Tag Archives: Future

Scenarios have to be plausible, but reality is under no such constraints

Following up on my comments on William Gibson‘s discuss of his science fiction where I wrote that “Scenarios have to be plausible, but reality is under no such constraints”

Futurist, scenario planner, and co-founder of WorldChanging, Jamais Cascio writes on his weblog Open the Future about Living in a Scenario:

There’s something of a rule-of-thumb among professional futurey-types: scenario elements that sound plausible are almost certainly wrong, while scenario elements that sound utterly implausible are very likely on-target. That’s generally true, although it applies more to the disruptive aspects of a scenario than to the everyday aspects. (That said, a scenario that said “most people in the West continue to live quiet lives, using their barely-sufficient income to pay for disposable commodity goods and overly-processed food,” while both plausible and very likely on-target for the next decade or three, is more depressing than illuminating.) Good scenario disruption points should be things that, in the here-and-now, would make you say “oh, crap” if you heard them in the news.

Oh, crap.

Nanotechnology researchers in Mexico, France, Spain, and Chile have been targeted by a terror group calling itself “Individuals Tending Towards Savagery,” and claiming to be inspired by the Unabomber.

Unabomber-copycat terror cell hits nanotech researchers in the developing world and Europe — I’m not sure anything could sound more like a headline from a scenario exercise.

Murakami on fiction for an unreal world

One of the problems with scenario planning is that it requires plausible scenarios, but that reality is behaves in ways that are implausible.  This is another way of describing what Nassim Taleb named Black Swans, significant unexpected events, that change the course of events in unlikely ways.

In an article in the International Herald Tribune magazine, well known Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, author of the Windup Bird Chronicle and many other books, about how he believes that ‘realistic’ fiction is now incapable of capturing the present.  In his article Reality A and Reality B Murakami writes:

Over the past 30 years, I have written fiction in various forms ranging from short stories to full-length novels. The story has always been one of the most fundamental human concepts. While each story is unique, it functions for the most part as something that can be shared and exchanged with others. That is one of the things that gives a story its meaning. Stories change form freely as they inhale the air of each new age. In principle a medium of cultural transmission, stories are highly variable when it comes to the mode of presentation they employ. Like skilled fashion designers, we novelists clothe stories, as they change shape from day to day, in words suited to their figures.

Viewed from such a professional perspective, it would seem that the interface between us and the stories we encounter underwent a greater change than ever before at some point when the world crossed (or began to cross) the millennial threshold. Whether this was a change for the good or a less welcome change, I am in no position to judge. About all I can say is that we can probably never go back to where we started.

Speaking for myself, one of the reasons I feel this so strongly is the fact that the fiction I write is itself undergoing a perceptible transformation. The stories inside me are steadily changing form as they inhale the new atmosphere. I can clearly feel the movement happening inside my body. Also happening at the same time, I can see, is a substantial change in the way readers are receiving the fiction I write.

There has been an especially noteworthy change in the posture of European and American readers. Until now, my novels could be seen in 20th-century terms, that is, to be entering their minds through such doorways as “post-modernism” or “magic realism” or “Orientalism”; but from around the time that people welcomed the new century, they gradually began to remove the framework of such “isms” and accept the worlds of my stories more nearly as-is. I had a strong sense of this shift whenever I visited Europe and America. It seemed to me that people were accepting my stories in toto — stories that are chaotic in many cases, missing logicality at times, and in which the composition of reality has been rearranged. Rather than analyzing the chaos within my stories, they seem to have begun conceiving a new interest in the very task of how best to take them in.

By contrast, general readers in Asian countries never had any need for the doorway of literary theory when they read my fiction. Most Asian people who took it upon themselves to read my works apparently accepted the stories I wrote as relatively “natural” from the outset. First came the acceptance, and then (if necessary) came the analysis. In most cases in the West, however, with some variation, the logical parsing came before the acceptance. Such differences between East and West, however, appear to be fading with the passing years as each influences the other.

We often wonder what it would have been like if 9/11had never happened — or at least if that plan had not succeeded so perfectly. Then the world would have been very different from what it is now. America might have had a different president (a major possibility), and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars might never have happened (an even greater possibility).

