Science Friction

This article originally appeared in Vector #288.

By Robert Kiely and Sean O’Brien

This article examines a series of near-future SF stories that offer snapshots of an immediate future dominated by the intensification of contemporary economic tendencies, including increased automation and the rise of digital platforms. Much twentieth century SF tends to traffic in a certain techno-optimism in its outlook, not so much to suggest that technological advances would produce positive outcomes but that they would continue to develop and expand in their complexity and productivity. Today this utopian legacy is carried forward both by literary science fiction studies and by the uses of science fiction within contemporary political theory. In a different vein, and in tension with this outlook, is what we call ‘science friction’: a literary practice of slowing down visions of technological and social progress.

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Two recent collections, Futures and Fictions (2017) and Economic Science Fictions (2018), look to SF to counter the dominant cultural narrative of what Mark Fisher calls ‘capitalist realism’—the Thatcherite idea that ‘there is no alternative’ to capitalism—with alternative visions of the future based largely on emerging technological innovations [1]. To puzzle over this position, as we’ll do below, is not to be fatalistic or to concede political ground on the terrain of the imaginary. Rather, it is to question the capacity of capitalist technology to usher in a postcapitalist future, especially under contemporary conditions of stagnation and precarity. As these works of science friction suggest, further development of capitalist technologies are likely to offer more of the same, but worse.

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Critics such as Simon O’Sullivan, William Davies and Peter Frase have argued that a visionary SF can offer much-needed screenshots of a postcapitalist future, challenging the neoliberal status quo and bolstering a left that suffers from a perceived poverty of imagination. [2] In the discussion that opens Futures and Fictions, for example, O’Sullivan argues that ‘future fictions have a more general traction on the real, not least insofar as they can offer concrete models for other ways of life in the present.’ [3] Several of the essays in the collection suggest that the intensification of late capitalist technological developments will provide the means to realize a postcapitalist utopia if the economy were managed by a socialist state. Here, full automation and universal basic income (UBI) constitute transitional demands on the way to what Aaron Bastani brands ‘fully automated luxury communism’ [4].

Building on the accelerationist thought of Nick Srnicek, Alex Williams and the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, techno-optimist SF criticism suggests that SF can contribute to the political project of countering one ‘hyperstition’ (a kind of ‘hyper-superstition’) with another, replacing the dominant narrative of capitalist realism with an alternative vision of the future, one that offers a more sustainable and just future. [5] In this view, capitalist dominance is a matter of naturalized systems of belief, and thus alternative visions of the future can help prompt a real-world jump from the present to postcapitalism on the backs of contemporary technological and economic developments which, if retooled and presented in a new light, might yet deliver the precarious proletariat of the present to the promised land of post-scarcity.

Davies’ introduction to Economic Science Fictions, for its part, states that the most influential economic critique of the twentieth century was the socialist calculation debate. [6] At the heart of this debate was the question of whether it is possible—and if so, how—to run an economy whose means of production (factories, infrastructure, land, etc.) belong to the people as a whole, not to private interests. It is the themes of this calculation debate, Davies claims, that keep recurring in science fiction (and throughout the collection Davies is introducing), themes such as: how money is created and distributed, alternatives to money, technological advancement, planned economies of scale. [7] If market pricing offers a means of correlating a mass of allegedly subjective valuations, liberal economists argued, socialists must come up with an improvement on this mechanism. For techno-optimists, we now have the technological means to solve these problems. Questions about how an economic system values different things, and about where we should devote our resources, are essentially problems about gathering and analysing data. That said, techno-optimists are also aware that the true potential of our data infrastructure remains impossible to unlock as long as it is administered by private interests. [8]

Davies points out that under neoliberalism ‘cyborg ideals of personal and physiological enhancement come to displace those of economic emancipation or progress.’ So-called economic emancipation is in fact harnessed for the neoliberal project, as articulations of desire become mere commodity data to be harvested and sold. To challenge neoliberal dominance, Davies argues, new narratives are necessary, but these are apparently lacking. Echoing the arguments found throughout Futures and Fictions, Davies’ stance is that the left exhibits a failure of imagination:

If we remain stuck in the cybernetic and financial imaginary of the perpetual present, constantly churning information to ensure that nothing truly changes, we will be doomed. A revived historical consciousness is therefore a matter of political urgency, though that doesn’t guarantee that it will occur.

