Alternative Futures: The use of fiction to explore competing visions
Abstract: Alternate Futures are compared using the foresight technique of Directed Fiction. Directed Fiction seeks to blend the foresight practitioner’s need to consider multiple future possibilities simultaneously, without interfering with the necessary creativity and essential bias required to write compelling works of fiction. As a general rule, Directed Fiction focuses on a single foresight framework, while the fiction writer(s) work independently within that framework, resulting in “bundles” of individual fictional stories that, when taken together, can provide “maps” of alternate futures.
Fiction for the Future
Unlike fiction written solely for entertainment, Fiction for the Future is intentionally planned to explore specific research targets. Fiction for the Future (or Directed Fiction) seeks to blend the foresight practitioner’s need to consider multiple future possibilities simultaneously, without interfering with the necessary creativity and essential bias required to write compelling works of fiction. As a general rule, Fiction for the Future focuses on a single foresight framework, while the fiction writer(s) work independently within that framework, resulting in “bundles” of individual fictional stories that, when taken together, can provide “maps” of the future. The qualitative research method described in this paper builds on the Rapid Classification of Fiction into Archetypes described by Merritt (2022). Thirty-six near-future science fiction novels were sorted into one of Fergnani & Song’s (2020) Six Archetype Framework. These six new archetypes were named: Growth & Decay, Threats & New Hopes, Wasteworlds, The Powers that Be, Disarray, and Inversion, according to their underlying themes.
As a % of Novels Examined
Growth and Decay
7 Novels out of 26 - 19.4%
Threats and New Hope
9 Novels out of 36 – 25%
5 Novels out of 36 – 13.9%
The Powers that Be
5 Novels out of 36 – 13.9%
3 Novels out of 36 – 8.3%
7 Novels out of 36 – 19.4%
In a field setting, a qualitative approach was taken to compare and contrast the themes emerging within each category (Creswell, 2013). Specific details can be found by following the links in Table 1.
Alternative Futures Compared
Comparing alternative futures can be accomplished by employing the general inductive approach in three distinct steps: First, condense the raw data into brief summaries or “text segments,” then demonstrate clear relationships between the text segments and the novels examined (in this instance – good examples of specific themes predicted by the Six Archetype Framework). And finally, develop a model or theory that explains the themes that emerge from the raw data (Thomas, 2003, p. 5). Table 2 shows the relative distribution of 28 specific themes found in the back-cover copy of 36 novels offering alternative visions of the future. Table 2.
Alternative Futures Analyzed
A general inductive approach was employed to analyze the qualitative data. Thomas (2003) explains that “the primary purpose of the inductive approach is to allow research findings to emerge from frequent, dominant or significant themes inherent in raw data, without restraints imposed by structured methodologies” (p. 2). Table 3 illustrates ten Recurring Themes that overlapped categories and appeared in multiple different Archetypes. These overlapping categories reveal trends of bias in modern fiction writing about the near future. Table 3.
Understanding the prevalence of common themes allows researchers to overcome the inherent bias of popular (and often culturally influenced) views of the future. Researchers are freed to ask different questions. They can frame their inquiries with an eye towards examining “gaps” in competing views of the future, potentially revealing blind spots (Pfeffer & Sutton, 2006) that may contain both opportunities and threats.
Only three (or 8.6%) were categorized under the Disarray Archetype of the thirty-six novels evaluated. This immediately leads one to conclude that popular fiction writers are not thinking about possible futures where the fundamental systems of society, economy, security, health, and education are all breaking down. Instead, the most highly represented category is the Archetype "Threats and New Hope" (25%). When combined with "Growth and Decay" (19.4%) and "The Powers that Be" (13.9%), it would appear that the majority of fiction writers (52.9%) envision the near-future as progressing into an era of increasing technology, higher levels of global prosperity, and the continued growth of government interventions.
Recurring Themes Analysis:
Nineteen of the thirty-six novels evaluated emphasized some form of human-machine interface. This is undoubtedly a result of the massive advances in technology and computing capacity, performance, and application that have taken place around the globe in the span of a single human lifetime. Each of us has been impacted by the ever-increasing velocity of technological advancement, and it is no wonder fiction writers grapple with the implications of this emerging phenomenon. Sixteen of the thirty-six novels evaluated described some form of increased centralization of governmental power. One imagines that this perspective also relies on some combination of either lived experiences with increasing authoritarianism or through witnessing through media the endless interactions of governments with private citizens. Like a never-ending soap opera, the machinations of the global elite evoke fascination typically coupled with feelings of apprehension of fear. Local violence, such as fistfights, gunplay, and high-speed chases, are apparent in fourteen of the novels evaluated. These are likely just used as techniques to create lively storytelling. There is no evidence that there is a notion that individual conflict or personal combat will be more prevalent in the future than it has been in the past. Oddly, in the present age where the genetic modification of living creatures is occurring, and there are daily news reports about the dangers of global warming, only six examples of each theme were observed in the sample of novels studied. Might there be a future where these issues are not of grave concern? Finally, while violence between individual people is accentuated, both global war and regional conflict are minimized. Do these notions align with reality in an era of increasing Great Power competition?