Let’s call the world we actually have now Reality A and the world that we might have had if 9/11 had never happened Reality B. Then we can’t help but notice that the world of Reality B appears to be realer and more rational than the world of Reality A. To put it in different terms, we are living a world that has an even lower level of reality than the unreal world. What can we possibly call this if not “chaos”?

What kind of meaning can fiction have in an age like this? What kind of purpose can it serve? In an age when reality is insufficiently real, how much reality can a fictional story possess?

…In that sense, at the same time that fiction (story) is presently undergoing a severe test, it possesses an unprecedented opportunity. Of course fiction has always been assigned responsibility and questions to deal with in every age, but surely the responsibility and questions are especially great now. Story has a function that it alone can perform, and that is to “turn everything into a story.” To transform the things and events around us into the metaphor of the story form and to suggest the true nature of the situation in the dynamism of that substitution: that is story’s most important function.

Biologist and British science fiction writer Paul McAuley, author of the very good the Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun, reflect on how science fiction has largely failed to engage the world Murakami evokes but has the potential to do so in his response to Murakami’s article:

As a science-fiction writer, I find Murakami’s ideas incredibly interesting. And hopeful. Or rather, potentially hopeful. For something similar should have happened to science fiction, shouldn’t it? After all, catastrophes and sudden shifts in perception are part of its stock in trade. But instead of confronting Reality A, the genre has, in the first decade of the 21st century, too often turned to its own comforting version of Reality B: retreating into pleasant little pulpish daydreams in which starships still effortlessly span a galaxy where a guy can turn a profit, or where technology is as controllable as clockwork and the actions of individuals can still make a mark on history. Meanwhile, they grumble, ‘mainstream’ writers are grabbing ideas from the genre and doing terrible things to them without acknowledging the source. As if permission could be somehow given, or withheld.

I prefer the point of view of William Gibson, who has pointed out that the only way to tackle the place we’re in now is to use the science-fiction toolkit – the tropes, images and metaphor developed from the crude flint hammers of pulp by decades of cooperative effort and argument. If other writers are using the science-fiction toolkit to evolve new kinds of stories in the present’s different air, that’s exactly what we should be doing, too. Forget the past. Especially the pasts of all those great glorious science-fiction futures, lost when it all changed. Look again at the future. Embrace change. Let go. If only. If only.

Need for new utopian stories

Following up on the previous post’s William Gibson quote, another science fiction writer with interesting ideas about the future is Scottish writer Charlie Stross.  On his weblog Charlie’s Diary, he writes about something I think is important, the need for new positive visions of the future.  He writes:

It seems to me that one of our besetting problems these days is that there’s a shortage of utopias on offer.

… it seems to me that the post-cold war neoliberal dominated political consensus … is intrinsically inimical to the consideration of utopian ideals. Burkean conservativism tends to be skeptical of change, always asking first, “will it make things worse?” This isn’t a bad question to ask in and of itself, but we’re immured a period of change unprecedented in human history (it kicked off around the 1650s; its end is not yet in sight) and basing your policies on what you can see in your rear-view mirror leaves you open to driving over unforseen pot-holes. To a conservative, the first priority is not to lose track of what’s good about the past, lest the future be worse. But this viewpoint brings with it a cognitive bias towards the simplistic outlook that innovation is always bad.

Which is why I think we badly need more utopian speculation. The consensus future we read about in the media and that we’re driving towards is a roiling, turbulent fogbank beset by half-glimpsed demons: climate change, resource depletion, peak oil, mass extinction, collapse of the oceanic food chain, overpopulation, terrorism, foreigners who want to come here and steal our jobs. It’s not a nice place to be; if the past is another country, the consensus view of the future currently looks like a favela with raw sewage running in the streets. Conservativism — standing on the brake pedal — is a natural reaction to this vision; but it’s a maladaptive one, because it makes it harder to respond effectively to new and unprecedented problems. We can’t stop, we can only go forward; so it is up to us to choose a direction.

