Tag Archives: futures

Five years of infrastructure fiction

Thanks to Cory Doctorow’s tendency to repub stuff from the past, I am reminded that it’s about five years since I gave my original Infrastructure Fiction talk at ImprovingReality 2013 in Brighton. It seems like a lifetime ago, but also like it was just yesterday. Studying for a PhD does weird things to your perception of time.

Anyway, there’s the video if you fancy a (re)watch; if you prefer slides and text (which I certainly do), there’s a full version of the thing still available on Futurismic, though some time soon I should probably move that to a site that actually belongs to me*.

I’m kind of amused to note how early I nailed down the ideas that ended up informing my doctoral work… though I’m far closer to actually developing those ideas now, not least because doctoral work can drift in unexpected and unintended directions, and mine certainly did so. And therein lies a story… but I’ll save that one until the adventure in question is properly finished, I think. (The protagonist is currently still a-wander in the hinterland of corrections.) In the meantime, I’ll remark only that my presenting skills have improved considerably since this, my first proper speaking gig… though on the evidence, it would have been hard for me to get much worse.

* — I handed the Futurismic domain name back to Chris East some time ago, but he’s plainly not yet had the time to do owt with it, as it’s still pointing to the legacy site as sat on my server.

Instant Archetypes: 21st Century Tarot from Superflux

As acolytes of the Cult of Ellis may already be aware, the Kickstarter campaign for the Instant Archetypes card deck has just gone live. If you’re interested in futures, the occult, hypermodernist semantics, lush and unique artefacts, or some mix of all four of those — and if you’re still reading this blog, I figure you’re interested in at least one of those things — then I invite you to pop on over there and pledge for a deck.

Those of you reading here because of an enduring interest in my own perspective on institutional dynamics and tactical foresight might be further interested to know that you can also pledge for a consulting session with yours truly, in which I’ll work with you and the cards to think through whatever question or issue you’d most like to explore. (Apparently they decided to ignore my suggestion that this be billed as “consult a scruffy academic wizard about teh fewtch” — which only goes to show you how smart those Superfluxers really are.)

It’s really satisfying to see this project finally come to light; we first floated the concept during the lobby track of FutureEverything 2015, which for a variety of reasons, both personal and contextual, feels like a different aeon entirely… though somehow this feels like exactly the right time for it to emerge, too. The fashion for futures’n’ design folk producing decks of cards was just starting to pick up a head of steam; as I recall it, I made some fairly flippant comment about how you could just dig out an old tarot deck and achieve much the same thing, or even use Eno’s Oblique Strategies. Anab and Jon asked me to explain further, and so I rambled on about archetypes and sortilege and Jung, and Gaiman & Pratchett’s Good Omens (which is perhaps the most formative cornerstone of what passes for my personal cosmology), and how I’ve long used the tarot as a writing prompt or creative disruption device, whether for fiction or non-fiction work, or simply just for life in general. Anab suggested we should make a reboot of the tarot specifically for futures-y folk, which I thought was a wonderful idea, albeit one that would most likely go the way of so many lobby track brainstorms. But it seems it stuck… and in fits and starts, taking advantage of gaps between Superflux projects and the demands of my doctoral studies, we thrashed out rewritten names and definitions for the Major Arcana, and found an amazing artist in Amelie Barnathan.

I still feel a twinge of guilt over the art phase of the project. Amelie asked me quite a few times for further interpretations of my little scripts describing the cards, or for suggestions as to how she should bring the symbols to life, and every time I told her that she should just go with what her own head and heart were telling her in reaction to my writings — which was clearly frustrating for her in at least a few cases. But I had an intuition that the deck would only have a proper visual unity and a genuine freshness if I stayed out of the art side as much as possible. (I was also mindful that I didn’t want to do a Crowley and browbeat an artist into channeling my own ego through their skills; Crowley was a great mage, but also a manipulative douchebag, and I don’t believe that the latter is essential to the former.)

