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March 20, 2014

Mirror, Mirror -- Science Fiction and Futurism

Futurism -- scenario-based foresight, in particular -- has many parallels to science fiction literature, enough that the two can sometimes be conflated. It's no coincidence that there's quite a bit of overlap between the science fiction writer and futurist communities, and (as a science fiction reader since I was old enough to read) I could myself as extremely fortunate to be able to call many science fiction writers friends. But science fiction and futurism are not the same thing, and it's worth a moment's exploration to show why.

The similarities between the two are obvious. Broadly speaking, both science fiction and futurism involve the development of internally-consistent, plausible future worlds extrapolating from the present. Science fiction and many (but not all) scenario-based forms of futurism both rely on narrative to explore their respective future worlds. Futurist works and many (but not all) science fiction stories have as an underlying motive a desire to illuminate the present (and the dilemmas we now face) by showing ways in which the existing world may evolve.

But here's the twist, and the reason that science fiction and futurism are not identical, but instead are mirror-opposites:

In science fiction, the author(s) build their internally-consistent, plausible future worlds to support a character narrative (taking "character" in the broadest sense -- in science fiction, it's entirely possible for the main character to be a space ship, a computer network, a city, even a planet). In short, a story. Conversely, futurists develop any story or character narrative (here found primarily in scenario-based futurism) to support the depiction of internally-consistent, plausible future worlds.

Science fiction writers need to build out their worlds with enough detail and system knowledge to provide consistent scaffolding for character behavior, allowing the reader (and the author) to understand the flow of the story logic. It's often the case that a good portion of the world-building happens behind the scenes -- written for the author's own use, but never showing up directly on the page. But there's little need for science fiction writers to build their worlds beyond that scaffolding.

Futurists need to make as much of their world-building explicitly visible as possible (and here the primary constraint is usually the intersection of limits to report length and limits to reader/client attention); any "behind the scenes" world-building risks leaving out critical insights, as often the most important ideas to emerge from foresight work concerns those basic technology drivers and societal dynamics. When a futurist narrative includes a story (with or without a main character), that story serves primarily to illuminate key elements of the internally-consistent, plausible future worlds. (The plural "worlds" is intentional; as anyone who follows my work knows, one important aspect of futures work is often the creation of parallel alternative scenarios.)

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.

March 19, 2014

Watching the World through a Broken Lens

It's often frustrating, as a foresight professional, to listen/read what passes for political discourse, especially during a big international crisis (such as the Russia-Ukraine-Crimea situation). Much of the ongoing discussion offers detailed predictions of what one state or another will do and clear assertions of inevitable outcomes, all with an overwhelming certainty of anticipatory analysis. Of course, these various prognostications will almost always be wrong; worse, they'll typically be wrong in a useless way, having obscured or confused our understanding of the world more than they've illuminated it.

It's not just a peculiarity of Central European crises. We can see a similar process play out in nearly every global-scale system with consequences beyond the immediate, economically, militarily, or politically. Detailed claims about imminent inflation or the arrival of an Iranian nuclear weapon by the end of the year get treated as gospel up to the moment when the assertion is shown to be wrong, after which the previous statement drops down the memory hole and is replaced by one about a new threat of imminent inflation or the arrival of an Iranian nuclear weapon by the end of the new year. Those who inflict this Potemkin futurism on us -- predictions without substance portrayed as careful analysis of future outcomes -- never suffer the consequences of being wrong. Anyone offering more subtle or complex analysis will be treated at best as having just another opinion, or even actively ignored if what they say runs counter to the conventional wisdom.

This prediction-error-prediction cycle isn't just a feature of television or Internet punditry. As I've mentioned before, I did my graduate work in political science, and ultimately erroneous predictions dripping with certainty are commonly found in this realm as well. Unlike most other social sciences, political science has to balance both analysis of past+present conditions and grounded forecasts of the implications of those conditions. When there's a revolution in Country X, you'll rarely see an Anthropologist or Social Psychologist quoted in mainstream discussions of What This Means; conversely, you're almost guaranteed to get a juicy quote or two from an academic in the Department of Government and Conventional Wisdom at Ivy-Covered Halls.edu.

This is not a dilemma without a solution, however. Professional Foresight (aka Futurism) also went through a period where specialists would offer up a single prediction of a certain future. In more recent decades -- arguably since Hermann Kahn's On Thermonuclear War in 1960, but more generally since the advent of Shell-derived Scenario Planning in the 1990s -- futurism has been more comfortable with uncertainty, and more willing to offer multiple rival forecasts of possible outcomes instead of singular, certain predictions. Multi-scenario foresight has evolved various iterations since then, but they all come down to a core idea: you can't predict the future, but you can see the shape of different possible futures.

So what would this model look like if employed by political pundits and political science academics? To be honest, it would probably be confusing, and make for bad television. We as a civilization have a bias towards spectacle and a preference for detail over generality; a talking head saying "this could happen, or that, or this other thing, they're all plausible outcomes" will be squished by someone with a loud voice and absolute certainty.

Certain but wrong usually beats complex and observant. Enjoy your future.

Jamais Cascio

Contact Jamais  ÃƒÂƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚¢Ã‚€Â¢  Bio

Co-Founder, WorldChanging.com

Director of Impacts Analysis, Center for Responsible Nanotechnology

Fellow, Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

Affiliate, Institute for the Future


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