Alan N. Shapiro, Visiting Professor in Transdisciplinary Design, Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, Germany

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The Paradox of Foreseeing the Future, by Alan N. Shapiro

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The Paradox of Foreseeing the Future

Alan N. Shapiro

In spite of my reputation as being a science fiction theorist and a futurist designer, I must say that I do not believe very much in the future. Starting from the important field of the psychology of consciousness, I would like to invoke the German-Canadian author Eckhart Tolle, who, in his book The Power of Now (1999), emphasizes that it is good to live in the present and to exercise mental discipline to avoid thoughts both of the past and of the future. Thoughts about the past often revolve around regrets concerning events which we can no longer change or influence. Thoughts about the future often take the form of probably useless worry and anxiety about events which we imagine might happen, but which in fact almost never unfold in the way that we are imagining them now. “Nothing ever happened in the past; it happened in the Now,” writes Eckhart Tolle. “Nothing will ever happen in the future; it will happen in the Now.” There only ever is the Now.

To switch instantly in a transdisciplinary way to the field of the sociology of culture, I would say that I believe that the future, as many people speak about it, has already taken place. Most prognostications about what is going to happen are indeed psychological projections into an imagined future scenario of some current phenomenon which has in fact already happened or is happening in the present, and which the person making the prediction refuses to squarely face. An example of this, I think, is the often apocalyptic discourse of established Green Politics, which perpetually warns about catastrophes which are allegedly going to happen in the statistically extrapolated future. Such environmentally protective narratives of “the end” and “the coming ecological catastrophe” are – in large measure although not entirely – mirror reflections of the social-psychological atmosphere of the dominant discourses in the mainstream news media and in mainstream science fiction films which very often disseminate fear, hysteria and high drama in their viscerally anti-utopian ideological strategies. The discourse of the “war on terror” is an example of this: it tells us that we are not allowed to direct our attention to projects for improving society in a democratic or pragmatic-utopian way because we are living in a condition of permanent emergency where the political state has to focus on making war. This situation of catastrophe warning discourses also has to do significantly with the difference between the so-called “real” and the so-called “virtual.” The discourse of the impending “real” catastrophe practiced by much of Green Politics and by the mainstream news media deters us from fully confronting the “virtual” catastrophe in which we are already living. Perceiving the virtual catastrophe, as I call it, requires us to develop both a literary sociological sensibility and a keen awareness of the crisis of spacetime that we are already experiencing in what I call the social-existential condition of hypermoderism.

I am a science fiction theorist, but for me science fiction is never about the future, predictions of the future, or the question of the “accuracy” of those predictions. Science fiction is about the present, the virtual reality of the present that dominant ways of thinking prevent us from seeing. We must see the present with both literary and scientific insight in order to paradoxically foresee something of the future. We are most certainly separated from the future by the chasm of chaos. No one predicted the fall of the Soviet Union on December 26, 1991 or the fall of the World Trade Center Twin Towers in New York City on September 11th, 2001. We can recognize the impossibility of imagining what the world will be like a hundred years from now simply by imagining the obvious impossibility of people a hundred years ago imagining the world we live in today.

With the Internet, smartphones, and other remote telepresence technologies, we are living an increasing confusion between “the here” and “the there,” between the place where we are physically and the electronic networks to which we are connected, the virtual human beings, avatars, and software entities with which we are communicating. We are “Alone Together,” as MIT media theorist Sherry Turkle would say. The socio-cultural crisis of hypermodernism corresponds to the discoveries about the surprising behavior of nature made by the emblematic sciences of the twentieth century such as quantum physics; Einsteinian special and general relativity; non-Euclidean geometries and topologies such as those of Riemann, the Klein bottle, and the Möbius strip; Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems; and chaos theory. It is as if weird things about spacetime that were perceived to occur under extreme physical circumstances by the quantum mechanics and relativity theories of physics are now happening in our own immediate experiences in the social world and in everyday life.

