Today I’m starting a part-time fellowship at the Data & Society Research Institute, the brainchild of the awesome danah boyd, dedicated to
addressing social, technical, ethical, legal, and policy issues that are emerging because of data-centric technological development. Data & Society will provide a space for researchers, entrepreneurs, activists, policy creators, journalists, geeks, and public intellectuals to gather, debate, and engage one another on the key issues introduced by the increasing availability of data in society.
When “entrepreneurs, activists, policy creators, journalists, geeks, and public intellectuals” talk to each other, how does what they talk about get out into the public realm? How do you make the extremely complex and multilayered issues (pdf) that data-based technologies raise—from how sensor data can upend urban planning to what happens when nobody’s DNA is private any more—comprehensible and meaningful for the people whose lives they’ll affect, i.e., absolutely everyone?
That’s what I’m here to help D&S figure out. And part of my answer is that the best, most accessible discussions about how technology changes us and how we react to it are to be found in science fiction. So among my goals at D&S is to turn the ideas being discussed here into stories about imagined futures, as well as collecting the best examples of other sci-fi writing that looks at these issues. Think of it as doing journalism, only in sci-fi form.
In this I’m drawing inspiration in part from Neal Stephenson’s 2011 essay Innovation Starvation, which calls for a sci-fi that supplies an antidote to the recent fashion for dystopianism and provides scientists and engineers with big visions to inspire them. (The new anthology Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future is in part an outgrowth of that essay.) I’m also thinking in the vein of MIT Technology Review’s annual Twelve Tomorrows anthology, which gathers some of the best new fiction about the near future, and some of the contributions to New Scientist’s brilliant Arc Magazine.
This isn’t to say I want to write about happy futures in which technology solves all our problems. Stephenson, in his essay, harks back to the utopianism of the Golden Age of sci-fi, but a little dystopian thinking—apart from making for a good yarn—is also essential if we’re going to have any serious discussion of technology’s risks. (Paolo Bacigalupi’s world in which fossil fuels have been exhausted, most crops have been wiped out, and a handful of agri-industry giants have gained a chokehold on the production of both food and energy is apocalyptic, but it’s perhaps the best fictional treatment there is of the risks of both global warming and monoculture.)
Rather, I think there is a space for—and, in the above anthologies, a trend towards—a realistic sci-fi that avoids the gravity well of despair about the near future on earth, but doesn’t seek escape velocity in fantasies about the far future in space. (Maybe it’s at a Lagrange point somewhere.) In the most recent issue of Arc, Marek Kohn criticizes the work of many sci-fi writers and futurists as “a sheaf of fashion sketches, a cult of possibility,” and counsels:
Realism is an engine for the imagination, not a drag on it. Grounding these castles of the future should be as rewarding as building them in the air. Futurist realism, examining possibility in the context of likelihood, requires asking what won’t change. It demands models that get the forces of continuity and the forces of change reacting with each other. It involves anticipating re-emergence as well as emergence. It means treating the future as real life.
So that’s what I’m here to do: treat the future as real life. Because it very shortly will be.