This position reflects that of many others such as Fisher, Frase and O’Sullivan, as well as Srnicek and Williams, as we explore below. But note too the tension between the emphasis on ‘historical consciousness’ and the insistence that only by breaking the imaginary bonds of the present can we avoid catastrophe. What is needed, Davies suggests, is more rather than less innovation in imagination and technology. Or, to put it another way, if the emphasis here is on excavating futurities from the past as a means of breaking with the present imaginary, we want to highlight the interesting ways in which grappling with the ostensibly limited imaginary of the present might be the more important and forward-looking project for considerations of economics and SF.

If we consider a great deal of the most recent developments in SF, it is clear that some of the most thoughtful and incisive contemporary SF does not share this techno-optimistic utopianism. To this end, we explore some of the many contemporary SF texts that pose a challenge to the claims which buttress Futures and Fictions and Economic Science Fictions. This science friction ruminates on the resistances that any accelerationist project must encounter, not simply to pump the brakes and decelerate but to carefully trace the trajectory of technological developments and economic tendencies in the present as they might unfold in the near future. If science fiction is typically defined as fiction based on imagined future scientific or technological advances that lead to seismic social changes, this economic science friction dwells on the fetters technological advances place on the forces of social transformation. The near-future fictions we explore take real-world conditions in the present as their point of departure to concentrate on the forces of inertia built into the hardware and software of capitalist technology.

Though not without important differences, groups on the British left such as Momentum, Plan C and Novara Media have to varying degrees embraced the accelerationist demand for the future, calling for a transition to postcapitalism rooted in the vote and the state’s capacity to implement UBI, which, when coupled with mass automation, will increase leisure time and liberate modern society from the drudgery of tedious, time consuming work. Paul Mason offers perhaps the most succinct articulation of this position when he writes, ‘to properly unleash the automation revolution we will probably need a combination of a universal basic income, paid out of taxation, and an aggressive reduction of the official working day.’ The idea that money itself is a technology available for transformation and democratization—explored by the Positive Money campaign—is hovering at the edge of that vision. Such a vision of the future reflects a conviction that the modern notion of progress can be detached from capitalist development—arguably the very engine of modernization—and that the nation-state is the political organ best suited to such a project.

In contrast, the near-future fiction we examine imagines the state primarily as a security apparatus for managing low growth economies, implementing UBI alongside mass incarceration while automation spurs an explosion not only of unemployment but also of service work, a definitively low growth sector in which precarity reigns. Technological advancements are seen in these works as part and parcel of a stagnant economic future, developing in response to shrinking profit margins and ever slacker labour markets. How could the state finance robust social services in such a world? Perhaps the reason the intermediate period between the present demand for the future and the utopian future itself escapes productivist visions of technological liberation is because the content of this demand is already an economic reality in the present. If accelerationism emphasises the progressive development and repurposing of technology, these texts focus on the ways in which capitalist technologies tend to lock down a particular political-economic configuration.

Attending to contemporary, technologically-mediated transformations in the capitalist economy, science friction presents dystopian near-future scenarios that amplify current tendencies for dramatic effect, isolating and/or exaggerating one or another of these developments but always in the context of a generally shared techno-pessimist vision of advanced capitalist centres of commerce. Our archive brings together a series of short speculative works that blend near-future fiction, economic SF and the short story. Common characteristics of this emergent genre include the capitalist takeover of sleep time, which features in Seamus Sullivan’s ‘Dream Job,’ in which Sullivan’s protagonist sells her dream time to the wealthy; the automation and digitisation of both the labour process and the distribution of commodities, as in Adam Rothstein and Brendan C. Byrne’s ‘Flesh Moves’ (Parts I and II), a story about life as a trucker in the age of automated shipping; the proliferation of new border zones and heightened constraints on the circulation of labouring bodies in stories such as Tim Maughan’s ‘Zero Hours’ and Aaron Gordon’s ‘The Worst Commute’; the reappropriation by capital of ameliorative measures such as UBI, as in William Squirrell’s ‘They Built the New Jerusalem on the Ruins of the Old’; the formal blurring of literary writing and computer generated language in Katherine Inskip’s ‘Congratulations on Your Recent Purchase’; the development of performance-enhancing drugs for the workplace which figures in Tim Maughan’s ‘Dialed Up’; a prevalence of affective, immaterial or performative labour, as in Jo Lindsay Walton’s ‘Froggy Goes Piggy’ and Julianna Baggott’s ‘Posey Girl’; the development of surveillance technologies and a concomitant increase in hacking tools designed to evade detection, a dialectic that unfolds in Surian Soosay’s ‘Portrait of an Amazonian,’ among others; and the intensification of climate change, which colours the setting of Devon Maloney’s ‘A Job Opening’ and many more. Platform technologies, digital currencies, automation and AI all loom large here.

