing on Irwin, Kossoff & Tonkinwise (2015), TD positions the designer as a “change agent”, and relies on four main planks of practice: 1) visions for transition, 2) theories of change, 3) posture and mindset, and 4) new ways of designing. Regarding 2) and 3), Hesselgren et al. note that TD advocates for a precautionary mindset/posture, but also a participatory one, and this is linked to both the Geelsean MLP-based transitions literature and the Shovean social-practice (SPT) perspective:
[TD] could be used to mediate between sociotechnical transition theories, with their top-down hierarchical approaches, and social practice theories with their bottom-up focus on everyday life and flat ontology.p3
(SPT is noted as being particularly useful for TD due to the pre-existing orientation of design to libidinality; I parse this as a claim that the “use case” is always already a sort of speculative ethnography of the practice, albeit one with highly variable motivations and sophistication.)
Also in the frame is the practice of co-design, in which “bridging between pasts, presents and futures is often used” to spark creativity in participants; this, as mentioned before, feels rather like Auger (2013) without Auger, though that may be an artefact of my unfamiliarity with the broader (co-)design research literature. Hesselgren et al. further argue that co-design can help to “explore the connection between the tangible, present and local (such as dinner practices) with the more abstract, future and global (such as climate change impacts)” (p3), but also note the challenge inherent in this aim, and the lack of tools to assist participants in making these temporal and spatial “movements”.
(I note in passing that the medium of that connection, considered concretely, is infrastructure, though it is the conceptual connection and movement with which this paper is concerned; however, I suspect there may be a useful way to collapse that distinction.)
This leads us to a pair of paradigms or approaches to design, namely provocation and affirmation: the former is intended to destabilise/de-familiarise the routine and “taken for granted”, thus clearing the way for re-presentation and re-narration, while the latter “support[s] an exploration of the self [while] providing full preferential right of interpretation to the user” (p4).
I am by necessity skipping over a lot of the detail of the execution of the Vitiden project in this review, so going directly to the papers themselves is highly recommended: it’s a lovely, low-key and subtle work of energy futuring. My aim here is to extract concepts and methodological principles for use in projects with a similar intentionality, so I will simply note for now that Hesselgren et al. observe that the “source scenario” for the project—the ‘Legato’ quadrant from the Swedish Energy Agency’s Fyra Framtider report (2016)—provided descriptions of behavioural shifts, but that these “were quite detached from everyday life […] making it difficult for people who were not energy systems experts to engage in this future and understand how it would affect them” (p4-5); furthermore, some were “focussed on ‘production’ activities, such as how and where to go to work, and […] the rest mainly dealt with transport” (p5). Domestic practices were notable by their absence, and absence explained by the scenario’s mitigation targets being calculated primarily through efficiency measures in production and/or infrastructure (which is an inevitable consequence of the Geelsean perspective, IMHO); this necessitated the introduction of “eating and residing practices”, partly because it is plain that these would be affected by ‘upstream’ effiency measures, but also, crucially, because “previous experiences have shown that it is very difficult to engage people in discussions about everyday life while excluding large parts of it” (p5); this, then, is Haraway’s argument for situated knowledges against the (Geelsean) god-trick, borne out in the experience of design research.
In describing the workshop methods deployed, Hesselgren et al. discuss the use of pre-prepared props or “trigger materials”, which were intended to “[help] the participants to bridge the tangible-present-local to the abstract-future-global, and with particular emphasis on finding ways to balance the provocative with the affirmative” (p6); this is the clearest connection to Auger (2013) on the SD prototype, the notion of the “cognitive bridge”—and in particular, the strategies of adaptation, provocation and versimilitude.
In the closing sections of the paper, Hesselgren et al. note that the balance between provocation (i.e. estrangement of the mundane) and affirmation (i.e. refusing to frame the mundane of the participants as “wrong”) is tested through the production of the trigger materials. One example is a self-administered carbon-footprint assessment, as “sensitizing device” that “create[d] space for reflection” and provocation, thus linking the necessity and possibility of change to lived practices (p11); they cautiously conclude that the materials produced to this end “managed to, if not bridge, at least allow for a coexistence of provocative and affirmative approaches” (p12).
Wangel et al. (2019). “Vitiden: Transforming a policy-orienting scenario to a practice-oriented energy fiction”
Now to Wangel et al., which also deals with the Vitiden project, but approaches it instead through the process of converting—or “translating”—a top-down corporate scenario into a practice based “energy fiction”. Both the concept and methodology of this “translation” are of interest and utility, and as with the paper discussed above, I’ll be sticking here to the parts which are most useful to that end; do check out the actual paper, it’s well worth the time.
After noting the visual rhetorics of the original report containing the “source scenario”—heavy on stock photography, and the inevitable crude signifiers of “the natural” juxtaposed with technological innovation tropes and intimations of abstract velocity, and invariably portraying humans as solitary, distanced and faceless—Wangel et al. describe their ambition to take the Director General’s preface at its word, and to develop the abstracted visions therein into something more concrete:
We decided to […] develop what we felt was missing—a re-presentation of the future that takes its starting point in the activities of everyday life, and that invites to reflections and debate also for those [sic] who are not used to (or interested in) reading and interpreting reports.p3
Wangel et al. chose to describe these bottom-up futures as “practice-oriented scenarios (pos)” as a deliberate (and minor, in the Deleuzian sense of the term?) counterpoint to the design-oriented scenario (DOS), which is intended to support “innovations in and by design” (p3). Stated more broadly, then, the aim of the project, “to create more accessible re-presentations of energy scenarios, is accompanied by initiating an inquiry into the possibilities and limitations of shifting from the more general scenario perspective to a practice-oriented design fiction” (ibid).
