Category Archives: Scenarios

Pattern recognition

I quoted William Gibson‘s book Pattern Recognition in a workshop on Expertise for the Future the other day.  Gibson wrote:

… we have no idea, now, of who or what the inhabitants of our future might be. In that sense, we have no future. Not in the sense that our grandparents had a future, or thought they did. Fully imagined cultural futures were the luxury of another day, one in which ‘now’ was of some greater duration. For us, of course, things can change so abruptly, so violently, so profoundly, that futures like our grandparents’ have insufficient ‘now’ to stand on. We have no future because our present is too volatile. … We have only risk management. The spinning of the given moment’s scenarios. Pattern recognition.

In the novel the words are spoken by Hubertus Bigend a smart, but creepy public relations media entrepreneur,suggesting that while it is an insightful comment on some of the current problems of thinking about the future, maybe we shouldn’t take it as the last word.

William Gibson on the future

Novelist William Gibson interviewed by BBC News:

The rapid rate of technological and social change means the future comes crashing towards us faster than ever before, says visionary science fiction author William Gibson.

“In the 1960s I think that in some sense the present was actually about three or four years long,” he said, “because in three or four years relatively little would change.”

That stood in sharp contrast to late 2010, he said, when big changes had become a daily occurrence.

“Now the present is the length of a news cycle some days,” he said in an interview with BBC News.

That ferocious rate of change made writing about the present day exciting, he said, and explained why his current novel, Zero History, is set around about now.

“The present is really of no width whatever,” he said.

Realising how things were speeding up made Mr Gibson take a conscious decision to recalibrate what he described as his sense of “contemporary weirdness” that fuels his writing.

“By the time I had finished my sixth novel I had this nagging sense that my yardstick of contemporary weirdness was really an 80s yardstick,” he said.

“There’s a sense in which I need the formal official metric unit of contemporary weirdness in order to know how much I can successfully expand that and induce science fiction’s characteristic cognitive dissonance in the reader.

“What I actually found was that this contemporary weirdness was incredibly expansive and the deeper I looked into it the weirder it got,” he said.

Andrew Gelman’s Statistical Modeling weblog

Well known statistician Andrew Gelman and his colleagues write an informative and interesting weblog Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science on the quantitative side of the social sciences (which has a lot that ecologists or sustainability scientists can learn from).  Below are some of the recent posts that I found informative and interesting:

1) Suggestions on how to best learn R

2) A data visualization manifesto

At a statistical level, though, I think the details are very important, because they connect the data being graphed with the underlying questions being studied. For example, if you want to compare unemployment rates for different industries, you want them on the same scale. If you’re not interested in an alphabetical ordering, you don't want to put it on a graph. If you want to convey something beyond simply that big cars get worse gas mileage, you’ll want to invert the axes on your parallel coordinate plot. And so forth. When I make a graph, I typically need to go back and forth between the form of the plot, its details, and the questions I’m studying.

3) Testing effectiveness of different approaches to data visualization

Jeff Heer and Mike Bostock provided Mechanical Turk workers with a problem they had to answer using different types of charts. The lower error the workers got, the better the visualization. Here are some results from their paper Crowdsourcing Graphical Perception: Using Mechanical Turk to Assess Visualization Design

4) Novels as perturbations of our models of reality

I used to think that fiction is about making up stories, but in recent years I’ve decided that fiction is really more of a method of telling true stories. One thing fiction allows you to do is explore what-if scenarios. I recently read two books that made me think about this: The Counterlife by Philip Roth and Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven Amsterdam. Both books are explicitly about contingencies and possibilities: Roth’s tells a sequence of related but contradictory stories involving his Philip Roth-like (of course) protagonist, and Amsterdam’s is based on an alternative present/future. (I picture Amsterdam’s book as being set in Australia, but maybe I’m just imagining this based on my knowledge that the book was written and published in that country.) I found both books fascinating, partly because of the characters’ voices but especially because they both seemed to exemplify George Box’s dictum that to understand a system you have to perturb it.

Why are there so few positive stories about the future?

Today’s stories about the future seem to be pretty bleak. Recent big apocalyptic novels have been McCarthy’s The Road, Atwood’s Year of the Flood, but I can’t think of many influential positive environmental futures after Ecotopia in the early 1970s.