The Disarray Archetype as an Area for Directed Study
How might the relentless advance of technology towards an evolutionary human-machine singularity be thwarted by a disastrous global collapse of the systems and institutions that make technological progress possible? If individuals place their faith in science, how might they starve their souls? The Disarray Archetype is distinct and separate from the Wasteworlds Archetype in that humanity is forced to adapt to new and deteriorating conditions, rather than being brought to the verge of extinction or dominated by an alien species. In the Disarray Archetype, humanity must learn to rely on something other than technology or government to address systemic and deteriorating conditions. Society cannot be "fixed," so it is up to the individual to persevere and fight for something that matters more than society. In the Disarray Archetype, character matters. So do morality, love, and bravery. It is a heroic age where people matter most, and their stories are told from the individual's point of view, solutions are local, and the lessons they learn have enduring human value. No one knows what the future holds. As most writers seem to think, the unfolding of human history may lead us into an ever-increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) future. We seem well-positioned (and even conditioned) to adapt to that reality if it does. However, if we, as a global community, are living in a "house of cards" that is about to come tumbling down around our ears, we are ill-prepared to even begin to address that emerging reality. Therefore, the Disarray Archetype seems an ideal candidate for further exploration using the foresight technique of directed fiction.
Fictional Scenario for Disarray Archetype
The power and benefit of the Directed Fiction technique is that it enables researchers to identify hidden trends in popular conceptions of the future and ask questions that might otherwise have been overlooked. The early detection of cultural blind spots may assist leaders and policymakers in making better decisions and ultimately taking more appropriate action (Merritt, 2021). Therefore, based on my qualitative review of fiction novels, I’ve decided to focus on the Archetype Disarray:
In this archetype, although in the absence of apparent transformational changes in the economy or atmospheric environment, mankind faces structural endogenous problems. The globe is plagued by any of the following: endemic crime, social unrest and disorder, widespread poverty, ignorance, infertility, violent confrontation and war, famines, or pandemics; or by a combination of these. Although the private sector is still present, military and policing organizations, either official or non-official, have a more central role in this future. Individual endeavors zero in on restoring or maintaining justice, order, or protection of citizens. (Fergnani & Song, 2020, p. 11)
What might a Disarray future look like? What images of the future have been overlooked by the authors considered in this study? Consider that events which will take place in the future are likely to have signals we can observe today. Using our imagination, what current trends can be projected to reveal potential cultural blind spots? It is interesting to note that while many people think about various aspects of the following five areas of inquiry, none of these seemingly obvious examples of plausible alternative futures were explored in the novels in the study:
A Second Great Depression
Inflation is increasing, global supply chains are backlogged, and ports are clogged. In the United States, store shelves are empty. In China, major real estate developers are unable to meet debt payments. Given these current conditions, it is not difficult to imagine a near-future where the global economy has experienced a more than 5% reduction in GDP for six consecutive quarters. The median unemployment rate in all developed countries remains in double-digits. Global trade has plummeted 37%, and the world has officially entered a Second Great Depression.
Great Power Conflict in Two Theaters Simultaneously
Russian troops are massing on the border of Ukraine. China has already seized control of Hong Kong. They have made their expansionary aspirations clear with military flights through Taiwanese airspace and the construction of fortified islands in the South China Sea. U.S. leadership responded with massive simultaneous deployments to both the European and Pacific theaters. Armed regional conflict began with cyberattacks and cyber counterattacks, which led to missile strikes and artillery barrages against civilian population centers. While the situation has not yet escalated to the level of WWIII, regional conflict is intensifying, and everything is on the line.
