How can we theorise the societal and ethical implications of technology which does not yet, and may never, exist? Technological advances and a society increasingly governed by algorithms and big data introduce innumerable potential political and ethical issues for our future. It can be difficult to take many of these potentialities seriously as theoretical concerns, without either dismissing them as mere speculation, or failing to go beyond the anxiety they produce. Our current theoretical paradigms and modes of research fall short, suggesting a need for a new set of thinking apparatus appropriate to investigating these future potentialities. Rather than directly tackling the implications of algorithmic culture itself, I want to propose fiction and fantasy as a strategy for dealing critically with speculative theory.
I’ll begin with a contentious example; the possibility that future robots designed for sexual gratification may become sentient and have a claim to human rights. I question how can we seriously consider what right to autonomy a sentient sexbot should have, when all we have to go on is a couple of jerky, eyelid batting, hyper-sexualised dolls that cannot control their own limbs? We have to imagine first how a machine may come to have a valid form of consciousness, which deserves legal protection, and then imagine our way through the whole host of complex ethical issues this produces. Philosopher Steve Peterson attempts this in his 2016 paper ‘Is It Good For Them Too? Ethical Concerns for the Sexbots’, in which he unpicks how future sentient sexbots may be designed so that they themselves could be considered to be living fulfilling lives. However, I found his proposal falls a little short in way of making the reader care. Points like “sexbot’s pleasure need not be like ours; they might genuinely like experiences that few humans would. So we should not suppose that sex is a dreary task for them, just because it is their intended career” (p.4), simply feel too speculative to warrant serious academic consideration. He admits; “Part of the power of fictional sexbots like Pris from Blade Runner, Gigolo Joe from AI, or Kyoko from Ex Machina is exactly that we can’t help suspecting that these characters have their own, real lives – and that those lives are not going very well” (p.2). What is being acknowledged here is the power within storytelling to trigger empathy. Fictional worlds may create a more compelling space to approach as yet unrealised ethical dilemmas, and generate critical dialogue around these potentialities.
Fiction reveals repressed truths..
In his 2001 book The Fright of Real Tears, contemporary philosopher of psychoanalysis Slavoj Zizek considers how fantasy can allow us to get closer to the truth. He writes in response to film-maker Krzysztof Kieslowski’s move from making documentaries to making fiction, specifically because he felt it better allowed him to portray the truth. Kieslowski described feeling “out of bounds” when documenting real-life, stating that he’s “frightened of real tears” (Zizek, 2001, p.72), before he discovered a freedom to fully inhabit his subject within the genre of fiction.
“When we film ‘real-life’ scenes in a documentary way, we get people playing themselves… the only way to depict people beneath their protective mask of playing is, paradoxically, to make them directly play a role, i.e. to move into fiction. Fiction is more real that the social reality of playing roles” (Zizek, 2001, p.75). Zizek considers how fantasy, in films or through gaming, allows us to temporarily suspend the rules of our ‘real-life’ existence, revealing our true selves in the process. He uses the example of the stereotypical computer nerd who adopts the gaming identity of a sadistic murderer and seducer; “in the guise of a fiction, the truth about himself is articulated” (2001, p.75).
Whilst I would doubt that getting pleasure from playing unsavoury gaming characters necessarily confirms a desire to behave this way in real-life, Zizek is highlighting the ability of fantasy to reveal hidden or repressed truths that are somehow incompatible with society’s expectations. It further provides us with an apparatus to explore and probe the revealed information. How might we utilise this in considering potential truths that have yet to occur?
In considering the usefulness of fiction and fantasy in critically examining speculative questions, perhaps the most obvious example is the Netflix series Black Mirror. While there is a desire to go beyond the ‘Black Mirror effect’ when embarking on serious critical research on how algorithms are affecting contemporary culture, it is precisely fiction as a tool for speculative reasoning that I want to take seriously here. Consider how Black Mirror’s science fiction genre allows creator Charlie Brooker to explore and reflect dark futures, that if presented as documentary may be rejected as too extreme, too ‘out there’. Black Mirror episodes are typically just a heartbeat ahead of our reality, or set in an alternative present. It takes elements of our society that we are currently reasonably comfortable with, for example the increasing culture of rating services provided by apps – Uber, dating apps, JustEat etc – and shows us a potential next step.
In this way fantasy can slip beneath our defences, smuggling potential realities into society’s collective consciousness, and prompting us to contemplate our responses. Fiction has a freedom to speculate about a future based on current conditions, and present its findings to a receptive audience for consideration.
China has pledged to fully implement a Social Credit Score system by 2020, under which citizens will be given a score which goes up or down based on aspects of their behaviour. People will be rewarded for ‘good citizenship’, and penalised for infractions such as smoking in non-smoking zones, buying too many video games and other frivolous purchases, bad driving, and sharing fake news online. Too low a score can prevent you from booking travel tickets, having access to fast internet, getting a good job, going to the best schools or staying at the best hotels. The system is already in practice in places, and as many as 17.5 million ticket purchases were blocked last year for ‘social credit offences’ such as unpaid taxes or fines.
