The Old–>New Contract

Today I had lunch at Yuzu with a friend from my Strategic Foresight & Innovation program. (I ate about half of a giant, fabulous bowl of hwaedupbap.) We were discussing our design theses. You see, in between polishing my novel and writing a study on the future of media, I’m also working on my second Master’s — a foresight report on the future of border security. (It’s part of why I joined the Border Town design studio.) My classmates are involved in the same process — they’re studying things like the future of film distribution, the future of green shopping experiences, how to create and maintain organizational change…it’s all very impressive stuff. This afternoon, our conversation turned toward what I call the “Old–>New Contract.”

What is that, you ask?

“The Old–>New Contract” is a phrase I learned as an undergraduate for the gesture you make at the beginning of any major paper. Basically, it’s the part where you say: “In the past, thinkers like ___ and ___ have discussed ____ from ____ perspective. Now, I would like to discuss it from ____ perspective, and I hope my discussion of this issue will yield more conversation on _____.” The old is a summary of previous discussion within a specific area, and the new is your contribution to that conversation. That way, your readers understand where you fit within a given context, and where you arrive in the intellectual lineage of a given topic. (And equally as important, you understand the limitations of your contribution, and the fact that the conversation will continue after you’ve made it.) Once you’ve made that contract with the reader, you spend the rest of the paper fulfilling it.

As I explained while on a panel with Julie Czernada at Polaris this weekend, this is also how I approach my short stories. In genre publishing, each story or novel or pitch or property is a contribution to conversations about things like what it means to be human, what you would change if you could go back in time, what it would be like to engage with something completely Other.

Sometimes the conversation’s focus can narrow sharply: this Monday at my workshop we talked about the many different flavours of the Singularity and whether to critique each one within the scope of a single title — and if so, how. (We also had a long conversation about various types of cocktail cherries and their respective merits. That’s how it goes — liquor and post-humanity, all the way down.) But they still operate in the manner of most conversations, with multiple people making multiple contributions, each of their own value and usefulness to the larger goal.

To me, this is the greatest commonality between science fiction and science as a discipline. I said as much to someone attending my panel with Julie this weekend. Science works slowly, with minute advances in narrow subject areas. Science fiction moves a lot more quickly, and in broader subject areas, but each story is still just one presentation of one perspective.  Thinking about my stories this way is how I avoid worrying about being “right” about the future or “predicting” it accurately. I know it’s possible I’ll be wrong about a lot of things, but I might get one thing right, or spur someone else’s ideas in a more intriguing direction. That’s network value in action, and it comes from understanding that I can’t be right about everything all the time, and that my participation is really just another stream feeding a river of information.

So there you have it: the Old–>New Contract. Hopefully this is of some use to those of you out there, whether you’re writing a science paper or a science story.  I know it’s helped me, and whenever I mention it to my classmates and others they seem to understand it as a useful took for thinking and communicating. Good luck!

1 thought on “The Old–>New Contract”

  1. You know, I had an epiphany along the same lines just the other day. Currently torn between being gutted it wasn’t as original or oblique an insight as I thought it might be, and being chuffed that I came upon the same idea as someone whose intelligence and insight I really admire… 🙂

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