Tag Archives: narrative prototyping

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.)

A putative reality that does not (yet) exist

The goal of the process is to put people in circumstances whereby they’re invited and enabled to think and feel into the potential and implications of a putative reality that does not (yet) exist. They do not have to buy it hook, line and sinker; the point is more commonly to invite them to test it out. So, creating those circumstances means alternating between the conceptualisation of your creation at several levels of abstraction: the logic of the scenario, and the accessibility and comprehensibility of the experience provided (part of which is furnished by the context of the encounter which you may not be able to fully control, but which you can certainly try to co-opt). Aspects of this process are captured well by a phrase of futurist Riel Miller which he uses to describe scenario production: ‘rigorous imagining’. The rigour that you need to bring to the imagining is increased when you’re trying to manifest it palpably in experience, rather than leaving it in the splendid abstractions of text or statistics, which are the most common modes of scenaric representation.

Stuart Candy on the goal of “experiential futures” work.

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.