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Towards an Argument for SCI FI Criticism:

A bricolage of resources, ideas, quotations and intentions for future exploration


(A work very much in progress…)

Rachel Horst

ETEC 580
with Dr. Leah MacFadyen

University of British Columbia


Table of Contents

INTRODUCTION ..................................................................................................................... 3
METHODOLOGY .................................................................................................................... 4
Research questions ........................................................................................................................4
Methods ........................................................................................................................................5
DEFINITIONS.......................................................................................................................... 6
Technology ....................................................................................................................................6
Criticism ........................................................................................................................................6
SCI FI .............................................................................................................................................7
TECHNOLOGY CRITICISM ....................................................................................................... 8
History of tech criticism..................................................................................................................8
The problem of dichotomies......................................................................................................... 10
Constructive criticism ................................................................................................................... 13
Art as criticism ............................................................................................................................. 17
Narrative and reality .................................................................................................................... 18
Science fiction and criticism ......................................................................................................... 20
A quick discussion of the future .................................................................................................... 23
.................................................................................................................................................... 23
SCI FI METHODOLOGY ......................................................................................................... 24
Science fiction prototyping ........................................................................................................... 25
Science into fiction ....................................................................................................................... 27
SCI FI pedagogy ............................................................................................................................ 28
SCI FI activism .............................................................................................................................. 30
Hyperrealism & The Mundane ...................................................................................................... 31
(Jameson — See A quick discussion of the future) ................................................................ 33
(Beaudrillard — See Science fiction and criticism) READING SCI FI ...................................... 33
WRITING SCI FI .................................................................................................................... 35
Reference List ...................................................................................................................... 40
Further Reading................................................................................................................... 45

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INTRODUCTION

Throughout my years in the Masters of Educational Technology program at UBC, I have been
thrilled to explore the fascinating and diverse research and writing on technology, how we learn,
and how the two might augment and enliven each other in propitious ways. The tone of the
discussion among educators often mirrors that of the critics — on the one hand is giddy delirium
at the transformative possibilities of educational technologies (Lapowsky, 2015). On the other is
anxiety, pessimism and a fear that technology will ultimately replace us (Godsey, 2015). The
desire to pass judgment is like a human reflex that is activated whenever we are presented with
something new: Good or bad? Yes or no? Adopt or discard? The reality is that we are forced to
make important decisions so very quickly. There is simply no time to engage with each new
technology before the next, better iteration is upon us. I recently attended a Digital Learning
Symposium in Richmond, BC, full of optimistic technophiles who eagerly shared their work and
resources. I was overwhelmed by the impossible array of fabulous digital tools, websites and
technological supports available for the asking. On the other side of the spectrum, technophobes
around the world were recently validated by the news about Facebook. It was revealed that our
cheerful, blue-hued, timewasting platform Facebook — seemingly innocuous and totally
ubiquitous — which has succeeded in bringing together the world in an unprecedented way, has
also been mining and selling our personal data. The sense of mass shock and invasion was
palpable. The critics’ worst fears were confirmed! But this reactive and emotional sense of
violation was inarticulate. Very few among the outcriers seem to be able to answer the
underlying questions adequately: What exactly is this data, why is it so valuable, and why do we
care that it has been stolen?
Whether we like it or not, technology continues to shape every aspect of our lives — from what
we eat to how we sleep. Technology has redefined the means of our communication and how we
learn, travel, work, think, know, reproduce and make love. More than the sum of its parts (a
collection of objects we use and think and make with) we have embodied our technologies to
such an extent that to understand technology, we must understand ourselves. Over the past five
years and throughout my career as an educator exploring and experimenting with technology, I
have had the ever-present and nagging question at my periphery: But what does this all mean?

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Beyond the question of ‘good or bad’, ‘yes or no,’ ‘right or wrong’ — what does technology
mean for the individual: her life, her dreams, her sense of being in the world?

This research evolves out of a desire for a more nuanced critical discussion about technology,
one that lingers in the questioning and refrains from indulging in hysterical polarities. I propose
that one way to negotiate these matters of utmost concern (Latour’s phrase, my superlative) is
not through strict factual analysis – but through stories to think with1. I am not a Science Fiction
buff. I did not grow up steeped in the future conjurings of master story-tellers like Asminov,
LeGuin and Bradbury. I did, however, grow up with stories as my main vehicle for
understanding the world and myself. The poet Mathew Arnold persuasively asserts that “Poetry
is criticism of life” (See Art as criticism). With this bricolage, I am suggesting that a certain sub-
genre of SCI FI is criticism of the future. I maintain that this form of criticism can be as powerful
and as necessary as poetry itself in thinking about and preparing for our increasingly
technologically mediated lives and grappling with what it all means for our humanity.

METHODOLOGY

Research questions

 What does it all mean? (Just kidding… sort of.)


 How are educators using SCI FI in their classrooms as a cross-curricular vehicle for
engagement in science and/or technology?
 Have stories or art played a role in the history of technology criticism? Can art/narrative
be criticism?

1Reflecting upon Sherry Turkle’s, Evocative Objects: Things We Think With, a book of stories about loved objects.
The objects (or more accurately Heideggarian Things that are a gathering together of multifarious complexities in
one physical location) only achieve their Thingness through personal narrative. But, in my opinion, it is not the
object, but the story that is evocative. The object stands mute and lifeless, only taking on its Thing-ness through
narrative. Story gives Things their value. An idea for a companion to Turkle’s book might be: Evocative Stories to
Think about Objects We Think With.

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 What is technology criticism, why is it important and is there room for a SCI FI
criticism?
 What is the relationship between narrative and reality?
 How is science fiction being used in technology design?
 How is science fiction being used in thinking systematically about the future?
 Can SCI FI criticism be a form of political activism?

Methods

I set out with the idea that Science Fiction can be a methodology for thinking about and
designing the future. Early on in my search, I found the fantastic 2016 article by Sarah Watson,
which contains an extensive syllabus of resources on many aspects of technology criticism. This
was a great place to start. I followed many of the well-organized links in her syllabus until
specific and diverting research questions of my own began to evolve, which took me down my
own rabbit holes of questioning. I slowly realized that my initial desire to explore SCI FI as both
design and as criticism in a way that was complementary - was unwieldy and ultimately
contradictory (see Science fiction prototyping). It became clear that it was both practically and
thematically necessary to differentiate between the design and the criticism of SCI FI. I also
quickly realized that what I had thought was my own idea — using Science Fiction as a
methodological tool for thinking seriously about the future — was in fact, being systematically
utilized in many university classrooms and organizations such as the Design Fiction group at
MIT, whose explicit aim is to “spark… discussion about the social, cultural, and ethical
implications of emerging technologies through design and storytelling” (Design Fiction, n.d.).

The research here is presented as an organized bricolage (a word that I have borrowed from
Watson, 2016). The collection is intentionally cross-curricular and thematically multifarious.
Some of the chapters below are only briefly sketched out, but I have laid out the intentional
framework for their future expansion. This collection is intended to be an unfinished tool that I
continue to add and elaborate upon as my research evolves over the next few months and

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throughout my upcoming PhD work in the Language and Literacy Education Department at
UBC.

