Futurism

Dystopia and its discontents

Kim Stanley Robinson breaks down the various flavors of utopia and dystopia and comes out in favor of writing about, and pursuing, utopias, despite their limitations.

He concisely explains why dystopias are unable to spur real change:

These days I tend to think of dystopias as being fashionable, perhaps lazy, maybe even complacent, because one pleasure of reading them is cozying into the feeling that however bad our present moment is, it’s nowhere near as bad as the ones these poor characters are suffering through…If this is right, dystopia is part of our all-encompassing hopelessness.

And why utopias meet such strong opposition:

It is important to oppose political attacks on the idea of utopia, as these are usually reactionary statements on the behalf of the currently powerful, those who enjoy a poorly-hidden utopia-for-the-few alongside a dystopia-for-the-many.

It’s interesting to read his comments in the context of reactions to politically progressive efforts like the Green New Deal and universal healthcare. Some of the loudest opposition has come from those who already enjoy the desired benefits.

Immediately many people will object that this is too hard, too implausible, contradictory to human nature, politically impossible, uneconomical, and so on. Yeah yeah. Here we see the shift from cruel optimism to stupid pessimism, or call it fashionable pessimism, or simply cynicism. It’s very easy to object to the utopian turn by invoking some poorly-defined but seemingly omnipresent reality principle. Well-off people do this all the time.

Crafting a compelling utopia–or as I sometimes put it, designing a better way to live together–is the defining project of our generation. We have the resources and capability; what we still lack is the right design and pathway.

100-word utopias

Several years ago Kevin Kelly challenged people to describe a desirable and believable future world in 100 words. I didn’t get my submission in at the time but just found it again in my inbox:

Ahmad Rosencrantz skated across the sky bridge toward the empathygrove. The flowers were glowing softly as they effused dharmabiotics to be carried into the city by the morning breeze. He took a deep breath, and his sympathetic twinges sensed that his wife was happily playing with his daughter up the hill to the right. Ahmad leaned back and his shoes’ nanowheels slowed him enough to take a bite from the nearest chocolate tree. He winked to capture a VR360 of the beautiful scene as his shoes skated him uphill. “Hi guys!” he telepathed to his family.

Still interesting to me, though I might dial down the “tech” aspects in favor of more mindful experiences if I wrote it today.

The sweet spot of innovation

Q: How many designers does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A: Does it really have to be a light bulb?

Designers are (in)famous for always trying to come up with the unexpected; the “next big thing”. Early in my career I even described my goal as delivering “not what was asked for, but something new and better”. It’s a dangerous trait that often puts us at odds with our teammates, who are typically more focused on tangible metrics and engineering milestones.

When I worked on Glass, there was disagreement among team members about whether we were building a research prototype or a mass-market consumer product. A research project would focus on pushing the boundaries and learning as much as possible. A consumer product would need to fit existing use cases and appeal to a wide audience. Unsurprisingly, people on each side of the argument proposed wildly different approaches to product design, engineering, marketing, and sales.

In the end, we built a research prototype and marketed it as a consumer product, which didn’t work out very well. We didn’t achieve success in the market, and because we were distracted by selling, we didn’t learn as much as we should have. Glass was the classic example of a product that was ahead of its time…but of course being too early is the same as being wrong.

This talk by Jon Friedman, a designer who worked on the Kin, the Courier, SPOT watches and other Microsoft hardware misadventures, tells some of the same stories. I admire Jon’s work (and I loved the Kin!), but watching the talk I became increasingly uncomfortable with the repeated similar failures. After all, the point of “failing fast” is not the failing–it’s the learning. Designers of these highly innovative products aren’t learning the lessons of past failures.

Glass and the failed Microsoft products share at least one trait: they all tried to change entire systems, all at once. Glass innovated on form factor, hardware technology, interface design, software architecture, marketing, sales, and support. The Microsoft Kin had new industrial design, stored your phone in the cloud, and changed the way you pay for the phone.

One of the most interesting lessons I learned from working for Tony Fadell (who took over the Glass project) was the idea that a new product should be 90% familiar and 10% wildly innovative. A product that’s too far out, that doesn’t feel connected to anything people recognize, will be too uncomfortable to succeed. But of course if you’re not innovative enough, no one will need what you’ve built. So now I set up an “innovation budget” to track how much change my designs are forcing on people, and I’m careful to keep that amount in check. The goal is to find the “sweet spot” of innovation where a design is both desirable and acceptable.

