Worldbuilding ⊗ Speculative Luddism ⊗ Pop-futurism ⊗ Repair — No.159

This week → Worldbuilding forever: Bold ideas for our collective futures ⊗ Dreaming big ⊗ The future encyclopedia of Luddism ⊗ How predicting the future became a literary genre ⊗ Repair ⊗ Inevitable planetary doom has been exaggerated

A year ago → The most clicked article in issue No.112 was The Internet is a toxic hellscape—but we can fix it by Whitney Phillips.

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

In the latest Dispatch to members (unlocked for everyone in a few weeks), I mentioned what has probably been my favourite quote for the last few years:

Talk, loudly and frequently and in detail, about the future you want. You can’t manifest what you don’t share.
Madeline Ashby

I might have a new favourite (found in Madson’s Strelka Mag piece below), in part because I actually see it as roughly (and aspirationally I guess) what Sentiers orients towards.

Remember to imagine and craft the worlds you cannot live without, just as you dismantle the ones you cannot live within.
Ruha Benjamin

I’d wager it’s very likely that when she says “dismantle the ones you cannot live within,” Benjamin has in mind much more disenfranchised populations and less privileged people than myself. Still, I’m taking it very broadly and think of it for pretty much the whole global 99% as well as future generations.
Imagining better futures, and critiquing the many issues of the present.

This week’s featured articles fit particularly well together, I’m mentioning the connections more directly than usual, I hope you’ll find it useful.

Worldbuilding Forever: Bold Ideas for Our Collective Futures

Wonderful piece at Strelka Mag, where Ryan Madson starts from his reading and notes on Hashim Sarkis’ book The World as an Architectural Project, “a compendium of fifty case studies in which ‘architects have imagined the future of the planet through world-scale projects.’” (Just that part is already a good read.)

Going further, he expands the scope for speculative worldbuilding to other disciplines, like cinema, fiction, gaming, and fine arts. Madson presents sci-fi prototyping, and then dives deeper into Miyazaki’s Valley of the Wind, Japanese wordbuilding (including world-settings, sekaikan), and then Black Panther’s Wakanda, especially in the Coogler movie but he also uses the opportunity to write about “iterative, narrative-based worldbuilding created by multiple contributors in dialogue over time.” In both cases he also unfolds some of the societal comments and possibles presented by those movies. He closes with notes on collaboration and experimental utopias, and the piece also includes a number of excellent visuals throughout.

Worldbuilding is perhaps most profoundly instrumental as a tool to create collective visions, designs, or strategies for addressing the future of our planet. Diverse teams of creator-participants can assimilate contributions from a broad range of disciplines and genres including architecture and urban planning but also the sciences, information technology and programming, science fiction, gaming, industrial design, critical theory, and more. […]

Not everyone is a futurist, designer, inventor, scientist, or science fiction novelist. But everyone can contribute to shaping a vision. Those who possess useful tools can help to empower others, to give contours and form to a shared vision, to connect the dots from future worlds back to our present reality via policies, prototypes, narratives, and representations. […]

“Worldmaking is different today,” concludes Sarkis. “The crucial challenge that stands before us is no longer the incomprehensibility of the scale, but rather the inhumanity of the global and how we need to imagine it otherwise, to question the boundaries that still divide it, and to reduce its pervasive inequalities.[…] Our optimism no longer needs to envision futuristic scenarios; it needs to intervene critically upon the futures that are being deployed in the present.” […]

[A] participatory, ground-up, solution-driven, and sometimes visionary approach to public policy and urban planning, in combination with more direct forms of democracy and accountable representation, has the potential to emancipate society from its control by technocrats and corporate elites.

Dreaming Big

Another excellent piece, this one by Christopher Butler who goes from his “family of sorts” congregating, dreaming of better futures to face trauma, Star Trek, relative simplicity, and the relationship of The Amish with technology. The whole thing is very well woven together in a thoughtful meditation on living a simpler life.

Through his mention of Star Trek and its worldbuilding, it pairs very well with the previous, and through The Amish with the speculative Luddite society in the next article.

Imagining a better future is difficult to do. It’s especially difficult for those who know the inner-workings of the present. If you know any portion of the detail involved in running this byzantine shitshow that we call modernity, you also know the thousands of things that kill the imagination. […]

The second value is one that every human should find accessible. It’s the one that I sensed when admiring those strange, peacefully retrograde communities stumbled upon by the Enterprise crew. Fundamentally, it’s the idea that progress isn’t complete if it’s not experienced by everyone. […]

It was always crystal clear to me that these communities had not just made that choice once, in the past, but that their way of life was in the choosing. That their culture was one of stewardship over their culture.

