Practising speculation and tech futures

Glitched AT&T 1990s advert

I’ve had a sort of moment of realisation this morning that a bunch of tabs I’ve had open, saved, reopened (etc etc) for the past few months are all more-or-less about doing speculative work around A.I., automation and suchlike.

This is interesting for me cos I wrote a PhD (and I am by no means the only one) about rationales for and forms of speculative practice in computing R&D (my fieldwork for this was, soberingly, now approximately ten years ago). It’s also interesting cos I have, in the last eight or so years, pitched for funding to do this sort of work and miserably failed three times.

I think what interests me most is the ways in which story telling is more-or-less the method. I’m not sure how good we are at this, as academics. There’s some good work that analyses speculative things, such as architects visualisations, but I’m not sure I’ve seen much work doing speculation that is not design-oriented. I am not seeking to criticise speculative design practices, I really admire that work, I just wonder if there is a way of de-centring the ‘design’ bit to engage in broader forms of ‘speculation’. I’m also not sure how one can tread the line between evoking particular kinds of scenario/ story (or dare I say imaginative geography) and affirming them. Likewise, I don’t think it is sufficient to simply refer to Black Mirror – it’s fun but it’s not the only way of doing speculation about technology (as afrofuturism demonstrates). I don’t think we want to merely replicate the sorts of ‘visioning’ practices of the likes of Microsoft, Samsung or Beko, not because they’re not interesting but because I’d like to think academics doing this kind of thing want to critically reflect on, not simply propose (or impose!), possibilities.  Playful examples that I think are successful include Superflux’s excellent “Uninvited Guests” – though again, this is perhaps more design-oriented: it’s more about the function in relation to the individual rather than the kinds of world that are necessary for those functions to work.

I do not claim any special insight here – I’m curious about speculative methods – they seem to have some analytical/ explanatory/ critical power but also that also seems to be rather hard to negotiate. In practice, I think you may have to be in the right context, and I’m not convinced academic geography is (without quite a bit of work, given particular kinds of disciplinary assumptions and proclivities – happy to be proven wrong!), and you may have to work with non-academic partners in a way I am not skilled in doing. Good examples, I think, are work like Anne’s Counting Sheep project, which is a canonical example of interesting and provocative speculative design. As I’ve said – I’m not so sure about where non-design-oriented work sits and how this is, or can be, done well. I’m interested in some of the attempts anyway, and here’s some examples, listed below.

UPDATE: Sam Hind shared this piece from Warwick concerning issue mapping techniques that allowed for speculative reflection on driverless cars:

Surfacing Social Aspects of Driverless Cars with Creative Methods, Noortje Marres, Rebecca Cain, Ana Gross, Lucy Kimbell and Arun Ulahannan – “The Warwick workshop explored the potential of creative social research methods – such as design research and debate mapping – to surface still hidden social dynamics around the operation of intelligent technologies in everyday environments, and to complement more established approaches to societal testing of these technologies.”

This made me also think of the speculative policy making practices that arose from “Open Policy” work at the British Cabinet Office’s PolicyLab, which I think involved folks from Strange Telemetry and Superflux.


Crafting stories of technology and progress: five  considerations, Cian O’Donavan & Johan Schot – From Technology Stories the website of the Society for the History of Technology comes this brief post that refers to the longer report from the International Panel on Social Progress concerning the fairly classic Science and Technology Studies issue of how to tell stories about “progress” without necessarily resorting to (unreflexive) forms of determinism. There are four ‘stories’ by several researchers linked from this article that address a number of issues:

Economic Science Fictions, edited by William Davies – I’m not really sure why the “science” is in the title but there we go… From the blurb: “Rooted in the sense that our current economic reality is no longer credible or viable, this collection treats our economy as a series of fictions and science fiction as a means of anticipating different economic futures.”

Designing the future, Justin Reynolds – reviews the above book on the New Socialist site, with some interesting commentary.

Future Perfect conference/event, coordinated by Data & Society – characterised as “speculative fiction in the public interest” this event was first run in 2017 as an invitation-only thing but had an open call in 2018. From the 2018 event blurb: “Future Perfect is an annual workshop and conference dedicated to different approaches to understanding, living in, and challenging dominant narratives of speculative fiction in a time where powerful actors in technology and politics treat the future like a foregone conclusion.”

Robot Futures, Illah Reza Nourbakhsh – “Future robots will have superhuman abilities in both the physical and digital realms. They will be embedded in our physical spaces, with the ability to go where we cannot, and will have minds of their own, thanks to artificial intelligence. In Robot Futures, the roboticist Illah Reza Nourbakhsh considers how we will share our world with these creatures, and how our society could change as it incorporates a race of stronger, smarter beings.”

