Moving Towards Science Fiction Thinking

This year, governments have intentionally shut down the internet over 60 times around the world, plunging entire societies into a communications blackout. Shutdowns often happen around critical moments in a democracy, such as elections and public protests, but also for stranger reasons like preventing students from cheating on university entrance exams. The end result is the same, as emergency workers struggle to provide services, journalists can’t report on the news, and human rights defenders fall victim to atrocities. Last year, a Brookings Institution study found that governments drained $2.4 billion from their own economies by cutting off the internet. At the time of this writing, an internet shutdown just ended in Togo—where my grandfather was born—in the face of major protests surrounding the misrule of the country’s president.

For the past few years, I’ve been fighting against shutdowns at my organization Access Now, where we’ve built a coalition called the #KeepitOn campaign of 133 organizations from 56 countries to push back against the practice. We’ve won hard-fought victories at the UN Human Rights Council, pressured telecommunications companies to resist shutdown orders, and successfully ended disruptions in countries such as Gambia and Cameroon—the latter of which even drew enough attention for Pope Francis to intervene.

Shutdowns are rare in Northern countries, but we did see the blocking of WhatsApp and other services during Montenegro’s 2016 elections, and Bay Area residents may remember the disruption of services surrounding a protest on the BART system in 2011. In theory, the U.S. government could disrupt the internet through the secretive Standard Operating Procedure 303 and the President could use authorities under the Communications Act to shut down networks. We’re working hard to make sure this doesn’t happen, and we’re also equipping internet users at risk with tools to circumvent such blanket censorship.

My work fighting threats to digital rights—free expression, privacy, digital security and net neutrality—helped me craft my new novel After the Flare. But I am not alone in using a science fiction frame to look to the future. In fact, several industries regularly hold contests or pay science fiction writers to help them anticipate trends in technology. As detailed by Kevin Bankston in a recent Slate article, Microsoft created a free-to-download anthology called Future Visions and organizations such as Apple and Google have futurists on staff. This year, Xprize commissioned leading science fiction authors in collaboration with ANA airlines to stage an imaginative science fiction contest.

Non-profits are also engaging in futurism. The Wikimedia Foundation is exploring what Wikipedia will look like in the year 2030, and, as I learned at Wikimedia’s annual conference (appropriately called Wikimania), a set of Russian Wikipedia editors have even begun writing science fiction stories around this theme. The Internet Society is embarking on a long-term project to predict the development of the internet over the next 25 years. Canadian science fiction author Karl Schroeder holds a degree in Strategic Foresight and consults to governments and businesses, and SciFutures is a dedicated consultancy that hires out science fiction writers (at surprisingly low rates.) NASA and the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University will be publishing a collection on Low Earth Orbit technology in 2018.

Of course, forecasting and scenario planning have been adopted by businesses and governments for some time. Insurance agents and lawyers are excellent at spotting risks and advising businesses how to avoid them. Entrepreneurs, using a somewhat more positive frame, anticipate trends and innovate to create value. You could go on, looking at how medicine, agronomy, engineering, research science, and so on seek to use foresight to help us navigate the world.

But I would argue that using science fiction to effect change has taken on a new, more strategic form. Science fiction is distinct from normal scenario planning in that it is primarily concerned with technology, science, and the future. Science fiction also uses world building to imagine complex structures or even biological organisms. Some science fiction writers draw upon literary traditions to build strong characters and tight plots, while other authors are fundamentally more interested in exploring ideas, and using characters and plots as a vehicle to do so.  Underlying these genres is a sense of freedom to actively imagine, while traditional risk assessment operates within a more deliberate set of parameters—like the Lego Movie, it’s a box full of random Lego bricks versus a Lego kit with specific instructions.

Or that’s the theory, anyway. Having read science fiction collections commissioned by companies, I’d say that the narratives tend to suffer considerably. They can be pretty boring. The characters feel wooden or plots that are heading towards a complex resolution will shift when the writer is forced to wrap up the story with a neat conclusion to please the patron. In other words, I don’t think these stories will last, but maybe that’s the point. They are being commissioned for a specific purpose. Next year you could just write another one.

Science fiction authors deserve to be paid, and it’s awesome that patrons are willing to support our work. But here’s a thought: maybe we should also be inculcating science fiction thinking into our lives to enable us to prepare for the future. Science fiction thinking could range from positive exercises, such as considering a carbon-free future, to more negative ones, like preparing for the political upheaval expected from killer robots. We could incorporate science fiction thinking into curriculae or hold hands-on workshops, like those hosted by FutureShift, a nonprofit consulting firm.

Science fiction thinking could be especially valuable for vulnerable and marginalized people. For example, a central premise of Afrofuturism is enabling African Americans, and people of African descent, to imagine a better future for themselves in the face of structural racism and inequality. You can’t know where you want to go or how to get there if you’re incapable of imagining it. Afrofuturism imbues the creator and the audience with value and a positive frame of living.

In After the Flare, I incorporate science fiction thinking and lessons I’ve learned in fighting internet shutdowns. The main character in the novel is an American man named Kwesi Bracket who is recruited from NASA to Nigeria to help rescue the astronaut, and he encounters a country that has innovated quickly as resources have shifted from North America to Africa: blockchain technology mingled with traditional currencies, digital tribal identities, oracular web surfers, cybernetic organisms that skirt up and down walls and gobble up malware-laced drones—and, relevant to internet shutdowns, a walled off internet that is sealed for security and political reasons.

It may be some time before science fiction thinking is incorporated more broadly into society, but technology activists will probably continue to watch, read, and write science fiction. I used to work as a more traditional human rights lawyer and my passion for scifi was often met with blank stares. But I’ve found that people in the digital rights community love learning about the crazy ideas engendered by science fiction, which can reinvigorate and inform our work. In fact, some digital rights activists were drawn to our field at least partly because of science fiction.

The 1982 film Tron is a literal and figurative tale of fighting for the open internet that still impresses me today, with its vibrant lightcycles, evil A.I. Master Control Program, and glowing identity discs. The brilliant red and blue color scheme serves as a simple metaphor for the free flow of information that is underscored by a mechanical, discordant soundtrack by Wendy Carlos. Through the lens of 2017, the movie fails in terms of diversity, with a passive woman sidekick and no visible characters of color. But I still like it and the BluRay is one of my prized possessions. Did Tron inspire me to become a digital rights activist? Probably not. Yet it did teach me that the struggle itself could be beautiful.

Deji Bryce Olukotun is a technology activist and the author of the new novel After the Flare, out now from Unnamed Press. Find him on Twitter: @dejiridoo

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