American Culture

Who owns the story of the future?

Back to the British Library this evening for another interesting panel discussion as part of their Science Fiction series, this one on “Who owns the story of the future?” Given the extent to which we’ve seen the media get compromised by corporate ownership over the past two decades, at least in the US, this turns out to be a really good question—where do the narratives come from that we tell ourselves to make sense of the world as it is today, let alone of the future. And one that people seem to be interested in, given that it was literally a full house. Part of that may have been the fact that two of the speakers were William Gibson and Cory Doctorow, who have clearly thought about these issues in some detail. Plus, they’re old hands at this sort of thing. The other panel members all looked just as interesting, all being writers on what the future may or may not hold.

First, Jon Turney, the moderator, has edited The Rough Guide to the Future. Mark Stevenson has written An Optimist’s Tour of the Future. And economist Diane Coyle has just published something that is sure to go on my reading list—The Economics of Enough (reviewed here by Fred Pierce). I haven’t read any of these, I have to say, so this was a bit of an adventure—going to talks with people you’ve never heard of can be a dicey proposition. On the face of it, Coyle appears to be genuinely frightened of what the future might hold, whereas Stevenson, I imagined, might be pretty chipper about things, a representative of the Matt Ridley view of the world.

So we started out the evening with a number of possible narratives—since that’s what we’re dealing with here, the control of the narratives that will emerge as the future unfolds. My view is we’re already overwhelmed with narratives right now, which is one of the reason there is so much bad information out there. It’s easy to blame the internet, but it’s also the case that Peter Medawar’s caution years ago of the dangers of educating people beyond their abilities for rational thought (somehow the US Congress springs perhaps too easily to mind here) needs to be kept in mind as well.

But there was very little of that sort of discussion early on. In fact, the entire first half of the evening was spent talking a lot abut “progress.” Not that it wasn’t interesting, but it wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. Matters were not helped by there being five people up there on the stage, one of them (Turney) trying to make sure that everyone had a chance to say something edifying. Four panelists is just one too many. Nor by the fact that Gibson, who was clearly jet-lagged (and admitted it apologetically early on), which meant he was even spacier than usual—which is already pretty spacey. This didn’t prevent him from making some substantial offerings, but still, he didn’t seem to be on top form. Then there was Stevenson, who is indeed of the Matt Ridley school of things have never been better, and we should stop being cynical, because we can fix whatever it is, or something. And who likes to talk.

It started out well, with Turney getting everyone to talk about writing about the future. Coyle had an interesting point about economics being more speculative than science fiction. Doctorow set one of the themes for the evening by taking about his next novel, which will be sort of an anti-Cormac, where people in a disaster scenario actually help each other out. He hates that meme where disaster brings out the worst in everyone, On that, Doctorow and Stevenson had one of their few agreements of the evening. Coyle also made an interesting point about Steampunk—it represents a nostalgia for the Victorian era as a time of optimism about the ability of technology to handle the future. Gibson, as is his wont these days, pointed out that Science Fiction writers actually haven’t been very good at predicting the future.

The rambling “progress” discussion was probably well-intentioned when Turney began it, but it went nowhere, sadly—or rather, too many places, some of which were interesting, but many were not. Coyle noted that an interesting aspect of the present is the amount of pessimism around, even though in many respects a number of things have never been better. Her example, which it’s hard to argue with, is that ten years ago no one in Kenya had a mobile phone, and now nearly everyone has one, and it’s difficult to actually predict what the implications of that might be. Fair enough, and Stevenson chirped right in, with further comments on the dangers of cynicism. Doctorow was having none of it. Doctorow, getting back to the Victorians, commented about the difference being that Victorians being able to deal with materials where the could bury their mistakes—we can’t do that now. This morphed into a barely semi-interesting discussion about whether we’re drowning in information or not, with the term “immortal ephemera” sounding good and surfacing a number of times. But “progress” kept coming up. Doctorow’s point was that it’s a loaded term, with a fair amount of baggage—the fact that people live longer in many countries may or may not be progress. The term that seemed better to Doctorow was “accumulation.” Stuff improves, yes, but as Doctorow pointed out, progress hits local maxima pretty quickly—we were able to improve the amount of calories per acre of soil, for example, but then hit a wall that we haven’t been able to move past for several decades. “Progress” is a very important SF meme, but what SF is particularly good at is exposing some of the delusions behind the myth of progress.

