No.149 — Living through sci fi in Lebanon ⊗ Experiments in feral futuring ⊗ The DOOM! report

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

This week → Teaching science fiction while living it in Lebanon ⊗ Experiments in feral futuring ⊗ The DOOM! report ⊗ Humanity is stuck in short-term thinking. Here’s how we escape. ⊗ How Discord (somewhat accidentally) invented the future of the internet

A year ago → The most clicked link in issue No.104 was Cyberpunk is Dead by John Semley.

Some of you might have noticed that the Sentiers homepage is simpler than it used to be, reducing the number of named topics and putting more emphasis on futures. I’ll be writing about pretty much all the same things, I’m just putting more focus on this axis and sometimes using it as a simple test in selecting articles, beyond “is it interesting to me?” The first and second pieces below make it even clearer for me why I’ve felt the need to surface that axis; “narrative”, telling stories, has been coming up again and again in recent years, as a tool to communicate, to make sense of lives and societies, to bring people together, to interpret others’ realities, to reclaim peoples’ history, to find a voice, to gain agency, etc.

Fiction, especially sci-fi (and its various intersections with foresight) seems like a significant lens through which we can analyse our species’ current challenges, as well as a tool to interpret, invent, and reify what comes next. The signals from an eclectic mix of topics, used to inform or select interpretations presented as fiction, designs, forecasts, and various manners of futuring represents something we need, and pretty much what this newsletter is about.

Teaching Science Fiction While Living It in Lebanon

Fantastic read. Nadya Sbaiti is an Assistant Professor in the Center for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies at the American University of Beirut and in the midst of revolution in Lebanon last year, designed a course as an “interdisciplinary graduate seminar in which we engaged as both text and method a range of historical, legal, and cultural works of scholarship, film, and literature (in translation and the original Arabic).” The course became even more relevant with the pandemic, and then the horrific explosion in the port of Beirut. Instead of a feared irrelevance at analyzing fiction during these events, Sbaiti and her students found great value in exploring utopias and dystopias, a place to project their “anxieties and worries in order to manage and make sense of the coming unknown.” In the piece she offers glimpses at the therapeutic value of the course, the fictions of the global south, new viewpoints on colonialism, imperialism, and social justice, and as with afrofuturisms, a plethora of fascinating non-western authors. Be sure to click through for the rich “syllabusesque” bibliography at the end, and the online magazine itself was new to me and quite interesting. (Via Justin Pickard.)

Situating them within genealogies and landscapes of the global south produced critical thematic assemblages around colonialism, imperialism, social justice, and climate change. We drew on the philosophies of 14th-century scholar Ibn Khaldun alongside interventions from Afrofuturism and techno-orientalism to explore constructions of time and modernity, evolutions of technology, and revolutions in culture. […]

There is an immanent tension between inspirational possibilities and bleak futures that Lebanon seems to exemplify, lodged in the cleft between a utopian revolution and its dystopian likeness. I began to imagine the possibility that this class—in this place and at this time—might resolve some of this tension. […]

And therein lies the core of science fiction’s immense methodological potential: its ability to translate dyadic elements—time and space, present and future, foreclosure and possibility—into legible existences. In so doing, it massively disrupts claims to universality on two planes—the lived and the intellectual. […]

So with its vast universes and myriad realms, characters, and outcomes, science fiction reminds us that we can, in fact, exist in dimensions more expansive than our physically and temporally circumscribed present suggests. […]

Sci fi literary and artistic output increasingly serves as a witness for the lives of those who have long existed on the political and social margins of society and who have been the targets of technological, medical, social, and political experiments.

Experiments in Feral Futuring

“Gah!! I missed this during my Twitter break ?” was my first reaction at reading this account by Anab Jain and Alex Taylor of a series of zoom sessions held starting in March. They ended up calling these “feral futuring” and recount some of the insights the participants shared, how these simple discussions with no specifically organized practices or tools ended up being quite valuable, and how they found solace and ways of interpreting their locked-down present through these discussions.

I had saved the preceding Lebanon piece and this one in my newsletter folder during the week, without reading them. It’s quite the synchronicity to then read both of them one after the other, so similar are the conclusions and benefits of the two projects.

Often it is the “futurist” who takes on the enviable job of extrapolating trends and projecting them into our future worlds. Yet it now seems that many more, globally, are dreaming and imagining about entangled futures. This is a stay-at-home futuring, a common world-making, an impulsive response to the collective and contemporaneous forces shaping our world. […]

These sessions created an opportunity for strangers to collectively hold space for each other’s imaginations without a specific agenda or goal. A space where, for brief periods of time, we could encourage each other to let our minds wander, to challenge, question, and reflect on what other, different worlds could feel like. […]

Feral futures make room for futuring, but not just from the studios and laboratories of creative actors or articulate academics. Instead, feral futures allows futuring in and through other lives—in the banal and unruly moments that are too often cast aside, because they cannot, will not, add up to what comes next. […]

[W]e seek to ask more of futures—not just ask how human visions of domesticated futures are overrun by the unruliness of nonhumans. We seek a new way of thinking about the future, one that recognizes the uncertainties and that operates at the limits of what can be told.

