Hypotheses, Articles, Content
The building and destruction of worlds
The conference Worlding SF took place from the 6th-8th of december at the University in Graz. I was invited to speak about SciFiFaFo in the panel „SF becoming real(ity)“, together with Miranda Iossifidis (who I met already at the SF conference in York) and Rhodri Davis. Miranda talked about her study on discussons of Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation and Octavia Butler Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents in online reading groups and book clubs. Rhodri Davis showed how the authory of „Scientology“ is connected to the authority golden age SF claimed over scientific content. This exchange was really interesting, because all three of us were interested in what readers do with science fictional texts – in my case especially because the texts I am looking at, have the explicit claim to tell the reader something about the future (prediction, food for thought, change of perspective,…).
It is impossible to sum up this huge and manyfaceted conference, but you can find some notes (to myself) here, that I want to keep in mind, because they are relevant for my own research.
“How do we tell stories about a planet where every year is just a little bit worse than the last one, and just a little bit better than the next one, on and on down through the decades, until (somewhere in there) the future no longer looks anything like the past?
This the central question of Gerry Canavan’s keynote “Worlding Crisis, Crisising Worlding”. Canavan’s SF research is focused on environment in the Anthropocene, how it is represented and if/how these representations can in some way help to cope with environmental crises. In 2014, he edited Green Planets together with Kim Stanley Robinson (note to self: read!). “SF has embodied and anticipated the Anthropocene”, said Canavan and pointed out that it is not enough anymore to state that “Everything is in the world”, but it is important to insist upon the fact that “Everything is in this world”.
Canavan than showed strategies to depict this “postnormal situation”. (I am not a big fan of the term, because, what is normal? And do we want normal?, but I can see that it works as a word of warning.) His examples were: Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, “Science Faction” books like Life After People, The Collapse of the Western Civilization and The World Without Us, the graphic novel Here and the short film plastic bag.
The really interesting question that Canavan raised and that dominated the discussion after his keynote was if optimism is something purely positive or if, in this context, optimism can become something extremely cruel – either because it concerns only a small part of the humans and non-humans that populate the future, or because it is simply a lie à la Don’t worry, we will come up with a technological fix that geoengineers planet earth back to normal or even ameliorates it. Fictions that tell us everything will be fine, when actually “learning to die might be the most important sort of worlding” at the moment, as Canavan concluded, quoting Donna Haraway and her insistence on fabulate in direction of a Chthulucene rather than the Anthropocene. I completely support Canavan’s criticism of SF that it “has trained us to believe in solutions – e.g. terraforming – that we should maybe not be believing in”.
Furthermore, one of my personal highlights at WorldingSF was Cheryl Morgan’s keynote: „Systems of Sex and Gender“. (Extended infos on this keynote as well as other keynotes and presentations + interviews I gathered here in a radio broadcast.)
IFK AKADEMIE 2018: 19.-25. August, Linz OÖ, MODELLE DER ZUGEHÖRIGKEIT: FREUNDSCHAFT, VERWANDTSCHAFT, NETZWERK
That was an inspiring Summer School! In respect to the topic of ‚belonging‘, I reflected in my presentation on how kinship is portrayed in the science-fictional scenarios that I investigate in Science Fiction, Fact & Forecast. My paper was part of the section of media studies professor Claus Pias, which focused on Wendy Chun’s Paper Queering Homophily. In this context, the idea of the ‚openness‘ or the ‚calculability‘ of the future was especially interesting for me.
Postphenomenologists becoming Posthuman
Short sum-up of the Human-Technology Relations: Postphenomenology and Philosophy of Technology conference
From July 11th to July 13th, I participated for the third time in the conference Human-Technology Relations: Postphenomenology and Philosophy of Technology, taking place at the DesignLab of the University of Twente in the Netherlands. I presented my new project Science Fiction, Fact & Forecast in respect to the topic of my dissertation: the discourse of Ambient Intelligence (AmI; today ‚Smart Environments‘ is the preferred term) in technology development, technology assessment and (a very selected corpus of) Literature.
I reflected on the fact that my research colleagues and I always started with a little scenario when talking about AmI, since this entry allowed us to introduce the principles of AmI that we wanted to focus on – natural interfaces and unobtrusiveness – in an easy and clear way. Soon however, we came to think of this storytelling approach not merely as a useful rhetoric tool, but had to realize that we are dealing with technology that is not there yet and we are thus necessarily extrapolating its development; and thus in a sense we rely on fiction.
At last year’s conference here in Twente we formulated this argument more extensively and spoke of a “radical vision” of AmI: even if some applications of this paradigm are already implemented, at the core of AmI as a concept lies this idea that sooner or later almost every object needs to be part of this Internet of Things.
As we tried to demonstrate, this potentially all-encompassing quality of AmI lies at the core of the self-understanding of this technological paradigm and thus is not only something that is not there yet, something that cannot be tested in any kind of laboratory situation, but in the laboratory of fiction.