However concerning this sounds, it’s likely not an entirely foreign concept. Black Mirror’s episode ‘Nosedive’ (October 2016) speculated about a similar society, in which citizens rate every interpersonal interaction on their phones and people’s resulting score controls how they move through society. It was presented as a ‘nightmarish satire’; however, in the context of China’s new social credit score system, it may be considered a powerful tool for analysing what such a society may start to look like.
Expanding the conditions of our reality..
Irit Rogoff, initiator of the field of Visual Culture and founder of the department at Goldsmiths, has stated that “the work of theory is to unravel the very ground on which it stands.” In her keynote address at the recent Bauhaus conference at the National Gallery of Ireland, she proposed that researchers must work from within the conditions of their existence to develop thinking tools appropriate to our contemporary conditions, rather than limiting themselves to inherited bodies of knowledge. Rogoff describes research as more than investigation, but as the constitution of new realities.
I am proposing fiction as something that can expand the conditions of our reality through our imaginations, enabling us to consider emergent possibilities in terms of their unlimited potentialities. When current issues are made malleable by fiction, realised knowledge can be expanded, manipulated and approached in new and unexpected ways, and then introduced back into the world in a different form. In this way we find a mode of research in which we tell the story anew, we re-narrate the knowledge that has been recognised in order to construct new realities and new ways of thinking. This kind of research recognises that knowledge is something beyond mere information, something that is in a constant state of becoming.
This mode of thinking can be incredibly productive in our grappling with the precarity of the future as our personal and professional lives become increasingly mediated and controlled by digital algorithms.
NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism – imagination as a means of survival
Hypen-Labs, ‘an international team of women of colour working at the intersection of technology, art, science and the future’, consider speculative design as more than a tool to free up our thought and propel it into the future, but as a means of survival.
NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism is a collaborative project by Hypen-Labs developed in response to the lack of representation of women of colour in the digital world. Carmen Aguilar, Ashley Baccus Clarke and Ece Tankal created NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism (NSAF) as a Virtual Reality installation, “to create scenarios so people can start understanding the values and ethics embedded in design of objects, products and systems and imagine new ways of existing” (Hypen-Labs, 2018).
NSAF have created a virtual reality beauty salon in which every participant inhabits the body of a black woman and can be fitted with a set of Octavia Electrodes, devices which look like braid extensions but allow access to a digital multiverse. The project began with the idea to create a sunscreen for darker skin which doesn’t leave a white residue, under the understanding that the depletion of the ozone layer will shortly mean that all skin tones require appropriate sun protection (video).
NSAF are claiming the belief that “self-care is more than just a luxury for a certain group of people but a means of survival for the underrepresented” (Hyphen-Labs, 2018). This is a project responding to the biases that run through the technologies we use, from algorithms with built in biases (such as Racial profiling in predictive policing and facial recognition technology failing to recognise darker skin tones), to facts such as 40% of young girls of colour choose white avatars when playing computer games; “we’re looking at conversations being had about the future – especially in the digital landscape – and wondering where the folks of colour are.”
NSAF is an active research project, exploring the potential of Virtual Reality to transform the viewer into an active participant, activating empathy and accountability. They have created a Micro-Aggression Visor, an imaginary device that reflects the micro-aggressions that marginalised people experience on a day to day basis. This is a response to the question of how women of colour can protect themselves in future virtual spaces, speculating that online troll problems will only escalate as our uses of technology increase. Similarly, they have developed a pair of earrings that can make and upload audio and video recordings of negative encounters; “it’s about security, protection and visibility of women of colour’s bodies”
“Imagination is our resistance”
NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism “use the lens of speculative design and futurism to tell this story through virtual reality because it defies the norm. Our imaginations are a form of resistance, giving us freedoms that allow us to control our image and how we are represented in new media” (Hypen-Labs, 2018). We can see here how speculation and imagination may allow people to shift the dominant narrative, to make space for their own perspective and stories, and to smuggle that resistance into mainstream society under the guise of fiction; “Our hypothesis is that we fear what we don’t know, so if we can expose people to a broader sense of identity through VR, in a sensitive way, can we decrease their bias?”.
Fiction and fantasy can lessen the threat of a message, disarming the consumers’ defences and allowing them to consider the potential societal and ethical implications without shutting it down out of anxiety or fear. Storytelling places us into the shoes of another, showing perspectives beyond our own, raising our awareness and activating our capacity for empathy.
These are just a few examples of how imagination can meet research to create new ways of thinking, appropriate to how our world is changing. I suggest that fictionalising knowledge may construct a new thinking apparatus better able to theorise what we are on the cusp of realising. Through fantasy we can shed the baggage of our presumed systems of value, our imposed limitations, our fear and anxiety of what may come to exist beyond our control, and in doing so enable ourselves to engage critically with the not-yet-known. In the personal, philosophical and academic struggle to theorise algorithmic culture and what it means for the future, this could be of significant use.
Hypen Labs (2018). Interview with Hypen Labs by Rachel O’Dywer for Neural Magazine Issue 61 Autumn 2018
Žižek, S. (2001). The fright of real tears. London: BFI (British Film Institute) Publishing.
Steve, P. (2016). Is it good for them too? Ethical concern for the sexbots. [online] Philpapers.org. Available at: https://philpapers.org/archive/PETIIG.pdf [Accessed 11 Mar. 2019].