On, science fiction novelist and critic Jo Walton speculates about why there are not more positive futures?:

When I was writing about The Door Into Summer, I kept finding myself thinking what a cheerful positive future it’s set in. I especially noticed because the future is 1970 and 2000. I also noticed because it isn’t a cliche SF future—no flying cars, no space colonies, no aliens, just people on Earth and progress progressing. Why is nobody writing books like this now? …

Why is this?

I don’t think it’s because we live in terrible depressing times. 1957, when Heinlein wrote The Door Into Summer, wasn’t a particularly cheerful … Anyway, people were writing cheerful optimistic stories about the future in the 1930s, when things could not have been blacker. People always want escapism, after all.

First is the looming shadow of the Singularity, that makes many people feel that there is no future, or rather, the future is unknowable. I’ve written about why I think this concept may be inhibiting SF.Another thing may be the failure of manned spaceflight. Most hopeful future-oriented SF includes space colonization and we’re just not doing it. It is cool sending robots to Mars and Jupiter, but it isn’t the same. The problem is people in space doesn’t really seem to make sense, and that puts us in the position where we want to have a moonbase because… because we want to have a moonbase. …

The third thing I see is anthropogenic climate change—far more than the threat of nuclear annihilation this seems to bring with it a puritan yearning for simpler greener life, self-hatred, and a corresponding distrust of science and especially progress. It isn’t the reality of climate change that’s the problem, it’s the mindset that goes with it. If you suggest to some people that small clean modern nuclear reactors are a good way of generating electricity they recoil in horror. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Forty Signs of Rain and sequels have people dealing with the climate change by planetary engineering, but that’s very unusual, mostly it gets into books as something to cower before.

And then there’s the fact that for the most part we don’t understand our technology any more. I know how a CRT monitor works—LCD, not so much. We have a lot of it, it has certainly progressed, but when we take the back off it’s very mysterious. I think this is part of the appeal of steampunk, looking back to a time when tech was comprehensible as well as made of brass. In a similar but related way, maybe progress is moving too fast for optimistic science fiction. … It’s hard to get ahead of that, except with disaster changing everything. Halting State was out of date practically before it was in paperback.

She asks her readers for examples of books that are:

  • Published since 2000
  • Set in our future (or anyway the future of when they were written)
  • With continuing scientific and technological progress
  • That would be nice places to live.

But, on her site people cannot come up with many near future positive stories.

Can any Resilience Science readers suggest novels with positive environmental futures?

Reflecting the Niger Delta: Tolu Ogunlesi on Tings Dey Happen

On 3 Quarks Daily Tolu Ogunlesi writes about American Dan Hoyle’s Tings Dey Happen.  Dan Hoyle was inspired to write a one man play about Nigeria and the oil industry after being a Fulbright scholar in at the University of Port Harcourt, in Nigeria’s oil and conflict rich Niger delta:

TINGS DEY HAPPEN is in Pidgin English. When I heard Hoyle was going to be performing in Nigeria, at the invitation of the State Department, I decided I had to see the show. More than anything, I was curious to see what Hoyle’s idea of pidgin amounted to. There is so much contrived stuff that passes for Pidgin English in popular culture, that I really didn’t have any significant expectations.

By the end of the 75 minute performance, which took place at the heavily guarded American Guest Quarters on the Ikoyi waterfront in Lagos, I was more than impressed. Hoyle’s pidgin is impressive, as authentic (I hesitate to use that word) as it gets.

Hoyle cuts right through to the occasionally dark, often comical heart of Nigerian society. Early on in the one-man show (Dan plays all the voices, and they are myriad), a Nigerian explains that in Nigeria there are “no friends, only associates.”

Gangs roam the delta, but in Hoyle’s world, criminal and crude are, quite refreshingly, not synonyms. Some of the militants speak good English. They even have a sense of humour. “There’s no sign that says ‘Welcome to Nembe Creek’, ‘cos if you haven’t noticed, you’re not welcome,” Hoyle’s white character is told. Not long after the militants add, perhaps tongue-in-cheek: “We are too intelligent to kidnap you.” Perhaps this is because they know that he is merely an academic, with little potential for generating a decent ransom.

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Cormac McCarthy and Santa Fe Institute

theroadFrom the New Scientist I learned that American novelist Cormac McCarthy has a long history as a writer in residence at the Santa Fe Institute.  Interviewing Joe Penhall the screenwriter of the movie based on McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road:

Cormac McCarthy doesn’t tell us the cause of the apocalypse. What did you imagine it might be?