Thus, Smart Environments have a specific role in this development or trend of writing science-fictional ‘scenarios’. This already shows in the history of this trend: In 2014 the computer scientist Paul Dourish and the anthropologist Bell Genevieve published a paper entitled “Resistance is futile” – and this text inspired Brian David Johnson to develop his Science Fiction Prototyping method. The subtitle of the paper read: “Reading science fiction alongside ubiquitous computing”. Dourish and Bell showed how TV series like Star Wars or Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy shaped collective ideas about how human-machine interaction could or even should look like. And their motivation to do so they explain like this: ‚[…] the kinds of future visions invoked by ubicomp research are of a very particular sort. Rather than simply envisioning improvements in the performance of particular algorithms or computational tools, pervasive computing research argues for a wholesale reconfiguration of the relationship between people and their everyday lives, based on responsive environments and embedded computation: a form of collective imagining.‘ (Dourish und Bell 2014, S. 769)
This is exactly what we meant to say when we called AmI a ‚radical vision‘. Dourish and Bell make one more interesting argument in this paper, concerning the particular role of Smart environments in this context: ‚What is particularly interesting—and highly specific— about this vision is that it is one that is already familiar to us, albeit in the very different fictive frame of science fiction novels, films, and television productions.‘ (Dourish und Bell 2014, S. 769) In my talk I elaborated on this idea in respect to the potential of the ’scenarios‘, I am about to investigate, and Science Fiction Literature.
Rosi Braidotti & Don Ihde bringing the posthuman flavour to Postphenomenology
As always, it was very inspiring and encouraging for us to talk to Peter-Paul Verbeek about our work. For me, Postphenomenology is a highly productive field to think with, also if I do not rely on its methodology in a strict sense. Instead, especially in my current research project, Posthumanism has turned out as an important frame of reference to read contemporary SF and scenarios. Thus, this year’s keynotes by Rosi Braidotti and Don Ihde were highlights. Braidotti started from the statement:
We are citizens of a dying planet and actors of an amazing 4th industrial revolution. We have to embrace what we have and turn it into the direction that we want to go.
Braidotti elaborated on her concept of ’neo-perspectivism‘ that should allow to think ’situatedness‘ and ‚relational affect‘, the definition of a ‚we‘ without ‚fragmentation‘: ‚There is only one world, one earth and we are all on it – not the same, not fragmented.‘ She concluded her ardent talk with the diagnosis that Charles Darwin is missing in the humanities: ‚We are not encouraged to think of ourselves as species.‘ This however might be crucial for a contemporary eco-sophy. Thus, Braidotti fortifyed the need of Animal Studies.
Don Ihde started his keynote by annoncing 23 ‚little late life books‘ his is about to publish, among them: Animal Techniques. ‚I am willing to call the animal’s world a life world.‘ I have been aware that Idhe knows and reads Donna Haraway and fellow posthumanist (or better com-post) scholars and holds this approach in high respect. His insistence on the posthumanist perspective was still suprising. He closed the conference with the words:
Get rid of Prometheus and listen to Anthropology and the Animal Studies.
Seminar on ‚Otherness in SF‘
In April, I was invited to talk about ‚Otherness in Science Fiction‘ from the perspective of my research. In my project I am looking at texts that should help to tell us something abouot the future. These texts often deal with the question how humans can create less ignorant and thus less destructive relationships to other humans (who might differ from them in some aspects) as well as other life forms. With the students from the seminar ‚Otherness, a course on artistic failure‘, I discussed how Science Fiction Literature is not immune to ‚othering‘. Describing empty planets and alien races, colonial and racist principles might be less obvious, but they can of course also be transmitted in these universes. We briefly talked about how feminist and postcolonial SF made this visible. We talked about what Donna Haraway’s ‚making kin‘ means in this context and how we can be guided by this principle when thinking about ‚otherness‘
To approach the topics Haraway discusses in her newest book Staying with the Trouble, I focused my talk the chapter on ‚tentacular thinking‘. To invite the tentacular ones, means to invite strangeness, to invite the unfamiliar. Making kin with tentacles thus necessarily means to change perspective. Besides resuming the main points of the chapter, I then thought about how tentacles come into play in contemporary Science Fiction. While in some fictions they are used to depict the absolute ‚other‘ that we cannot possible comprehend (think of Chtulu or the Alien movies), in other books they are symbols for weirdness, they are there for introducing elements of unexpectedness; here I would think of Kraken by China Miéville and the tentacular cyberpunk stories by Rudy Rucker & Bruce Sterling. However, there are also Science Fiction stories, where the tentacular ones are invited, because we can relate to them and thus learn from them: Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven famously starts with a description of a jellyfish. And this characteristics of the jellyfish, being a unity with its surroundings, will becoming guiding principles of the protagonist George Orr.