DEFINITIONS

Technology

The word ‘technology’ is vast and elastic. Coming from the Greek word techne meaning the
‘science of craft,’ the world technology refers to “[t]he collection of techniques, skills, methods,
and processes” by which we make… stuff (Technology, n.d.). Our technologies evolve with us;
each moment in time provides a new snapshot of the evolution of our tools and systems. By
examining these technologies, we can come to understand the people and culture they are co-
emergent with. While technology can refer to the entirety of our human ingenuity, for the
purposes of this research I use the word to refer to computers and the digital universe. As Watson
more eloquently puts it, I am concerned with “consumer computing technologies, both the ones
we know and interface with at a personal scale and the ones that operate in the background as the
foundation of those systems” (Watson, 2016, pg 9). Central to the organization of this research is
the fundamental assumption that, “[t]echnology is always optimized toward something, which is
a human and therefore political, social, and ethical choice” (Watson, 2016, pg 91).

Criticism

The word criticism is, like technology, far reaching and difficult to pin down. It can include the
most facile denunciations - ‘technology is bad’ - to the most nuanced form of poetry as criticism
of life. At a basic level, to critique something is to judge it. This naturally leads towards a
predominance of criticism that is occupied with a listing of negative attributes (See Watson,
2016). But if we are to be wise and fair (whether in favour of or against something), we must
refrain from judgment until all the facts are considered. For the purposes of this research, my
definition of criticism is one that focuses more on the gathering of evidence than on the judgment

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itself. Good and bad are beside the point – the purpose of critique is to gather nuanced
understanding, which comes through the practice of artful questioning. “Critique is a method of
disciplined, systematic study” (Critique, n.d.). There is no definitive method or system by which
we study something. In this way, art can be used as a method, so long as the purpose is to study
(See Art as criticism). (See also Keirl’s series of statements about Criticism).

SCI FI

Science Fiction is a wide and diverse genre containing everything from high art and literature to
block buster movies and pulp fiction magazines. My purpose here is not to define Science
Fiction in general, but to outline a sub-genre, SCI FI Criticism, that is related to the wider genre,
but has specific goals and some parameters. The emphasis of SCI FI Criticism, is on the
evolution of human technology and what it means for human life on (or near) Earth (See
Hyperrealism & the Mundane). SCI FI Criticism is a method of story-telling that uses science
and technology as a vehicle to explore humanity in imagined possible futures (or pasts). This
emphasis on the ‘possible’ is an important — though not essential — ingredient. Thacker
explains that the “narratological goal” of Science Fiction is to invent an entire world – a living
breathing reality that has its own working laws of nature and logic (Thacker, pg 156). This
‘ontological’ mode of Science Fiction (See Ted Chiang’s Exhalations) can work as Critique, so
long as it is a “systematic study” of human technology (Critique, n.d.).

It is often easier to describe what something is not than what it is. SCI FI is distinct from
Science-into-Fiction, which is a fascinating genre that brings real science into the fictional
narrative. These stories often focus on scientists, real or imagined, and use real science as a
backdrop or a plot device. SCI FI is also very different from Fiction-into-Science (or ‘alternative
facts’ and ‘fake news’) which attempts to fictionalize accepted scientific consensus on pivotal
“matters of concern” for our planet and our bodies (See Latour).

For the purposes of this argument, I particularly admire Donna Haraway’s ecstatic descriptions
of her cyborg and would like to use her cyborg metaphor as incarnation of SCI FI Criticism:
“[The] cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social

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reality as well as a creature of fiction” (Haraway, pg 456). This incarnation of both reality and
fiction is an essential characteristic of SCI FI Criticism.

TECHNOLOGY CRITICISM

History of tech criticism

Petrina, S. (2016). Critique of technology. In P. J. Williams & K. Stables (Eds.), Critique in


design and technology education (pp. 1-18). Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.

Our appraisal of the things we build and the tools we develop in order to build those things, has
been in flux since biblical times. The pendulum swings between conceiving the fruits of human
ingenuity, on the one side, as a hopeful means towards enlightenment (or some other positive
goal), and on the other side, a devilish distraction from apprehending the deeper truths of the
universe [re: Heideggar’s “shining forth and holding sway of truth” (pg 333)]. “Babel and
Babylon archetypes or prototypes are reiterated over time as an opposition or tension between
the production, consumption, and mediation of things versus development of higher values or
more simply between vice technology and noble deeds,” my emphasis (Petrina, 2016, pg 33).
(This tendency towards polarity in tech criticism is explored more extensively in the next
section.)

Petrina asserts that our relationship with technology, the story of which he traces through a brief
history of cultural critiques, “have immediate implications for culture, economics, and
education” (Petrina, 2016, pg 31). His central question is: What is the importance of critique in a
time when criticism has become, at best, “groundless” and impotent, at worst, coopted by “the
other side, conspiracists, corporations, deniers, machines, etc.” (Petrina, 2016, pg 46)? While the
historical context Petrina outlines is beneficial, his conclusion is cursory and better explored in
Latour’s 2004 essay (an essay that Petrina relies upon heavily in the final paragraphs). Petrina

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states only that criticism is important, though groundless, and does not explain how it is
important (nor, for that matter, how it is groundless).

Heidegger, M. (1977). The Question concerning technology. In D. F. Krell (Ed.) Basic


Writings: Martin Heidegger (1993) San Francisco: Harper.

In this seminal paper, Heidegger meditates upon technology’s essence, which he defines as an
“enframing” — a kind of utilitarian commodification and compartmentalization of nature.
“Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or
deny it” (Heidegger, 1977, pg 311). Technology “puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it
supply energy which can be extracted and stored as such” (Heidegger, 1977, pg 320). Heidegger
describes technology as an ignoble means of satisfying our baser desires and instincts —
capitalist greed, domination over each other and nature, acquiring verses understanding.
His tone is heightened and portentous to the point of religiosity. The stakes are extremely high:
“[E]nframing does not simply endanger man in his relationship to himself and to everything that
is. As a destining, it banishes man into the kind of revealing that is an ordering. Where this
ordering holds sway, it drives out every other possibility of revealing” (Heidegger, 1977, pg
332).
But the essence of technology “harbors in itself what we least suspect, the possible rise of the
saving power” (Heidegger, 1977, pg 337). This saving power can be found in the act of
questioning. One might say that technology’s saving grace can be found in the very practice of
Criticism. For Heidegger, there is a danger in being overwhelmed by our technologies if we
don’t take time to apprehend and to question their essence. This, I believe, is a profound
argument in support of the importance of technology criticism in general and SCI FI Criticism in
particular.

What Heidegger does not consider in this questioning, is that technology itself can be a means of
that questioning. Obviously, he was writing with the Industrial Revolution in mind and had no
inkling of the virtual universe that would be ‘revealed’ and ‘brought forth’ by digital
technologies. His nostalgia for a time when “the bringing-forth of the true into the beautiful was
called techné. The poiésis of the fine arts was also called techne” (Heidegger, 1977, pg. 339).

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But there is also poetry inherent in technology. Much like the pencil, which can be used to keep
ledgers and scores and can also be used to write poetry (which is a questioning) so too can
technology be harnessed for both concealment and revealing. Here I am thinking Thacker’s 2000
exploration of the “intersection of art and technology.”

Heideggar, though he didn’t know it, was making a case for SCI FI criticism when he writes:

Because the essence of technology is nothing technological, essential


reflection upon technology and decisive confrontation with it must
happen in a realm that is, on the one hand, akin to the essence of
technology and, on the other, fundamentally different from it.
Such a realm is art (Heideggar, 1977, pg 340).