McCarthy told me it was some kind of environmental meltdown. He has an office at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, he loves hanging out there and a lot of his friends are environmental scientists, molecular biologists and physicists, so he’s coming at it from a very scientific point of view. It’s about what would happen if environmental meltdown continued to its logical conclusion: crops and animals would die, the weather would go out of control, there would be spontaneous wildfires and blizzards, you wouldn’t be able to grow anything and the only thing left to eat would be tinned food and each other. But I was anxious not to quiz him too much about what happened because we wanted to preserve the mystique of it.

The Independent writes about Cormac McCarthy:

For him, science still guards the flame of creation that literature has lost. “Part of what you respect is their rigour,” he says of the scientists he admires. “When you say something, it needs to be right. You can’t just speculate idly about things.”

… McCarthy seems to have imbibed a scientific pessimism currently expressed in, but by no means confined to, worries about climate change and environmental entropy.

At Sante Fe, the subjects that snagged in McCarthy’s imagination include the logistics of mass extinction, best known through study of the meteorite strike that ended the reign of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Traces of this fascination crop up in The Road, but the rest of his oeuvre hints heavily that feral human beings can easily reach their own apocalyptic crisis, without any help from outside. “We’re going to do ourselves in first,” he said to Kushner when asked about the threat of climate change.

Oprah’s book club selected The Road last year.  Oprah’s book club links to several SFI scientists discussing about the themes of the book including anthropologist Stephen Lansing (who also works at the Stockholm Resilience Centre).  Lansing writes on Man vs. Nature: Coevolution of Social and Ecological Networks:

As early as 1820, one observer wrote that truly “external” nature—nature apart from humanity—”exists nowhere except perhaps on a few isolated Australian coral atolls.” Not only do humans directly alter many ecosystems through development and agriculture, we impact apparently untouched habitats in remote regions of the earth through pollution and climate change. Yet we depend on nature for “ecosystem services” such as water purification, pollination, fisheries and climate regulation. For better and for worse, humans are constantly coevolving with species and the environment. Many traditional societies have found creative ways to remind themselves of the critical interdependence of the human and natural worlds—consider the water temples of Bali, for example. Claude Lévi-Strauss, perhaps the greatest anthropologist of our time, believed that this interdependence is fundamental to human thought.

According to Lévi-Strauss, when we think about nature we are always already thinking about ourselves.

In the past decade, scientific journals and the media have been filling up with reports of our changing relationship to nature. The most prominent example is climate change, but there are many others: the destruction of the world’s tropical forests and reefs, the eutrophication of lakes and coastal zones, the beginning of a new age of mass extinction. In The Road , Cormac does not dwell on the scientific details of these catastrophes. Instead, he imagines a world that represents their logical outcome and asks us to imagine what that might feel like. What if there was a near-complete breakdown of the complex networks joining humans with one another and with other species? It’s a question that stirs and troubles our sense of who we are.

“There was yet a lingering odor of cows in the barn and he stood there thinking about cows and he realized they were extinct. Was that true? There could be a cow somewhere being fed and cared for. Could there? Fed what? Saved for what? Beyond the open door the dead grass rasped dryly in the wind” (p. 120).

Kim Stanley Robinson on writing about Utopias

In an interview with Terry Bisson, science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson talks about the importance of writing about utopias:

Terry Bisson: My favorite of that series is Pacific Edge, the utopia of the series. What’s yours? Are there any particular problems in writing a utopia?

Kim Stanley Robinson: My favorite is The Gold Coast, for personal reasons, but I think Pacific Edge is more important to us now. Anyone can do a dystopia these days just by making a collage of newspaper headlines, but utopias are hard, and important, because we need to imagine what it might be like if we did things well enough to say to our kids, we did our best, this is about as good as it was when it was handed to us, take care of it and do better. Some kind of narrative vision of what we’re trying for as a civilization.

It’s a slim tradition since [Sir Thomas] More invented the word, but a very interesting one, and at certain points important: the Bellamy clubs after Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward had a big impact on the Progressive movement in American politics, and H.G. Wells’s stubborn persistence in writing utopias over about fifty years (not his big sellers) conveyed the vision that got turned into the postwar order of social security and some kind of government-by-meritocracy.