The Future Encyclopedia of Luddism

Luddites have made a number of apparitions in the newsletter, I come back to them time and again, I find the real story of what happened to be a useful perspective on technological adoption, and the repurposing of the word by its adversaries is something we can see done repeatedly for various topics throughout history.

This specific piece is a speculative encyclopedia entry from 2500, giving us a “glimpse of an alternative economic and industrial history and future, in which the Luddites were successful in their battle against alienating technology.” Miriam A. Cherry paints an alternate history where the members of the movement, “in their success, formulated a different, yet productive, relationship between society and the development of technology.” Just as I tend to agree with the original intent of the loom workers, I definitely relate with their hypothetical “Sustainomics” philosophy.

The Luddite movement was a precursor to the development of the economic philosophy known as Sustainomics, which promotes technological development that adheres to principles of Utilitarianism and Human Flourishing Doctrines. […]

[I]t was understood that there needed to be a communal discussion of the nature of technological change and advancement as the technologies were being implemented. The cadres were not convinced that the free market should be the only determinant of technology. Instead, they firmly believed that technology had to be adopted democratically and used for the common good, not just the interests of the few. […]

Luddite philosophy also rests on the notion that the adoption of a new technology may resolve an existing problem, but that it may create future problems and concerns. […]

“Don’t build what you can’t maintain”; “Respect for human life and the environment”; and “Principles over property.”

How Predicting the Future Became a Literary Genre

In The Atlantic, Samantha Culp provides a whirlwind tour of pop-futurism, from the impact of Alvin and Heidi Toffler’s Future Shock, to those who followed in their footsteps, including singulitarians Kurzweil and Diamandis. Since all of them basically want to “disrupt industries while preserving the status quo,” she then takes a step in a different direction with Smith and Ashby’s How to Future, and Krznaric’s Good Ancestors. Connecting with the above pieces, Culp closes with the hopes of today’s futures thinkers of conjuring “slower, more restorative, community-driven futures that are just as irresistible.”

Grown in the soil of management consulting and overheated start-ups, even when these works branch out into the wider world, they are more interested in, and can more easily imagine, interstellar colonies and eternal life—which offer an immediate road to profit for some—than an issue such as prison abolition. […]

In The Good Ancestor, the philosopher Roman Krznaric calmly calls for a reorientation toward the future, not to benefit us (as is typically the pitch of the pop-futurist book), but to benefit our far-off descendants. […]

Unlike a linear book, interactive card decks and collective storytelling projects may best embody the strange, mutable, participatory ways the actual future unfolds. […]

Now, just as in 1970, the future is made by intricate interactions of people, systems, communities, material and environmental conditions—and by the stories that influence those relationships.


Another recurring theme here, with maintenance and repair. The authors “decouple design and innovation by thinking through two possible relationships between repair and design: repair as design and designing for repair.” Their paper relates to design and architecture in the Strelka piece and can easily be read as a component of the speculative Luddites’ philosophy above.

Design has historically operated in the service of the powerful, ever concealing the ugliness of global capitalist exploitation. In this context, repair has often been understood as the unfashionable antithesis to design: repair is seen as making do rather than innovating; repair happens in the face of austerity. […]

[R]epair is the expression of care, and therefore a way of making ethical decisions about design within complex and traumatized ecological systems. […]

Designing for repair includes considerations of durability, longevity and material affordances. Designing for repair means keeping knowledge exchanges open. […]

[R]epair brings design more deeply (through theory) and more slowly (through practice) into critical conversations about more-than-human ecosystems, and about design’s culpability in environmental degradation.

Inevitable Planetary Doom Has Been Exaggerated

Also at The Atlantic, the subtitle of this one by Emma Marris is “Hope for the future is a reasonable and necessary prerequisite for action.” The most grounded piece in the issue, it brings context and corrections to some of the doomsaying around the environment, it’s a good calming influence in which to set all those better futures.

“Any time you see a round number like 2.0 or 1.5 or 20 percent by 2020, that is a political number,” he said. “The reality is that every 10th of a degree matters.” There is no threshold after which it is not worth fighting. […]

So fighting for racial or economic justice, or against voter suppression, still can mean fighting for the environment. As these links are becoming better understood, the environmental movement is finally working with its natural allies to, for example, fight fossil fuels while promoting investment in Black, Indigenous, brown, and working-class communities.

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Header image: Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984).