Having said that, we should be able to create a new golden age of utopian visions. A global civilization appears to be emerging for the first time. It’s unstable, unevenly distributed, and blindly fumbling its way forward. But we have unprecedented tools for sharing information; slowly developing theories of behavioural economics, cognitive bias, and communications that move beyond the crudely simplistic (and wrong) 19th century models of perfectly rational market actors: even models of development that seem to be generating sporadic progress in those countries that were hammered down and ruthlessly exploited as colonial assets by the ancien regime and its inheritors.

We need — quite urgently, I think — plausible visions of where we might be fifty or a hundred or a thousand years hence: a hot, densely populated, predominantly urban planetary culture that nevertheless manages to feed everybody, house everybody, and give everybody room to pursue their own happiness without destroying our resource base.

Because historically, when a civilization collapsed, it collapsed in isolation: but if our newly global civilization collapses, what then …?

Kim Stanley Robinson on Post-Capitalism

In the consulting company McKinsey’s magazine What Matters, science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson writes about climate change and post-capitalism in an article Time to end the multigenerational Ponzi scheme:

Capitalism evolved out of feudalism. Although the basis of power has changed from land to money and the system has become more mobile, the distribution of power and wealth has not changed that much. It’s still a hierarchical power structure, it was not designed with ecological sustainability in mind, and it won’t achieve that as it is currently constituted.

The main reason I believe capitalism is not up to the challenge is that it improperly and systemically undervalues the future. I’ll give two illustrations of this. First, our commodities and our carbon burning are almost universally underpriced, so we charge less for them than they cost. When this is done deliberately to kill off an economic competitor, it’s called predatory dumping; you could say that the victims of our predation are the generations to come, which are at a decided disadvantage in any competition with the present.

Second, the promise of capitalism was always that of class mobility—the idea that a working-class family could bootstrap their children into the middle class. With the right policies, over time, the whole world could do the same. There’s a problem with this, though. For everyone on Earth to live at Western levels of consumption, we would need two or three Earths. Looking at it this way, capitalism has become a kind of multigenerational Ponzi scheme, in which future generations are left holding the empty bag.

You could say we are that moment now. Half of the world’s people live on less than $2 a day, and yet the depletion of resources and environmental degradation mean they can never hope to rise to the level of affluent Westerners, who consume about 30 times as much in resources as they do. So this is now a false promise. The poorest three billion on Earth are being cheated if we pretend that the promise is still possible. The global population therefore exists in a kind of pyramid structure, with a horizontal line marking an adequate standard of living that is set about halfway down the pyramid.

The goal of world civilization should be the creation of something more like an oval on its side, resting on the line of adequacy. This may seem to be veering the discussion away from questions of climate to questions of social justice, but it is not; the two are intimately related. It turns out that the top and bottom ends of our global social pyramid are the two sectors that are by far the most carbon intensive and environmentally destructive, the poorest by way of deforestation and topsoil loss, the richest by way of hyperconsumption. The oval resting sideways on the line of adequacy is the best social shape for the climate.

This doubling of benefits when justice and sustainability are both considered is not unique. Another example: world population growth, which stands at about 75 million people a year, needs to slow down. What stabilizes population growth best? The full exercise of women’s rights. There is a direct correlation between population stabilization in nations and the degree to which women enjoy full human rights. So here is another area in which justice becomes a kind of climate change technology. Whenever we discuss climate change, these social and economic paradigm shifts must be part of the discussion.

Given this analysis, what are my suggestions?

  • Believe in science.
  • Believe in government, remembering always that it is of the people, by the people, and for the people, and crucial in the current situation.
  • Support a really strong follow-up to the Kyoto Protocol.
  • Institute carbon cap-and-trade systems.
  • Impose a carbon tax designed to charge for the real costs of burning carbon.
  • Follow the full “Green New Deal” program now coming together in discussions by the Obama administration.
  • Structure global economic policy to reward rapid transitions from carbon-burning to carbon-neutral technologies.
  • Support the full slate of human rights everywhere, even in countries that claim such justice is not part of their tradition.
  • Support global universal education as part of human-rights advocacy.
  • Dispense with all magical, talismanic phrases such as “free markets” and promote a larger systems analysis that is more empirical, without fundamentalist biases.
  • Encourage all business schools to include foundational classes in ecology, environmental economics, biology, and history.
  • Start programs at these same schools in postcapitalist studies.