In their emphasis on stasis and impasse, the stories we collect under the term science friction are tragedies of a sort. Many of them open in media res, offering brief snapshots of a day in the life of the near-future worker wherein very little changes by the end of the narrative. Protagonists are sympathetic to varying degrees, but the ethical question of identification is secondary here to a representational commitment to capturing precarity in starkly realist terms, even in the fantastical mode of SF. Characters experience no heroic moments of triumph and renewal, but neither do their tragic tales offer the redemptive tones of the elegiac. Rather, these texts tarry with the negative, dwelling in the tortured spaces of historical impasse, political foreclosure and economic scarcity. The genre further subdivides into stories that focus primarily on precarious work, sex work, social media, virtual reality or militarization and warfare. We are primarily interested here in the first of these subdivisions, but given the space we would be keen to develop our argument further with references to these other compelling lines of literary development.

Maughan’s ‘Zero Hours’ is a story of the working day of a future Londoner in the year 2023, a nineteen-year-old retail contractor named Nicki. In the story, Nicki wakes up early and immediately begins bidding for work in an auction on her RetailWarrior app. Nicki has saved up £3,467 to go to Wanstead Community Academy to study Graphic Design, which does not yet cover the first term – living at home, this is her prime motivation for working. Two of the jobs she vies for on RetailWarrior are achievable, and another from Starbucks dangles tantalizingly as a lofty mission that can only be unlocked once Nicki gets a Barista badge. Workers bid against each other for work and are unaware of how low below the national minimum wage other workers have gone. There’s no wage solidarity for these aspirants. For three hours at Pret a Manger, she earns £12.64, and a ‘Sandwich Stuffer Pro Badge.’ Nicki’s yearned-for Barista badge would require extra labour of a different kind, mainly hanging around and flirting with other workers at the coffee machine, but Nicki clearly finds this difficult and distasteful. She has read accounts of how others earned the badge and this is apparently the only way to get it. Nicki’s next shift is four hours at Boots, where she sees another worker using RetailWarrior steal two lipsticks. She later sees this girl get paid £19.84, 60 pence more than Nicki gets. Outraged at being underbid, she rats on her fellow precarian and earns herself a ‘Shop-cop Pro’ badge.

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In the early twenty-first century, platforms akin to RetailWarrior have emerged as a new business model, a means of generating profits through infrastructural arrangements. Platforms, which have a built in monopolistic tendency, provide infrastructure to intermediate between two or more user groups, extract data from the interactions on the platform, and sell that data. Nick Srnicek’s Platform Capitalism (a notably more pessimistic text than Inventing the Future) offers a taxonomy of platforms, including advertising platforms such as Facebook, product platforms like Spotify, and lean platforms with no assets, which mainly select, incentivise, and intermediate between users, such as Airbnb and Uber. These lean platforms are a ‘hyper-outsourced model,’ only retaining a ‘bare extractive minimum’ through a monopoly rent – RetailWarrior is thus a lean platform similar to TaskRabbit.

While some apps and platforms in ‘Zero Hours’ separate workers, others assist them in their efforts to evade the police. Nicki uses CopWatch, an important tool for navigating London with hacked Oyster cards (kept in RFID-blocking bags), as randomized checks on the tube rise in response to workers fighting to keep costs down while underbidding each other. In Maughan’s sketch, we also get a glimpse of heightened constraints on the movements of workers, who deform their faces with ‘QVC home botox injections’ to avoid being identified by facial recognition technology. This is all done simply to ‘do business’ in the area of the city with the most employment opportunities as this group have presumably been banned from zones 1 and 2 in London.

