Science Fiction, Creative Communities and Prototyping the Future

29 Oct 2013

I’ve been reading a lot of science fiction lately, for an MIT Media Lab class I’m taking called Science Fiction to Science Fabrication. In the class, we look at examples of technologies depicted in science fiction and try to think through the design and implementation issues that would come from actually having them around, as well as how they would affect their social environment.

The thing about science fiction is that once you see it, you can’t really “unsee” it - it starts to appear all around you. Some things are relatively low-hanging fruit: for example, how various science fiction stories have devices that resemble or prefigure things such as smartphones or tablets without fully getting them right. Or the existence of massive information networks that lead to the “cyberspace” construction from William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Those things we can easily identify around us.

But as I’ve also been researching themes across the digital entertainment industry, video games, learning networks and creative communities, there are perhaps other more subtle things one finds in science fiction that makes you think twice about what’s going on in the present. Take, for example, Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, a cyberpunkish coming of age novel about a little girl from the slums who gets a hold of an incredibly advanced Primer, an interactive encyclopedia-like technology that becomes a teacher, a tutor, a nanny and a parental figure. The Primer gives her access to something she’d be otherwise deprived of: high quality, context-sensitive information where both the content and the presentation are contingent on the situation she’s in. The Primer’s contents are presented by interactive operators, called ractors, who are effectively performing the lessons and stories the girl is being told. In the world of The Diamond Age, where nanotechnology has made scarcity a relatively trivial issue, only a few remaining professions make sense: engineering and design to create new technologies, craftsmanship to produce highly valuable and highly exceptional handmade objects of all sorts, and entertainment - people in the entertainment industry, the ractors, are plugged into a massive global system for selling, bidding and allocating spots on current live performances (because racting is interactive, there’s a liveness and performance element that has superseded recording and broadcast in the world of the novel). In an economy of abundance, brought about by nanotechnology, capitalism stops really making much sense, and social and cultural markers become much more important.

Obviously, this leads to whole new different forms of social organisation within the world of The Diamond Age. Which is where it really got interesting for me from the point of view of creative communities. In The Diamond Age, society is no longer arranged necessarily in terms of social classes, or ethnicity, but rather in terms of “phyles”, which are various forms of globally distributed cultural communities who voluntarily opt-in to a set of social norms, traditions and parameters. They’re not geographically bound: the larger phyles have presence in the major cities in the world, and provide resources and protection to members of the same phyle while travelling. At the same time, phyles are responsible for their own internal policing and for maintaining peaceful relations with the other phyles. Some phyles are larger and have a global presence, others only have regional or local presence; some have very strict rules for new members, while others are more welcoming to newcomers. Some phyles have been around for a long time, while new “synthetic” phyles - new communities with no historical background - are popping up all the time.

I couldn’t help to see the parallel here with what’s currently happening with creative communities and social movements, and as I mentioned earlier following recent work by Zeynep Tufekci, how these communities are becoming less about transactional results (i.e. achieving specific movement objectives) and more about transformational spaces. Creative communities are in many cases becoming spaces where many people, especially many young people, are experimenting with alternative forms of citizenship that are in many ways different from that found in current liberal democracies. What’s driving the interest in these experiments is the opportunity people are getting to negotiate roles in emerging communities very much on their own terms and around what matters to them: maker communities, fan communities, social movements, creative industries, and other spaces are providing opportunities to join groups not just as followers, but as contributors. The distributed nature of many of these groups actually contribute to making them relevant: having various “chapters” across many locations creates local opportunities to participate meaningfully, even if it makes the overall organisational structure more “inefficient”, unlike a traditional hierarchy where efficiencies are often introduced at the expense of meaningfulness for participants.

One might be tempted to ask of these community dynamics whether they’re scalable, or whether one can think of a mode of social organisation where any given one of these patterns is turned into the rule rather than the exception. But I believe this is the wrong question to be asking, and a dreadful thing for a young community to be worrying about. Historical difficulties in managing and circulating information have often led us to assume that major social systems need to be roughly similar or at least compatible for them to be of any interest. But if The Diamond Age provides any clues is that such maximalist thinking is correlated to specific forms of material and social organisation - and that we can imagine different ways to organise as a society. Creative communities and social movements might even be able to take a page from the tech startup playbook and follow Paul Graham’s advise - “do things that don’t scale” - because it is within that disregard for scaling and maximalism that many communities are coming up with the most interesting ideas for self-organisation, capacity-building, and growth. Each community is responding to these questions on its own terms, and while there’s certainly overlap and common patterns and principles, as inefficient as it may be these community rules need to be figured out on a case by case basis to retain value and validity to the people who abide by them.

So creative communities are piloting innovative ways to connect to each other and provide opportunities for participation to their members. While these are all very much nested within the more stable systems of Nation-States and economic arrangements, within themselves they might be experimenting with configurations that subvert, question or reinterpret, intentionally or otherwise, the larger systems within which they’re contained. Which is really were creative communities and science fiction have, in a way, a lot in common: they’re both avenues for experimentation and prototyping of things that don’t really exist yet, but might be sustainable for growing numbers of people as a practice. Science fiction has always been a space for imagining alternative futures and how they could theoretically come to be. Creative communities, by virtue of their fluidity and flexibility, have the opportunity to test drive not so much the technologies as the social arrangements that might be better fit to possible futures than to the present. Just as with technologies, some will become stable and spread while others will disappear over time. But it is not entirely unreasonable to imagine a future where many of these communities grow large enough to become like phyles, an alternative or parallel arrangement of communities who’ve been able to build and maintain their own version of the social contract.