Fiction and action on the industrial site of history
This is me planting a stone crop. People who’ve known me since a long time will not be surprised to find out that I am not only a researcher and producer-DJ but also an occasional gardener. The beautiful thing about gardening is that it provides a great source of metaphors for all kinds of things in life — from the psyche and relationships to politics and culture. In this first episode in a series on futures, fiction and society, I will argue why fiction is such a powerful tool in shaping our collective future. It’s a secret tool that we can all use, just like planting a garden.
On 11 November 2016, Ida Auken, a Danish politician and member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council, published a blog post with the now infamous title “Welcome to 2030: I own nothing, have no privacy and life has never been better.” The piece was a fictional window into a world that the Global Future Council could see emerge from, among other things, the platform economy of the mid 2010s. In a later added note, Auken clarifies that the world she described is not her utopia dream. Instead, she wrote, “this piece [should] start a discussion about some of the pros and cons of the current technological development. When we are dealing with the future, it is not enough to work with reports.” In other words, the fictional short story was meant as a ‘discussion artefact,’ a concept from the design discipline describing a speculative object that challenges its audience to reflect on and discuss the values embedded in the object. If evoking discussion was the goal, it worked. In November of 2020, almost one year into the Covid-19 pandemic, Auken’s story was being shared all over social media. In the wake of the “The Great Reset”, the four years old thinkpiece had resurfaced as a viscerally vivid depiction of the kind of future that the leaders in Davos would be about to impose onto the world. Design fiction had gone viral.
Science-fiction to innovation pipeline
The role of fiction in the development of real-world technology and society has long been overlooked. Conventionally, arts and humanities were thought merely to react to history, while scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs create it. But historical studies of technological revolutions reveal the opposite. From gadgets in classic works like Star Trek to more specific inventions such as the gesture interface in Minority Report, prototypes of not-yet existing technologies in fictional settings have proven multiple times to generate the popular demand and investment interest needed to enable actual development. In other words, sci-fi isn’t predicting the future, it’s shaping it.
Over the last decade, worldbuilding has become big business. As a consulting method, “science-fiction prototyping” has served powerful corporate and governmental clients including Nike, Ford and the US military, employing numerous writers, concept artists and researchers to imagine speculative backdrops for clients’ future products and activities. Where disruptive innovation is making quantitative market trend predictions increasingly inadequate, fiction can shed light on the depth and richness of what different futures might feel like to people, how they will impact their behaviour, not only in terms of technology but as a holistic web of cultural, political and ecological practices.
The line between critical discussion artefacts and work that does reflect an author’s controversial dream can be thin. Critics have pointed at the irony of the “Metaverse” suddenly being hailed as Silicon Valley’s next big chapter. In the satirical cyberpunk dystopia of Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel “Snow Crash” where the term originates, the technology serves as an escape from the economic and environmental misery of physical life. Yet, in a real world not awfully far from the future he imagined in the book, Stephenson himself now works as Chief Futurist at XR pioneer Magic Leap, bringing together artists and engineers to develop a product that could very well come to perform an eerily similar function. But I’ll get back to Stephenson later.
Cyberpunk used to be a warning about the dehumanised future that could result from accelerating technology driven by uncurbed corporate power and greed. Not only did the genre fail to prevent such a scenario from happening, it has itself become part of the commercial media landscape that has managed to turn dystopian fiction from a genuine warning into a consumerist entertainment product. As a result, our collective picture of the future has been reduced to something like a three flavour choice: a nostalgic retro future from the past, more of the same dystopian present, or an all-destructive apocalypse. This raises an important question: how do the pictures of and stories about the future that we consume or create relate to issues we face in the real world? What is, or should be, the role of fiction in the response to our collective, societal and planetary challenges?
Back to a better future
While businesses paid large amounts for a sci-fi fortune-telling, the internet gave rise to a vibrant underground of artists, storytellers and activists seeking to use fiction to imagine a world beyond capitalism altogether. Emerging out of the cyberpunk and steampunk fandom as well as the environmental movement in the late 00s and early 10s, they called themselves solarpunks. “We are starved for visions of the future that will sustain us, and give us something to hope for,” wrote solarpunk strategist Adam Flynn on solarpunks.net in 2012. Rejecting the pessimism of dystopian fiction as much as the techno-evangelism of Silicon Valley, solarpunk imagines a regenerative civilisation amidst our current climate crisis with a similar post-nihilistic boldness as Star Trek once imagined world peace in the face of the Cold War.