Does the word postcapitalism look odd to you? It should, because you hardly ever see it. We have a blank spot in our vision of the future. Perhaps we think that history has somehow gone away. In fact, history is with us now more than ever, because we are at a crux in the human story. Choosing not to study a successor system to capitalism is an example of another kind of denial, an ostrich failure on the part of the field of economics and of business schools, I think, but it’s really all of us together, a social aporia or fear. We have persistently ignored and devalued the future—as if our actions are not creating that future for our children, as if things never change. But everything evolves. With a catastrophe bearing down on us, we need to evolve at nearly revolutionary speed. So some study of what could improve and replace our society’s current structure and systems is in order. If we don’t take such steps, the consequences will be intolerable. On the other hand, successfully dealing with this situation could lead to a sustainable civilization that would be truly exciting in its human potential.

The 21st century a FAQ

From Scottish Science Fiction writer Charlie Stross, Answers to Frequently Asked Questions about the 21st century:

Q: What can we expect?

A: Pretty much what you read about in New Scientist every week. Climate change, dust bowls caused by over-cultivation necessitated by over-population, resource depletion in obscure and irritatingly mission-critical sectors (never mind oil; we’ve only got 60 years of easily exploitable phosphates left — if we run out of phosphates, our agricultural fertilizer base goes away), the great population overshoot (as developing countries transition to the low population growth model of developed countries) leading to happy fun economic side-effects (deflation, house prices crash, stagnation in cutting-edge research sectors due to not enough workers, aging populations), and general bad-tempered overcrowded primate bickering.

Oh, and the unknown unknowns.

Q: Unknown unknowns? Are you talking about Donald Rumsfeld?

A: No, but I’m stealing his term for unprecedented and unpredictable events (sometimes also known as black swans). From the point of view of an observer in 1909, the modern consumer electronics industry (not to mention computing and internetworking) is a black swan, a radical departure from the then-predictable revolutionary enabling technologies (automobiles and aeroplanes). Planes, trains and automobiles were already present, and progressed remarkably well — and a smart mind in 1909 would have predicted this. But antibiotics, communication satellites, and nuclear weapons were another matter. Some of these items were mentioned, in very approximate form, by 1909-era futurists, but for the most part they took the world by surprise.

We’re certainly going to see unknown unknowns in the 21st century. Possible sources of existential surprise include (but are not limited to) biotechnology, nanotechnology, AI, climate change, supply chain/logistics breakthroughs to rival the shipping container, fork lift pallet, bar code, and RFID chip — and politics. But there’ll be other stuff so weird and strange I can’t even guess at it.

Q: Eh? But what’s the big picture?

A: The big picture is that since around 2005, the human species has — for the first time ever — become a predominantly urban species. Prior to that time, the majority of humans lived in rural/agricultural lifestyles. Since then, just over 50% of us now live in cities; the move to urbanization is accelerating. If it continues at the current pace, then some time after 2100 the human population will tend towards the condition of the UK — in which roughly 99% of the population live in cities or suburbia.

This is going to affect everything.

It’s going to affect epidemiology. It’s going to affect wealth production. It’s going to affect agriculture (possibly for the better, if it means a global shift towards concentrated high-intensity food production, possibly in vertical farms, and a re-wilding/return to nature of depopulated and underutilized former rural areas). It’s going to affect the design and layout of our power, transport, and information grids. It’s going to affect our demographics (urban populations tend to grow by immigration, and tend to feature lower birth rates than agricultural communities).

There’s a gigantic difference between the sustainability of a year 2109 with 6.5 billion humans living a first world standard of living in creative cities, and a year 2109 with 3.3 billion humans living in cities and 3.2 billion humans still practicing slash’n'burn subsistence farming all over the map.

Q: Space colonization?

A: Forget it.

