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.)