Wordplay: The future will be collective

Wordplay: The future will be collective


I hope that you’re doing well. I meant to get this out earlier, but I had the day off yesterday, spent many hours in the car, saw some friends, then got home late. I've got a short letter for today.

Collective futures

Last week, we published a story in our Better Worlds project called Monsters Come Howling In Their Season, by Cadwell Turnbull, and the immediate day after, I published a long-in-the-works feature on the site, How a Vermont Social Network Became a Model for Online Communities. It was completely coincidental, but while reviewing my piece before it went up, I couldn’t help but notice that there were some interesting parallels between the two pieces.

Cadwell’s story is set in the not-too-distant future on the island of St. Thomas, which deals with increasingly-strong hurricanes each summer. To cope, the island inhabitants have turned to an artificial intelligence called Common to help with life on the island. It’s a really intriguing story, which includes privacy issues with AI and climate change, but it’s a very different take on AI — Commons is commonly owned by communities, who contribute to its body of knowledge. It might or might not be completely sentient, but it’s there to assist communities. In my Q&A with Cadwell, he talked a little about the role that the AI plays in the community:

We should have control of our data. We should own it, along with our attention. I wanted to create an assistant informed by that idea. It is what I’d like to see from our internet platforms as well: public ownership. But I thought common assistants would be an interesting part of that larger issue to play with since a system like Common could do a lot of good beyond commercial applications.

At the same time, we spoke about how issues like climate change can really only be tackled through massive, collective action: commonly-held ownership of our communities, countries, and even our planet are the solution to the biggest issues that we face, like climate change, wide-scale poverty, war and conflict, and I can’t help but think that tools like this are one small piece of that puzzle.

That’s where my feature came in. Front Porch Forum isn’t collectively owned, but it’s an online space that’s designed to facilitate the in-person connections that people need to create resilient communities: the ground floor of any larger collective action. The promise of the internet and social media has been that it opens up people to the rest of the world, but it also can be incredibly isolating, or can develop intractable factions that do more harm than good.

We’re also fighting our own base, biological impulses. We’re designed to be short-sighted and greedy. Our evolutionary upbringing emphasized and prioritized those ways of thinking as ways to survive. Think back to your high school biology class, where bacteria, if given the proper conditions and nutrients, grew out of control. People do much the same thing, I think — we’ve developed societies that prize short-term gains and wealth at the expense of our longer-term futures.

I haven’t seen a whole lot of science fiction that really addresses these sorts of issues, but there have been a couple in recent years. Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 points the finger directly at capitalism as a root cause for climate change, and makes the argument that collective action is the only thing that can change this — first by changing that underlying operating system that society runs on, then implementing changes to build up a better replacement.

There have been others as well — Annalee Newitz’s debut Autonomous makes some very interesting points about how systems preserve society’s bad habits (in this case, with IP and copyright law), and her next, The Future of Another Timeline (due out this fall), looks like it’s going be exactly about this, about a couple of time travelers who discover that you can alter the past through collective societal action.

Further reading

A good story to read up on this weekend is an opinion piece from Charlie Jane Anders (who has her own, forthcoming novel coming out later this month, The City in the Middle of the Night): Kamala Harris is wrong about science fiction. The piece is in response to something that Harris said recently: that climate change needs to be addressed based on “science fact, not science fiction.” The pedantic in me suspects that Harris is speaking to the idea that climate change isn’t real or isn’t human-caused, but Anders makes a good point: we need science fiction as a way to create these better futures for us, and to make what seem like insurmountable challenges more manageable through stories.

Stories about climate change might be fiction, but they can help to sway people’s hearts and minds in a different way than a recitation of the undeniable facts. And this goes beyond climate change: Many other challenges we’re facing right now involve matters of belief, as much as logistics.

Oh, I also had a couple of pieces go up on The Verge the last couple of days: I'm excited for Denis Villeneuve's Dune, because of the cast; a preview of Rivers Solomon's forthcoming book The Deep; and a list of upcoming books for the first part of February.

Reading List

I’ve been picking away at books this week. I’m working my way through Marlon James’ Black Leopard, Red Wolf, which is good, but slow. I’m also reading Ben H. Winters’ Golden State, which is interesting, and Ian Nathan’s Anything You Can Imagine: Peter Jackson & The Making of Middle-earth, which remains fascinating. I also have Gwenda Bond’s Suspicious Minds, the first Stranger Things tie-in novel, on my short list, which I’m eyeing to review.

As always, thanks for reading!