Only art is equipped to reveal the essence of technology. This is also an argument against a SCI
FI design or prototyping methodology, in which the goal of the narrative is an enframing of a
human need or desire in the form of new technology (See Science fiction prototyping). The aim
of art should not be in making predictions, but revealing truth, which requires complexity,
nuance and a willingness to remain in the questioning and to refrain from an answering (See
Writing SCI FI).

The problem of dichotomies

Snow, C. P. (1959) Two Cultures. The Rede Lecture. Cambridge University Press: New
York. Retrieved from
http://accounts.google.com/ServiceLogin?continue=https%3A%2F%2Fmail.google.c
om%2Fmail%2F&service=mail&hl=en&authuser=0&passive=true&sarp=1&aodrpl
=1&checkedDomains=youtube&checkConnection=youtube%3A311%3A1&pstMsg=
1&osid=1&ss=1&ltmpl=default&rm=false

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C. P. Snow makes the argument that there are (or were at the time of his writing) two distinct and
separate cultures in the academy – the arts and the sciences. “Between the two,” there lies, he
asserts, “a gulf of mutual incomprehension – sometimes (particularly among the young) hostility
and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding” (Snow, 1959, pg 4). Among the scientists,
there is a lack of discussion about the human condition as explored in the arts and literature,
while among the Liberal Arts there is a lack of familiarity with current scientific observations
about the physical world. This scientific incomprehension “radiates its influence on all the rest”
and gives “an unscientific flavor to the whole ‘traditional’ culture, and that unscientific flavor is
often, much more than we admit, on the point of turning anti-scientific2” (Snow, 1959, pg 12).

Snow makes the argument that the Industrial Revolution, both in Britain and in the United States,
was driven by “cranks and clever workmen…. It had to make do with the guidance handymen
could give it – sometimes, of course, handymen like Henry Ford, with a dash of genius” (Snow,
1959, pg 25). The Intellectuals, especially writers (or so Snow claims) had no idea about what
was taking place directly underfoot. Even the ‘pure scientists’ were not much interested in the
science of industry. “Pure scientists have by and large been dimwitted about engineers and
applied science. They couldn’t get interested. They wouldn’t recognise that many of the
problems were as intellectually exacting as pure problems, and that many of the solutions were
as satisfying and beautiful” (Snow, 1959, pg 33). Education is a central thrust to Snow’s
argument. He advocates against specialization and the British “pattern of training a small elite.”
Snow wants more educated people who are more broadly educated, and who will be prepared to
tackle the new world that the Scientific Revolution has brought us. Snow calls for the
democratization of education (although he doesn’t articulate it in those terms) both in regards to
access as well as the perforation of the separate silos of knowledge cultures. Snow imagines that
“[t]he clashing point of [these] two subjects, two disciplines, two cultures – of two galaxies …

2 If there was a teetering towards an ‘anti-scientific’ feeling during the time of Snow’s writing, we are now contending with the
realities of wide spread mistrust and hostility towards science. Today, there are mainstream ‘debates’ for and against the science
behind things like vaccinations and global warming. An alarming number of people are more inclined to trust their ‘common
sense’ and folksy anecdote than they are in scientific consensus or the scientific method .

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ought to produce creative chances” (Snow, 1959, pg 17). I say that this clashing ought to
and has produced fantastic creative chances in the form of Science Fiction.

Snow’s concern about the divide between the sciences and the arts was also being felt by many
other thinkers around the world. At the same time as he was writing, interdisciplinary programs
began to emerge in universities that brought together anthropology, science, philosophy and
sociology. Science and technology studies (STS) became a field of research around this time
(Science, technology and society, n.d.)

(Watson, 2016 — see Constructive Criticism)

Watson articulates many of the polarized orientations towards technology such as the utopian /
dystopian paradigm in which technology will either solve all our problems or be the end of all
that is good about human life. Many technology critics “romanticize the past, perpetuating a
dualist binary between life before and after the selfie, or between the real and the virtual”
(Watson, 2016, pg 40). This sort of ‘criticism’ begins with a moral conclusion around which the
arguments evolve to support that judgment. Watson convincingly argues for a more nuanced
look at technology — an exploration of the area between good and bad. I would take this a step
further and suggest that there is room for a criticism that refrains altogether from making moral
conclusions, instead finding its practice in the questioning itself.

(Haraway, 1990 — see Constructive Criticism)

One of the central theses of Haraway’s manifesto is that the binaries around which we construct
our cultural fictions or ‘realities’ have colonial, Western and ‘phallogocentric’ origins. “The
dichotomies between mind and body, animal and human, organism and machine, public and
private, nature and culture, men and women, primitive and civilized are all in question
ideologically” (Haraway, 1990, pg 465). The cyborg is a metaphor of fusion without origin. The
cyborg “represents a hybrid, or mixed, state of being — a more complex, ambiguous, and fluid
identity that can free us from the tyranny of binary oppositions in our political and personal
relationships” (Haraway, 1990, pg 456).

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“The relationships for forming wholes from parts, including those of polaritiy and heirarchichal
domination, are at issue in the cyborg world” (Haraway, 1990, pg 458).

Haraway points out the political necessity of changing this dichotomatic view of the world:
“certain dualisms have been persistent in Western tradition; they have all been systematic to the
logics and practices of domination of women, people of color, nature, workers, animals — in
short, domination of all constituted as others, whose task is to mirror the self” (Haraway, 1990,
pg 471). For more discussion on the political component of the cyborg, see SCI FI activism.

Constructive criticism

Watson, S. M. (2016). Toward a Constructive Technology Criticism. Columbia Journalism


Review. Retrieved from
https://www.cjr.org/tow_center_reports/constructive_technology_criticism.php

This report and compilation of resources about technology criticism is the model I had in mind as
I proceeded through this research. Watson has done a fantastic job of distilling the history of tech
criticism, the major trends, preoccupations and common tropes of the genre. Every time I come
back to this report, I find more to investigate. While Watson explicitly makes a firm distinction
between technology criticism and fiction writing, I have the sense that she could be persuaded to
think otherwise. She makes the argument that “technology criticism is too narrowly defined” and
that the pool of writers who are considered legitimate ‘technology critics’ is too small and too
homogenous. These few “outspoken intellectuals …. employ problematic styles and tactics” and
exercise “unreflexive assumptions and ideologies” (Watson, 2016, pg. 3).
Haraway echoes those sentiments here: “The transcendent authorization of interpretation is lost
and with it the ontology grounding ‘Western’ epistemology” (Haraway, 1990, pg 460).

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Watson’s entire thesis is for a more nuanced and constructive technology criticism. While she
does make an overt declaration that criticism is essentially different from fiction, she doesn’t
explain exactly why or how that is the case. Upon completion of this project, I plan to get in
touch with her for a proper discussion on the matter and hopefully to change her mind.

Latour, B. (2004). Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of
concern. Critical Inquiry. Retrieved from http://www.bruno-
latour.fr/sites/default/files/89-CRITICAL-INQUIRY-GB.pdf

Latour takes a reflective gaze upon criticism in the era of ‘alternative facts.’ The repurposing of
the critical argument against scientific certainty is now being used to proliferate mistrust in
science and scientific consensus about environmental realities such as global warming. Latour
acknowledges that he himself has been accused of “obscuring the certainty of a closed
argument.” He spent time “trying to show ‘the lack of scientific certainty’ inherent in the
construction of facts (Latour, 2004, pg 227).

