Utopia and its discontents

I’m a huge fan of Neal Stephenson, and also of his newest project Hieroglyph, which aims to inspire future scientific breakthroughs with optimistic near-future science fiction. But I found two critiques of the approach quite compelling this week.

First, Virginia Postrel (whose writing on design I’ve enjoyed in the past), writes that “Peter Thiel Is Wrong About the Future” (I’m reading his book as well), and mentions Hieroglyph as similarly misled:

The dystopian science fiction Stephenson’s Project Hieroglyph aims to counter isn’t the cause of our cultural malaise. It’s a symptom. The obstacle to more technological ambitions isn’t our idea of the future. It’s how we think about the present and the past…

The reason mid-20th-century Americans were optimistic about the future wasn’t that science-fiction writers told cool stories about space travel…People believed the future would be better than the present because they believed the present was better than the past. They constantly heard stories — not speculative, futuristic stories but news stories, fashion stories, real-estate stories, medical stories — that reinforced this belief.

It’s the same ambivalence toward today’s progress that Louis CK rails about, and that many science fiction writers and futurists recognize. We do live in amazing times, yet the dominant cultural reaction is frustration and dissatisfaction. We don’t often celebrate the incredible progress we’ve achieved. As David Brooks once wrote, “Americans have always been united less by a shared past than by the shared dream of a better future.”

The Guardian also confronts the Hieroglyph collection, calling the stories “built on willful ignorance”:

But there is also a deliberate naivety to Project Hieroglyph. Stories such as Cory Doctorow’s The Man Who Sold the Moon are a veritable hymn to the culture of Silicon Valley and tech start-ups, but deftly wave away the part these cultures play in today’s corporate capitalism and all the inequalities that come with it.

I agree with their assessment of the best stories:

The best contributions to Hieroglyph are the least optimistic, and the best attuned to the human reality that technology so often obscures. Entanglement by Vandana Singh and Madeline Ashby’s By the Time We Get to Arizona both look at the impact of new technologies in developing nations and among the world’s poorest people. They also tackle the obvious problem of technological innovation, the looming menace of climate change, environmental degradation and resource depletion that go hand in hand with new technologies.

I still believe there is a role for optimistic science fiction in changing the world. However it’s always good to be mindful of the present and past when thinking about the future, and to include messy and uncomfortable situations in even the most polished vision. The real future will be both based in today’s world and include a lot of today’s problems, and people are wise enough to recognize when those aspects are missing from stories about the future.

Think small

A nice example of thinking small first, similar to Brandon Schauer’s Cake model.

Solving the right problems

Design is about solving problems that humans have, not problems that products have. – Mills Baker

I’ve referenced this quote several times since reading it; this is harder to do than you might think.

Breathing is enough

Several nice thoughts on mindfulness here, but I love this one:

Consume mindfully: Pause before buying and see if breathing is enough.

This works for me with snacks; let’s see if it does the trick for purchasing.

Thinking in Three Horizons

Three Horizons is an interesting foresight method that embraces the messy part of innovation and change:

The first horizon is the dominant present, which frames our current thinking about a domain…The third horizon is a possible future which may become dominant over time…

In between, there is the second horizon. This is a space in which the current horizon – where the power, the influence, and the money, along with connections, relationships and prestige are to be found – adapts to signals about the future: sometimes incrementally, sometimes disruptively, sometimes destructively.

Social change and technology change

When we think about long-term change with the benefit of hindsight, the things we think are unfathomable are usually the technology – planes, cars, computers. But it is at least as likely that the things that time travellers would most struggle with are the shifts in social values, which are almost invisible to us because we swim in them constantly and adapt ourselves to them as they change.

Suckers for irrelevancy

I’ve recognized this in myself and others:

A study from Stanford reports that heavy multi-taskers are worse at choosing which task to focus on. “They are suckers for irrelevancy”, as Cliff Nass, one of the researchers put it. Multi-taskers often think they are like gym rats, bulking up their ability to juggle tasks, when in fact they are like alcoholics, degrading their abilities through over-consumption.

Now, what was I just doing again?

The pen is mightier than the keyboard

What I was noticing was that I’ve become such a fast typist that I could slam out great big blocks of text quite rapidly — anything that came into my head, it would just dribble out of my fingers onto the screen. That includes bad stuff as well as good stuff. Once it’s out there on the screen, of course, you can edit it and you can fix the bad stuff, but it’s far better not to ever write down the bad stuff at all.

With the fountain pen, which is a slower output device, the material stays in the buffer of your head for a longer period. So during that amount of time, you can fix it, you can make it better, you can even decide not to write it down at all — you can think better of writing it.

The boring future

One of the defining challenges of writing science fiction is explaining to the audience the amazing new things in this world while respecting the fact that the characters already live in that world… For you, this future is cool, but for them it’s just another day with the same old problems.

See also Jamais Cascio, “Your Posthumanism Is Boring Me” and “Fifteen Minutes Into the Future“, and Stuart Candy, “Amazing=Mundane“.

Work without attachment

If we do not attach ourselves to the work we do, it will not have any binding effect on our soul…This is the one central idea in the Gita: work incessantly, but be not attached to it…

Do you ask anything from your children in return for what you have given them? It is your duty to work for them, and there the matter ends. In whatever you do for a particular person, a city, or a state, assume the same attitude towards it as you have towards your children–expect nothing in return. If you can invariably take the position of a giver, in which everything given by you is a free offering to the world, without any thought of return, then will your work bring you no attachment. Attachment comes only where we expect a return.