Theoretical frame, sustainability/practices
As mentioned in Hesselgren et al. above, the Vitiden project was built upon the foundation of the Shovean strand of applied social practice theory, which “changes the focus from seeing (and treating) people as individual decision-makers, driven by a (bounded) rationality, to addressing them as skillful social negotiators” (p3); in the process, research methodologies need “to appreciate what people perceive as the (their) normal ways of doing things, and how these ‘normal’ and ordinary routines are maintained, evolve and/or change over time” (ibid).
Also mobilised here (by drawing on work by the excellent Lenneke Kuijer, among others is the notion of the proto-practice, the nascent forms of of what Shove has called “innovations-in-waiting”; these are suggested as prime sources for prototyping probes, as through their experimental realisation, “these future practices can be made present (in the dual sense of the word), and experienced, examined and rehearsed” (p3); they are also related here to Levitas’s notion of the interstitial utopia, such that Wangel et al. here define interstitial practices (which are proto-practices with a sustainability orientation, in this case) as “practices that are based in and contribute to the production of alternative economies and counter-narratives” (p4, emphasis in original).
Theoretical frame, futures/speculative design
Much familiar material here, drawing on the FS tradition of the future as open and thus imaginable, and “a critical social-constructivist perspective on what futures are seen as probable, possible and preferable” (p4); likewsie the Twentyteens thread of ‘alternative futures’ with a focus on social practice perspectives and the “re-presentation” of scenarios through the use of creative/artistic methods, which the authors see as a democratising trend, “increasing the availability of alternative futures across societal groups” (ibid). Of particular interest and influence here are the “speculative ethonography” approaches of speculative design and architecture, wherein the speculation is fundamentally (though not exclusively) material in orientation.
Method, results, conclusion
The process of re-presentation used for Vitiden is explored in rich specific detail in the methods section; while not pertinent to this review, it is strongly recommended to anyone engaging with this sort of work, whether directly or indirectly. The results section, meanwhile, presents a simplified overview of “the process of transforming a policy-orienting scenario to a practiced-oriented design speculation” as a three-stage schema of translation (p14) with the following steps:
- setting the scope of the transitions
- exploring practices and contexts
- re-presenting the future
This is unpacked as two parallel and interlinked translations: one focussed on the translation of content (i.e. from policy-orienting -> practice-oriented: the concretisation of god-trick abstractions), and the other focussed on form (i.e. policy/PR report -> design speculation: this might be thought of as a switching of narrative modality from the passive/corporate voice, which might be thought of as a sort of omniscient and disinterested third-person perspective, to first- or limited-third-person; also could be seen as analogous to the problematic but nonetheless useful distinction in practical narratology between “telling” and “showing”). This doubleness of the translation process is seen as crucial: doing the translation of content without also translating the form would forfeit the opportunity to reach wider audiences and thus provoke a more affective engagement with futurity (p14). The three stages are summarized neatly, along with some considerations and hazards to be kept in view throughout any attempt at implementation.
In the context of work done (and yet to be done) at LU, the paper by Hesselgren et al. is the next link in a methodological/conceptual chain from Auger, picking up the strategic concepts of provocation and affirmation and articulating them as a (sensitive and challenging) balancing act in execution, and orienting them toward the exploration of a pre-constructed (or pre-bounded) context or world in collaboration with (as opposed to for an audience of) publics. With reference to the Museum of Carbon Ruins (MCR hereafter), for example, it should be noted that the “future” it presents is much more weighted to the provocative, which explains some of the audience responses to the ‘standard’ version of the intervention; however, the version of MCR performed at the Anticipation conference in Oslo in 2019, with its Brechtian breachings of the temporal frame, flip-flopped between provocation and affirmation rather than attempting to hold them in balance, thus sustaining and troubling the cognitive bridgework of the performance as a whole. Whether this approach would have been viable with an audience that was not predominantly academic (and thus already more accepting of both CC complicity and the necessity for action, not to mention already familiar with the abstract practice of thinking about and re-narrating futures) is an open question, but one that can be cautiously answered in the negative; the Oslo performance was as much a meta-methodological demonstration as an intervention, and thus took the theatrical form to an extreme that might not be viable elsewhere. That said, as an edge case and proof-of-concept, it still stands as a useful case for thinking about the deployment of similar interventions aimed at a broader and less specialised audience.
Meanwhile, Wangel et al’s specification of the double-translation is particularly valuable, as it not only offers the possibility of wider engagement, but also frames that broadening as a necessity in practical terms: it’s not an advantageous extra step, but rather an extension of established techniques of futuring in such a way as to improve on them in substantive terms. The narratological equivalences applied above are my own, but—if you will excuse the shameless meta-movement of this claim—they act as a translation of the translation, enabling the movement of this double-articulation from design research into other futurity-oriented fields, e.g. sociotechnical and/or climate imaginaries, where thinking in terms of story is more established and flexible; the accessibility, relateability and immersive capacity of different media stand as affordances for futuring, and further research and experimentation will serve to identify their various strengths and weaknesses. Seen another way, the argument positions the corporate report as a particular medium with its own rhetorical affordances which, albeit unintentionally, exclude and alienate non-expert publics from engagement with the energy futures depicted therein; using the tools of design—or of literature, or cinema, or theatre, or comics, or music, or, or, or—not only opens up futurity itself, but also the possibility of participation in re-presentation thereof.