“And yet entire Ph.D. programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are
learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated,
unbiased access to truth, that we are always prisoners of language, that we always speak from a
particular standpoint, and so on, while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of
social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives” (Latour, 2004, pg
227).

Latour argues for a return to realism, but one that does not deal with matters of fact, but matters
of concern because matters of fact or only “partial,” “very polemical, very political renderings of
matters of concern” (Latour, 2004, pg 232).

“Can we devise another powerful descriptive tool that deals this time with matters of concern
and whose import then will no longer be to debunk but to protect and to care, as Donna Haraway
would put it? Is it really possible to transform the critical urge in the ethos of someone who adds
reality to matters of fact and not subtract reality? To put it another way, what’s the difference
between deconstruction and constructivism?” (Latour, 2004, pg 232).

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Heideggar makes a distinction between “Things” and “Objects” — objects being facts, like a
stone (simple, hurl-able, incontrovertible) and Things being a ‘gathering’ of complexities. Latour
shows that a stone, such as dolemite, when looked at through a scientific lens, becomes very
complex and Thing-ish indeed.

Latour’s argument is inherently political – he is speaking from a liberal position, alarmed at


conservative questioning of science and anti-democratic extremism. His argument is a
necessarily reflective look at how he has contributed to the situation and now how he might shift
his argument to improve and add to the state of affairs such as they are (See SCI FI Activism)

Von Mengersen, B. (2017). Hyper design thinking: Critique, praxis and reflection. In P. J.
Williams, K. Stables (Eds.), Critique in Design and Technology Education,
Contemporary Issues in Technology Education. Singapore: Springer.

“Reflective thinking and writing practices unite creative and critical analysis with design
process, enabling deeper engagement with praxis, metacognition and critique” (Von Mengersen,
2017, pg 301).

Writing is the application of critique. Writing is a practical method to ‘stimulate modes of design
thinking.’

“Critical behaviours and dispositions” — criticism is a kind of orientation to the world and needs
to be developed through practice.

“The integration of both the theory and practice (praxis) of critique offers an opportunity to
enhance existing pedagogies and enable a renewed focus on the development of critical
behaviours and dispositions….” (Von Mengersen, 2017, pg 302).

“Critique is interpreted here as a philosophically driven approach to design thinking where


engagement is enabled through questioning and ongoing enquiry into design. Critical thinking is

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activated through systematic reflection and analysis: the construction of a series of questions”
(Von Mengersen, 2017, pg 302).

(Haraway, 1990 — see Constructive Criticism)

“Writing is pre-eminently the technology of cyborgs, etched surfaces of the late twentieth
century. Cyborg politics is the struggle for language and the struggle against perfect
communication, against the one code that translates all meaning perfectly, the central dogma of
phallogeocentricsm” (Haraway, 1990, pg 479).

(Keirl, 2004 — see SCI FI Pedagogy)

Keirl makes important distinctions between design and critique. Initially, when I started thinking
about this topic, I did not distinguish between the two practices. I thought a SCI FI methodology
could be both criticism and design. But the purpose and orientation of these two practices are
fundamentally different. Design is the practice of finding answers and solutions. I am proposing
a critique that is the practice of lingering in the question without posing an answer. Design ideas
may arise from this questioning, but the purpose is not to predict or create technology.

The following series of statements (Keirl, 2004, pgs 124-125) are interesting to respond to,
whether in agreement or disagreement. I intend to return to these statements as my conception of
a critical SCI FI methodology evolves.

 “Critiquing is a skill or a disposition not a methodology.”


 “Critiquing is about questioning rather than answering.”
 “Its practice helps clarify ill-defined problems through reformulation and reassessment.”
 “Its practice serves democratic purpose and has social value in strengthening democratic
society” (see SCI FI activism)
 “Critiquing is deconstructive but not destructive.”
 “Sophisticated critiquing is a form of metacognition… Critiquing may involve
discomfort.”

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 “Critiquing as experience-building is the interplay of personal experience and knowledge
with others’ experience”

I disagree with the following:

 “Critiquing happens after an idea, event, argument or product. Designing brings into
being these circumstances” (Keirl’s emphasis). I am arguing that we can and should
critique possibilities and eventualities.
 “Designing is proactive, critiquing reactive.” SCI FI Criticism is by definition and
necessity proactive.

 “Critiquing is focused while designing is holistic.”
 Narrative criticism is holistic –

character is inseparable from setting is inseparable from plot. The ideal critical narrative
works holistically and refrains from specific, conclusive judgment.
 “Designing always wants imagination to come out and play, but critiquing must never

knock on imagination’s door.”
 Not only does a SCI FI criticism knock at the door, but it

swings the door wide, strides inside and sets up camp in imagination’s living room!

Art as criticism
Note:
This section is underdeveloped but necessary to my argument in a couple of ways. In the research I have
consulted, narrative and story have been used for a variety of different purposes: as the practice of critique, as a
means to engage with difficult concepts, as a methodology for prototype design etc. Rarely in this discussion of
narrative as a tool, do the authors discuss the art of narrative. This art is essential for the depth, nuance and
complexity necessary for an effective SCI FI Criticism.

Poetry is criticism of life.

- Mathew Arnold

(Heidegger — See History of tech criticism)

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In his introduction to Heidegger’s Questions, Krell writes that for Heidegger, it was not “the
political but the poetical [that] appears as the saving power; not the praxis but poiesis [which]
enables to confront the essential unfolding of technology” (Krell, 1977, pg 310).

“Yet the more questioningly we ponder the essence of technology, the more mysterious the
essence of art becomes” (Krell, 1977, pg 341).

Heideggar makes an argument for the importance of art (in the form of questioning) in exploring
the essence of technology. If we agree that criticism can be a form of questioning and that story-
telling is an art form, then this feels like a strong argument in support of my thesis.

“The essence of technology is nothing technological, essential reflection upon technology and
decisive confrontation with it must happen in a realm that is, on the one hand, akin to the essence
of technology and, on the other, fundamentally different from it” (Heidegger, 1977, pg 340).

Narrative and reality


This is a complex and multidisciplinary field that has roots in psychology, epistemology, literary criticism,
anthropology, science fiction studies and more. I have not even begun to penetrate this rich field of thought. This
area may be fruitful to explore at a later time:

Narratology: “the study of narrative and narrative structure and the ways that these affect our perception”
(Narratology, n.d.).

Narrative Inquiry: “the study of experience understood narratively” (Clandinin, 2010)

Bruner, J. S. (1991). The Narrative Construction of Reality. Critical Inquiry 18, 1-21.
Retrieved from http://www.ling.upenn.edu/~wlabov/L470/Bruner_1991.pdf

Bruner discusses how narrative “operates as an instrument of mind in the construction of reality”
(Bruner, 1991, pg 6)

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Bruner delineates ten features of narrative:

 Narrative diachronicity – “A narrative is an account of events occurring over time”


(See: A quick discussion of the future)
 Particularity – “The ‘suggestiveness’ of a story lies, then, in the emblematic nature of
its particulars” (See Writing SCI FI)
 “Narratives are about people acting in a setting” (See Writing SCI FI)
 Narrative shouldn’t provide “causal explanations” but should create a situation for
interpretation. (See Constructive criticism)

“[N]arrative organizes the structure of human experience … in a word, ‘life’ comes to imitate
‘art’ and vice versa” (Bruner, 1991, pg 21).

