The Privilege of the Future (SweCon 2015 GoH Speech)

A note: I wrote these remarks after having watched the reception to my interview in The Atlantic about the need for women in futurism. A relevant snippet:

Ashby says that any time she speaks in front of a crowd, and offers a grim view of the future, someone (almost always a man) invariably asks why she can’t be more positive. “Why is this so depressing, why is this so dystopian,” they ask. “Because when you talk about the future you don’t get rape threats, that’s why,” she says. “For a long time the future has belonged to people who have not had to struggle, and I think that will still be true. But as more and more systems collapse, currency, energy, the ability to get water, the ability to work, the future will increasingly belong to those who know how to hustle, and those people are not the people who are producing those purely optimistic futures.”

First, before I begin any remarks, let me thank my hosts. It is a great privilege to have the opportunity to give a talk here at SweCon, ironically titled “The Privilege of the Future.” Thank you to all of the SweCon volunteers and organizers who made this event possible, and who have done so much to make me and the other guests feel welcome. I’m delighted to be here, and very grateful for the invitation.

I was asked to talk to you about the future, in large part because I’m a futurist.

Now, what does that mean, futurist? Does it mean I’m obsessed with proto-fascist trends in Italian design? No. Does it mean I’m a fortune teller? No. Does it mean I predict the future? No. Futurists are often accused of doing all these things, but we don’t really do them. What I do is offer people a vision of what might be. And then they decide whether they want it or not, and how to get there if they do. Or how to avoid going there, if they don’t. I’ve led workshops, and given keynotes, and I’ve stood in front of whiteboards with sticky notes and Sharpie markers, and helped people figure out ideas. This is not so different from what my colleagues in the foresight business do: structured dialogic interviews, trends analysis, mapping critical uncertainties, customer persona design, scenario development. I’m trained in how to do all these things.

But mostly these days, I talk about the future by telling stories. I have written what Intel futurist Brian David Johnson calls “science fiction prototypes” for lots of businesses and organizations. This year, I wrote stories about the future of warfare, and a world without antibiotics, and how to fight human trafficking, and the future of intelligent systems with regard to smart cities. Right now, as we speak, at the Nine Worlds convention in London, the Nesta foresight agency is unveiling an anthology with a story of mine in it.

Conveniently for me, this type of work is not so different from being a science fiction writer. It’s simply more focused. Ursula K. LeGuin said that “the exercise of the imagination is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are.” And I have taken this promise — this threat — to heart. I take it to heart no matter what I’m writing, whether it’s an opinion column or a blog post or a prototype or a novel. The first step to changing anything in this life, whether it’s a relationship or a republic, is to imagine that there could be something different. Not better. Not worse. Just different.

Currently, much of science fiction, and much of all genre media, is consumed with the question of optimism vs. pessimism. Why do the Hunger Games movies do better than Tomorrowland? Why do YA audiences keep buying the same dystopian novels, over and over? Why does Superman need a grim dark reboot? And here is where I tell you that the title of this talk should really be “the privilege of optimism,” because that is how I have come to think of that side of the coin. The most dangerous idea in this world is not that things will never improve, it’s that things will never change. Octavia E. Butler was right. The only lasting truth is change.

As LeGuin also noted more recently, “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.” And once upon a time, human civilization made other, similar assumptions. That no economy could survive the abolition of slavery. That no society could survive the enfranchisement of women voters. That the human race would go extinct in the face of reproductive autonomy. Once upon a time, these advancements were considered apocalyptic, dystopian ideas. As Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking warn us about the technological Singularity and the advent of super-intelligent AI, ask yourself, as Annalee Newitz once did: is the Singularity really a bigger change than the invention of insulin? Or the birth control pill? Or the microprocessor itself? Or the end of slavery?

I’m lucky enough that I get to do a job where people ask me, in all seriousness, “What’s the worst that can happen?” And I am also lucky enough to have the freedom to answer honestly, at least most of the time. But I would argue that the course of human history would have altered, if more people had that freedom. Or rather, if they felt the freedom to ask that particular question, and to answer it honestly.

“So what if we weaken gun control? What’s the worst that could happen?” The worst that can happen is Newtown, Connecticut. “So what if we keep hiring the same demographics to fulfill policy and law enforcement positions? What’s the worst that can happen?” The worst that can happen is Ferguson and Baltimore. “So what if we don’t cap and trade carbon? What’s the worst that can happen?” The worst that can happen is the slow but permanent arrival of the four horsemen of the apocalypse: war, famine, death, and pestilence.