Coyle commented that in terms of the future, markets are the best—in fact, the only—mechanism we have for betting on the future, and it’s pretty short term betting, 25 years max. Gibson’s last several books have been about the present, in part because he said he’s finding the future, well, too hard to predict. The present has such complexity that it doesn’t lend itself to the kind of long term betting on the future that was common in, say, the 1950s and 1960s, the earlier ‘golden age” of SF writing. Heinlein’s History of the Future couldn’t be done today—nor, as Doctorow pointed out, could Asimov’s Foundation series. All these writers from that period—whom Gibson and Doctorow referred to as “the uncles”—had a sense that history was orderly, or at least that future history would be. No one has that sense now—technology moves too fast, and is too unpredictable. Developers of technology never really know what the impact of any particular technology is going to be when it’s introduced—it takes time. The automobile, as someone in the audience pointed out, transformed the lives of millions and the landscapes of the planet—and also has the potential to lead to mass species extinction, as Gibson pointed out, and has created the database nation, as Doctorow commented. Gibson had the best one-liner of the evening—“Who knew?” should be the motto of the human species.

All well and good, and much of it interesting, but a bit off topic—not much so far about owning the story of the future. So when Question Time came around, I asked about the competing narratives that we’re all dealing with now, and this actually worked—they started talking about this, which was good. Doctorow thought there were two at the moment—the “authenticity” narrative, in which we’re all gong to bond through the internet to make the world a better place as we all empower ourselves, and the “Astroturf” narrative, where we actually just withdraw into out own personal Las Vegas or something. I couldn’t tell you why he called them that. But there was some good discussion around this whole meme of narratives—this is when Gibson noted that there is no future with a Capital F any more. This then led to some further questions and comments form the audience that there didn’t seem to be any big themes any more. There was some discussion around this point, and Doctorow and Gibson seemed to suggest that this wasn’t really true—it’s just that, again, stuff just moves too fast for the bid idea concept to remain stable.

So a fair amount of good discussion after all, even though much of it was all over the place. Well, that’s what’s good about these things—sometimes they just open up into something completely unexpected, and you end up in a completely different place from where you started, and you’re not sure how you got there, but it sure was interesting. It wasn’t quite that this evening, however, but might have been with one fewer person on the stage. When you keep trying to make sure that everyone gets and equal chance, that tends to limit the flow of conversations. And these are people whose conversations I want to hear—that’s why I came in the first place. So one fewer would have helped, I think, and that could easily have been Stevenson, who likes to hear himself talk, with no loss in the quality of discourse. I actually would have liked to have heard more from Turney, who seems like a bright guy with interesting things to say, but clearly felt bound by the moderator’s role of not actively participating. Still, time well spent.

11 replies »

  1. Interesting, but deeply cynical review.I didn’t see Doctorow of Stevenson disagree, Stevenson talks for sure but very eloquently (and got the most applause and laughs). What you’ve done here is try to polarise a panel that had a discussion where they explored various themes, largely and refreshingly without the partisan flavourings your review is peppered with. A little less cynicism might have done the above a hand.

  2. Guilty. In fact, I don’t think I’m cynical enough sometimes. If we had a bit more cynicism, perhaps we would have been spared Tony Blair’s turning the hoof-and-mouth crisis into a full blown disaster for Britain’s farmers. Or Bush’s mideast adventure turning into America’s worst foreign policy disaster. Or the banks pretending that they were on top of things, and that financial deregulation was the way to go. Which is still the narrative there, by the way. Whenever someone tells me I’m being too cynical, I figure I’m on the right track.

    You’re right in that I think we heard slightly different discussions. I don’ think I’m any more likely to change your mind than you are to change mine. I’ll just leave it at noting that I agree completely with William Gibson that our ability to predict the implications is pretty poor, and that Stevenson’ exhortation to the audience to “be yourself!” Was the most fatuous statement of the evening. Thanks for the comment, though.

  3. Oh dear. Cynicism is defined as “An attitude of scornful or jaded negativity” – and you think this is a good thing? Has it occurred to you you might be part of the problem you so lament? When you extoll the virtues of cynicism you are actually extolling the virtues of critical thought. They are not the same. The former is corrosive, the latter liberating – and confusing the two is either plain ignorance or a semantic trick that you hope will make a virtue out of your curmudgeonly attitude. Cynics call themselves rationalists in the same way vaccine deniers assert they know better than physicians.

    I don’t recall Stevenson exhorting the audience to ‘be themselves’ – he argued instead that history was participatory.

  4. Well, I guess that’s not how I would define it. It sounds as if we have slightly different approaches to all of this. My definition basically comes down to “Don’t believe everything you read, or everything someone is telling you.” Or, more simply, pay attention to your bullshit detector. Stevenson has a very different attitude about the ability of individuals to run complex and not particularly adaptive organizations than I do. This doesn’t necessarily make me feel better, by the way. But it does make me think hard about whether I want to be optimistic about stuff that other people are being optimistic about when I think I have good reason be be dubious.

