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Solve at MIT Insights: Envisioning the Future through Science Fiction

“I just finished a story which is a murder mystery accidentally solved by a plastic filtration system designed to create artificial wetlands,” science fiction writer Elizabeth Bear told the audience attending Solve at MIT’s plenary “Science or Fiction: Creating the Future." 

Bear, fellow writer Karen Lord, and Marina Gorbis of the Institute for the Future shared inventive ideas like this one, as well as their thoughts on didactic literature, climate change mitigation, and the power of cultural narratives in a panel moderated by Gideon Lichfield, Editor-in-Chief of the MIT Technology Review. 

Lord said that while science fiction can contain an element of warning, “a warning can also be an inspiration, it can be hope. It can be, oh look at this cool technology—what if someone did this with it and solved this problem?” 

Though they spend a good deal of time envisioning problems that the future may face, writers “don’t always have to be looking at dystopia; you can be looking at solutions. Maybe those solutions create their own problems later down the line, but that’s for another story,” Lord said.

Bear added that there is a blurred line between utopia and dystopia, since both visions of society involve certain people benefitting while others are disenfranchised. Lichfield agreed that science fiction is “ostensibly about the future, but it’s really about human society in the present. How does our current society operate when you change the operating conditions? What remains constant about human beings?”

The current relationship between humans and tech, Gorbis said, is essentially a “constant process of co-invention.” She looks at this dynamic of mutual influence as yielding two scenarios. In the first, everyone contributes towards a positive culture of data sharing and open solution generation. The second scenario is “digital feudalism,” where humans devote their time and attention to technology, only to receive no tangible benefit. 

What role can science fiction play in all of this? “We’re at the point where we need to look at culture and social norms and narratives as levers to deploy this tech in a positive way,” Gorbis pointed out. 

All three panelists agreed that while they may specialize in writing about the future, they frequently turn to history to remind themselves that cultural norms are fluid. “We’re given a structure, either a structure of ‘this is how the universe is shaped’ or ‘this is how the world works,’ and we think that’s it. But the reality when you examine history is that we are continually reshaping our concept of what is meant to be right or what is meant to work,” Lord said. 

When science fiction writers explore the looming implications of a topic like climate change, they can take a didactic or organic approach to conveying social messages. Lord believes that the latter is usually preferable: “If you just look at consequences, there are optimal outcomes and there are suboptimal outcomes. You don’t even have to get into the morality of it, you can be value-neutral and just show this person making bad choices at this particular time and set off this entire chain reaction—we wouldn’t want that to happen, would we?”

Lichfield observed that these writers’ works, whether drawing from historical precedents or dreams of fantastical machines, ultimately serve to expand the public imagination. How would everyday life function in a world without fossil fuels? Under what conditions would citizens be pushed to abandon statehood in favor of planethood? 

“These visions of the future and our expressions of them do shape what we ultimately create, what we aspire to, and the moral and ethical precepts that we follow,” Gorbis explained. “At the Institute we talk about how the future has to be massively public. We have to engage a lot of people in this conversation.”

To hear the full conversation, watch the full panel recording.

Solve intern Silvia Curry contributed to this article.


Elizabeth Bear, Karen Lord, and Marina Gorbis speak during the "Science or Fiction: Creating the Future" plenary of Solve at MIT, May 9, 2019. Photo: Adam Schultz / MIT Solve

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