The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto

Via dmf. Definitely worth watching >>


“This dream of utopia can encourage us to forget that outer space will not save us from injustice and that cyberspace was prefigured upon a “master/slave” relationship.

While we are often Othered, we are not aliens.

Though our ancestors were mutilated, we are not mutants.

Post-black is a misnomer.

Post-colonialism is too.

The most likely future is one in which we only have ourselves and this planet.”

The rest is here: http://martinesyms.com/the-mundane-afrofuturist-manifesto/

See also: http://blackradicalimagination.com

Fifty years on: the right to the city – Andy Merrifield

Merrifield reflects on The Right to the City fifty years on in a thoughtful essay on his website. Worth reading the whole thing

In response to a crisis of political legitimation, the “spectre” of urban solidarity looms; minorities in cities recognise that national and international rights are “out of joint.” In a way, we now need to read Derrida’s idea of “villes-refuges“ in conjunction not only with Lefebvre’s right to the city, but also with the former’s earlier Spectres of Marx, where he spoke of a “New International”; “a profound transformation,” Derrida called it, “projected over the long term, of international law, of its concepts and field of intervention.” This New International is “a link,” Derrida said, an affinity, a suffering and hope, still discreet, almost secret, without status or title, contract or coordination, party or country, national community or common belonging to a class.

We’re not yet sure what this International really is; we can’t name it anything positive. But it’s there nonetheless, we know it’s there, hope it’s there, out on the horizon, if we can look that far. We know it’s more needed than ever before, needed everywhere. It’s a ghostly dream-thought of a new status for the city, a right to and of the city, a will to belong to a democratic urban webbing, a solidarity of confederated assemblies interrogating the essence of politics and the role of the nation-state: just what is a citizen of the urban, a citadin(e) of the twenty-first century? Progressives will have their work cut out in this challenging year ahead. Meantime, Ã  la tienne, Henri!”¦

Projecting a genuine future for the living? On Latour & Stiegler comments after the Paris attacks

I was quite surprised at how quickly the translation of the short interview with Bernard Stiegler in le Monde spread on twitter, which is not usual for my posts…

Anyway, I have been struck by a similarity in ethos between the comments made by Bernard Stiegler in his interview and the commentary provided by Bruno Latour in an op-ed (translated by Jane Kuntz) for Reporterre, entitled “The Other State of Urgency” [via Installing (Social) Order].

It is an ethos of calling for the casting-off of a short-termism or ‘death-wish’ (pace Latour) focussed on (inadequately mitigating) destruction–destruction of states, of peoples and of our planet–towards affirming what Stiegler calls a ‘genuine’ future and what Latour sees as a taking of fate into our our hands. One might see it as a loosely vitalist ethos: an affirmation of life and its pluri-potency.

It seems to me significant that both Latour and Stiegler frame the issue in relation to the anthropocene and the COP21 talks being held in Paris. For both of them, the affirmation of a ‘genuine’ future entails combining stances towards ecological, economic, political and scientific atmospheres. Such an affirmation of a sustainable path towards a future of the living is set in contra-distinction to a rhetoric of war, which both thinkers reject in their own ways. To submit to war, in the manner of the French government, is to submit to a short-term imperative to (re)act, but to act for whom and to what ends is a question both Latour and Stiegler find troubling. It is analogous to government via catastrophism – such forms of reaction are already presumed in the mode of ‘normal’ operation: the ‘everywhere war’ and ‘state of exception’ is the new ‘normal’.

Who could argue against an affirmation of hope? I certainly would not. Yet, while there is plenty of diagnosis of the ‘state of urgency’, we are left to ponder: what is to be done?

I don’t think I buy Stiegler’s eurocentric call for policy, it is too easy to see how–even with the best of intentions–this would slip into the kind of technocratic malaise that has buggered up the Mediterranean EU countries. Yet, at least Stiegler attempts to offer strategies – and I think the wider outlining of a political-economics of contribution and of a kind of ‘neganthropy‘, while somewhat grandiloquent, remain inspiring. I would be very curious to see what Latour would suggest in order to “invent demonstrations more innovative than yet another march from Place de la République to Place de la Nation.”

It is, of course, excruciatingly hard to offer strategies for action – as Zizek likes to quip: we can see why it has been suggested that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than an end to the ideological milieu of capitalism. Working for a ‘genuine’ future hurts, but as both Latour and Stiegler demonstrate: it remains the task at hand.