“Speculative resistance” – using science fiction to imagine better futures and then working towards changing the present

“It’s very hard for us to change the way we’re doing things, unless we can comprehensively imagine something different.”

Imagination is a fundamental tool for building a better world. Join science fiction writer, academic, and humanitarian Malka Older as she talks through using speculative futures to reexamine our present.

You can see Malka’s presentation slides here, and continue the conversation with Malka on Twitter or Linkedin.

Please see the full transcript of the talk below.

[00:00:00] Malka Older: Hello! Thank you so much for being here and thank you for inviting me off of Twitter to join you. I am a science fiction author. Thank you, science fiction fans here- awesome! 

So I’m here because I make stuff up and therefore I’m also here to encourage you to make stuff up. But while I talk about that, I’m also going to talk about the ways that the stories we invent interact with society and why, therefore, while it’s important that we make things up, that we think outside the box, that we imagine new futures, it’s also important to consider and be very conscious of the ways that we are making things up and what kinds of stories we’re telling. 

So we’re going to start with the basics: why we need to [00:01:00] have imagination, why we need to construct new futures. Because it’s very hard to get out of the present. It’s very hard for us to change the way we’re doing things, unless we can comprehensively imagine something different.

I think most of us are used to thinking about path dependency in a technology sense, right? It’s easy to think about the ways some technologies can get stuck in certain ways of doing things because they needed to have a core TTKeyboard when typewriters were going to get the keys stuck, right? And then that becomes very hard to change. But this is also true for social technologies. This is also true for the way that we live. We need to be able to think outside of that path dependence and imagine ways that things could go differently if we’re going to change them both for the future and even for the now, [00:02:00] because the way we change the future is starting in the present. So in order to come up with new futures in order to change the things that are here now, because we assume that’s the way they always have to be. Because the powers that be are arrayed in that way, and it takes effort to change them. We need to consider the ways that things can be different. 

So I’m going to tell you a little bit about my book because I am an author and I would like you to buy my book, but also because it’s a useful demonstration for what I’m talking about.

So I wrote a book called Infomocracy. This is about a world about 60 years in the future from now, in which the nation state is mostly dead. Not entirely, there are a couple of holdouts, but for the most part, most of the world has switched over to a system that I call micro-democracy.

 [00:03:00] In this system the basic jurisdictional unit is a hundred thousand people. That’s population-based, not territory based. Could be a couple of really dense city blocks, could be hectors and hectors of rural area. And each of these units can vote for any government it wants, anywhere in the world. So what this means in practice is, on the one hand you can be walking down a city street and cross into another country. Because you’re leaving that Sentinel is what I call these jurisdictions, and you’re going into another country with different laws, different tax structures, different processes, different holidays. On the other hand, if you’re a government, you might have constituencies scattered all over the world. 

And what facilitates this whole system is a global information management bureaucracy. You can imagine sort [00:04:00] of a cross between Google and the UN, which I very creatively when I was coming up with this, named information. So this is a system. It’s a big bureaucracy. It’s all about gathering all the data that exists in the world, so there’s a surveillance aspect to it. But instead of kind of making this data clandestine or keeping it for profit or for government purposes, the whole point of this organization is to get all that data and information out in front of people. It makes it available. It looks at different reading levels, it looks at video, it looks a data visualization. It will even proactively annotate political speeches or advertisements if they’re, you know, skirting the truth, to put that fact up in front of people’s faces. 

So this is the system that we have. On the one hand, it’s a system where government [00:05:00] is much more fragmented, It’s not as monolithic. It’s not so tied to geographic location. It gives people an opportunity to have a very wide range of voting options. But on the other hand, information, which is very fragmented in the world we live in now, is pretty much monolithic, and is this public service that is designed to be a fundamental part of how democracy works. 

Now, as soon as I came up with this idea of a monolithic information source, I thought that’s actually a terrible idea. That’s actually an extremely, extremely dangerous thing to have. And so most of what I wanted to do in the books was figure out what that meant. Was really think about, despite how appealing that might sound in our current context, what were the pitfalls going to be? 

