Fabricating Breakthroughs

Watching Kevin Slavin’s talk at MoMa this morning (it picks up at the 50:00 mark) as part of the current Talk to Me exhibit running at the museum, I felt like I unlocked a piece of a puzzle (appropriately) that had been annoying me for a few weeks. Slavin's presentation, “This is the Procedure,” talked about how, throughout history, we have designed different kinds of experiences, and encapsulated the instruction set—the pattern for the experience—in code of some kind for others to figure out. He moved from a Babylonian mathematical formula on a tablet to Pac Man and the strategy guides used to win the game, to a discussion of how some rock-climbing courses are designed, with challenges encoded in different pathways up the rock face, which we have to “read” and solve with our bodies. Somewhere in the tablet, the game and the rock face is the “procedure” or the solution set, and we have to experiment and process to divine the pattern and find it.

The issue that has been buzzing in my mind is a question explored by author Neal Stephenson in his recent piece for the World Policy Institute, “Innovation Starvation.” Discussing how the US has failed to continue as a force in global innovation due, in part, to a lack of imagination around important problems and challenges, Stephenson looks at his own role as a writer of science fiction and, on his way to a conclusion, wonders why a growing number of people feel science fiction has utility in this situation—why is sci-fi so compelling at moments when epic challenges and existential threats loom? He thinks it serves two possible roles: as inspiration or a magnet to draw people into problem solving, or as what he calls hieroglyphics, supplying “a plausible, fully thought-out picture of an alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place."

Thinking about this lately, I’ve found this list to be incomplete. I’ve often thought there is a deeper role for not just imagining alternatives and solutions, but doing what Slavin talks about in the rock-climbing or even physical gaming examples—playing or walking through many possible alternatives to both deduce the shape and dynamics of the system, and to them find ways forward. Science fiction, and its weird cousin design fiction, can be many things to many people—art, escapism, political statement, provocation, shared fantasy, etc. But they can also be represent a means of reaching breakthrough by playing with experimental pathways through complex systems—testing approaches to sets of problems and challenges that may not be able to be met through a head-on, linear approach.

I’m not sure, however, that just turning up the dials on techno-optimism is the answer. Stephenson and a handful of other science fiction thinkers are looking at a intentional use of a more optimistic lens as a way for science fiction to play a constructive approach to enabling foresight. While it can cover some of the inspiration bases, and even act as a sort of creative visualization by which we collectively see the outcomes we might desire, to my mind this view—as an either/or choice—risks becoming an easy way out, a happy escape. Too often we are ready to embrace someone else’s optimistic vision and declare victory prematurely.

At the very least we need, alongside these aspirational targets, exercises in collective construction. If innovation is dying, it’s because we’ve too often outsourced it, cheated around corners and declared it done, or slapped the label on too many things that don’t merit it—giving gold stars to everything. Most of all, we’ve become detached from it. If anything, we need to re-learn how to model, create, fail and repeat—to write our own fictions. This requires exercising the ability to run the course, read it with our own hands and minds, test possibilities, and map the way forward ourselves. We have to re-learn the ability to fabricate breakthroughs, not buy them or otherwise sell ourselves short. To paraphrase Slavin’s presentation title, we are the procedure.