As mean as it seemed at the time, I think my instinct was right: when the PDF of the finished designs came through, I actually cried, because they were just so *right*. The strongest magic comes from people finding their own way through the maze, and the resulting cards are so much better than they would have been had I tried to come up with more detailed prompts for the visuals. Think of it as an alchemy, if you like; I certainly do. (And thank you, Amelie, for enduring my refusal to guide you; I hope you agree it turned out for the best.)

And because it’s a Superflux joint, not only is the artwork fantastic, but the production values are off the freakin’ hook: designers are perhaps the ultimate details people (more so even than mages, if there’s any substantive difference), and every little aspect of the cards has been obsessed over and refined in prototype after prototype. They don’t just look amazing, they feel good in the hand — and that tactile aspect really amplifies the ritual vibe that’s essential to getting your head in the right space for thinking at angles to the actual. The Instant Archetypes are a genuine artefact, an object that expresses all the obsessive attention and passion poured into its creation, and I’m ridiculously proud to have played my part in bringing it to being.

As far as I’m concerned, this is my first book — and best of all, it’s a book that contains every story ever written, and all the ones that have yet to be written. I hope you’ll enjoy exploring them.

Future fuels and fuel futures

A commendable long essay by Iwan Rhys Morus at Aeon, which should perhaps be added to the list of works that have something to say about #solarpunk, even if it isn’t talking directly to that genre-complex: it’s in part a call for an understanding of “innovation” as a collective endeavour, rather than something individual entrepreneurs (might) do (when suitably incentivised). Definitely repays reading in full, but these were the moneyshot paragraphs for me:

We have been imagining the future of energy and the worlds it will generate for more than two centuries, and the cross-fertilisation between inventors and their literary counterparts continues to shape our imaginings, more often than not by invoking a pervasive individualism. It’s as if we struggle to get away from the notion that energy technologies have a single origin point and so these origins have to be located in specific individuals. Such individualism is often accompanied by the suggestion that only one fuel, be it hydrogen, wind or solar power, will dominate our futures, real or imaginary. Just as coal and steam powered the 19th century, or oil and electricity the 20th century, our stories about future fuels assume that one principal form of energy – solar, wind, nuclear – will monopolise the future. too.

If we want to overcome these imaginative limitations, we need to rethink the sorts of stories and histories we tell about energy, its origins, and its cultures. Though we’re conditioned to see energy revolutions coming about through individual rather than community action, the danger of this narrative – seductive and potentially useful as it is – is that it presents the future and its energies as belonging to someone else. To overcome that, we need to recognise that the expertise needed to make sure that the future is powered how we want is collective.

Here Morus seems to be working in a space where my obsession with the persistently heroic nature of innovation narratives collides with my interest in using narrative writing (and in particular the tropes and tools developed for, but no longer exclusive to, science fiction literature) as a practical and interdisciplinary method for exploring and critiquing potential sociotechnical futures, whether of energy or anything else [external link to an academic paper, but it’s open access, so anyone can read it].

As an almost-but-not-quite postdoc, I’m frequently asked “what is your discipline?”, to which my usual response is “I’m not sure what it’s called, as it appears to be a discipline containing only one scholar, but I can describe it if you’ve got ten minutes to spare”; this piece points at pretty much the space where it resides, though I’m probably coming at it from somewhat more of a bastardised and interdisciplinary STS/sociological perspective than is Morus, who is a proper historian.

(Of related interest would be Karen Pinkus’s Fuel: a Speculative Dictionary, which I reviewed for New Scientist a while back.)

A new narrative for narratives

A few days back a colleague linked me to this editorial at Nature about the use of full narrative forms in critical/speculative foresight work, which they link back to the establishing work of Brian David Johnson, who was at Intel at the time but now splits his labour between Arizona State U, consulting, and a fellowship with “a visionary innovation company that’s focused on growth”.

That latter vector of Johnson’s current employment probably sums up most of the issues I had with soi disant “science fiction prototyping” (SFP): it was framed quite explicitly as a product/service visioning process, was virtually devoid of methodology (let alone rigour), and made absolutely nothing of the critical potential of science fiction’s narrative toolkit. As such, it really didn’t stand too apart from long-established design paradigms, except for perhaps being a bit more honest about the “making stuff up and seeing where you might profitably take the ideas” aspect. My frustration with this rather shallow engagement with the potential of the narrative tools specific to science fiction has informed much of my academic work right from the start, arguably beginning with my first solo paper (Raven, 2014).