Assuming we avoid a systemic collapse, there’ll probably be a moon base, by and by. Whether it’s American, Chinese, Indian, or Indonesian is anybody’s guess, and probably doesn’t matter as far as the 99.999% of the human species who will never get off the planet are concerned. There’ll probably be a Mars expedition too. But barring fundamental biomedical breakthroughs, or physics/engineering breakthroughs that play hell with the laws of physics as currently understood, canned monkeys aren’t going to Jupiter any time soon, never mind colonizing the universe. (See also Saturn’s Children for a somewhat snarky look at this.)

Social science and science fiction

Crooked Timber is hosting an online seminar on the innovative science fiction author Charlie Stross.  Their discussants include economists Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong, and John Quiggin , as well as a response from Charlie Stross (pt 1 and 2):

… we’ve got Paul Krugman writing on The Merchant Princes, considered as a thought experiment in development economics. Of course, as Paul points out, these books are first, and foremost, great fun. But, unlike others in the ‘between alternate timelines genre’ Stross focuses on the big question: how does an agrarian society respond to a sudden irruption of modern industrial technology?

For example Political Scientist Henry Farrel writes:

Rather than engaging with the futures of the past (as lots of SF today does, it tries to set out the futures of the present, … I think that this is the first genuinely successful SFnal take on the social changes that we’re facing into – not, of course, because it is going to be right – but because it takes some of the core dilemmas of an IT based society, plays with them and extrapolates them in ways that challenge our basic understanding of politics in a networked society.

Brian Walker’s Research Areas for Resilience Science

Brian Walker, the former director of the Resilience Alliance reflected on the future of resilience science in his introductory talk at Resilience 2008. In his talk Probing the boundaries of resilience science and practice, he identified seven important research areas for resilience science:

  1. Test, criticize and revise the propositions about resilience made in Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems and Ecology and Society special issue – Exploring Resilience In Social-Ecological Systems.
  2. Develop models of social-ecological systems that can produce the key aspects of the rich behaviour of the world. In particular these models should be able to produce:
    i) dynamics in which systems cross multiple thresholds,
    ii) produce “backloop” dynamics, and
    iii) incorporate models of adaptive governance that incorporate leadership, trust, ‘shadow’ networks, sleeper links, and poly-centric governance arrangements.
  3. Extend resilience theory from local or regional scales to the global to address questions such as:
    i) Do we need new propositions for global resilience issues?
    ii) Over what ranges of scale can we apply existing theory?, and
    iii) How important are scale-dependent processes?
  4. Resilience theory needs to better understand the consquences of multiple simultaneous shocks, because transformative change seems to be often triggered by two (or more) simultaneous shocks. For example an environmental shock and an economic (or political) shock occurring at the same time.
    Resilience theory needs to understand what coupled or sequential shocks are likely, and how could we go about assessing resilience to them. An example of this is the current food crisis that developed from the coupling of agriculture, energy, and climate issues.
  5. What are the differences between transformational change, adaptability and resilience? Transformability is the capacity to create a fundamentally new system when conditions make the existing system untenable. In much of the world the need is to transform, not to make the existing system regime more resilient. What are the design principles of transformations?
  6. How can we assess the costs and values of resilience? What is the difference between general (broad spectrum resilience to many things) vs. specified resilience (to a few specific things)? How can we conceptualize the danger in ‘optimizing’ for specified resilience? How much should we spend (or forego) to increase resilience?
  7. How can the value of different regimes be assessed? The desirablity of a regime usually depends upon the perspective it is viewed from, and different people have different perspectives. Coping with these perspectives is a challenge. But more fundamentally, this requires not just assessing the value of different ecosystem services, but also understanding the identity of a system, and its ability to maintain itself.
  8. Non-mathematical approaches to resilience. While mathematics is beautiful to some, it is difficult to communicate and in some situations is insufficient. We need to increase our ability to represent resilience in a variety of forms. This presents a challenge to the humanities and arts community. At Resilience 2008 we saw contributions towards this understanding, but there is much more to develop. Can science and the humanities work together to provide the impetus towards a richer, more resilient world?