The reason I came up with this whole idea in the first place is because I was working [00:06:00] in international assistance and international aid and development. I was living and traveling in a lot of places. And I started to notice that almost everywhere I went had a separatist movement of some kind or another. I was living in Sudan, in Sri Lanka, in Indonesia. I was traveling in Spain. I was traveling in Scotland. I might’ve come to Canada during that time. And I noticed that most places, there was some part of them that wanted to separate from the country they belong to. And I started to get very frustrated with why when we’re living in an era which is all about democracy and people deciding what government they want, these national boundaries were still preventing that in a lot of ways. Why countries were still tied to the idea that having a large land mass, that not giving up any of their territory was a really important thing even though we know that in today’s economy, territory is not really the determinant of a strong economy or [00:07:00] a good quality of life. 

And at the same time, I was looking at elections, both in the various places I was living and in the United States where I was voting, even when I wasn’t living there, and looking at the ways that, you know, on the one hand, we have a very, very granular understanding right now of how people vote. So you can look at the United States or at Canada, which I was watching after the recent election, and you can see where people are voting down to a couple of tens of thousand people. And you can see the different colors for the different parties- red and blue, which I think means something different here than they do for us, are right next to each other. And I was thinking about why we have to choose one when these people with very different conceptions of what kind of government they want are living side by side. So I had these frustrations and I was just very annoyed that the world is the way it is in these [00:08:00] areas. And so what did I do? I decided to write a book about it. 

Then they asked for more books. So I wrote a trilogy. But basically I said: “Okay, I’m not going to come up with the perfect idea. I don’t need to come up with the perfect idea. My book is not about the way we should go. My book is about pointing out the things that we are assuming are necessary. It’s pointing about the ways that we are playing into systems that were created for entirely different reasons long ago, and we just haven’t bothered to get around, to changing them.”

So I came up with something new. I knew there were problems with it. And I spent about 300,000 words figuring out what those problems were and what it could look like.

Now, what I’ve just described is a pretty solitary process, right? I was mostly sitting in front of my laptop, basically ranting in a very creative way. I wasn’t so active on Twitter then. Now I kind of [00:09:00] rant publicly in a very creative way. But the fact is that stories are always an interaction with society. Once they get out into public, the interaction between society and stories is a complicated and iterative one that goes in both directions. It’s interactive. 

So I have here, it’s a pretty complicated quote from James C. Scott. Are there any Scott fans? Alright! That’s what I’m talking about. 

So it’s about the way that we tell stories to simplify our understanding of the world. Governments in particular need to tell stories, need to figure out ways of understanding the world that they’re supposed to govern. But that’s not the only thing that happens. Those stories also go back out into the world and change it. Once you start making up stories and categories and thinking about things under a certain framework, [00:10:00] that often goes back and makes people change to fit into that framework to a certain extent. 

So there’s another part of my book that deals with this, which I’m going to describe now, which is called narrative disorder. This is an actual kind of psychological, almost illness that some of my characters suffer from. Actually everybody suffers from it, but in different degrees. I definitely suffer from it pretty strongly. That is again why I am a science fiction writer. But narrative disorder is about the way that which we are all today, very, very, very tied to stories. Often quite addicted to stories. If you think about the access we have to stories now, between libraries and Netflix and podcasts, we have access to an incredible range of stories. We could watch and listen to and read content [00:11:00] for the rest of our lives and barely scratch the surface. 

And yet we’re always worried about when the next thing is going to come out. We are always waiting for our favorite creators to put out another book or movie. And this is, you know, there’s this very powerful need for more stories. 

And beyond that, as we ingest these stories, we’re also ingesting certain common tropes that tend to repeat and show themselves in the stories that our culture produces over and over again. And we get so used to these certain kinds of narratives, they start to infiltrate things that we don’t normally think of as fiction. So if you look at news features, you will often see them following a sort of narrative arc. The person has a problem. They fix it. It’s heartwarming. The end. 

You’ll also see that this starts to happen in hard news stories too. We’re seeing less and less of the [00:12:00] lead, and then gradually less important sort of structuring news stories and more and more of this: “There’s this, but also this, how will we resolve it?” 