The Nature editorial largely rotates around a more recent paper in Futures (Merrie et al, 2018) in which the authors have taken the SFP idea and

… applied it to a topical environmental concern: the fate of the world’s oceans. The project paints four scenarios for 2050–70, each of which builds on current trends in oceans governance and the fishing industry, as well as ongoing development of marine science and technology. More-uncertain outcomes — the possible collapse of ice sheets and the formation of deep-sea dead zones as a result of onshore pollution — play out differently for better and worse.

In other words, they’ve balanced out the speculative/imaginative aspect of science fiction with the critical/contraPanglossian side — and it was extremely gratifying to find another of my papers (Raven & Elahi 2015) cited in their literature review, because frankly it’s felt like I’ve been beating my head against a brick wall on this stuff, at least as far as the mainstream futures scene is concerned (which, like BDJ’s employers, maintains an uncritical worship of the suitcase word “innovation”, and is focussed on delivering growth — or at least the immediately plausible prospect thereof — to corporate clients).

The Nature editorial continues:

Narrative has an important role in the communication of science, but can it also help in the pursuit of research? Purists may baulk, but stories already feature heavily, from the promised potential of work pitched in grant applications to the case studies of impact that funders increasingly ask for when projects finish. Climate-change science has long relied on emissions scenarios that diverge according to how future societies might behave. These rely not on extrapolation of current trends, but on imagined differences in, for example, whether nations come to cooperate or opt to pursue their own agendas. And climate-change policies are being planned on the basis of stories of future technology — carbon capture and negative-emissions equipment included — that many argue are pure fiction and will never materialize.

It’s a huge relief to see that said in such a well-known and well-read scientific organ, and not just for the sake of self-aggrandizement: I’ve been pushing those ideas for five or six years, but many others have been pushing them for at least twice as long, and it feels like all that effort might finally be paying off.

Solutionism, it turns out, is not exclusive to Silicon Valley — though I suspect that the Valley’s financial and political clout are complicit in its mainstreaming throughout the global policy scene, as well as the science and engineering ends of the academy (which, in the UK at least, have slowly been drawn into the gravity well of bloated full-service consultancy-and-outsourcing parasites like Carillion and its ilk). But also complicit are the Panglossian flatteries of corporate foresight consulting practices: after all, if you don’t tell them what they want to hear, you probably don’t get invited back to next year’s “visioning retreat”. It’s investor storytime all the way down.

But the cracks in that metanarrative are starting to show… which is all the more reason to keep chiseling.

Strategies in huckster narratology

A few new accessions to the critical futures lexicon, courtesy Stefan Collini’s dissection of the B-school blandishments of UK HE policy:

One of the most revealing features of [the HE White Paper’s] prose is the way the tense that might be called the mission-statement present is used to disguise implausible non sequiturs as universally acknowledged general truths. Here is one mantra, repeated in similar terms at several points: ‘Putting financial power into the hands of learners makes student choice meaningful.’ Part of the brilliance of the semantic reversals at the heart of such Newspeak lies in the simple transposition of negative to positive. After all, ‘putting financial power into the hands of learners’ means ‘making them pay for something they used to get as of right’. So forcing you to pay for something enhances your power. And then the empty, relationship-counselling cadence of the assertion that this ‘makes student choice meaningful’. Translation: ‘If you choose something because you care about it and hope it will extend your human capacities it will have no significance for you, but if you are paying for it then you will scratch people’s eyes out to get what you’re entitled to.’ No paying, no meaning. After all, why else would anyone do anything?

Another favoured tense in official documents is what might be called the dogmatic future. For example: allowing new providers to enter the market ‘will also lead to higher education institutions concentrating on high-quality teaching’. Not, you understand, in the way they concentrate on it at present, but in the way they ‘will’ when Cramme, Chargem and Skimp set up shop down the road. Or again: ‘empowering’ students by loading high levels of debt onto them will stimulate ‘competition between [sic] the best academics’.