Hi Doug, thanks for talking to us today. You are the creator of Beat the Boss, a TTRPG about union organising. You’re also a union organiser yourself. Can you tell us a bit about your background? What first drew you to organising?
I started organizing in 2001. I had gone to the World Trade Organization protest in Seattle, which is a short drive for me. The labor unions that showed up on the front line really made a significant impact on me. I was with this group of ten folks that were holding down an intersection, and the steel workers broke away from the big AFL-CIO march and pushed the cops back a block. Just physically confronted them. It was like nothing that I’d experienced before.
After the protests, I wanted to figure out a way to get more actively engaged in making big changes. I was looking around, and it was clear that labor unions were one big, structured way to make an impact.
That’s an interesting answer. You were kind of thinking of unions as agents of broad social change right from the start.
Well, changing the material conditions of workers became kind of a guiding orientation for me. For example, there’s not enough leisure time in industrialized America for people to even appreciate the woods or the outdoors. So how are you going to have a conversation with someone about environmental protection, if they don’t have any experience of nature in their everyday lives?
As I sit and write this in December 2022, I am surrounded by the excruciating noise of buildings being torn down, knowing that they will be replaced by something similar. The continuous drilling of machines make sounds like the earth is screaming as they cut deeper and deeper into it. The roads are being dug up again to replace or repair cables for our ‘modern’ technology. It’s not so much the abrasiveness of the noise that I find shocking, it’s the sheer waste of precious resources combined with the stark reminder of how we accept and even relish the bashing of nature into submission. Is this really the best we can do? Are we really advancing? Talking of which, the sun is shining bright, possibly a little too much for the time of year, and yet we appear to be unable to stop ourselves from destroying this planet which allows us our precious life. If only we could heed the warnings from fiction, as suggested by various articles in this issue. One step forward, two steps back. Then I reflect some more. I’ve just had a consultation with my doctor without leaving home and I’m preparing for a Cybersalon Christmas event that will be held simultaneously in a physical venue, an online platform and in Virtual Reality. Thankfully though, there are no hoverboards, drones or cars flying past the window of my top floor flat. I revise my pessimism. Two steps forward, one back. Which brings me on to the subject of this issue.
Speculative fiction is one of the sources the media, the general public, scientists and technologists use to frame the future. When asked about guest editing, I was in the midst of wondering whether, as a writer of near-future science fiction, I have a moral duty to reflect potential futures as accurately as possible, rather than simply selling the sensational. I was also beginning a project with King’s College London, writing short stories that raised ethical issues around using AI to automate the prediction of youth mental health problems. Issues such as whether it’s sensible to predict potential problems, whether we should use automated tools to minimise the costs and help clinicians, and whether losing the privacy of data is a price worth paying. At the same time as exploring the questions, I was busy asking myself if speculative fiction affects the future at all. Reading the articles in this issue has made me think that it most certainly does, and I’m not the only one who has been considering this. In 2020 Cory Doctorow published an article, ‘I’m Changing How I Write Fiction—for the Benefit of the Real World.‘ If fiction affects what people do through ‘intuition pumps’, he argues, then it could be a form of activism. For example:
New stories will help us understand the importance of seizing the means of computation and using it to build movements that break up monopolies, fight oligarchy, and demand pluralistic, shared power for a pluralistic, shared world.
Changing our intuition pumps is not easy, but it’s urgent—and overdue.
As I began to read around about the topic, I came across three terms that are often used interchangeably—prediction, forecast and foresight. If you’re not familiar with them, as you read through articles you’ll see how they differ and why we need clarity of definitions. Will Slocombe’s article also points out that speculative fiction has been used to explore how these might work, or not, in different contexts.
In Torque Control, Jo and Polina have taken me further with their four different approaches to applied science fiction. As they suggest, it’s possible that, ‘science fiction does make important differences to the world but that there is simply not yet a comprehensive or consistent theory to articulate how and why.’ So, I ask you to keep an open mind about the role of science fiction as you read on.
A 2013 working paper from the innovation foundation Nesta, ‘Better Made Up: The Mutual Influence of Science Fiction and Innovation,‘ sets out different ways in which speculative fiction might predict or influence the future. Its authors Caroline Bassett, Ed Steinmueller, and Georgina Voss argue, in a nutshell, that speculative fiction can: imagine technology that is then directly translated into reality (emphasising that this is very rare); influence how technology is framed, for example in discussion, regulation and development; inspire innovation industries and certain groups, such as hackers, the military or resistance movements; and influence how science and technology are understood, debated and judged in public.