So utopias have had effects in the real world. More recently I think Ecotopia by [Ernest] Callenbach had a big impact on how the hippie generation tried to live in the years after, building families and communities.

There are a lot of problems in writing utopias, but they can be opportunities. The usual objection—that they must be boring—are often political attacks, or ignorant repeating of a line, or another way of saying “No expository lumps please, it has to be about me.” The political attacks are interesting to parse. “Utopia would be boring because there would be no conflicts, history would stop, there would be no great art, no drama, no magnificence.” This is always said by white people with a full belly. My feeling is that if they were hungry and sick and living in a cardboard shack they would be more willing to give utopia a try.

And if we did achieve a just and sustainable world civilization, I’m confident there would still be enough drama, as I tried to show in Pacific Edge. There would still be love lost, there would still be death. That would be enough. The horribleness of unnecessary tragedy may be lessened and the people who like that kind of thing would have to deal with a reduction in their supply of drama.

So, the writing of utopia comes down to figuring out ways of talking about just these issues in an interesting way; how tenuous it would be, how fragile, how much a tightrope walk and a work in progress. That along with the usual science fiction problem of handling exposition. It could be done, and I wish it were being done more often.

Resilience economics: a scenario

Jamais Cascio presents Resilience Econmics as a scenario of an economy in 2030. He also presents two alternatives – Just in Time Socialism and Robonomics in his column in the business magazine Fast Company.  Jamais writes:

Resilience Economics

United States: Resilience Economics employs a mix of regulations and norms (i.e., non-regulated but expected behavior) to shift standard business processes away from a focus on efficiency towards a focus on flexibility.

Resilience Economics (RE) emerged out of the realization that Neoliberal Globalized Corporate Capitalism made money hand-over-fist when everything was working right, but was like a rapidly-spinning top–seemingly stable, but if it hit too rough a patch, it went wildly out of control. The RE world, conversely, is less-lucrative during growth periods, but weathers downturns so well that most folks don’t even notice when “recessions” hit.

Proponents of NGCC dismissed RE as unable to compete with the 20th century way of making money, and that appeared to be correct up until the Great Retreat of 2017 hit, the downturn that made the 2008-2010 recession pale in comparison. Ironically, most folks figure that it was because we didn’t fix the problems in the first real 21st century recession, just offered bailouts and slaps on the wrist, that we got hit by the Great Retreat a decade later.

Three key characteristics of Resilience Economics shape the way we live:

  • Polyculture markets means that no one economic (or financial) institution ever gets “too big to fail,” or so big that it distorts markets the way WalMart used to. This was probably the most politically controversial set of rule changes, but the least visible for most everyday people.
  • Transactional Transparency upset some politicians and executives, too, but really worked to smooth out markets. All along, economists said that capitalism depends on transparent markets, where buyers and sellers know all the relevant details, but that was always the one aspect of capitalism that most “capitalists” ignored.
  • Collaborative Flexibility, aka the “Lego Economy.” The result of the previous two characteristics, really. Lots of small companies, individual entrepreneurs, even part-time workers able to come together as necessary for big projects.

Is it perfect? No. It’s noticeably less efficient than the 20th century model, and a lot of older folks say that they don’t feel as “rich” as they did a few decades ago, but it’s hard to say how much of that is from RE, and how much is just that we’re all trying to deal with adapting to a global environmental crisis.

Ian McEwan’s climate change novel

Bestselling, and Booker prize winning novelist, Ian McEwan talks about his forthcoming novel on climate change in McEwan’s novel take on climate change:

“It took me a long time to find a way into this subject – I’ve been thinking about it for a number of years,” he says. “And then I spent some time in the Arctic, with a group of artists and scientists; we were living on a boat that was frozen in a fjord. One of the things that struck me about that was there was a sort of boot room, and one of the iron rules of this boat was we had to take off all our outer clothing – boots, goggles, balaclava, skidoo suits – and over the week, the chaos of this boot room grew more and more intense.”

These eminent inhabitants of the Cape Farewell project’s vessel the Noorderlicht began to decline into a kind of genteel chaos. Someone mislaid his boots and, not wishing to delay the departure of a party itching to head out on an exploration, grabbed the nearest pair of a similar size he could find. A domino-effect of similar “borrowings” ensued. Good people, McEwan wrote at the Time (this was March 2005), were impelled to take what was not their own: “With the eighth Commandment broken, the social contract is ruptured too. No one is behaving particularly badly, and certainly everybody is being, in the immediate circumstances, entirely rational, but by the third day, the boot room is a wasteland of broken dreams.”