We even see it in things like advertisements. And we are so used to narrative, that we can take 15 seconds worth of moving images and our minds will fill in the gaps to put in the personalities of the different characters and the whole narrative arc that is built in to those 15 seconds of basically disconnected video clips. 

So we become very neared to these stories. And what starts to happen then is that we expect to see these tropes in real life. We start to think about things as meet cutes. We start to think about the way a person is acting, if they’re maybe the villain in this particular reality show. We start to expect things to function like [00:13:00] stories in real life. And that can be a big problem, but it can also be really useful. 

The characters in my book who have strong versions of narrative disorder, on the one hand, their bosses kind of distrust them, they think that maybe they’re imagining things that they use all this typical language, that they’re a little hysterical, they’re exaggerating, they’re emotional. But it also means they have an intuition about the way things are going to go, because the thing is everyone around them that they’re observing has also taken in those same narratives. And they’re also acting in a world where they think narratives just might be true. And so you have this kind of feedback effect where the narratives that we take in, which are very culturally specific and vary a lot in place in time, but the ones that we are subjected to are the ones that we expect to see happening. We can overdo it and see things that aren’t there, but [00:14:00] because it’s kind of a collective delusion, we can also use that to get a sense for how people are acting and why they’re acting the way they are.

 Now, what does this mean for me as an author and in particular as an author who thinks that I want to tell stories that are resistant to the world the way it is. I want to tell stories that imagine a better future, a complicated, different future, that will point out the things that we can change in the world now. 

I try to use what I call evidence-based creativity, which means- I don’t know if someone thought that was funny or someone thought something else was funny- it is kind of a funny concept because alright, glad you were listening at least. Because we think of creativity as being kind of abstract and out on its own. But what I’m interested in with this problem of narrative disorder is that I don’t want to just be [00:15:00] taking the stories that I hear from Hollywood or from other writers. As important as those are, I want to make sure that I’m basing what I invent on the world that I have experienced. 

And so that means that I can come up with all sorts of wild and crazy things in my science fiction. I can come up with governments that are entirely based on policy and not personalities. I can come up with a technology that makes firearms not work from a distance. It’s one of my favorites. I can come up with flying cars. I can put dragons in a book and you will believe it, you will that book and be in that world as long as I make sure that the characters interact in ways that make sense to you as humans. That I can make sure that the setting is built up in a way, the world is [00:16:00] built in a way that makes sense to your brains that you say: “Yes, if there was a world with dragons, this is the way people would react.” 

So I tried to build these stories in ways that are both extremely creative about what we can get to, and also really fundamentally balanced in the ways that people would react to those things. So that we can think it’s a kind of modeling that we can think about wild futures, but think about them in rigorous ways. 

And I’m just gonna finish up with these quotes to help us get through that. We have this very famous Sherlock Holmes quote, right? The way that Sherlock Holmes worked was you eliminate the impossible. And then, if there’s something that was very, very improbable, you know that that’s what happened because sometimes people come up, there’s a piece of evidence you don’t know about, something that seems improbable is actually what happened. 

There’s a less [00:17:00] well known, but very important rebuttal to this from another great science fiction writer, which says: “No, that’s entirely wrong. If we’re imagining something impossible happened, it’s because there’s something fundamental we don’t know about the universe. And there is so much we don’t know about the universe. What we need to concentrate on is what’s improbable because that violates what we do know. And so that’s what we should eliminate.”

And so I’m going to urge you all, in all of your varied positions, whether you’re working in tech, whether you’re working in government, whether you’re a creative, whether you’re all of those things, to imagine things that seem impossible. To imagine things that are wild and different and that you can’t imagine actually getting to from here. Whether you imagine them as a future, [00:18:00] whether you imagine them as an alternate reality, whether you imagine them as a complete fantasy, because dragons are great metaphors too.

And then I want you to try to ground that imagination and thinking about the way people would really act in those situations. Not the way you want them to, not the way you would like to prove that that is the situation we want to have in the world, that that’s the future we want, but to give them a grounding in your understanding of how people interact with each other and use that as a model for thinking your way into new futures and new presents.

Thank you very much.