A quote that is often used to describe the role of sci-fi in extrapolating current trends and their impact on society is from Frederick Pohl: ‘A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam.’ I would take this further and say that science fiction should enable discussions on whether the car is worth the traffic jam. It should provide us with ideas that can help us reflect on the political and ethical dimensions of the future. After all, science fiction doesn’t always warn us about the right things. For example, it has a tendency to focus on the existential risk of robots taking over and killing us all, when the mundane aspects of artificial intelligence are more likely to have serious consequences for society. Predictions don’t necessarily need to be accurate to encourage useful debate.
I’ve seen this play out through Cybersalon’s 22 Ideas About the Future project, with the subject experts developing their understanding of how science fiction can be used in foresight. As David Birch, thought leader in digital identity and digital money, says, ‘What these stories had in common was that they were not so much about how the money of the future would work, but what it would do to us and our relationships. I like being challenged to think about this because, as is often said, we tend to overestimate the short-term impact of new technology (cf. self-driving cars) but completely underestimate the long-term impact of new technology (cf. MySpace).’
With this in mind, it’s worth considering the long-term questions around how society might evolve. While preparing for a foresighting workshop I settled on four aspects: Firstly, the extent to which we continue to delegate decisions and outsource our agency to technology, mainly because we believe it to be more rational and hence more accurate than us; secondly, whether as a species we take the route of community and collaboration or whether we continue with a competitive ‘survival of the fittest’ worldview; thirdly, how far we continue into the insularity and individualism of neoliberalism and nationalism in contrast to becoming a more open and connected set of societies; and finally, our ability and willingness to shift our thinking, and in particular our planning and actions, from the immediate of the next few years to the longer term view of many decades.
That’s all very well, but how do we discuss these possible futures and how does fiction help us achieve them?
We know that stories are important in helping us imagine. We are a storytelling species. To quote Dr Danbee Kim, the neuroscientist for the wonderful graphic essay in this issue, ‘stories profoundly improve our abilities to remember and pass on complex information, gain perspective on difficult situations, and expand our capacity for empathy.’ And, in 22 Ideas About the Future media theorist Douglas Rushkoff explains that he sees speculative fiction creating ‘space for the novel‘ and ‘revealing truths we have hidden from ourselves.‘
Being inclusive about who takes part, and how, is crucial. Whenever we discuss our future(s) it is vital that we acknowledge who is fortunate enough to have access to conversations or the time to think about it, whether through set-piece projects or by reading and watching speculative fiction. Then, we must ensure those who are excluded become included. If this is not a familiar activity for someone, it can be worth pointing to the fact that, as Sara Stoudt alludes to in her article, many of our day-to-day encounters with statistics have a speculative narrative attached, the different possible impacts of climate change for example. However, we can expect resistance to democratising the future from those with power because, as Andrew Merrie notes in his interview, ‘Saying “that’s implausible” is often a way of cutting people out of the conversation or a power play to preserve or reify the status quo.’
If storytelling is this powerful, shouldn’t it focus more on positive futures, such as AI and humans working together to solve the big problems rather than competing for jobs, or even control of the planet? Solarpunk is a prime example of a subgenre that focuses on positive futures, and if you’re not familiar with it then it’s worth using the QR code in the graphic essay to find out more. However, as we see from the traffic jam argument, storytelling can also play a significant role in imagining the futures we want to avoid. As Douglas Rushkoff observes, ‘My facts and insights don’t penetrate closed minds […] If they would only consider the utterly implausible, even if just for kicks, I know I could take care of the rest.’ But beware. Whether a story is optimistic, realistic or pessimistic, as writer-researcher Yen Ooi notes, ‘It is exciting and romantic to dream about these technologically inspired futurescapes, but what these science fictional worlds often ignore—usually in an effort to create more exciting entertainment—is the fact that technology isn’t and will never be the main star in our reality.’ In a similar vein, Lauren Prater challenges us in her piece for UNHCR’s Project Unsung: ‘Could we embrace nature’s logic of emergence and shift from scaling to seeding change? Would something novel still be innovative if it was built slowly, over many generations and was decorated with our values rather than the capitalist logic of simply moving fast and breaking things? Would you give up efficiency and ease for mutual flourishing? No, really, would you?’
Storytelling in all its forms is important and what these articles and the projects I’m involved in tell me is that at every stage of the life-cycle of a story, from its worldbuilding and narrative, through to it being ‘received’, interpreted and retold, there is the potential for two-way flows of influence between scientists, technologists, writers and readers.