“I thought ‘well, this is a highly self-selected group of climate change people’,” he says now. “In the evenings we were discussing how to save the planet, and a few feet away through a bulkhead was this utter chaos! And I thought ‘that’s perfect, that’s the human angle on this that I want’. If one thinks of literature and novels in particular as investigations of human nature, then human nature suddenly became at the centre of our problem about climate change: that we’re sort of cooperative but selfish, we’re not used to thinking in long-term eras beyond our own lifespans or immediate spans of interest.

“So I devised a character into whom I poured many, many faults. He’s devious, he lies, he’s predatory in relation to women; he steadily gets fatter through the novel. He’s a sort of planet, I guess. He makes endless reforming decisions about himself: Rio, Kyoto-type assertions of future virtue that lead nowhere.”

Robert Charles Wilson on The Ruins of Tomorrowland

Canadian Science fiction Robert Charles Wilson writes about shifts in the consensus vision of the future in The Ruins of Tomorrowland

This week ABC broadcast a two-hour documentary special called Earth 2100 that used art, narrative and interviews to sketch a doomsday scenario for the next 90 years. The problems the show enumerates—climate change, population pressure, and ever-fiercer competition for ever-scarcer resources—are inarguably real, though their consequences and potential solutions remain fiercely debated.

What struck me, however, as I watched Bob Woodruff walk us through the collapse of civilization, was how far our consensus vision of the future has evolved. Since when? Well, take as a baseline the year 1955, when TV viewers were exposed to another art-driven, scientifically-based panorama of the near future: Disney’s Man in Space, broadcast in three parts (Man in Space, Man and the Moon, and Mars and Beyond) on the Sunday-night program then called Disneyland.

For many viewers, Man in Space was probably their first systematic glimpse of space travel treated as a real-world endeavor. Producer-director Ward Kimball mapped out a scenario already long familiar to sf readers: how we would put a man into orbit, followed by the building of a space station, a landing on the moon, the exploration of Mars, and ultimately the launch of a fleet to the nearest star. …

We lived with that consensus future for the next couple of decades. Its apotheosis was the moon landing, and it unraveled along with the Apollo program, Skylab, the shriveling of NASA, and a dawning appreciation of the technical difficulty of prolonged manned space travel. Its legacy—one in which we can take great pride, I think, as a species—is the continuing robotic exploration of the solar system. We didn’t get that big shiny Wheel in the Sky, but we’ve seen the vastness of Meridiani Planum and the icy bayous of Titan’s methane rivers.

In the meantime the consensus future has shifted radically. ABC’s Earth 2100 is much the same kind of program, using art and narrative to sketch a scenario of what science leads us to expect from the future, but it’s more dismaying than Man in Space, the way a cancer diagnosis is more dismaying than a clean bill of health. What it tells us is that our civilization is teetering on the brink of unsustainability and collapse. Earth 2100 presents a scenario that ends with major cities flooded or deserted and a global population decimated by starvation and disease. (And God bless us all, as Tiny Tim might say.) Even the panaceas offered as consolation at the end of the program seem absurdly timorous: better lightbulbs and electric cars. In this world, Disney’s Tomorrowland is either a grotesque incongruity or simply a ruin.

Behind both visions of the future, however, there were and are unspoken caveats. The specter stalking Tomorrowland from the beginning was nuclear war. The implicit promise of Man in Space was not that its glittering future was an inevitability, but that it would be our reward if we managed to sidestep atomic annihilation.

And ABC has given us a stick rather than a carrot, but the implication is strikingly similar: this is what will happen if we are not wise, and prompt, and lucky.

It’s the continuing business of science fiction to explore these consensus futures and to challenge them. Optimism is still an option—we may indeed be wise and lucky—and, even in the worst case, the Earth 2100 scenario still leaves us with a human population and the possibility of creating something better than civilization as we know it.

And in the end the new consensus future will prove just as true, just as false, just as prescient, and just as absurd as was the Disney version. The only well-established fact about the future is that we can never completely predict it. Which is what makes science fiction such a useful and pertinent art. Even now. Especially now.