Friedman goes on to describe his own career shift from working on early-stage speculative new products to making smaller improvements to the Exchange platform, a mature system with lots of customers. He found that it was not only an interesting design challenge, but also fulfulling to make an immediate difference at scale.

He also describes a strategy of combining “something new and something old”–taking new technology into existing markets, or existing technology into new markets. In either case, you only have to invent half of the solution, as the other half has already been figured out.

Paul Rand said “Don’t try to be original; just try to be good.” Innovation is plentiful in design today…it’s important to stay focused on making the “basics” great as well. To evolve my younger self’s goal: the sweet spot of innovation is the place where you fulfill what was asked for, and provide something better.

Measuring national curiousity

So, curiosity is a pretty weak motivator, unfortunately…in society, if you measure how much fear motivates you versus how much curiosity motivates you, it’s actually measurable: it’s the ratio of the defense budget versus the science budget. – Peter Diamandis

Doing more with less

The fundamental challenge of our generation is to design lifestyles that everyone wants and the earth can support forever. Buckminster Fuller put it well:

The possibility of a good life for any man depends upon the possibility of realizing it for all men. I must be able to convert the resources of the earth, doing more with less, until I reach a point where we can do so much as to be able to service all men in respect to all their needs.

Two contrasting views on worldbuilding in fiction

M. John Harrison thought worldbuilding was unnecessary and dull:

Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unnecessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.

Above all, worldbuilding is not technically necessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there.

Charlie Stross (who points to Harrison in this piece) thinks it’s the defining part of science fiction:

[Humans] exist in a context provided by our culture and history and relationships, and if we’re going to write a fiction about people who live in circumstances other than our own, we need to understand our protagonists’ social context…

For instance, stories about modern life (non-science fiction) fall flat if they don’t connect with the increasingly-bizarre context we live in today:

We’re living in a world where invisible flying killer robots murder wedding parties in Kandahar, a billionaire is about to send a sports car out past Mars, and loneliness is a contagious epidemic…These things are the worms in the heart of the mainstream novel of the 21st century. You don’t have to extract them and put them on public display, but if they aren’t lurking in the implied spaces of your story your protagonists will strike a false note.

By the way, here’s that sports car, which launched today and is currently orbiting Earth:

The big opportunity, to Stross, is building worlds different enough from our own context to illuminate other ways of being; where you can tell other types of stories:

SF should—in my view—be draining the ocean and trying to see at a glance which of the gasping, flopping creatures on the sea bed might be lungfish. But too much SF shrugs at the state of our seas and settles for draining the local aquarium, or even just the bathtub, instead.

Intelligent and docile

The first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control. – I. J. Good

Self-preventing prophecies

Nice explanation by David Brin of the role science fiction can play in preventing dystopia:

More good “Previsions” episodes here.

We already think about the future a lot

Contradicting Jane McGonigal, Martin Seligman says that we already spend plenty of time thinking about the future:

We learn not by storing static records but by continually retouching memories and imagining future possibilities. Our brain sees the world not by processing every pixel in a scene but by focusing on the unexpected…

Even when you’re relaxing, your brain is continually recombining information to imagine the future, a process that researchers were surprised to discover when they scanned the brains of people doing specific tasks like mental arithmetic. Whenever there was a break in the task, there were sudden shifts to activity in the brain’s “default” circuit, which is used to imagine the future or retouch the past.

Though there are limits:

Less than 1 percent of their thoughts involved death, and even those were typically about other people’s deaths.

I’m surprised this was found to be mostly a positive phenomenon given the stress it causes, but the absence of prospection would cause much bigger problems. Makes sense that this is baked into our natures.

Why thinking about the future matters

Jane McGonigal on why and how to think about the future:

Some people regularly connect with their future selves, but a majority does not. And this matters, beyond the links between future thinking and greater self-control and pro-social behavior. Thinking about the five-, 10-, and 30-year future is essential to being an engaged citizen and creative problem-solver…

Make a list of things that you’re interested in—things like food, travel, cars, the city you live in, shoes, dogs, music, real estate. Then, at least once a week, do a google search for “the future of” one of the things on your list.