Recently, I was invited to take part in the project described in the article by Allen Stroud with the Defence Science and Technology Lab (DSTL), an executive agency funded by the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD). Deciding whether to get involved helped crystallise the moral issue I was busy thinking about into a real-life decision. One point of view is that it’s better to be in the room than not, another is that mere contact will taint. Having been approached by DSTL after a talk I gave at the Royal Anthropological Institute, I asked around to see if they were to be trusted and was fortunate enough to spend time chatting with their principal anthropologist. This led me to Allen’s project. My natural political inclination is anarchism, towards bottom-up community led action, delegating upwards the things that cannot be dealt with locally, all the way up to the global level. It was from this standpoint that I was making my decision. If my conclusion is that the life-cycle of a piece of speculative fiction does influence the future, then I had to decide if I would be contributing to the UK trying to be ‘top dog’ in a conflict or whether I’d be helping avoid conflict. I believe I made the right decision to get involved, but am keeping a close eye on how the project develops.
Coming back to the practicalities of using speculative fiction overtly to imagine possible futures. It’s important to think carefully about method and structure, and there are articles here that give good insights into how collaborative projects between subject experts and speculative fiction writers can work.
One of the standout problems I’ve already touched on is who gets to influence and be influenced. Therefore, in projects using speculative fiction the paramount issue has to be about creating a ‘level playing field’ for all, including any of the general public who are participating, making it clear that everyone has their own expertise to bring to the table. This can be achieved by equal payments, but often the project is part of a subject expert’s day job for which they are already paid, meaning it is better achieved by structuring the introductions and activities in a way that makes the equality explicit. It’s worth noting here that my experience is UK centric and there may be different difficulties with representation elsewhere that have different solutions.
An important factor in my deliberations has been understanding what’s in it for the authors, because if they’re not on board then we’re sunk before we start. Dr. Christine Aicardi, a Senior Research Fellow at King’s College London, interviewed the sci-fi writers in 22 Ideas about the Future: ‘I write from the perspective of a social scientist concerned with the social and ethical imports of future and emerging technologies […] I propose that through their speculative fictions, the authors are engaging with us to develop an ethics of the future—a fundamentally relational, speculative ethics of the future, which, to borrow from a foundational paper theorising responsible innovation, would aim at “taking care of the future through collective stewardship of science and innovation in the present.”’
It’s also worth noting that Christine and I have been involved in numerous projects over the past 7 years, often with returning experts, so there must be some perceived value in what we’re doing.
And there I am, back at the core question. However, after a wonderful journey of discovery, I have answers to my original questions.
Yes, speculative fiction does influence scientists and technologists in what and how they research, discover and invent. Yes, its predictions do affect the future if you take ‘predictions’ and ‘affect’ in their broadest sense. To an extent, it has a responsibility to be accurate and not sensational, but shouldn’t lose the ‘attractiveness’ of the story because then it’ll be ignored. It doesn’t have to be tech-utopian. For example, I want to warn and inspire, but not demoralise. At the very least, it should generate some action even if that’s only in subtle shifts of understanding and behaviour. And, although the primary purpose of speculative fiction is entertainment, don’t forget that pondering possible futures can also be entertaining.
Finally, to consider our futures through speculative fiction effectively we should avoid using individual stories as a prediction, but rather get a sense from a wide range of stories about the possibilities of where we might be heading, and what we might do about it.
I want to end with supercharged activism, the fourth approach to applied science fiction described by Jo and Polina in Torque Control. Having often been on the ‘fringe of the fringes’ with one foot on the ‘outside’ and one on the ‘inside’ of the mainstream, this is an incredibly attractive notion. After all, the future is ours and it’s up for grabs. So, let’s give it a nudge in the right direction.
Stephen Oram writes near-future science fiction. His short story collections have been praised by publications as diverse as The Morning Star and The Financial Times. He is published in many anthologies and has two published novels. He also works with scientists and technologists to explore possible futures through short stories, and has co-edited three anthologies along these lines. He is a writer for sci-fi prototypers SciFutures and a founding curator for near-future fiction at Virtual Futures.
Extracting Humanity and Other Stories will be published in July 2023 by Orchid’s Lantern Press. His latest novel—Machine Nations—is currently looking for a home.
This article first appeared in Vector: Futures, a publication in part supported by the PASTRES programme (Pastoralism, Uncertainty, Resilience: Global Lessons from the Margins, http://www.pastres.org), funded by the European Research Council (ERC) (Grant No. 70432). PASTRES is co-hosted by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) and the European University Institute (EUI).