In the domain of time, we are involved with a paradoxical process of reversal, a “reversal of history,” time running in reverse, the end of linearity, like a film playing backwards or transposed by splices, mixing and cut-ups. We are in the midst of time-looping temporal turbulence phenomena and time distortion patterns such as recurrence, retroversion and retroactivity. In 2016, the European Union is also perhaps now on the verge of dissolution, and we are perhaps heading into a new Cold War with Russia. Recently Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev asked “Is this 2016 or 1962?”

An appreciation of fiction is also crucial for futurism and futurist design. To anticipate the future, we need to gain knowledge of the fictional dimension in social reality. The more we understand about the present, the more we can foresee some aspects of the future. What we call “reality” is, in fact, a very restricted idea of what reality is, because we have excluded from our concept of reality that which we have called fiction. Fiction as the other of reality. Fiction as the second term in the binary opposition, the exiled counterpart in the dualism.

Science is not really about discovering the true nature of reality, as some scientists like to describe as being their mission. Discovering the true nature of reality would be a tautological statement, since it is science, in the currently prevailing paradigm, which has generated the concept of “reality.” Science would be investigating its own projection. We cannot allow science to be based on a tautological self-contradictory first principle.

To explicate the geometrically expansive rewiring of our knowledge paradigm from so-called Reality to a larger framework that includes both Reality and Fiction, we need to enter the tricky world of mathematical set theory. The two sets – the one enclosed within the other – are not really distinguished from each other by their respective sizes. It is rather a question of density or magnitude. Reality is not compact whereas Fiction is. This compactness of Fiction derives from the fact that Fiction is unbounded, infinite, and continuous. Reality, as we have historically designed it, is bounded, finite, and discrete, with a divisibility into clearly separable identities and differences. Something is considered to be scientifically “real” if it is something that we can be certain about, if it has behaviors which are greifbar, which are repeatable in a series of steps in an experiment, and about which there is consensus. Fiction, on the other hand, is that which we deem to be “just a story.” That is our operational, behaviorist, and pragmatic definition of fiction: fiction is that which is not real; fiction is the opposite of reality. The insistence upon the Real is a binary opposition. As Jean Baudrillard writes in his book Impossible Exchange: “The real divested of the anti-real becomes hyperreal, more real than the real, and vanishes into simulation.” The media in which genuine thought can flourish is that of radical uncertainty. The “other” of the insistence on the Real is the excluded term of the pair: radical uncertainty or Fiction.

Science fiction as expressed in its canonical novels and films has already been realized in the present, in our way of life, in our society. Many of the futuristic technologies and totalitarian social arrangements that were envisioned in those works have come true. Any idea of classical science fiction being a straightforward linear model enabling predictions about the future are now off the table. Yet the best times of our lives as science fiction fans still lie ahead. Aware as we are of the many powerful science fiction narratives that have been written and filmed, and aware that society has indeed descended in many ways into the dystopia that these narratives foresaw, we can now live science fiction truly as fiction, we can live science fiction as a form of creative design. Fiction is an essential element of the creative act. Fiction should be taught at art and design universities. What is a contemporary definition of fiction in the age of hyperreality? Fiction is the awareness of the difference or gap between reality and its representation. This is a direct contrast to the loss of the awareness of that difference that is nearly universal in the media-consumer culture of hyperreality.

Ray Bradbury famously wrote: “As soon as you have an idea that changes some small part of the world you are writing science fiction. It is always the art of the possible, never the impossible.” As I explained in my book on Star Trek, science fiction is a proactive reality-shaping force that formatively influences culture, ideas, technologies, science, and design. Science fiction can be the lively initiator of a “new real.” For designers, it becomes a question not of reading or viewing science fiction (within the media paradigm of passivity and consumerism of the society of the spectacle) – it is a question of writing science fiction. Writing science fiction through the Situationist acts of “constructing situations” and of initiating transdisciplinary projects which exist on the border between humanities theory and design practice in the activities of new knowledge cultures arising in the information society.

Now I will speak of five practical design areas which relate to emancipatory-liberating potentialities in the broad context of writing and for the construction of situations: Singular Objects, Poetic Codes, Smart Devices, the Internet of Things, and Sustainability.