Current-borne, wave-flung, tugged hugely by the whole might of ocean, the jellyfish drifts in the tidal abyss. The light shines through it, and the dark enters it. Borne, flung, tugged from anywhere to anywhere, for in the deep sea there is no compass but nearer and farther, higher and lower, the jellyfish hangs and sways; pulses move slight and quick within it, as the vast diurnal pulses beat in the moondriven sea. Hanging, swaying, pulsing, the most vulnerable and insubstantial creature, it has for its defense the violence and power of the whole ocean, to which it has entrusted its being, its going, and its will.
Ursula K. LeGuin, The Lathe of Heaven, 1971
A more recent and also spectacularly good tentacular book is Binti by Nnedi Okorafor. A powerful story about a girl from the Namibian Himba people, leaving earth for an intergalactic university, becoming embassador of the feared ‚Meduse‘, a misunderstood jellyfish like alien species. At some point Binti herself becomes tentacular. For my presentation, I borrowed the cover of the second book of the novella trilogy. With these examples we ended our seminar session with a discussion of the ‚Camille Stories‘, the science fictional final chapter of Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble.
Imagining the History of the Future – Unsettling Scientific Stories
Conference at the University of York, 27-29th March 2018
This was the first question of the Round Table that closed the conference Imagining the History of the Future: Unsettling Scientific Stories, 27-29th March, 2018, University of York, UK. The topics of this conference were extremely diverse. While most of the participants presented about (past) future scenarios sketched in an artistic framework – in Science Fiction literature / films / games –, ’scenarios‘, in the sense of a non-literary, functional text form, were also central to some papers. Since the relationship between these two understandings of the term scenario is what lies at the core of my research project, I came home with a massive amount of notes.
In my paper, I started off with a snippet of this podcast interview by Rudy Rucker, where the mathematician and Cyberpunk at some point casually compares Science Fiction writing to the futurist’s work of scenario writing and says (minute 3:00 to 3:52):
Science Fiction certainly lets you step back a few feet from the world and look at it a little bit from the outside. My education is as a mathematician. In mathematics you get these axioms and you try to deduce things from them. And Science Fiction is a little bit like, […] you have these ideas: what if we had this, what if we had this? And then you sort of let it cook in there, in the story or in the novel, and see what grows out. That might take a while to see what results from some ideas, that’s why going a length and creating a narrative is a good way. Some futurologists use a similar technique, they write scenarios, but with Science Fiction though we want it to be a little bit funkier.
This quote touches on some aspects I am thinking about in my research: Science Fiction is often understood as extrapolative literature and thus as an instrument to look into one possible future. On the other hand, a lot of books that count to the genre of SF are of course highly speculative. SF, fortunately, is too ‚funky‘ to be considered a mere functional futuristic instrument. However it is exactly this ‚funkyness‘ that seems to hold promise for contemporary futurist’s ’scenario writing‘ which itself becomes currently more and more ‚funky‘, meaning speculative and ‚literary‘. I argued this observation by quoting from the cyberpunk short stories that are written in the framework of ‚Science Fiction prototyping‘ and from the ’scientific novels‘ that Springer published under the title „Science and Fiction“. I’m interested in precicesly this gap between the understanding of SF writers as ‚public intellectuals‘ and experts of the futures and the fact that in SF literature you often find the most funky – meaning improbable, suprising and weird – stories.
The ‚Unsettling Scientific Stories‘ Conference was very helpful to further think about this. Very insightful for instance was the paper by Sahra Dillon. Investigating the question ‚What do AI researchers read?‘, she started her presentation by pointing out the editorial of ‚Nature‘ from just three weeks ago (march 7th 2018). It was entitled Learn to tell science stories, and referenced e.g. ‚Science Fiction Prototyping‘. Dillon and her team talked to 13 AI researchers about their reading practices. One of the conclusions: It is not necessarily about the ‚tech stuff‘. Researchers appreciate philosophical and social thought experiments in their (SF) literature. This would underline the hypotheses of the mentioned ‚Nature‘ editorial, asking:
What if it is not the concepts described by science fiction that could have the most impact, but the act of storytelling — the creation of scientific narratives — itself?
Meaning: If scientists, engineers or people in general, state that they are inspired by Science Fiction, it does, in most cases, not mean that they ‚realize‘ single technological application that are portrayed in the fiction. It is the overall worldbuilding of the stories that make them sources of inspiration. The mantra that kept coming up, more or less explicitly, in my presentation and my commentary is Donna Haraway’s phrase: „It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.“ (Staying with the Trouble) This might seem obvious, especially while refering to literature. However, especially investigating ’scenario writing‘ in a non-literary context, for me this is a central thought that has to be kept in mind.
In this respect, the talk by Laurent Bontoux from the European Commission Science Hub held many insights for me. He presented the ‚Scenario Exploration System‘ the Joint Research Center developed. It is structured like a board game and accessible under a Creative Common licence.