A few things are clear – a vast amount of administrative and emotional labour is being undertaken on the RetailWarrior auction from the moment Nicki wakes up. Also, the gamification of work shows the manner in which a kind of infantilization remains in play, and the Quantified Self is there too – the shelves at Boots are ‘smart’ and collect data on the efficiency of Nicki’s shelf-stacking. This is nothing more than the ‘time-and-motion man’ automated, the man who would stand behind your grandmother at the checkout in 1950s Ireland with a clipboard and a stopwatch measuring her efficiency. It is an intensification – the time and motion man would walk away, check someone else, but the shelf never stops. At the same time, the narrative distance exhibited in ‘Zero Hours,’ its cold objective style, might itself be mimetic of homo oeconomicus: its brevity and refusal of lyric intensity, with the mere impulse to save for education in order to get a better job serving as sole character motivation. If this text exhibits a radically diminished speculative capacity, we would suggest that this is keyed not only to finance capital’s contemporary inability to generate profits and escalate investment, but to the foreclosure of certain historical left political possibilities at the material level. In this manner, this brief text offers a filibuster of techno-optimists, hurled from the wings.

This near-future fiction refuses to help its readers to modify their horizons of possibility, and in this way its realism is as stifling as it is emotionally devastating. Take, as another example, Maloney’s ‘A Job Opening,’ a story that features many of the generic elements of science friction listed above: window shades block the toxic atmosphere and a dangerously hot sun, and greenery exists only in climate-controlled buildings; sleep time is short and medically regulated with Soyquil Z, a drug designed to replace REM cycles and various regenerative sleep processes; education is largely digitised and lessons are delivered via platforms such as the Teecher console; the vast majority of services are automated save for some feminized care work performed by cheap migrant labour. But the story focuses first and foremost on the future of work, and in particular on the impossible promise the wage offers the precarious protagonist, who toils daily to secure her own social and biological reproduction and that of her son Tony in Maloney’s dystopian vision.

‘A Job Opening’ is set in near-future Astoria, a neighborhood in the New York burrough of Queens, and follows care worker Maya through a day of domestic drudgery and dashed dreams. Astoria is home to mass unemployment, designer work drugs, and self-contained high rise tower-blocks like Brynn-Rockefeller, a ‘luxury condominium fortress’ that provides its affluent tenants with all their reproductive requirements, including gainful employment and climate controlled living. In this the story is reminiscent of JG Ballard’s High Rise (1975), but without any of the drama of bourgeois decline to a Hobbesian state of nature. The story begins, like ‘Zero Hours,’ with Maya awakening in the early hours, and ends without any progress or redemption for the protagonist. Maya is a single mother who provides child minding services to middle class families who work at Brynn-Rockefeller, ‘employees whose Brynn salaries didn’t quite allow for the purchase of Rosiebots, but could sometimes afford to outsource errands.’ In Astoria, job opportunities are scarce and positions open up at places like Brynn-Rockefeller only on the rare occasion that an employee dies or is otherwise incapacitated. And then, unexpectedly, a position opens up in the nursery.

Maya wakes at 5AM with a plan to try and get in ahead of the inevitable crowds that will be lined up outside Brynn-Rockefeller to apply for the job. Daniela Madison, a member of the three income household for whom Maya currently works, has offered to sneak Maya in the back using her employee ID card. When Daniela suggested the plan, ‘Maya’s heart leapt. Working at Brynn-Rockefeller wasn’t the same as living there,’ she reminded herself, ‘but that kind of salary, that kind of education for Tony would mean . . . she stopped herself from thinking about what it would mean. No use getting her hopes up just yet.’ Now, on the morning of the open call, the gravity of a possibility she can barely admit to herself crashes down on her:

As she slipped her least-wrinkled button-down off its hanger and pulled on aerated leggings and Circumventilated boots, Maya suddenly felt like vomiting. She had to sit down on the bed to regain her composure before she could go wake Tony and assemble breakfast. She thought of her neighbors, Carl and Sylvia Munoz-White, who’d gotten so hard-up they’d started volunteering for fast-track experimental drug trials—the last time she’d seen them, after the Soyquil Z trials had packed it in, they were standing in the street a few miles from their cul-de-sac, blankly staring into the darkness beyond the community fences, like paranoid ghosts. A shiver went up her spine, despite the heat.

