Inventing plausible utopias ⊗ Ethnographies from the Future ⊗ Government IT and public infrastructure — No.146

Read the Sentiers newsletter on technology in society, signals of change, and prospective futures.

This week → Kim Stanley Robinson on inventing plausible utopias ⊗ Ethnographies from the Future: What can ethnographers learn from science fiction and speculative design? ⊗ Using government IT to teach and build public infrastructure ⊗ The great unravelling: ‘I never thought I’d live to see the horror of planetary collapse’ ⊗ The city as page one

A year ago → The most clicked link in issue No.101 was to the collection of essays Some Thoughts.

Kim Stanley Robinson on inventing plausible utopias

Short but intriguing interview of KSR by Eliot Peper where they talk about Robinson’s new book in which he proposes a kind of utopian vision of how we might negotiate climate collapse. They also touch on “structures of feeling,” how capitalism devalues the future, the relation between science and science fiction, giving up on purity, and being mongrels. It’s followed by a tantalizing excerpt of The Ministry for the Future.

The giving up on purity (and mongrels) answer was perhaps the most useful for my own thinking. I’m usually attracted to mentions and examples of hybrids, as well as often disliking the too perfect, the too polished. I’d never thought of it from the purity angle but perhaps it’s a dislike for things that are too pure? Slice of my own life I guess but mentioned here in case it mirrors some of your own preferences.

[E]ven in the face of tremendous complexity and overwhelming odds, agency matters. […]

So the moment we’re living through now is a kind of interregnum, the space between two moments with their respective structures of feeling. The in-between can be acutely uncomfortable but also a space of freedom as old habits have ended but new ones not yet been settled. […]

I think the pressure to adapt to reality will include international institutions, because it’s a global existential crisis. And new organizations and even types of organizations are being invented all the time. […]

Stop believing in purity, and abjure the righteousness of that feeling, which so quickly becomes righteous indignation. These feelings are addictive brain drugs, but harmful to clear thought and action. We are mongrels on a mongrel planet, it’s all a mix always swirling together, so go with that and embrace difference and mixtures.

Ethnographies from the Future: What can ethnographers learn from science fiction and speculative design?

This one by Laura Forlano (via Shannon Mattern) is from 2013 and I didn’t have/take the time to dig further in this use of design fiction but it’s a super interesting one. Forlano looks at ethnography as a form of time travel and argues that for certain topics they must find ways of studying the future. In the piece she opens the door to using codesign, participatory design, and speculative design to open up new topics of inquiry, bridge both analytical and generative practices, and even writes about “design friction” which “would use the alternative futures and storytelling methods from speculative design in order to interrogate the gaps and seams that we uncover through ethnographic research.”

Increasingly, narratives from science fiction (as well as speculative design and design fiction) are being used as modes of imagining alternative futures in a critical and generative way (without being technodeterministic) in emerging research and design practice, and these practices have much promise for ethnographic methods. […]

From deep hanging out (Geertz, 1998) to interviewing lead users (Von Hippel, 1978) to adopting and experimenting with emerging technologies themselves, I developed strategies that allowed me to glimpse cultures, patterns and behaviors before they were widely known or understood.”

As such, the objects that are created are not the solution to a design problem but rather objects with which to think creatively. […]

We need better ways of turning our descriptive, analytical accounts into those that are prescriptive, and which have greater import in society and policy. We may do this by inhabiting narratives, generating artifacts to think with and engaging more explicitly with the people formerly known as our “informants” as well as with the public at large.

Using Government IT to Teach and Build Public Infrastructure

The reliably smart and insightful Bianca Wylie on the potential and opportunities for governments (particularly cities) to reappropriate the direction and creation of technology. She reminds us that tech doesn’t have to be created for commercial purposes, there’s nothing in code that’s inherently capitalist, there’s space for collaboration with the public, as well as an “opportunity for governments to engage as both a funder and resource creator for digital literacy.”

Nothing about software code is inherently capitalist; code can be used as a civic material for non-commercial ends. It can also be open source and shareable when the conditions are right. And governments are perfectly situated to give public technology more oxygen and attention. […]

Technology offers a way to build out new spaces for collaboration and design. This moment could be used to evolve government technology work into something better funded and supported, including how unionized positions impact how government tech is created and maintained. […]

Newness of approach and organizational design is where there is more opportunity. This is about looking at maintenance with fresh eyes as well, including the options to retire programs, services, and even roles.

The great unravelling: ‘I never thought I’d live to see the horror of planetary collapse’

Is there need for a trigger warning for this piece? Australian climate scientist and writer Dr Joëlle Gergis (who was also a lead author on the sixth IPCC report) starts from her country’s black summer, the immense loss of animal life, the parallel mass bleaching event recorded on the Great Barrier Reef, the intense heat, and goes on to explain how we are careening into the “great unravelling,” the horror of planetary collapse she never expected to live through. We know all the facts but reading the despair in Gergis’ words is one of those jarring reads we sometimes try to dodge, yet need to contemplate.

There is so much heat already baked into the climate system that a certain level of destruction is now inevitable. What concerns me is that we may have already pushed the planetary system past the point of no return. That we’ve unleashed a cascade of irreversible changes that have built such momentum that we can only watch as it unfolds. […]

Unfortunately, we live in a culture where we actively avoid talking about hard realities; darker parts of our psyche are considered dysfunctional or intolerable. But trying to be relentlessly cheerful or stoic in the face of serious loss just buries more authentic emotions that must eventually come up for air. […]

[T]here is great power and wisdom in our emotional response to our world. Until we are prepared to be moved by the profoundly tragic ways we treat the planet and each other, our behaviour will never change.

The City as Page One

I’d probably file this under thought experiment, as it’s still (to my eye anyway) an incomplete framing from Drew Austin but an attractive exercise nonetheless. He parallels the transformation of newspapers’ front page physical constraints by the digital, with the current reframing of cities during the pandemic. “Maybe a city is fundamentally a system for organizing information rather than an inherently physical object,” he says, citing architecture theorist Sanford Kwinter, to argue that “‘urban,’ then, is a phenomenon as fluid as other media, distinct from the cities where it has historically been found.“ To ponder.

According to McLuhan’s expansive definition, cities themselves are media: Not only are they stuffed full of every conceivable kind of “content,” but they are also, increasingly, the content of other media, particularly the internet. […]

[T]he internet has also evolved into the operating system for meatspace, furnishing more of the navigational tools and information systems that the built environment once exclusively provided via features like wayfinding signage and grid layouts. […]

As information becomes more and more fluid, the physical objects—the media—that formerly transmitted it become less and less functional, until symbolism is the only role left for those objects to perform.


Header image: “The Astronomical Rotula,” from The British Library King’s Topographical Collection.