“[O]ur experience of human affairs comes to take the form of the narratives we use in telling
about them” (Bruner, 1991, pg 5)

J. G. Ballard writes in the 1995 reprinting of Crash: “Increasingly, our concepts of past, present
and future are being forced to revise themselves. The future is ceasing to exist, devoured by the
all-voracious present. We have annexed the future into the present, as merely one of those
manifold alternatives open to us. Options multiply around us, and we live in an almost infantile
world where any demand, any possibility, whether for life-styles, travel, sexual roles and
identities, can be satisfied instantly” (as cited by McNeil, 2015).

FUTURE READING: Jameson, F. (1982). The political unconscious: Narrative as a socially


symbolic act. Cornell University Press.

The political unconscious – a concept to articulate the implicit political


dimension of creative works. … the political unconscious draws on and
adapts Freud’s notion of wish-fulfillment and Levi-Strauss’s notion of the
save mind (‘pensé sauvage’) to construct the hypothesis that artistic works
can be seen as symbolic solutions to real but unconsciously felt social and

19
cultural problems. The task of the cultural critic is then to find the means of
reconstructing the original problem from which the text as symbolic act is a
solution. This approach to textual criticism turns not so much on the question
of what does a particular text mean as why it exists in the form that it does.

(Political unconscious, n.d.)

Science fiction and criticism

“[T]echnology coverage has reached a point where it is no longer possible to separate social
questions from technological ones” (Watson, 2016, pg 19).

“[T]he boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion” (Haraway,
1990, pg 457).

“[W]e are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we
are cyborgs (Haraway, 1990, pg 457).

Baudrillard, J. (1991). Two Essays. Translated by Arthur B. Evans. Science fiction studies.
55(18).

It is impossible to read Baudrillard and not marvel at his anticipation of the dissolution of ‘the
real’ and the continued explosion of simulacra: fake news, the internet, 3D printers,
nanotechnologies, laproscopic surgery – our world is increasingly reliant upon pivotal simulacra.
Surgeons need no longer cut open the real flesh of their patients, but can use robotic arms to
navigate and alter projected images, never once gazing down upon the ‘real’ body on the table.
Lovers meet in imaginary landscapes fighting dragons together, embodied in shapes of their own

20
choosing, falling in love and carrying on without ever having met in person. Barbara Streisand
can cuddle up with her cloned dog and listen to her own voice, copied and torrented by users
around the globe, singing a remixed song, whose author is so forgotten he may never have
existed.

Baudrillard uses Borges’s fable of the map to conceptualize the evolution of our relationship
with reality. The story describes the gargantuan efforts of cartographers, who set out to map their
empire with such precision that the map eventually covers over each inch of the terrain, in exact
proportions. The map becomes the exact size and shape of the empire. Baudrillard suggests that
there is an important duality between the known and the unknown – the real and the imaginary.
(See A problem with dichotomies). In the story, the real terrain becomes indistinguishable from
the map. But Baudrillard suggests that it is not the map that is eventually left in tatters and ruin,
as was the vision in Borges’ story, but that reality itself is usurped and replaced. Once our
cartographers illuminated the darkness at our periphery (upon which we projected pre-Industrial
images of utopia), the mapping continued, extending beyond our physical terrain and becoming
itself a new territory which is a model of reality with no reference. We now stand, not upon the
ground, but upon the map: the simulacra. “Models,” Baudrillard states, “no longer constitute an
imaginary domain with reference to the real; they are, themselves, an apprehension of the real,
and thus leave no room for any fictional extrapolation” (Baudrillard, 1991, 2 of 19).

For Baudrillard, there is no more fiction. SF (as he terms it) now, more than ever, has a critical
function. SF must “reinvent the real as fiction.” Because the duality between the real and the
unreal no longer exists – “There is no more double; one is always already in the other world.”
(Baudrillard, 1991, 4 of 19)

Baudrillard writes that J.G. Ballard’s Crash describes “… a world of hyper-technology without
finality – is it good or bad? We can’t say. It is simply fascinating, without this fascination
implying any kind of value judgment whatsoever” (Baudrillard, 1991, 18 of 19). (See also
Constructive criticism).

21
Levy, D. (2000). Djerassi’s science-in-fiction explores sex and reproduction. Stanford News
Service. Retrieved from
https://web.stanford.edu/dept/news/pr/00/0002231djerassi.html

Under Construction

Macnaughten, D. (n.d.) DEEPEN Project. In D. H. Guston (Ed.), Encyclopedia of


Nanoscience and Society. Retrieved from
http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/10.4135/9781412972093.n77

Under Construction

Watson created a table distinguishing Criticism from Journalism. Here I have added a third
column: SCI FI Criticism, which can be thought of as an extension and/or subgenre of Criticism.

Journalism Criticism SCI FI Criticism


Objective Subjective Omniscient
Facts Opinions Extrapolations
Reporting Interpreting Problematizing
Fourth estate Policy recommendation Activism
Agenda setting Filling holes in public Initiating conversation
conversation
Investigation Synthesis Elaboration
Breaking Trending Forecasting
Research Analysis
Impartial Judging merits Withholding judgment and
conclusion
Tick-tock details Commentary Extension
Neutral Assessment Neutral assessment

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Description Deconstruction Construction
Impartial Disapproving Character driven
Watchdog Fault-finding Cautionary
Article Column or opinion Narrative
Inverted pyramid Argumentative essay Narrative Prose
Real-time Long durée Future oriented
Concise Nuanced Nuanced & problematized

A quick discussion of the future

Jameson, F. (1982). Progress versus utopia: Or, can we imagine the future? Science Fiction
Studies. 9(2), 147-158.

Jameson posits that narrative texts provide ‘vehicularity’ (his word!) and “structural
intelligibility” to ideas about progress, history and the future. While SCI FI casts projections
about the future, the careful reader understands that these narratives grow inexorably out of the
present and reflect our present anxieties and problems. It is impossible to step outside of the
room of one’s moment in time and culture — every story we tell, tells the story of that room3.

“SF thus enacts and enables a structurally unique ‘method’ for apprehending the present as
history” (Jameson, 1982, pg153)

“…the most characteristic SF does not seriously attempt to imagine the ‘real’ future of our social
system. Rather, its multiple mock futures serve the quite different function of transforming our
own present into the determinate past of something yet to come” (Jameseon, 1982, pg 152)

3 Idea to illustrate this point: ‘retrofuturism’ and retro images of past imaginings of the future.

23
McNeil, J. (2015). Postcards from the futch: Nothing looks like the past like talking about
‘the future’ of the internet. Retrieved from https://medium.com/message/postcards-
from-the-futch-595796d8a45d

Under Construction
Thacker, E. (2001). The science fiction of technoscience: The politics of simulation and a
challenge for new media art. Leonardo. 34(2), 155-158. Retrieved from
http://introtofiction2120.pbworks.com/w/file/fetch/48744411/scifi%20and%20sci.pdf

Under Construction

The tension and distance between the future and science fiction has collapsed. The future is upon
us. “Science fiction is always already surpassed by technological advancement” (Thacker, 2001,
pg 157). (See also Baudrillard’s ‘always already’).

But there is a critical function of SCI FI that more important than prototyping of the future

“Without the distance between imagined future and historical present, between virtual realities
and real virtualities, between information and the thing-itself, science fiction begins to lose its
own placement in our culture” (Baudrillard, 1991, pg 156)

SCI FI METHODOLOGY

SF … is no longer an elsewhere, it is an everywhere: in the circulation of models


here and now, in the very axiomatic nature of our simulated environment.