The DOOM! Report

New Nemesis report based on their research on the end of trends. They ran a survey, took some of the answers they received, and then by K Allado-McDowell expanded on them using GPT-3. I haven’t read all of the synthetic text but it in a way it reminds me of something like academic writing, in the sense that it somehow feels like it’s hard to parse because of the reader’s lack of fluency in the language while hiding something of worth underneath. Where in academic writing it’s because of the abstraction of layer upon layer of references (and/or pedantic over-writing), here it’s because GPT-3 doesn’t understand what it’s writing, it’s just spewing text abstracted from layer upon layer of inputs. You could probably replace “academic” with “business speak” or “sports ball speak,” the point being that it’s close enough to make it look like it’s making a sense you might be missing… but it’s not, it’s just writing without understanding, it’s the million monkeys coming up with Shakespeare’s cousin but each monkey is a node in the neural layers. (First quote below is from the humans’ intro, last two from the “AI” with emphasis by the humans.)

[W]ith subsequent tweaks to the sentence fragments we used to seed it, as well as trimming back excess text and hitting “generate” again, we started to receive some interesting results. Then we began feeding some of the more exciting concepts back into the machine, improvising the inputs and departing from our original survey synopses. […]

The fractal property of trends and prediction implies a meta-fractal perspective that made a few respondents uncomfortable. We may be witnessing the end of the trends in general. Even what we may be witnessing as a new trend or paradigm may be (a) a higher order statistical cluster, or (b) a continuing trend within a collapsing paradigm. […]

To explain these trends, we draw on the emergence of the social philosophy of koinonia and its manifestations in history. The key insight is that this particular cognitive-social principle can affect both the individual and group level. Koinonia is a type of relationship that describes a commonality of people in sharing a distinct connection or purpose.

Humanity is stuck in short-term thinking. Here’s how we escape.

I’m not sure I agree with one of the central points of the article; that in the 21st century we are suffering from “presentism,” of not looking to the future but being focused on what’s going on right now. Having to focus on the present does not mean we are not envisioning the future(s), simply that we don’t have much time left for it (the focus on business is also annoying). Anyway, it’s interesting to have a read for Fisher’s historical look at how time has been perceived, but more importantly it plays off the first two articles where people are using the pandemic pause to do just the opposite; leave the present and reclaim the imagining of futures.

Being able to conceptually manipulate time may be what set us apart from other animals. In the Pleistocene, our ancestors developed what evolutionary biologists call “mental time travel.” We can build theaters in our minds that allow us to play out scenes and characters from the past, as well as hypothetical stories about the future. […]

[A]t some point between the late 1980s and the turn of the century, a convergence of societal trends took us into a new regime of time that he calls “presentism.” He defines it as “the sense that only the present exists, a present characterized at once by the tyranny of the instant and by the treadmill of an unending now.” […]

The final temporal stress—and this is a major one—is targets. Today, metrics dominate all realms of life. Growth statistics. Efficiency scores. Shareholder returns. KPIs, GDP, ROI. If poorly framed, these targets foster presentism or even encourage bad behavior.

How Discord (somewhat accidentally) invented the future of the internet

I don’t usually feature this kind of company-bio article but the hyperbolic title is somewhat right, Discord is something different and has come at exactly the right time in terms of the dark forest of the internet shift and the pandemic, positioning them perfectly for both and to influence where community, and the act of being together online, is taken.

Sub-trend; it’s also yet another gaming tool having a broader impact, things like Unity, and Unreal being used in tv and movies is one of my pet examples but Discord also follows Flickr and Slack as chat tools built for games before becoming the lifeline and core product of the original companies.

Fast-forward a few years, and Discord is at the center of the gaming universe. It has more than 100 million monthly active users, in millions of communities for every game and player imaginable. Its largest servers have millions of members. […]

”It created a place on your computer and on your phone,” Citron said, “where it felt like you friends were just around, and you could run into them and talk to them and [hang] out with them.” You open up Discord and see that a few of your friends are already in the voice channel; you can just hop in. […]

[B]y putting all those things together, in a way that felt more like hanging out than doing work, Discord found something remarkable. Everybody talks about the notion of the Third Place, but nobody’s come closer to replicating it online than Discord.


Header image: Well done neighbours! (Andrea Leopardi on Unsplash).