Futurism vs fiction

In science fiction, the imagined world supports the story; in futurism, the story supports the imagined world.

It’s a simple but crucial difference, and one that too many casual followers of foresight work miss. If a futurist scenario reads like bad science fiction, it’s because it is bad science fiction, in the sense that it’s not offering the narrative arc that most good pieces of literature rely upon. And if the future presented in a science fiction story is weak futurism, that’s not a surprise either — as long as the future history helps to make the story compelling, it’s done its job.

Futurists and science fiction writers often “talk shop” when they get together — but fundamentally, their jobs are very, very different. – Jamais Cascio

How to know

“Never delegate understanding” – Charles Eames

Just get started

“The muse visits during the act of creation, not before” – Roger Ebert

The impossible and the improbable

Some good guidance on which technique to use depending on what you want to say:

It’s been said that science fiction and fantasy are two different things. Science fiction the improbable made possible; fantasy the impossible made probable. – Rod Serling

Designing for imagination

Some good thoughts about the future of books, reading, and the imagination:

Looked at against richer media, it’s kind of amazing that books still exist at all. They don’t move. They can’t carry a tune. They’re simply not capable of the kind of visual beauty that we can get elsewhere in the media ecosystem…

The thing about books, though, is that it’s not their primitive components that make them work. It’s the imagination of the reader, and that is an incredibly potent — and timeless — media tool. The power of a book comes from the act of reading it…

What do we want the act of imagination that we call “reading” to look like and feel like in the future?

A couple good examples included as well.

Too busy to rest

Elizabeth Kolbert summarizes the new book Overwhelmed with a comparison to what John Maynard Keynes expected our society to become.

By 2028, he predicted, the “standard of life” in Europe and the United States would be so improved that no one would need to worry about making money. “Our grandchildren,” Keynes reckoned, would work about three hours a day, and even this reduced schedule would represent more labor than was actually necessary…

In the future, Keynes imagined, the fruits of capitalism would redeem capitalism…

It is, to say the least, disappointing that things haven’t turned out that way—that inequality has grown, that leisure is scarce, that even the rich complain of being overwhelmed. And yet so much of what we do, collectively and individually, suggests that we still believe more wealth is the answer. Reexamining this belief would probably be a good idea—that is, if anyone had the time for it.

Russia’s sci-fi strategist

On the heels of thinking about design as politics comes an interesting mention of Vladimir Putin’s close advisor Vladislav Surkov, who also happens to be a novelist:

The Kremlin’s approach might be called “non-linear war,” a term used in a short story written by one of Putin’s closest political advisors, Vladislav Surkov, which was published under his pseudonym, Nathan Dubovitsky, just a few days before the annexation of Crimea. Surkov is credited with inventing the system of “managed democracy” that has dominated Russia in the 21st century, and his new portfolio focuses on foreign policy. This time, he sets his new story in a dystopian future, after the “fifth world war.”

Surkov studied theater direction at the Moscow Institute of Culture before moving into advertising, PR, and finally politics. One of his stated goals is to establish a national ideology for modern Russia:

If we in Russia do not create our own discourse, our own public philosophy, our national ideology that would be acceptable for the majority of our citizens (at least for the majority, and preferably for all), then they are simply not going to talk to us and reckon with us.

But he has still found the time to write essays, rock lyrics, and even novels:

In his spare time Surkov writes essays on conceptual art and lyrics for rock groups. He’s an aficionado of gangsta rap: there’s a picture of Tupac on his desk, next to the picture of Putin. And he is the alleged author of a bestselling novel, Almost Zero.

And like any true artist, he also has a rival and sworn enemy, the poet and novelist Eduard Limonov, who takes a different approach:

Eduard Limonov and Vladislav Surkov hate each other. But in many ways they are very similar because both are convinced that western democracy is a complete sham – and both are trying to create political alternatives to what they see as the second wave of stagnation that took over Russia in the 1990s.

The most interesting thing about this to me is how Surkov’s “art” seems to influence his work and vice versa. His writing has been scoured for clues about Russia’s plans with mixed success–but the fact that any such writing exists is statement enough. Can you imagine Valerie Jarrett or Karl Rove publishing political fiction while advising the president? The writing shapes cultural acceptance of the policies to come, and is simultaneously a way to prototype and imagine more future ideas. Another example of design–through fiction–changing culture.

Wonder and Wonders

Everything is in an attitude of mind; and at this moment I am in a comfortable attitude. I will sit still and let the marvels and the adventures settle on me like flies. There are plenty of them, I assure you.

The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.

Design as politics in a changing world

A well-written argument that “politics”–built from mindfulness, personal commitment, and creative design–is as important to the climate crisis as science and technology:

[We have], basically, two ways out. One is extraordinary technology…[the other] is extraordinary politics: politics that goes beyond the usual interest-swapping and sets new commitments for the country and the world…

Does our culture still have the courage–and the harmony–to commit to real change based on moral beliefs?

Consider the end of slavery—not in the US, but in the British Empire, which abolished the practice thirty years before the Emancipation Proclamation, by an act of Parliament, with compensation to slaveholders…the historians’ view these days is that British emancipation was, in fact, a wildly expensive and disruptive moral commitment, executed through extraordinary politics…

[We need], in incremental and experimental ways, to keep building up a real politics of climate change. That politics will be both environmentalist and human-oriented, because there’s no separating the two in the age of climate change. It will have to ask how the peoples of the world are going to live together and share its benefits and dangers, and also how we are going to use, preserve, and transform the world itself.

That sounds like real design to me. See also Dan Hill’s Dark Matter & Trojan Horses.

Science fiction + science fact

Michael Abrash, head of Valve Software’s augmented reality efforts, talks about why he’s joining Oculus. It’s interesting how he focuses on the imagined experience from the books as much as the technology, which meanwhile proceeds along its own path. Blending the two is a powerful combination.

Sometime in 1993 or 1994, I read Snow Crash, and for the first time thought something like the Metaverse might be possible in my lifetime. Around the same time, I saw the first leaked alpha version of Doom…

Fast-forward fourteen years…

Then two things happen at about the same time. On one path, Palmer develops his first VR prototype, John and Palmer Luckey connect, Oculus forms and its Kickstarter is wildly successful, DK1 ships, and John becomes Oculus CTO. Meanwhile, I read Ready Player One, strongly recommend it to several members of the AR group, and we come to the conclusion that VR is potentially more interesting than we thought, and far more tractable than AR.