Baudrillard, 1991, pg ?

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Science fiction prototyping

Notes:

There is a huge amount of corporate and capitalist interest in scenario building and future predicting. There is
enormous money to be made in predicting and/or designing the next big disruptive technology. There has always
been money in manufacturing needs — which is exactly what technology design is all about. Who knew but Apple
that I desperately need an iPhone? While SCI FI Criticism is about asking questions, design is about answering
them.

Design can now more clearly be seen to ride the line between creation and
destruction.
(Fry quoted by Keirl, 2017, pg ?)

My evolving concern that conflating design and criticism is problematic. Like Fry (FUTURE
READING) “‘… design’s acknowledged and celebrated forms have been attached to explicit
economic functions and cultural appearances that lack any ability to engage in critical reflection,
especially of design’s impact on the social and environmental fabric of our world” (Keirl, 2017,
pg 118).

Dourish, P. & Bell, G. (2014). “Resistance is futile”: Reading science fiction alongside
ubiquitous computing. Personal and ubiquitous computing. 18(4), 769-778.

Future-oriented design projects are based upon present day visions of the future (See A quick
discussion of the future). These visions reflect ‘tropes of popular culture’ that have
‘methodological value’ (Dourish, 2014, pg 769).

“[R]esearch and engineering activities of NASA are frequently and quite explicitly founded upon
the visions of exploration and expansion embodied by the Star Trek television series” (See
Narrative and Reality) (Dourish, 2014, pg 769).

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Johnson, B. D. (2011). Science Fiction Prototyping: Designing the Future with Science
Fiction. Synthesis lectures on computer science. Retrieved from
http://www.morganclaypool.com/doi/abs/10.2200/S00336ED1V01Y201102CSL003

“The goal of SF prototypes is to start a conversation about technology and the future” (Johnson,
2011, pg 3)

Future casting – acknowledging that the future is not predetermined, but is constantly being built
by decisions we make now.

“Creating SF prototypes, writing stories, making movies and drawing comics about the future are
one of those things that people can do to actually change the future” (Johnson, 2011, pg 5)

There is something a bit facile and uncritically optimistic in his tone. It is very much like the
rosy-eyed projection of Mark Zuckerburg who felt he could both improve humanity and become
fantastically wealthy while doing it. There is something worrying about conflating the goals of
capitalism and cultural development with the betterment of humanity. Of course, these goals can
overlap and ideology without praxis is important.

This kind of SCI FI is about design work – building future technologies through narrative.

“Prototypes are not the thing, they are the story of the fiction about the thing that we hope to
build” (Johnson, 2011, pg 12)

Doctorow, C., will.i.am, Rushkoff, D., & Johnson, B. D. (2011). The tomorrow project
anthology: Conversations about the future. USA: Intel Corporation.

Johnson works as a futurist at the Intel Corporation.He makes the important distinction that
future casting is not about predicting the future, but building the future. Our narratives shape our
reality (See Haraway).

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SF prototypes are different from fiction in that they use fiction “explicitly as a step or input in the
development process” (Doctorow et al, 2011, Preface).

“Mr. Johnson proposes that science fiction can be a means by which scientists can explore the
ramification of new technologies, develop and test hypotheses, and find solutions to problems
that come with pioneering techniques and emerging science.” (Johnson, 2011, pg vii)

From The Tomorrow Project:

“Using social science paired with computer science we can create products and software that
have humans at the center of their design. This way we aren’t developing technology for
technology’s sake. We’re not making computers faster just because we can make computers
faster. What’s the reason we’re making these computers smarter? What’s the effect we want all
of this intelligence to have?” (Doctorow et al, 2011, 116)

Bleecker, J. (2009). Design Fiction: A short essay on design, science, fact and fiction.
Retrieved from https://www.media.mit.edu/groups/design-fiction/overview/)

Hara, Y. N. (2015). Homo deus: A brief history of tomorrow. London: Harvill Secker.

Science into fiction

Under Construction

Gaines, S. M., Kirchhofer, A., Schaffeld, N., Schimank, U. & Weingart, P. (2013). Fiction
meets science: Background and concept Paper No. 1. Retrieved from
http://www.fictionmeetsscience.org/ccm/cms-
service/stream/asset/FMS%20Concept%20Paper%201.pdf?asset_id=1941002

27
SCI FI pedagogy

Barlex, D. (2017). Disruptive technologies. In P. J. Williams & K. Stables (Eds.), Critique in


design and technology education. (pp. 215-235). Singapore: Springer.

Barlex’s main research question is “How can we use the idea of disruption to enable young
people at school to critique technology?”

This article contains a useful exploration of the purpose of critique.

He defines disruptive technologies as having “a huge impact on society, changing in significant


ways the activity and interactions of people – though these changes may not be immediately
apparent” (Barlex, 2017, pg 216)

Using narrative can “enable young people to develop a critical frame of mind with which they
approach the world and future opportunities” (Barlex, 2017, pg 233).

Firooznia, F. (2006). Giant ants and walking plants: Using science fiction to teach a
writing-intensive, lab-based biology class for nonmajors. Journal of college science
teaching. 35(5). (pp. 26-31). Retrieved from
http://www.nsta.org/publications/news/story.aspx?id=51607

This class is designed to address one of the challenges of the science department, which is to
provide scientific literacy and the importance of scientific analysis to students outside of the
department.

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“Continuing debates on genetically modified foodstuffs, genetic engineering of animals for
future medical studies, and cloning, and the future of evolutionary biology in primary education
highlight the importance of scientific analysis and literacy for the general public” (Firooznia,
2006).

Science fiction is a popular and engaging genre used to ignite student interest in engagement
with difficult concepts that are then paired with real contemporary science news and scientific
analysis.

According to the author, the course has “helped reduce the negative attitudes that some non-
major students may have toward biology.” The course was also deemed just as rigorous as a
major course, though with different focus, which for some students was a drawback.

Keirl, S. (2017). Critiquing as design and technology curriculum journey: History, theory,
politics and potential. In P. J. Williams & K. Stables (Eds.), Critique in design and
technology education. (pp. 109-133). Singapore: Springer.

 Three strands of any technology education are: Critiquing, Design and Making
 “As leading international curriculum theorist, Pinar has said: ‘Our pedagogical work is
simultaneously autobiographical and political’ (Pinar 2004/2008)” (Keirl, 2017, pg 110)
(FUTURE READING: Pinar)
 The politics of education & politics of technology (Keirl, 2017 pg 120) (See SCI FI
Activism)
 “The fate of democracy is … bound up with our understanding of technology” (Keirl,
2017, pg 120) (FUTURE READING: Feenburg) (See SCI FI Activism)
 Curriculum as an “autobiographical method asks us to slow down, to remember even re-
enter the past, and to meditatively imagine the future” (my emphasis). (Keirl, 2017, pg
111)
 “Critiquing is not mere analysis: it is inward- and outward-directed interrogation; it
debunks, demystifies and exposes power relations too” (Keirl, 2017, pg 117).

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SCI FI activism

(Thacker — See A quick discussion of the future)

“[T]he science fiction that critics such as Jameson, Donna Haraway, and others discuss is both
critical and multi-perspectival. In other words, the critical mode of science fiction is not about
“actualization” but about “potentiality.” Here potentiality serves to signify futures that may exist,
as well as futures that will not exist (or that should not exist – the critical function of the
dystopia)” (Thacker, 2001, pg 158).