It can always get worse. And refusing to imagine how much worse it can get is just as dangerous as refusing to imagine how things can get better. It’s not a cheery vision of Christmas Future that gets Ebenezer Scrooge to change his ways. It’s not a pleasant alternate reality that gets George Bailey to appreciate his lot in life. Nobody quits drinking because they love sobriety. They quit because they hit rock bottom. Rock bottom is the place where change begins. And it’s often better to imagine yourself there before you actually wind up there.

As Oppenheimer said: The optimist believes this to be the best of all possible worlds. The pessimist fears this to be true.

But to imagine any kind of optimistic future, you must first believe that you have a future, period. You must believe that progress is possible. You must believe that the benefits of that progress will become available to you. And over time, I have come to realize that this narrative, this improving story about the inevitability of improvement, relies as much on personal experience and circumstance as any memoir. If you have been set back from the arc of progress, if you have been separated from it by redlining, by predatory lending, by a lack of education, by an early unwanted pregnancy, by abuse, by overt discrimination or unthinking prejudice, then imagination is a luxury you can’t afford.

Sometimes the arc of history bends toward justice. But that’s only if you live long enough to see it. For millions, if not billions, of people on this planet, there is no arc. At least, no arc that we lovers of fiction would recognize. A good story, we have been told, is always about an allegedly low-born person transcending his circumstances through hard work and personal agency. He moves from A to B to C under his own steam. Nobody wants to admit that Luke Skywalker got his abilities from his dad, or that Uncle Owen bought his land speeder with the money made from robot labour. Nobody likes talking about the fact that Harry Potter financed his heroic resistance with inherited wealth. Paul Atreides was a prince. Arthur was Uther’s son; he just didn’t know it. And for some of us, myself included, the ability that was with us all along, the in-born talent, the feather that allowed us to fly, was little more than circumstance. And under those circumstances triumphs are still triumphs. But they are not always epic struggles. They are not always heroism. When you are set on what John Scalzi has referred to as “the lowest difficulty setting,” your narrative is less about conquering adversity and more about meeting expectations. To whom much is given, of much is expected.

Of course, that narrative remains a useful narrative: it explains success with a story about personal exceptionalism, rather than personal circumstances. And that’s awfully good for maintaining a status quo. And by some measures it is also a true narrative: some things are improving. According to the Economist, violent crime in major cities is down by up to 70%.  Despite an epidemic of mass shootings and police brutality, the homicide rate in the United States is at a thirty-year low. The price of solar power has plummeted, making investment in alternative energy an easy sell. According to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals indicators, more girls in more countries are going to school than have ever gone, before. These are all true stories. But they are not true for everyone, everywhere, at the same time. If, as Gibson says, the future is here but unevenly distributed, then so are the promises of that future. You can have it all, but you can’t have it all at once.

In 2014, Ta Nehisi Coates wrote:

“Now we have half-stepped away from our long centuries of despoilment, promising, “Never again.” But still we are haunted. It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.”

Coates was talking about the legacy of slavery, but he might as well have been talking about how mainstream contemporary culture in the global north confronts any number of wicked problems: global warming, the fight for human rights, the list goes on. So what does this have to do with science fiction, or the threat of the imagination, or ideas about the future?

While we in the science fiction community have been debating the need for optimism, and indeed encouraging it, we have forgotten that, like a predictable pessimism, optimism can also be the function of a weak imagination. It’s easy to imagine an optimistic future when you’ve been successful. It’s easy to be hopeful when your hopes have been fulfilled, when your faith has been rewarded. And crucially, the people shaping our futures — the ones developing our apps, writing our laws, deciding our policies — are the ones who reject pessimism simply because they’ve never needed it. They have never understood the danger of hope. They cannot know the vulnerability it requires. They have not been vulnerable, in that way.

Tomorrow will not inevitably be worse than today. But it will inevitably be different. It will be a change. And that change is what must be prepared for, must be ushered into the world with as much care as possible. Whether it’s natural disaster or novel invention, social upheaval or scientific discovery, change is the only inevitability. As with special relativity, if you’ve been lucky enough to move at the rate of change, you may not have noticed it. But that’s the thing: it’s relative.

So ask yourself, what’s the worst that can happen? Because it can happen. And right now, it’s already happened to someone else. And tomorrow, it might happen to you.

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