Sci-fi, Banality, and Reality

I just finished reading the text for Warren Ellis's talk, "How to See the Future," given at Improving Reality this week in Brighton. It's a great talk, as you might imagine. Short (on the screen) and straight ahead, but cuts to the quick. (Video link coming soon).

In it, he touches on part of the reason I asked the question about whether or not there is noticeable pushback against perceived promises of the future wrapped up in the forecasts of those the public sees as futurists: as a society, we've gotten so bored with, used to, or metaphysically dissatisfied with what a dispassionate observer might call The Future Now (complete with amazing mobile phones and extraordinary space exploration) that we don't recognize the change for what it is, and not only fail to become what Venkat Rao calls future nauseousbut also question whether it's happening at all, as well as the people who brought it up in the first place. 

Warren's call is for us to wake the hell up and consider that it is in fact happening: 

"To be a futurist, in pursuit of improving reality, is not to have your face continually turned upstream, waiting for the future to come. To improve reality is to clearly see where you are, and then wonder how to make that better.
Act like you live in the Science Fiction Condition. Act like you can do magic and hold séances for the future and build a brightness control for the sky."

Neal Stephenson approached this theme from a different angle last year in his article "Innovation Starvation," asking whether science fiction has a role in sparking positive innovation. One answer he's since given is the Hieroglyph project, which actively engages science fiction as a catalyst to do the sparking—to create aspirational states and targets for real science. 

Whether it's imagining big as Warren, Neal and other are calling us to do, or re-learning how to appreciate the little things, as designer Jon Bell has suggested here, the fact is, there is reason to take a step back, wonder what we're doing here, and re-assess our roles as conjurors of foresight and makers of "sense". To otherwise insist there's nothing to see here, that all is well, and that we dare not question who we are is, while comfortable for some, frankly a little dangerous. How else to maintain, or better yet, hope to attain, relevancy and efficacy? Real banality may be in not feeling a bit nauseous about your work, your role, your value (if you can presume to have any) on a relatively frequent basis. As someone once told me, if you don't feel a little sick, you probably aren't doing it right. I passed this on to my students this summer as orienting advice on the first day of class, and by the end, a more than few knew what I meant, and said so, then grinned.

This is all good stuff. Cracking reality open to see what's really inside. Getting a bit of perspective, sniffing the zeitgeist, and sensing where the audience is. In another profession, that would be called researching user experience, I suppose. Projects like Heiroglyph, and the  new Center for Science and the Imagination where it lives are doing this from one angle. The increasing number of design fictionauts wielding their spooky prototypes are trying another. Fortunately, an increasing variety of people and points of view are getting involved, and it isn't down to just a few academic programs to, well, program how it's done. We are increasing futures biodiversity as we speak. 

One of the reasons we're in the larger state we're in at the moment, to me, is that we lack fresh narratives that illuminate pathways forward. As a society, we lack the ability to stand a little nausea—we'd rather walk up to the precipice, and scuttle back inside our cave in fright. In the US, we have one major party that gives us a juice box and a cookie and says "Don't be scared," and another that tells us to get back on the bus that brought us here. Europe is in a similar state, applying the wrong kind of magical thinking to maintain Venkat's manufactured normalcy. We aren't asking people to help craft new narratives, only doing historical re-enactments. 

The trick is engagement, or, as I've said before, creating handles on the future. Not playing oracle or wizard, entertaining crowds with shocking feats of forecasting, or enthralling tales of imminent collapse, or parroting of Big Ideas. While that gets a good speaking gig now and then, it doesn't provide people with the means of doing much about it. It just displaces one received narrative with another, and ultimately perpetuates the credibility crisis. 

Science fiction is one set of handles people are familiar with. It sets expectations that things are likely to be a little different. In fact, it gives permission for it to be so. While it's not the only playing field we can work on, it's a great place to start. Like gameplay, it comes with a set of expected operating conditions that are pretty liberating. It's the preferred genre of progress, unlike, say, classical mythology. What other pathways out of banality are waiting to be exploited? Graphic novels, superhero tales, ARGs and video games have been attempted. Perhaps someone will find a way to adapt operas, telenovelas or Twitter streams. The more culturally embedded the genre, the more people can engage. 

Whatever the means, Warren is right. We need to lose the fear and embrace the vertigo.