(Johnson — See SCI FI Prototyping)

“I guess the way you change the future is to change people’s narrative. Change the story people
have imagined the future will be. Change that and you change the future. Everything else is far
too complicated and out of a single person’s control — but just change the story we tell
ourselves about the future and you change the future itself” (Johnson quoting Cory Doctorow, pg
3)

(Haraway — See Constructive criticism)

“So my cyborg myth is about transgressed boundaries, potent fusions, and dangerous
possibilities which progressive people might explore as one part of needed political work”
(Haraway, 1990, pg 462).

Haraway argues that feminist science fiction writers like Octavia Butler are doing important
political work:
“Cyborg writing is about the power to survive, not on the basis of original innocence, but on the
basis of seizing the tools to mark the world that marked them as other….

30
“The tools are often stories, retold stories, versions that reverse and displace the hierarchical
dualisms of naturalized identities….
“Cyborg politics is the struggle for language and the struggle against perfect communication,
against the one code that translates all meaning perfectly, the central dogma of
phallogocentrism” (Haraway, 1990, pg 469-470).

Hyperrealism & The Mundane


Notes:
 Moving towards some features of a Critical SCI FI sub-genre that would act, not so much as an exclusionary list, but
as a possible starting point for reading and writing critical SCI FI. The theoretical structure of the context/world and
the fictional future is worthy of exploration. This section is still under consideration.

Ryman, G. (2004). The mundane manifesto. SFGenics: Notes on Science, Fiction, and
Science Fiction. (July 4, 2013). Retrieved from
https://sfgenics.wordpress.com/2013/07/04/geoff-ryman-et-al-the-mundane-manifesto/

Geoff Ryman is a well-known science fiction author who presented the Mundane Manifesto with
various other Science Fiction writers at a Clarion Workshop in 2004. The manifesto is both
playfully ironic but also deadly serious about restraining ‘our sf imaginative silhouettes’ to keep
science fiction better rooted in the possible rather than the fantastical. Many far future sf fictions
are rooted in fantasy more than science, set in vastly populated multi-universes in which time
travel and interstellar trade are as easy as picking up the telephone. Ryman suggests that “magic
interstellar travel can lead to an illusion of a universe abundant with worlds as hospitable to life
as this Earth” and that this attitude “can encourage a wasteful attitude to the abundance that is
here.” He recognized the ‘harmless fun’ of these sorts of stories, but also advocates for a
‘Mundane Fiction’ that has a “new focus on human beings: their science, technology, culture,
politics, religions, individual characters, needs, dreams, hopes and failings”. This mundane

31
fiction would refrain from including any sort of magical elements such as time travel, interstellar
travel, aliens (unless the connection “is distant, difficult, tenuous and expensive”).

As with any art form, rules and parameters are made to be broken. Boundaries (between or
within genres) are set up and then immediately torn down. But it is worth thinking about the
political importance of SCI FI. Are we engaged in harmless diversionary fun, or is the goal of the
fiction to critique human experience on Earth and to engage with ‘matters of concern’ (Latour).

Allowing magic into the universe can be a lazy way of working out a complex problem.
It is worthwhile to take a critical look at the SCI FI genre itself and to not fall back on ready-
made tropes and clichés.

Syms, M. (2013). The mundane afro-futurist manifesto. Rhizome. Retrieved from


http://rhizome.org/editorial/2013/dec/17/mundane-afrofuturist-manifesto/.

Martine Syms’s manifesto mimics Rymans’s tone and bristles with critical furor. Her manifesto
is both love letter and condemnation of the Science Fiction genre. Like Ryman, she wants to
banish interstellar travel. For Sym’s, “[m]agic interstellar travel and/or the wondrous
communication grid can lead to an illusion of outer space and cyberspace as egalitarian.
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” (interesting extension
of Haraway’s polarities. Sym’s is writing in the 2000s, deep into virtual and cyberspatial reality.
Syms understands that liberal intellectuals have not defined the parameters of a new universe
as Haraway might have hoped. Instead, colonial attitudes have insidiously unfurled outwards,
beyond the physical edges of our world.

Syms’s “Bonfire of the Stupidities” (Ryman’s phrase) includes: “Jive-talking aliens… Magical
negroes; Enormous self-control in light of great suffering;… White slavery;… Sassiness;…
Platform shoes”. An Afrofuturist Mundane fiction takes the “opportunity to make sense of the
nonsense that regularly — and sometimes violently — accents black life.” (See SCI FI Activism)

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(Jameson — See A quick discussion of the future)

(Beaudrillard — See Science fiction and criticism)

READING SCI FI

Amis, M. (1998, October 26). The janitor on mars. New Yorker. 208-228. Retrieved
from http://archives.newyorker.com/?i=1998-10-26#folio=228

It is 2049, Earth has crossed a “trip wire, initiating a long slumbering and “unequivocal robot
wearing blue-black overalls and a shirt and tie” who makes contact humanity to relate some bad
news. This Janitor on Mars has asked for a selection of human beings: “scientists, poets, painters,
musicians, mathematicians, philosophers, ‘and some examples of male and female pulchritude”
to be transported to Mars, so he can give them (broadcast back to Earth) the blue planet’s final
prognosis: Oxygen levels have risen to such a degree that the planet is a virtual tinderbox for an
asteroid the size of Greenland, which is headed directly Earth’s way and is due to strike in 2069.
The Janitor also relates the history of Mars, a typical Type V world - which has evolved through
the typical life stages: the seeding of life, through industrialization to Total Wealth, immortality,
World War, Extra-terrestrial war and finally auto-annihilation. Meanwhile, the Janitor’s human
counterpart on Earth, Pop Jones, “’a functional pedophile’” in an all-boys school, attempts to
find out who has raped an incommunicative and deeply harmed boy named Timmy.

“Art is not taken very seriously elsewhere in this universe or in any other. Nobody’s interested in
art. They’re interested in what everybody else is interested in: the superimposition of the will….
Art and religion are rooted in the hunger for immortality. But nearly everyone already has that.”
(pg 169-170).

This story takes a wide and abstracted view of Earth and is critical without being constructive.
The tone is broiling with dark irony, black humour and nastiness. Amis’ vast and eclectic
intelligence is on display here, but the purpose seems – much like the Janitor on Mars’s purpose

33
– a joke at the expense of a humanity which is passed the point of saving. The story is critical
without being constructive.

The story is built around the sweeping exposition of millennia, told “rather unfeelingly” by the
robot Janitor. The wide view of time does not fit a model of Hyperrealistic Fiction as I outline it,
which takes a closer examination of the human significance of the future scenario. I imagine that
a ‘Part Two’ of this story, in which we see how humanity lives with the knowledge of imminent
annihilation, might provide an opportunity for a more constructively4 critical SCI FI. (Thinking
of Ted Chiang’s story Exhalation).

Ballard, J. G. (1978). The best short stories of J. G. Ballard. New York: Picador Henry Holt
and Company.

