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The Policy Futurist’s Reading List

How speculative fiction can inform better public policy

This article was first published in The Mandarin on 20 August 2019.

‘Story is our only boat for sailing on the river of time’, writes Ursula le Guin in her pensive, lyrical story A Fisherman of the Inland Sea. That tale is about a man out of time, recounting the events of his past that, for the reader, lie in the future. The boat can go both upriver and down, allow us to look both back and forward.

As a lifelong reader of sci-fi and a policy professional working with emerging technologies, I’ve found that diving into visions of the future, whether they be grim cyberpunk or gleaming utopias, has helped shape my understanding of how technology is adopted and adapted. Engaging with these narratives has opened my mind to the possibilities offered by emerging technologies and, ironically, helped me sort fact from fiction when dealing with new tech.

Sci-fi has offered predictions and inspired many of the technologies we now take for granted. For example, Star Trek’s personal communicators are cited as having prompted Motorola’s Martin Cooper to create the first mobile phone in the 1970s.

One of my favourite examples of this is Luke Skywalker’s prosthetic hand in The Empire Strikes Back, indistinguishable from his organic one. In the early 80s, this was clear science-fictional wish fulfillment, but that optimism has now inspired numerous projects to create better prosthetic limbs with full articulation, mind-machine interfaces and biofeedback from electronic skin.

The lesson is that, to paraphrase Jules Verne, what one person can imagine, another can build. Being able to conceive of the optimistic outcome (and not just what you believe to be the achievable outcome) is the first step to making it happen — in both technology and public policy.

On the other side of the spectrum of sci-fi futures lie numerous chilling concepts. Societies where technology has been used to enforce vast chasms between those who can afford to use it and those who are simply ruled by it, such as in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, or as a means of totalitarian control, such as the insidious, pervasive surveillance of Orwell’s 1984. These stories reflect our fears of what could happen if technology is not harnessed to empower people, but is instead used to concentrate power and control in the hands of the few.

Beyond raw inspiration or articulation of our concerns, science fiction can be viewed as a series of thought experiments about how we, as people and as a society, will change and grow in response to new tech.

William Gibson’s seminal cyberpunk tome Neuromancer often gets cited in these kinds of conversations, but what has really stayed with me from Gibson’s work is the phrase ‘the street finds its own uses for things’ from his 1982 short story Burning Chrome. As a teenager, Gibson taught me that the uses of tech aren’t restricted to what the manufacturers intend. People will use tech how they want, as suits their needs. And if it doesn’t suit their needs, they’ll break, fix or hack it until it does.

As policy professionals, that is a gift. It’s our users demonstrating what they want and need. Observing these behaviours and understanding what drives them is what will help us develop better, more human-centred policies, systems and services. For example, the meteoric rise of Napster and prolific internet-enabled music piracy in the early 2000s terrified record labels and spawned thousands of lawsuits. However, music industry newcomers such as Apple and Spotify recognised the desire of users for easy online access to music, and capitalise on that to build products that met user needs.

Cory Doctorow’s 2008 novel Little Brother — a story in which a teenager is mistakenly accused of terrorism by an overzealous security agency and becomes an activist in response — helped shape my thinking on the problems with pervasive surveillance, and how societies might react to it. Doctorow’s protagonist puts pebbles in his shoes to defeat gait-recognition systems and uses anti-static pouches as a Faraday cage to prevent his phone from being tracked. This came to mind recently while I was watching footage of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong using cheap laser pointers to counter facial recognition systems deployed by the authorities. Where governments seek to use technology in ways to which people object, the people will use the tech available to them to circumvent those attempts.

One area in which science fiction can be truly instructive is artificial intelligence. While governments across the world debate how to make AI ethical and what that even means, sci-fi authors have already envisaged a myriad of AI-enabled societies. I would be remiss not to mention Isaac Asimov, whose mid-20th century bevy of stories about intelligent robots gave rise to the 3 Laws of Robotics, still considered in AI ethics conversations today.

However, Asimov envisaged sentient, autonomous androids, and we are finding that our current implementations of AI and how we interact with it are very different. In more recent fiction, such as Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash, the hero switches between seamlessly immersive virtual reality, augmented reality, and audio to interact with his virtual research librarian. Similarly, the protagonist of Charles Stross’ multi-century spanning Accelerando, a crusading anti-capitalist inventor and deal maker by the unlikely name of Manfred Macx, deploys AI agents to conduct research and establish corporate structures and is advised by AI analysts, which he runs on his external memory and brain and accesses via augmented reality glasses.

As AI is increasingly seamlessly integrated into common devices, platforms and services — such as image recognition, search facilities, natural language processing, location aware notifications and reminders — we need to think through how we can enable everyone to use and benefit from these technologies. If we don’t, we risk leaving people behind, like in Vernor Vinge’s 2006 book Rainbows End, in which a man is cured from Alzheimer’s disease only to realise he cannot navigate the highly networked, digitally-mediated world in which he wakes up.

So, where on the science-fictional river should you launch your boat? Here’s a few suggestions to start you off:

  • William Gibson, The Sprawl trilogy (Neuromancer, Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive). The granddaddy of cyberpunk, Gibson pioneered this noir-ish genre. Weaponised cyber security, body augmentations and implantable technologies, godlike AI, and creative reuse of technology abound.
  • Willian Gibson, The Blue Ant trilogy (Pattern Recognition, Spook Country, Zero History). In contrast to his other work, this trilogy should filed under ‘near future’: so near it’s here. A nuanced examination of the internet, art, culture, branding and advertising, history, terrorism, and community.
  • Ted Chiang, The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling (2013). Each story Ted Chiang writes is a finely cut, glittering jewel. This one explores the consequences of perfect memory, supplied by ubiquitous cameras, wearable devices, and AI-enabled search facilities. Can be found in Chiang’s 2019 collection Exhalation.
  • Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash (1992). Stephenson’s concept of the Metaverse, an immersive virtual reality platform for online interactions, is credited as having inspired Second Life. Stephenson also explores augmented reality and virtual assistants.
  • Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age (1996). A consideration of what happens to a society when 3D printing/nanotech and massive amounts of computing power become ubiquitous.
  • Cory Doctorow, Makers (2009). An exploration of maker and hacker culture — people who use and combine the tech they have in creative and unexpected ways to make something entirely new. Includes consideration of open-source and 3D printing in particular. Available for free on the author’s website under a Creative Commons licence.
  • Cory Doctorow, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (2003). Well before eBay and Uber started allowing users to rate each other, Cory Doctorow’s quirky 2003 novel provided a fully realised vision of what a reputation-based economy could look like. A world in which your success, resources, and status depend entirely on how other people rate you, set in a future Disney World.
  • Charles Stross, Accelerando (2004). A tale of accelerating technology, spanning centuries. Various flavours of AI, but notable for its vision and exploration of augmented memory and cognition. Available for free on the author’s website under a Creative Commons licence.
  • Lois McMaster Bujold, the Vorkosigan series. Careening between military space opera, detective fiction, romantic comedy and romantic drama, this sprawling series is particularly notable for its exploration of reproductive technologies such as external gestation and gene editing. What happens to a society when women don’t need to gestate children, and when we can edit or genome not only to eliminate disease but to make improvements?

I’m an Australian privacy and information governance policy specialist with a focus on innovation and emerging technologies. @timdesousa

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