Of all the cyberpunk spin-offs, solarpunk is the only genre that actually does justice to its ‘punk’ suffix. With core elements such as craftsmanship, local communities and technology that is in harmony with nature, solarpunk prototypes a radically different value paradigm than the one dominating our current world. According to the solarpunk manifesto: “as our world roils with calamity, we need solutions, not warnings. Solutions to thrive without fossil fuels, to equitably manage real scarcity and share in abundance instead of supporting false scarcity and false abundance, to be kinder to each other and to the planet we share.” These solutions are no pie in the sky, they are already practised in the form of earthships, permaculture or aquaponics. In this context, William Gibson’s famous quote, could be rephrased: “a solarpunk future is already here, it’s just not very widely embraced yet.”
While solarpunk science-fiction typically shows a small-scale countryside as part of a regenerative high-tech civilisation, this harmony is by no means guaranteed. In Neal Stephenson’s most recent novel “Termination Shock” (2021), an eccentric billionaire restaurant chain magnate takes the task upon himself to save the world from climate change through private solar geoengineering. Although posing some questions about the desirability of such a scenario, Stephenson mainly addresses the socio-political unwillingness to “undertake big stuff”. Not only does he seem to think that large scale technological solutions will be inevitable to solve global issues like climate change, he also misses the grandeur and society wide pride that propelled 20th century mega projects, especially the moon missions. And for this he blames dystopian science-fiction as directly responsible for the fear of technology that has presumably permeated and paralysed our culture.
The presumptuous attitude with which T.R. Schmidt, Termination Shock’s billionaire-saviour protagonist, decides to take matters in his own hand could be read like a friendly caricature of the likes of Bill Gates, Klaus Schwab or Elon Musk. Even though these haven’t started shooting sulphate capsules into the stratosphere on their own just yet, they seem to regard the billionaire class as the necessary chosen ones to “do big stuff” in areas such as food production, health, climate change or human spaceflight. In this light, Klaus Schwab’s visions with the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ and the ‘Great Reset’ seem a bit like an attempt at geoengineering through worldbuilding: chiselling a Stephensonian hieroglyph around which scientists, engineers and institutions can organise their activities.
Ironically, Ida Auken’s “own nothing” piece describes exactly the kind of alternative that opponents of The Fourth Industrial Revolution are planning to develop: the formation of little locally self-supplying communities, disconnected from the technological infrastructures of the urbanised world. Through the eyes of a smart-city dweller, they are pitifully described as the people “we lost on the way. Those who decided that it became too much, all this technology.” Auken’s worldbuilding is an example of what writer and activist Redfern Jon Barrett calls an “ambitopia”, a fictional world which contains different environments existing next to each other, beyond the utopia-dystopia binary. By showing a plurality of co-existing possibilities rather than one all-encompassing end-goal, fiction can simultaneously ask how and why we may perceive some of these environments differently from one another, and how we can move between them. A fictional storyworld can thus become a roadmap to navigate the landscape of visions and narratives emerging in the present.
Such a roadmap has been the focus of my own worldbuilding research that I’ve been working on since 2020 together with designer and filmmaker Emilia Tapprest. Rather than presenting a binary crossroads between a Hollywood apocalypse on the one hand and our own glorious utopia on the other, we focus on different ‘value paradigms’ that drive the development of different co-existing societies. We explore what these societies would ‘feel’ like to different people living in them, with different backgrounds and positions in those worlds. This includes asking questions such as: ‘What is the story that this world tells about itself?’ ‘To whom is this story told, through which means and to what end?’ The roadmap is not only fictional and political, but also psychological and spiritual. It presents a maze of inner mentalities and choices that reflect the arena of emerging visions and ideologies that surround us in these liminal times.
In her framework for Protopia Futures, futurist, activist and designer Monika Bielskyte argues that a roadmap of alternative futures must address the political histories of power and oppression. Whose futures will get to materialise and at the expense of whom? Both traditional modernist utopianism and its contemporary counterparts are founded on the unquestioned principle of expansion, conquest and domination. In other words, utopian narratives are the ultimate future history written by the winners. As an alternative, Bielskyte proposes proactive prototyping of radically inclusive futures. Instead of focusing on technological innovation, Protopia Futures prioritises cultural values and social ethics. This attitude leads from the clouds of science-fiction to the clay of activism. Inside of small, metaphorical crack gardens, a plurality of hopeful futures can already manifest here and now. Wherever these alternatives grow, they challenge the inevitability of imposed and dispossessing futures. It is an exciting moment to start planting, on the abandoned industrial site of history, with the bulldozers, cranes and blueprints for gentrification already in sight. You’re invited too.
In the next article in the Futures series, I will dive deeper into how I have applied speculative worldbuilding research and collaborative future-planting in my own work over the last years, from Spacebar to Liminal Vision.