Here is a glimpse of the existential vertigo and corporeal abjection precarity entails for the economically determined subject of a near-future in which food comes from replicators and children are educated by Teecher consoles. As Maya dresses for the opening, her body threatens convulsion and upheaval while her mind recounts the horrors of a population forced to offer itself up for the most abject forms of exploitation, momentarily preventing her from tending to her son and the basic necessities for their survival. And though she musters the courage to try to sneak into Brynn-Rockefeller with Daniela, her efforts are wasted when she is stabbed by an angry and unemployed acquaintance in the line, waking three days later to learn that the position has been filled. Science friction thus suggests that this is the world capitalist technologies portend, not a transitional space on its way to postcapitalism, but an immiserated space going nowhere at all, a wasted landscape of inequality and insecurity built on the backs of precarious workers and hardwired to keep them in their place at the bottom of the slagheap.

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We have been tracking a shift of emphasis in SF away from cultural transformation through technological progress to the inexorable slowness of significant change if current trends continue. It is our contention that there are material reasons why techno-optimist SF was readily available in the twentieth century, just as there are material reasons why it is less readily available now, and we would suggest that this is not because people had better imaginations back then. Politics is more than a war of ideas. As Kristin Ross writes in her discussion of the Paris Commune, ‘the thought of a movement is generated only with and after it […] Actions produce dreams and ideas, and not the reverse.’ Techno-optimist thinking is not naively enamoured of detailed, inflexible plans for what the future should look like, but it arguably leans too heavily on a vision of technology as a relatively neutral, repurposable and ever-proliferating resource. To return to Davies’ point about the socialist calculation debate, the reason it was key to twentieth-century science fiction is because it was an actually existing form of political possibility particular to that historical moment, a real-world economic practice of actually existing socialist states. It is, then, the exhaustion of that particular political possibility that science friction encourages its readers to mull over.

Notes

1. Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (London: Zero Books, 2009).
2. Simon O’Sullivan, Ayesha Hameed, and Henriette Gunkel, eds, Futures and Fictions (London: Repeater, 2017); William Davies, ed. Economic Science Fictions
(London: Goldsmiths Press, 2018); Peter Frase, Four Futures: Life after Capitalism (London: Verso, 2016).
3. Simon O’Sullivan, Henriette Gunkel, and Ayesha Hameed, ‘Futures and Fictions,’ Futures and Fictions (London: Repeater, 2017), pp.1-20: p.1.
4. Aaron Bastani, Fully Automated Luxury Communism (London: Verso, forthcoming).
5. The term ‘hyperstition’ is a neologism coined by the CCRU to describe the manner in which historically variable ideas or narratives become naturalized belief systems
such that they appear as self-evident truths. See the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU), Writings 1997-2003 (Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2017). The term has been used to explain the manner in which capitalism in the neoliberal era comes to be regarded as the only possible system of social organization. See, in particular, Mark Fisher and Judy Thorne, ‘Luxury Communism,’ Futures and Fictions, ed. Simon O’Sullivan, Ayesha
Hameed, Henriette Gunkel (London: Repeater, 2017), pp.145-169.
6. Arguably this debate sparked off in the late nineteenth century and continues to this day, but its peak intensity was around the 1930s.
7. ‘Economies of scale’ refers to the cost savings that often occur when making more of something.
8. For a critique of big data and an exposition of algorithms as black boxes that lock down contemporary conditions into the foreseeable future, see Cathy O’Neil, Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy (London: Penguin Random House, 2016).

Sean O’Brien is Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck, University of London. His research has appeared in Discourse and Science Fiction Studies, and is forthcoming in Cultural Critique and Bloomsbury’s Companion to Marx. He is currently at work on his first book, Precarity and the Historicity of the Present: American Culture from Boom to Downturn.

Rob Kiely is a writer living in London. His chapbooks include How to Read (Crater, 2017) and Killing the Cop in Your Head (Sad, 2017). He has also written ‘The Elephant in the Womb’ (published in Sure Hope), and ‘A Saddening Bore.’ His critical work can be found herehere, and here.

 

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