Practising speculation and tech futures

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.”

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