Episode One Hundred and Forty Nine: Yes, And…

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

A tea-house in Portland’s Pearl district having taken a break and devoured Warren Ellis’ Trees #4. The existential angst of unignorable alien entities — life — setting up on your planet, instantly answering the question as to whether or not we’re alone but then at the same time, posing about a billion other questions. And then, just like the tagline suggests: what if we *were* just ants? What would it feel like to grow up under the shadow of aliens to whom we mean nothing? Whose very presence feels atavistically terrifyingly overpowering but about which we understand hardly anything? Not necessarily an outside context problem (and I imagine you don’t know you’re encountering an outside context problem until it’s too late) because it’s not necessarily fatal, but how do you plan for such a metaphysical event?

1.0 Yes, And…

Following on from yesterday’s episode about desperately needing optimistic and non-dystopic versions of the future (or, even, just slightly-less-dystopic versions) it left me feeling like it’s all too easy to insert the unconstructive “but” whenever I think about what technology can do for us as a tool. For example: “technology can change power structures and allow new opportunities to the formally disenfranchised” can easily be countered with “but all too often, through experience, ends up just reinforcing extant power structures”.

What it feels like we need is some sort of walk-through guide. If only Prima Games published a Human Civilization Walkthrough where we could thumb to the “so you’ve got to the early 21st Century, here are the tactics and plans you need to enact, and the traps you need to avoid to progress to the next level of the game, Super Happy Funtime Post Scarcity Utopia”.

This is perhaps the downside of being infected with the systems-thinking meme. I can see it in myself, and I can see it in my friends: the sort of adherence to the idea that systems are an interesting way to explain why what’s happening is happening (without completely resorting to the needing-to-invent-systems-to-justify-events-in-a-meaningless-universe) inevitably can lead to systems upon systems upon systems, a toddler’s view of the world where we say: well, we’d like fix this bit, which is embedded in this system which means fixing the *system*.

Maybe it’s just the way I think about systems: there’s the risk of introducing a defeatist attitude because the issue is fixing the *system* and not fixing individual parts in the system, right? If you’re a systems-thinker, then don’t you need to change-the-system instead of just address a small part? Can you effect bottom-up, self-directed cell-based change in such a system?

People much more qualified than I probably know the answers to these questions. Or if anything, it’s someone like Hari Seldon, who finally cracked the nut with psychohistory. (If I worked at Facebook or Google, I would totally as a predictable joke have an undisclosed, locked room that I never let anyone in labelled the Prime Radiant).

I had the idea, back when I was in agency land, of trying to persuade Management of the need to open offices not just for geographical opportunity (ie: China’s big! Let’s have an office in China! and South America’s getting the World Cup and the Olympics and its economy is booming! Let’s open an office there!) but for conceptual, market opportunity: ie – and this is going to be predictable – “Digital is big! Let’s open an office there!”

(There were, of course, lots of problems with that argument not least of which was the issue of defining what, exactly a “digital” office would do, but hey, I have a whole bunch of notes. If any massive ad agency networks want to give me a tonne of cash to open up an office for them, boy do I have a proposal for you.

But this thought of “opportunity” clashes up in my head with the thought, back in episode forty seven[1], of the colonial attitude of our latter-day East India Companies in Facebook and Google and the like bringing connectivity to the developing world as “terraforming for capitalism”. The systemic change of environment otherwise inhospitable to the market economy and bringing about conditions for the introduction of capitalism and the market economy to thrive.

I wonder how you find new places to colonise, to terraform. We know about colonising new places, but how do we talk about colonising new conceptual spaces. We talk about things like the Overton Window, but that’s more in terms of the *amount* of space we’re able to slip through and claim and live in, rather than the totality of the possibility space. Some of us wankers even *talk* about the possibility space, in ways that make it sound like we know what we’re talking about, but what we’re just doing is handwaving and saying: hell, looks like there’s lots of things we could do?

So here’s another one.

Good science fiction terraforms the future and makes it hospitable to humans. It takes an undifferentiated mass of potential and shows us livable scenarios, ones which we can point to and can say: I’d like to live there. Science fiction right now is really, really good at being a wanky London estate agent: showing us a bunch of horrible properties at the beginning to sap our will to live, and then – hopefully! – showing us a gorgeous yet unaffordable place at the end that we end up over-financing ourselves for.

I don’t want weak signals. I want beacons, burning fire in the darkness that we can navigate towards. Quantum froth erupting, zero-point powered gridfire, a warm light for all mankind, something that my son can look at and say: that’s the world I want to build, that better one. That’s the one to aim for. I want him to be able to look out say: second star on the right, and straight on ’til morning and for that not to just be a quote from a book but an actual thing he could *do*.

It feels like we have lost faith in ourselves. Some of the best science fiction lately has been lamenting the human condition, not celebrating it. Transcendence doesn’t count because it was just so dire. Her doesn’t count because it was singularly misogynistic, even if it was the best on-screen depiction of a techonlogical singularity. Pacific Rim doesn’t count because it’s just a fun movie about bashing monsters on the head.

Maybe Chris Nolan’s Interstellar will give us some of the wonder back and show us what we can do. Science Fiction’s job isn’t to *only* serve as a warning. It’s usefulness to society isn’t *only* to be the 1984 that we can misquote and point at, to be used as a pawn in a retailer’s war against a publisher. Science Fiction’s role is to inspire us and to show us what we can be capable of, to show how in an insignificant universe we can create significant things that are so much bigger than our own selves and to show *progress* and to bring that progress to light. To be a low-fidelity time-travel device, to show us possible versions of a future, like the Guardian from the City on the Edge of Forever. To prompt and to provoke and to question and then as well to be a symbol because we have the capacity to imagine things and to bring them to life.

Don’t like what we’ve got? Imagine harder and then work harder to bring those ideas to life.

But anyway, I got distracted. I was talking about terraforming and then I went off on one about science fiction and you’ll have to forgive me. Terraforming. How do you terraform new systems? Do you terraform the market economy and capitalism and slowly convert it into a post-scarcity society? How would you terraform a planet like Earth to prepare it for habitation for a fairer, better society?

I saw a post by my friend Chris Locke about “Smartphone Only” countries this morning[3], which feels a bit like the kind of nuke-it-all-and-start-again infrastructure reboot that’s difficult in system-extant Western countries. Ie: if you started from smartphone digital access, what kind of society would you build? Would you be smart enough to build a society around that type of access, or would you face pressure to build around 19th century models?

What I’m getting at is this: Western economies are dealing with the transition from the industrial revolution to an information (ugh) revolution that hasn’t completed yet. There’s a whole bunch of self-interest going on and they’ve gotten fat and complacent off the back off the industrial revolution and post-WW2 era. But, to extend an already wobbly metaphor, Western economies need to maintain backward-compatibliity: smartness is grafted on to 20C ways of thinking and doing, which is why we all still have to go to work every day and public transport is difficult (and, really, public transport is done in the pre-Uber, pre-algorithmic way).

Whereas Myanmar has the clean slate. China, in places, has the clean slate. Singapore does. And we’re seeing what kind of societies and cities *they’re* building. (Well, I’m not. People like Jan Chipchase are, and I’m pretty sure that he’ll tell you that we don’t know the half of it).

Part of this makes me feel sad that I only really know English. I wonder what the rest of the world’s science fiction is like, and what worlds they’re building.

[1] Episode Forty Seven – Building Better Worlds / Terraforming for Capitalism
[2] Beacons!
[3] Smartphone Only Countries – Caribou Digital

It’s 3pm and time for my call. One call and one more coffee meeting and then I’m done for the day. And it’s Friday! I hope you had a good one.

Dan