Science Fiction, Seriously.

Recently, ASU launched the new Center for Science and the Imagination to use science fiction in serious ways. Things like CSI are literally unbelievable; they could only happen at ASU, and it’s why I’m a grad student here. I’m look forward to working with the new center, and I have some ideas.

In the words of the center’s director, Ed Finn:
Our mission is to foster creative and ambitious thinking about the future. We want to bring writers, artists, scholars, scientists and many others together in collaboration on bold visions for a better future. But more than this, we want to share a sense of agency about the future, to get everyone on the plane thinking about how our choices inflect the spectrum of possibilities before us.

Right now, the center is bringing people together around big visions for the future, the most prominent of which is Neal Stephenson’s Giant Space Tower. Unlike a space elevator, which would require tens of thousands of kilometers of catbon nanotube fiber at an unprecedented production scale, Neal’s tower is only 10-20km tall, and built out of conventional materials like steal. However, by getting a launch platform above the thickest parts of Earth’s atmosphere, rockets could reach orbit much more efficiently, opening up new frontiers in space travel. The idea is that as a potential rallying point for interdisciplinary studies in engineering, sustainability, the politics of siting the tower, economics of operation, design of human living quarters high in what climbers call the ‘death zone’. It’s a big vision, but are we really thinking about choices and possibilities?

The tower is a fascinating project in many aspects, but as a spaceflight critic, I have my doubts. The tower is an interesting idea, but it’s closest analog isn’t the Apollo program, it’s large scale infrastructure like the Panama Canal, which was at its time an incredibly ambitious and fraught undertaking, cost $375 million, was politically tied to the imperial domination of Central America and moneyed shipping interests, and killed tens of thousands of workers. While it was a bridge between worlds in its time, and a worthy and impressive project, these days, its most enduring legacy is not heroic engineering, but cheap consumer goods and the Panamax ship standard.

Science fiction asks us to dream big, but history tells us we should be cautious. The legacies of innovation are rarely what we think they will be. The most important technologies are rarely the most impressive ones, human genome projects and particle accelerators and rocket ships. The science and technology that impacts us the most are quiet, omnipresent, invisible, things like air conditioning and standardized forms, forms of transportation that are cheap, efficient, and safe, buildings that stay up in storms and earthquakes, and the millions of other things that modern living requires, and which we notice only when they break.

We live in an era characterized by technologies, and as Langdon Winner noted in his classic The Whale and The Reactor, these artifacts have politics, but their values, costs and benefits, and forms of responsibility disappear into a fog of engineering details accessible only to experts. The architectures of technological systems structure and direct our lives in subtle ways, and yet we lack good tools to evaluate these technologies. I can think of three primary ways we approach technology: elegance, expense, and inertia. Technophiles love the newest most technically sweet solution or gadget for its own sake. Accountants are concerned with how much it will cost, and who will pay. And most people approach technology from a position of minimizing disruptions in how they live their lives, and interoperability with the current standard.

When people to come together to discuss technologies, the result is all too frequently confusion because they are coming from mutually incomprehensible perspectives. Rationality is not a fair and even-handed way of adjudicating between perspectives; demanding rationality is a way of enforcing the use of only one perspective. Cost-benefit analysis and similar “rational” techniques of technology assessment and governance take in only a very small slice of the human experience. For democrats, people who believe that everybody should have a fair say in the development of the community, this ungovernability of technology is a perennial problem.

Instead of bemoaning the perennial irrationality of the public, or elite decision-makers, or the morons who programmed the menu system on my internet enabled BluRay player, I think we should look for a different way of communicating. People may be irrational, in that they do things other than how we would have done then, but their actions make sense internally. They are never unreasonable.

Walter Fisher, in his work on the narrative paradigm delimited his theory that:
(1) Humans are essentially story tellers; (2) the paradigmatic mode of human decision-making and communication is “good reasons” which vary in form among communication situations, genres, and media; (3) the production and practice of goods reasons is ruled by matters of history, biography, culture, and character… (4) rationality is determined by the nature of persons as narrative beings-their inherent awareness of narrative probability, what constitutes a coherent story, and their constant habit of testing narrative fidelity, whether the stories they experience ring true with the stories they know to be true in their lives… (5) the world is a set of stories which must be chosen among to live the good life in a process of continual recreation.

In short, good reasons are the stuff of stories, the means by which humans realize their nature as reasoning valuing animals. The philosophical ground of the narrative paradigm is ontology. The materials of the narrative paradigm are symbols, signs of consubstantiation, and good reasons, the communicative expressions of social reality.

We need to bring reasons to the forefront, and stories are some of the densest, most fruitful areas for discovering reasons. We need to start taking stories seriously, and specifically stories about technology. We need more people telling stories about technology, better stories about technology, and better channels for getting good stories out there. And for better or worse, science fiction is the genre of stories that deal with technology and the future. As Clark Miller and Ira Bennet, two professors at CSPO wrote, “Science-fiction is technology assessment for the rest of us.”

Jay Oglivy, a futurist with the Global Business Network, argues that, “Part of the role of futurists… should therefore be to articulate in an understandable and appealing way images of a better future. We need an antidote to Blade Runner, a foil for A Clockwork Orange, a better sequel to 1984, a truly humanized Animal Farm.” I hope that the new Center for Science and Inquiry can take up this challenge, creating a community of interdisciplinary scholars and methods to use science fiction to articulate, discuss, and create this better world. Anything less would be a betrayal of our ambitions. 


  1. Excellent post, Michael!

    I'm particularly taken with your invocation of Walter Fisher. What a rich mine of theory you expose there. While I didn't know Walter Fisher until reading your post, the narrative paradigm is quite similar to stuff I've read in the field of cognitive anthropology, for example in the work of Dan Sperber. (http://www.dan.sperber.fr/)

    Sperber's view is that rationality is a co-evolving system designed for persuasion. This undermines the claim of rationalities that truth or ontology are decisive.

    Evolutionarily, rationality's roots are not in truth.

    For example, here is an abstract of one of Sperber's papers:

    "Reasoning is generally seen as a mean to improve knowledge and make better decisions. Much evidence, however, shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests rethinking the function of reasoning. Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. Reasoning so conceived is adaptive given human exceptional dependence on communication and vulnerability to misinformation. A wide range of evidence in the psychology or reasoning and decision making can be reinterpreted and better explained in the light of this hypothesis."

    I guess I'm saying your point of view, Michael, is absolutely ripe for further exploration.

    I also have great hopes for ASU's Center for Science and the Imagination.

    I'd like to gather a group of students to convene with Neal Stephenson on a revamped version of his first novel, "The Big U".

    The New American University would be the site of the novel, with CSI themes structuring the narrative. We could get a group of ghostwriters to contribute ideas, and work with Neal to actually write the deliverable. Then we could start a CSI printing press to distribute the book.

  2. You're welcome! I'll have to look into Sperber, always looking for something a little more current than scholars from 20 years ago, even if they're highly cited and respected.

    I'm totally with you on a rewrite of "The Big U." That is one of my very favorite Stephenson books, and we need a kickass novel for the New American University.