A Limited Nuclear Exchange
Nuclear capable North Korea is testing long-range missiles. Iran has acquired fissile material and is stockpiling in quantities sufficient to construct a bomb. Russia, China, and North Korea are all aiding in Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The United States has warned Israel against launching “counterproductive” attacks on Iran’s nuclear sites, while Israel and Bahrain sign a defense agreement to counter the perceived existential threat. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Cold War theory of mutually assured destruction, policymakers believed that no one would ever be foolish enough to use these terrible weapons of mass destruction. But once again, a nuclear device has been detonated in an act of war. Now the world teeters on the precipice. Is there any pulling back from an all-out exchange that no one can possibly win?
Balkanization of the Western United States
The United States is divided politically, socially, religiously, and culturally. There is already talk about “irreconcilable differences” leading to a "divorce" between left and right political factions, including a breakup and reorganization of state lines. Americans are developing parallel societies. Whether it be the ecotopian vision of Cascadia, the division of Oregon and Washington to form Greater Idaho, the long-sought State of Jefferson encompassing Southern Oregon and Northern California, or the CalExit, which advocates for complete secession from the United States; the last time this was tried, it led to the disastrous American Civil War. Within the legal framework of the U.S. Constitution, it might be possible to navigate these dangerous waters without the need for bloodshed. If such a peaceful reorganization is even possible, what lessons might it offer the global community in terms of redrawing national and international lines while avoiding catastrophic consequences?
Collapse of the Education System
Civilized nations offer public education as a basic service to increase literacy and develop productive citizens. However, centuries of entrenched institutionalism have led to a system of highly subsidized education where governments guarantee loans for students to attend courses without any real possibility of return on investment. University endowments grow to colossal sums in what are essentially tax-free havens. Education has come to be viewed by political activists as a means by which children are separated from their parent’s traditional ideologies, and universities have become little more than cultural indoctrination centers. With the COVID pandemic driving children permanently away from closed public schools, legislation for increased school choice is emerging everywhere. Astronomical student loans have led millions to question whether a college education is really worth it. In this volatile mix of politics and policy, some have begun to view the fat university endowments as a rich target of opportunity. How might a pride of legal lions set about hunting a pack of educational elephants? Surely there are risks, but the enormous rewards would more than make up for the effort.
Conclusion and Next Steps
With a decision in place to explore a future in Disarray using Directed Fiction, the next step will be to organize a Framing and Scanning Workshop where respondents will be asked to respond to a series of prompts regarding each of the areas of inquiry listed above.
Step 1 - Framing:
The first step of the foresight process (Merritt, 2021) is framing. It is essential that the researcher carefully frame the prompts so that only a single area of inquiry is examined at a time. Otherwise, the undirected speculation about competing visions of the future runs amok with no useful data generated. Careful framing of the area of interest is critical to both the researcher and the respondents.
Step 2 - Scanning:
Using a disciplined, methodological approach, the researcher can facilitate a brainstorming session designed to elicit responses to carefully worded prompts. Ideally, the respondents would be subject matter experts from a wide variety of backgrounds with significant levels of expertise in their respective fields. Within the boundaries of the framework, there are no "wrong" answers, and respondents are encouraged to provide short, creative responses. This could take the form of answers written on sticky notes that are posted to a wall, or given a digital environment, responses in a discussion forum. During the second iteration of the scanning workshop, the researcher will group the responses into logical categories and then ask the respondents to rate the categories according to two factors; temporality (the sequence in which events must logically occur) and urgency (the relative importance of each category). The desired outcome of this process is for at least three "critical" decision points to emerge that broadly relate to each of the category groupings.
Step 3 - Generating Directed Fiction Stories:
The results of the scanning workshop become the foundation for freelance science fiction writers to generate a series of interlocking short stories that examine the target question in terms of “Landmarks” arranged in a “Choose Your Own Adventure” format. Table 4 illustrates the proposed sequence of the stories and decision points: Table 4.
To explore the alternate futures of the Disarray category, I will conduct five separate framing workshops to elicit responses to prompts for each of the areas of interest described above. Each workshop will generate twelve interconnected science fiction short stories, and each story will contain an image with a map for the reader to recognize where they are in the process. The project will result in a total of 60 Directed Fiction short stories that represent a thorough (but not exhaustive) examination of the Disarray category of the future. The possible applications of the Directed Fiction technique far exceed mere considerations of entertainment or simple curiosity about the future. Popular culture is often impacted by propagandized messages or "The Narrative" promulgated by cultural elites. This technique of Directed Fiction fosters the democratization of foresight tools, enabling exploration of an infinite number of alternative futures. By using this technique, ordinary people can critique the dominant social narratives and craft any number of their own narratives as their personal passions and circumstances dictate.
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