Jameson writes wonderfully: “Let the Wagnerian and Spenglerian world-dissolutions of J.G.
Ballard stand as exemplary illustrations of the ways in which the imagination of a dying class —
in this case the cancelled future of a vanished colonial and imperial destiny—seeks to intoxicate
itself with images of death that range from the destruction of the world by fire, water, and ice to
lengthening sleep or the berserk orgies of high-rise buildings or superhighways reverting to
barbarism” (Jameson, 1982, pg 152)

These future visions of Ballard, dark and darkly beautiful, explore a human capacity for
Kafkaesque contortions and extremes. Ballard casts our future reality as extrapolations of present
anxieties and preoccupations taken to ends that are both entirely logical and utterly absurd. His
hyperrealities are closely, almost lovingly, realized with an attention to the mundane detail. His
acute and heightened scrutiny make each sentence feel inevitable. Each story is an extended
thought experiments as witnessed through the eyes of human characters: What would the effect
of outlawing all clocks be on a person with an all-consuming interest in time? How would one

4 I think I do mean that a ‘constructive’ criticism must be optimistic – it must come from an essential place of
thinking change is possible. It is future-oriented and non-deterministic and therefore, optimistic.

34
fly a model airplane in a world so crowded that there is no more free space? What would be the
perceived result of an altered body which no longer needs sleep? While these stories are not
examples of SCI FI Criticism, as I imagine it, much can be learned from Ballard’s approach to
narrative, extrapolation and attention to detail. Much can also be learned from Jameson’s writing
about Ballard, which is wonderful and illuminating.

V, Vinge. (1992). A fire upon the deep. New York: Tor Books.

Chiang, T. (2002). Stories of your life and others. New York: Tor Books.

Chiang, T. (2008). Exhalation. In Strahan, J. (Ed.) Eclipse two: New science fiction and
fantasy. Digital Editions. Nightshade Books. Retrieved from
http://www.nightshadebooks.com/Downloads/Exhalation%20-
%20Ted%20Chiang.html

Chiang, T. (2010) The lifecycle of software objects. Michigan: Subterranean Press.

Delany, S. R. (1967). aye, and gomorrah… retrieved


fromhttps://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/english/currentstudents/undergraduate/modules/f
ulllist/special/en304/syllabus2015-16/delany_aye_and_gomorrah....pdf

Gibson, William. (1984). Neuromancer. New York: Ace Science Fiction Books.

Under Construction

WRITING SCI FI

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#1 Ban prediction

McNeil, J. (2015). Postcards from the futch quotes the author Warren Ellis:

“Ban prediction. Predicting causes litter….. Talking about the future of the spaceplane without
talking about politics, economics, environment surround it… you might as well be just fucking
juggling. It’s a meaningless act.”

#2 Check your tone –

Haraway, 1991 — see Constructive criticism

“Irony is about contradictions that do not resolve into larger wholes, even dialectically, about the
tension of holding incompatible things together because both or all are necessary and true. Irony
is about humor and serious play” (pg 456)

McNeil, J. (2015). Postcards from the futch


“In the future, what will the future mean for the future of the future?”

Nelson, Maggie. (2015).

Question your orientation towards technology and the future. The reason for writing should not
be to impart a moral, a design or a judgment. The reason for writing is in the questioning. This
can be a serious kind of play.

“Many Critics are guilty of romanticizing the past or fetishizing the real” (Watson)

#3 Start with Character

#4 Consider Gartner’s Hype Cycle (Barlex, pg 220, 2017) which includes the technology
trigger, peak of inflated expectations, trough of disillusionment, slope of enlightenment, plateau

36
of productivity. (See Chiang’s Lifecycle of Software Objects for an exceptional fiction that
follows this lifecycle to an unexpected and finely realized end).

#4 Consider the Axis of Uncertainty (Barlex 2017)

#5 Consider these narrative kernels:

1. Be careful what you wish for — the narrative of Desire


2. Being kept in the dark — the narrative of Alienation
3. Messing with nature — the narrative of the Sacred
4. Pandora’s box — the narrative of Evil and Hope
5. The rich get richer — the narrative of Exploitation

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(Barlex, 2017, pg 224 from the 2010 DEEPEN
Project)

As I quote these narratives now, though, I am wondering if, instead of being a useful place, they
are, in fact, cliché pitfalls one might want to avoid when really digging in and setting up a
fictional plot for the purpose of SCI FI Criticism. Like Watson’s impatience with much
Technology Criticism that falls too easily into tired tropes, these narratives also feel like fictional
clichés that can hamper originality and nuance in scenario-building for the purpose of the study
of human technology in future contexts….

#6 Consider Johnson’s Steps:

Step 1: Pick your science and build your world


Step 2: The scientific inflection point
Step 3: Ramifications of the science on people
Step 4: The human inflection point
Step 5: What did we learn?

(Johnson, 2011)

and

1) A person
2) In a place
3) Has a problem
4) Person intelligently tries to solve the problem and fails
5) Things get worse
6) Until it comes to a climax
7) Afterward you have the outcome

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(Johnson, 2011, pg 54)

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Further Reading

Andrews, T. (2016). The technology of consent: American science fiction and cultural crisis in
the 1980s. Retrieved from
https://digitalcollections.trentu.ca/islandora/object/etd%253A384

de Vries, M. J. (2017). Philosophy as critique. In P. J. Williams & K. Stables (Eds.), Critique in


design and technology education. (pp. 15-30). Singapore: Springer.

Feenberg, A. (1999). Questioning technology. London: Routledge.

Freire, P. (1972). Pedagogy of the oppressed. London: Penguin.
 Freire, P. (2001). Pedagogy of

freedom: Ethics, democracy, and civic courage. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.


Fry, T. (1992). Green hands against dead knowledge. In N. Ioannou (Ed.), Craft in society, an
anthology of perspectives. South Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press.

Fry, T. (1995). Sacred design 1: A re-creational theory. In R. Buchanan & V. Margolin (Eds.),
Discovering design: Explorations in design studies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hara, Y. N. (2015). Homo deus: A brief history of tomorrow. London: Harvill Secker.

Jameson, F. (1982). The political unconscious: Narrative as a socially symbolic act. Cornell
University Press.

Keirl, S. (2015a). Against Neoliberalism; for sustainable-democratic curriculum; through design


and technology education. In K. Stables & S. Keirl (Eds.), Environment, ethics and
cultures: Design and technology education’s contribution to sustainable global futures
(pp. 153–174). Rotterdam: Sense.

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Keirl, S. (2015b). Global ethics, sustainability, and design and technology education. In K.
Stables & S. Keirl (Eds.), Environment, ethics and cultures: Design and technology
education’s contribution to sustainable global futures (pp. 33–52). Rotterdam: Sense.

Lysaker, J. (1998). Binding the beautiful: Art as criticism in Adorno and Dewey. The Journal of
Speculative Philosophy, New Series, 12(4), 233-244.

Mumford, L. (2010). Technics and Civilization. University of Chicago Press.

Petrina, S. (2000a). The political ecology of design and technology education: An inquiry into
methods. International Journal of Technology and Design Education, 10, 207–237.

Petrina, S. (2000b). The politics of technological literacy. International Journal of Technology


and Design Education, 10, 181–206.

Petrina, S. (2003, Spring). Human rights and politically incorrect thinking versus technically
speaking. Journal of Technology Education, 14(2), 70–74.

Pinar, W. F. (2004/2008). What is curriculum theory? Routledge, New York.


Fiction mentioned along the way that I’d like to hunt down:

 Ursula le Guin, The Dispossessed


 Joanna Russ, The Female Man
 Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time
 Samuel Delany, Triton
 Scarlett Thomas, The Drop
 Markus Heitz, Blink of an Eye
 Douglas Rushkoof, Last Day of Work
 Ray Hammon, The Mercy Dash

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 Doctorow Overlocked: Stories of the future present
 Ryman, Paradise tales

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