a chat with Dr Kathleen Stock

FuseBox, Non-fiction, Philosophy, Writer in Residence

Having written a fair bit about the ‘Do Androids Dream…’ event at The FuseBox, I thought it was time for a change of pace. So I got together with the event’s co-host, Dr Kathleen Stock, for a chat about it all. And here it is:

Towards the end of our conversation, I said I’d put up some links to Kathleen and her work. So, first of all, here’s her website. Click here for her blog post about sexual objectication over at the LSE and here for her ‘Philosophy Bites’ podcast on fiction and the emotions. And finally, another YouTube video – here she is giving a talk on the limits of our imaginations. Enjoy!

who is the other we feel for?

FuseBox, Modernity, Workshops, Writer in Residence

There’s one part of the ‘Do Designers Dream of Electric Sheep’ afternoon I keep on going back to. One of the classic current AI discussion points is the problem of the out-of-control self-driving car.  If one’s had some sort of glitch or accident and is about to crash into (for example) a bus stop queue, how does it decide who to avoid and who to hit, who will survive and who won’t? Who will it seem to feel most empathy for?

And that led to this –

 

One very reasonable response came out in answers three, four and six. Actually, the group pointed out, this was an entirely avoidable situation. So, it should be made impossible. Careful readers will also spot that answer five refers to this, albeit in a subtle, oblique and highly allusive way.

(Oh, and I stripped out answer one because it’s a bit incomprehensible if you weren’t at the event. And answer seven led to some darkly fascinating, but also rather tangential, thinking – so I’ll come back to it in a bit.)

The design of the car, the design of the bus stop, the design of the rules that regulate traffic, the design of the city that the traffic moves through, should be such that this kind of situation is impossible. This set me thinking that the network effect applies to empathy too – that the more people included within a given act of empathy, the more powerful it becomes.

This leads to an interesting question – can one feel empathy for groups, rather than just individuals? The general consensus seemed to be no – that empathy is a person-to-person act, happening on a one-to-one basis. So – for example – if empathy moves me to support a homelessness charity, I’m feeling empathy not for the charity, but for all the homeless people I’ve met.

Empathy is not abstract. It can only come from actual experience of real people.

That thought led to much discussion on the day. And, as an SF author, it raises a very interesting question for me. My books are set in imaginary futures, and they’re about imaginary people. How, then, can I help the reader feel empathy for them?

I need to make their futuristic motivations, behaviours, challenges and solutions comprehensible to a contemporary reader. I need to situate the present in the future. Or, turning things round, I need to use the unreal – my invented characters, their invented world – to talk about the real – the actual lived experience of my readers. In SF, the other we feel for is always some version of ourselves.

There’s an interesting point here for designers. When they design something, they invent a small part of the future. They do what science fiction writers do – they imagine the new into being. And like science fiction writers, that newness will only work if it reaches back into the present and responds to a real experience, or need, that already exists now – if it shows empathy with the actual. Good design, like good SF, is neither exclusively about the present or the future. Instead, it’s a bridge between the two, one that always builds out from the lived experience of people right now.

And I nearly forgot – answer seven. It was pointed out that, if malfunctioning cars steered towards or away from individuals according to their online profiles, a market in more attractive (and therefore safer) profiles would quickly develop. It was then realised that you could hack someone’s profile to make it much less attractive, making this scenario riskier for them and their lives probably more hazardous in general – a new and disturbing kind of crime. And of course that kind of decision-making implies a very dark society, one that’s both judgemental and unconcerned about risk in ways we’d find appalling.

That leads to two final thoughts. First of all, science fiction is never just about the tech; it’s about the people that decide how to use the tech, and the society that shapes those decisions. And secondly, something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. SF isn’t really about tech that works – rather, SF stories happen because of mistakes, malfunctions and unintended consequences. More on that in a future post…

empathy and electric sheep

Fiction, Film, FuseBox, Panels, Philosophy, Writer in Residence

So, we had our ‘Do Designers Dream of Electric Sheep’ afternoon at the FuseBox, and it went very well indeed – so well, in fact, that I’ve had big problems trying to boil down everything it made me think about into a single blog post. As it turns out, when you combine ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’ and ‘Blade Runner’ with a room full of designers, technologists, philosophers and creatives, you end up with an awful lot to think about.

But that’s actually quite useful. For the next couple of months, the FuseBox is being rebuilt, so I don’t have anywhere to be physically resident. So instead, I’m going to become a virtually resident writer. I’m going to go with the flow and write more than I normally would, publishing three or four blog posts and – if all goes according to plan – a videoblog, both discussing the ‘Do Designers Dream…?’ day in general and talking about where it took me in particular.

