Posted tagged ‘Technology’

Imagining Technology – Science fiction and innovation.

March 28, 2013

My NESTA working paper on SF and tech is now published. I had a lot of fun doing it.

Thanks to all those who helped (see the acknowledgements), but especially to Cheryl Morgan, who knows far more about SF and the people who write it than I do.

You can download it from here.

There’s an interestingly complementary companion piece from the Sussex group who looked into the same question here.

If you’d just like to know where my review of all this ends up, here’s the conclusion…

…the stories embodied in technologies, or designs, and fiction form an intricate, evolving web. Efforts to pinpoint causes and effects are rarely convincing. They might not be especially useful even if they were. We are discussing the weaving of culture, and no individual case is likely to be repeatable. But there does seem to have been a gradual, general movement over time.

It can be roughly summarised.

Technology, and plans for technology, revolve around stories. These, minimally, say: we will make a thing that does this.

 Science fiction asks, if we made a thing like this, how might the world look? What effects might it have?

 Design fiction says: here is a thing we could make: what do you feel about a possible world that has such things in it?

These kinds of stories are not mutually exclusive. Each can influence the other. Technologists promoting their projects can adopt ideas from science fiction to say: the thing we will make will be like this. In film, they can sometimes insert the image of what they hope to make. People who want to discourage particular technological projects can of course do likewise. Design fiction is more like an open question. If the capacity to make things like this comes about, what would we like to do with it? Nor do any of the stories necessarily have the effects their authors hope for. But all three benefit from the illimitable flexibility of fiction. As Rudy Rucker put it, before design fiction was conceived: “The reason why fiction thought experiments are so powerful is that, in practice, it’s intractably difficult to visualize the effects of new technological developments. Only if you place the new tech into a fleshed-out fictional world and simulate the effects on reality can you get a clear image of what might happen.” Or, more briefly, when it comes to technology assessment, “inspired narration is a more powerful tool than logical analysis”.

And a concluding question about where one might take all this…

The collection of diverse items – texts, discussions, projects, artworks, events and videos – which can be gathered under the heading of design fiction also deserve more investigation. It is not easy to know what effect or impact they have had, individually or collectively. Have they influenced any subsequent real-world design projects or prototypes? What has been their public reach compared with other influences on public attitudes to technology, or other images of possible futures – including more conventional science fiction texts? Finally, what scope it there for making more use of design fiction, and who might support such efforts? There are interesting affinities emerging, for example, between design fiction and art/science/design projects intended to provoke discussion about synthetic biology – an area of technology which promises to make design a meaningful notion in the life science. For example, Alexander Ginsberg’s Irrational Genome Project is, in effect, a challenge to others to create design fictions drawing on the ambitions of synthetic biologists. It also points toward other, more participatory modes related to design fiction, such as biohacking

There seem to be an increasing number of routes to using our increased awareness of the importance of images of possible future technologies in shaping what actually gets developed. More research and thinking about the whole collection, gathered under the heading of design fiction, might help us see more clearly how they can be exploited to help selection and development of technologies which can be part of our preferred futures.

I hope some will read the whole thing. It’s a discussion paper, so any reactions are welcome – I think there’ll be some discussion on NESTA’s  blog, or you can  comment in the space below.


Afterthoughts on technology futures

October 14, 2011

Technology looms large on most futures discussions, and when I put together the Rough Guide I tried hard not to constantly have tech in the foreground – I hoped that this would give a clearer view of social, political, or economic questions.

But reading around since then I’ve got the feeling there is some unfinished business with technology. The tensions between various strands of futures talk often seem to come from views of technology (and/or nature). The recent essays in revisionist environmentalism by Stewart Brand or Mark Lynas put a lot of emphasis on technological development, engineering know-how, and pragmatic approaches to problem solving as our best hope for tackling current and near future crises, and Mark Stephenson’s Optimist’s Tour of the Future still more so.

Others, Ray Kurzweil being the most prominent, continue to forecast a technological singularity, in our lifetime – a forecast based on the inexorable working out of a law of accelerating returns.

Kurzweil’s vision is easy to doubt, in spite of all the exponential performance curves he compiles. Paul Allen, who knows a thing or two about technology, offers one recent, convincing critique here. But there are of course also plenty of critics of the pragmatic optimism of Brand or Lynas. Their distaste for what is usually seen as an unwarranted faith in technical fixes is one legacy of our long experience with technology now, and of its sometimes undesirable second and third order effects.

I lean toward the Brand/Lynas view, but mainly from a vague feeling that there is an astonishing range of technological possibilities in prospect, and a lot of R&D folk ready to work on them, given the incentive. It would be nice to have a better reason.

I flipped through Brian Arthur’s The Nature of Technology: What it is, how it evolves when it came out on 2009, but didn’t take much in. Having just read it properly, it seems his theory of how technology evolves, or develops by descent – which is brilliantly and clearly argued – might offer some support for a middle of the road optimism. He ends by stressing reasons to be ambivalent about tech, and certainly does not see it is a panacea. But his account of its development through human history does give reasons to expect a lot more technology, with a lot more uses.

His view is that all technologies develop from existing technologies, put together in new combinations. No need to summarise it again – he does it very well at the end of the book: “all technologies are combinations of elements; these elements are themselves technologies; all technologies use phenomena to some purpose…  technology is a programming of nature.”

He shows how those principles work themselves out through human history to allow a wider and wider range of principles – disclosed by science which is is both enabled by and enables technology – to be exploited for human purposes. There is human agency involved,  along with an element of bootstrapping. Indeed, if you bracket out the agency, technology appears to be self-evolving or creating – autopoietic in what was originally the biological sense.

The details are beautifully laid out in the book. Some implications. As there is more tech, the number of combinations increases, so the whole ensemble gathers more possibilities for extension into new areas of capability, and need. This is, in some degree, exponential, though not in the way Kurzeil charts. It is a simple combinatorial effect.

The order in which new combinations are tried is contingent, and that is one way the history of technology is path dependent. In fact, “indeterminacy increases as the collective develops”. Put those things together and you may conclude that technology will continue to develop faster and faster in future – as there are more technologists, too, then presumably more combinations are tried. They will not necessarily be a larger proportion of the possible combinations, though, as their number will increase a lot faster. That means, I think, that technological futures become harder to chart, even approximately.

But it also supports the general prediction that there will be many more, and perhaps more surprising technologies, in future. In one of his (carefully rationed) flights of language, Arthur says: “in its collective sense, technology is not merely a catalog of individual parts. It is a metabolic chemistry, an almost limitless collective of entities that interact to produce new entities – and further needs.”

He is careful not to equate this with progress, in any simple sense. But it does carry strong implication of a one-way path, I think. No back to nature or return to a simple life in this reading of history (which is fine by me). As he says, his theory gives “a sense of technology expanding into the future”. That is one of the reasons it’s going to be interesting.



Afterthought to the afterthought. I guess the next thing to read in this area is Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants. My other key authors on technology are David Nye and Thomas Hughes. Who am I missing?