Singular Objects is a concept that was invented during a book-length discussion about architecture and philosophy between the architect Jean Nouvel and the philosopher Jean Baudrillard. Unlike architectural structures that get replicated as part of a formulaic series deriving from cookie-cutter models – such as shopping malls, airports, and standard high-rise apartment houses and office buildings – Singular Objects find their fascinating place in the urban environment as irreducible, alien cultural artefacts which are singularities or “strange attractors” (a term used by Baudrillard which he takes from chaos theory in physics).

I understand Poetic Codes as being privileged inscription locations of transformational design in the twenty-first century, acts of aesthetic and political resistance against the mainstream coded world of surveillance, automation and the bureaucratization of everyday life. Rather than regarding software code only as the imposition of fixed structures and procedures, I see the writing and speaking of code as an expressive and creative act. Poetic Codes relate to what had previously and traditionally been called art and politics. Poetic language must reappear within software code to counteract the original historical-technological assumption that code is a series of instructions to a machine, an exercise in formal logic, and the reduction of language to information.

Smart Devices need to be analyzed both as a media-and-technology sociological phenomenon, as in smartphones and iPads, and in relation to the emergence of Fab Labs and Maker Labs. Fab Labs and Maker Labs are part of the bottom-up movement of decentralization in a coming together of economics and technology.

All previous exemplary media of postmodern society (cinema, television, personal computers) were focused on the screen as preeminent metaphor. The Smart Device, to the contrary, introduces a new embodied metaphor which is something like the coded state machine of the Device’s properties. The Smart Device is a coded device, not a screen. Although they appear to be small screens, smartphones are not screen-centered media.

Fab Labs and Maker Labs are sites both of open source Creative Coding and of entrepreneurship and empowerment of individuals and small-scale sustainable economies. Fab Labs typically have lots of prototyping machines, excellent hardware facilities, and a group of people with strong practical knowledge of making good and fast prototyping. Hardware platforms such as Arduino and Raspberry Pi, and 3D Printers, are often in the middle of the Fab Lab’s activities. These new economic-technological counter-institutions (or dispositivs, in Michel Foucault’s terminology) also have significance for education and invention. Fab Labs and Maker Labs develop skills and economies for small groups creating their own Smart Devices against the realities and habits of mass production.

The Internet of Things is a very near future where physical objects have evolved from standalone embedded systems to powerful and potentially intelligent networked devices. Billions of devices will be inter-connected via electronics, software, sensors, scanners and cameras. They will share data with each other. Each thing will be uniquely identified through something like an IP address. There are three possible ways that one could look at the Internet of Things. First, one could be a simple advocate of it, in the mainstream sense of taking the business or corporate perspective of making money from it. Second, one could see the Internet of Things as a threat, as a catastrophe. Many who call themselves critical sociologists or humanist philosophers are already taking this position. This viewpoint has a certain limited usefulness in that it points out the shortcomings of the first or mainstream position. The third position is something akin to the hacker perspective, similar to the Creative Coding movement or to the activities around Raspberry Pi and Arduino. One would hack the Internet of Things in creative and politically diverting ways.

I understand Sustainability as being a transdisciplinary subject, consisting of social, cultural, economic, environmental, and personal areas of responsibility. Sustainable development endures in ecosystems which maintain diversity, continued survival, and prosperity. We need to consider architecture and urbanism, mobility and transport, and ethical consumerism. Sustainable Design is the practice of designing physical objects and urban environments in accordance with Sustainable ecological principles. Each person carries a moral responsibility for staying within limits of fiscal solvency.

What defines what these five topics – Singular Objects, Poetic Codes, Smart Devices, the Internet of Things, and Sustainability – have in common? They all have to do with knowledge cultures where activities can be carried out by social agents within an economic model that is neither that of big corporations nor that of a populist, technological determinist impulse as in the 1990s. It is rather the economic model of bottom-up entrepreneurial capitalism, of small startup companies. And it is connected to a kind of design in which theory and practice are in a hybrid relation to each other.

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