    And “Be yourself” is a direct quote–I wrote it down. I agree, Stevenson thinks history is participatory. Not exactly insightful, frankly. My issue on narratives is that right now we have too many competing narratives with little ability (other than using our bullshit detectors, if we have one) to discriminate among them. This is, I thought, what Gibson and Doctorow were trying to get at as well. Stevenson’s comment, I thought, came down to “create your own narrative.” Self-empowering, I suppose, but not actually useful for developing either critical thought or cynicism, assuming they’re different.

    And no, it hasn’t occurred to me at all that I might be part of the problem I lament. That’s the privilege of being an old fart.

  5. I think the difference underlying our two interpretations is best explained here:

    “The idealistic explanation of cynical moods is that the cynic has unusually high motives or insight. He is better able to see behind false appearances, and he is more shocked and disapointed to discover the low motives of others. Because he is unwilling to be hypocritical, he is less popular and so he succeeds and leads less. Most people dislike cynics because cynics expose most people’s hypocrisy.

    The cynical explanation of cynical moods is that the cynic has unusually low motives or ability. He can better see low motives because he has them in spades, and the cynic complains to belittle the success of others. That is, if he cannot win in some area then the cynic will complain that the game is unfair, or that those who succeed are not really very praiseworthy. Most people dislike cynics because cynics are losers.

    The Conundrum

    The cynic’s conundrum is that while a cynic might prefer that others believe an idealistic theory of his cynical mood, his own cynical beliefs should lead him to believe a cynical theory of his cynical mood. That is, cynics should think that rude complainers tend to be losers, rather than altruists.
    Furthermore, the meta-cynical theory, that cynics tend to be losers, seems to better explain the patterns that cynics are rude, and that people don’t like to be around cynics or having their children trained in cynicism. If idealism correlates with more attractive features, then people and institutions would naturally try to appear more idealistic.

    Of course both the idealistic and the cynical theory of cynical moods seem to accept the claim that cynical beliefs contain a lot of truth. This fact, and the fact that more informed people tend to be more cynical, tends to favor cynical beliefs in general, and thus the cynical theory of cynicism in particular. Thus while hypocrisy and low motives probably may well be much more widespread than most people acknowledge, people who want to be liked may well be well-advised to pretend that they believe otherwise.”

  6. Hmmm. If I have this right, I’m either a jerk with a bad attitude, or a jerk with self-esteem issues. I’ll have to get back to you on that.

    Anyway, next post in this series will be following next Monday’s discussion of Utopias. I’m cynical about those, too, although maybe Banks and Spufford can change my mind. Stay tuned.

  7. Thanks for that–I missed it. I think Stevenson clearly comes across in his comments here as more nuanced than he did during the discussion. And as much as I like Doctorow, I bet a Gibson review wouldn’t be quite as upbeat.

    Actually, Doctorow seems cynical the way I am. I don’t dispute that there is tremendous scope for improving our lot through technology. I read my Wired magazine every month, and my New Scientist every week, and my weekly emails from MIT on energy and technology. On the other hand, I see little evidence that our institutions are adaptable enough to be accommodative, or smart enough to be able to use those technologies appropriately. I’m from a country where accepting the evidence for global warming is now, like evolution, a barrier to higher political office in many parts of the country. The real task is not availing ourselves of the appropriate technologies–they’re out there, and many are accessible to individuals. But unless there’s some evidence that political and economic institutions are going to be responsive enough to take advantage of them as well, there are pretty good reasons to be cynical. The political dynamic in the US doesn’t offer much hope, frankly. On the other hand, if Europe can hold itself together, there’s some real potential for the kinds of social and political will that can move things in the right direction. We’ll see.

    Did you go to the Utopias discussion?

  8. Well, in relation to institutional innovation (which is what it seems we’re all concerned about) I’m going to quote Stevenson from those comments:

    “what are you doing about it, beyond posting on this blog?’ Be the change and all that. (That’s not an attack that’s an enquiry because lots of people will want to help you with whatever it is. It’d be odd if you were this passionate about institutional change and weren’t involved)”

    Cynicism without action is just whinging isn’t it?

  9. Indeed it is. It’s a useful exhortation, certainly more useful than “Be yourself.” It also betrays a nice faith that institutions change in response to activism. Well, sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. It’s an empirical issue now. Global warming is a dire threat, most people agree. Where do you act? Locally, as I’ve blogged about. Think globally, act locally is still a very good mantra. But we also see an increasing reactionary response–a number of declared presidential candidates in America are running on platforms that include the notion that global warming is a myth. And there are a whole lot of Americans that agree with them. Getting involved in Greenpeace is a good and even necessary thing to do. Sadly, it will have no impact on the Republican party and the people bankrolling it. Where are the young in America on this? Well, not voting.

    Activism’s great. We just need more of it. I’m always telling people to run for the school board of the local council or something. They usually don’t.