And I’m going to start at the beginning, with how we defined its core theme – empathy. We began by trying to find out if we had a shared sense of it. As everyone arrived at the event, we asked them to write down their own definitions of empathy. We ended up with:

Rather than a single understanding of empathy, that left us with many interesting tensions. Is empathy something emotional or rational? Does it happen when you imagine another in your own head, or does it build on a genuine connection between you and another? Is it an exclusively human experience, or is it something other creatures (and perhaps even things) can feel? And so on.

Then, we complicated things even more. FuseBox head Phil Jones kicked things off with an introductory talk, then philosopher Dr Kathleen Stock, critical design practitioner and AI expert Professor Karen Cham, and SF writer me all took a few minutes to talk through our own understandings of empathy.

Phil began by talking about empathy in design, describing both its problems and achievements. On the one hand, every effective piece of design is a small chunk of embodied empathy, an actually present representation of a moment of connection between the designer and their audience. On the other, design often fails. For example, there’s the problem of bro-tech – technology designs by highly privileged twenty-something male designers that only show any sort of empathy for the lives and problems of twenty-something males. Design needs empathy to thrive; but too often it embodies its lack rather than its presence.

Kathleen talked about empathy in a more abstract way. She described two different kinds of empathy – cognitive and affective:

Cognitive empathy involves imagining the experience of another; affective empathy happens when another’s emotion affects you. A key point running through her comments was the role of imagination in empathy – you can never actually experience being someone (or something) else. You can only ever imagine it. And that throws up a fascinating question: How solipsistic is empathy? Does it represent a genuine link with the other, or only an imagined one? And is there any real difference between the two?

And then it was my turn. I discussed how empathy is essential in fiction; to feel involved with a particular story, to want to keep reading on, the reader needs to feel empathy for the people they’re reading about. That led to a very basic description of three act narrative structure:

I create empathy for my characters by showing the reader what they want to do and why it’s so important, then making it difficult for them to do it, and finally exploring what it means for them to actually get it done. Once again, imagination’s a crucial part of that process – as a writer of SF, I ask my readers to imagine unreal futures, and as a writer of fiction I ask them to imagine unreal people and events.

Then it was Karen’s turn. She talked about empathy as something very practical, describing how we can achieve a very exact kind of empathy by using technology to measure people’s physical responses to any particular experience. And she described how technology displays apparent empathy for the world around it as it learns from experience. For her, empathy wasn’t so much about imagination – it’s something very present, practical and measurable.

And those were the definitions of empathy we started out with. More on where they took us to in my next post…

in the FuseBox with Philip K. Dick

Fiction, Film, FuseBox, Science Fiction, Writer in Residence

Some very exciting news – from now until the autumn, I’ll be the Writer in Residence at Brighton tech hub the FuseBox! The residency’s going to be themed around Philip K. Dick. I’ll be helping bring together forward-looking members of Brighton’s academic, technological and creative communities to think about his writing, the themes that drive it and everything that it’s inspired.

It’s going to be a fascinating few months, a wonderful opportunity to see what science fiction can mean to people using and thinking about technology in all sorts of different ways. I’ll be part of Imagined Futures, a series of Dick-themed events for all of those communities, blogging about what comes out of them, and sharing my own work and my sense of what SF is and how it can illuminate the world around us.

It’ll give me so much inspiration for my own writing, too – after all, there’s nobody better qualified to help an SF writer understand tomorrow than the people who are making it happen today. And of course it’s already sent me diving back into Phillip K. Dick. He feels particularly relevant just now, both as a philosopher of the unreal and an inspirer of the very real.

Let’s  start with the unreal. What’s always struck me about his books is how they show the world as a molten, unreliable thing, resolutely refusing to settle into any final version of itself. ‘The Man in the High Castle’ shows us an alternate reality that can be disproven by the I-Ching. ‘Ubik’ shows us an apocalypse of time, space and self that strongly resists falling into any single, simple interpretation. ‘Valis’ leaps between religious mysticism, gnostic fantasy and pure SF, leaving it to the reader to decide what they’re really witnessing. And so it continues, throughout his novels and short stories.

Again and again, Dick pokes holes in the real. He leaves us with literary artefacts that are at once undeniably there, present before us as words on the page, but also impossible to grasp in any single, final, fully knowable way. In our modern age of fake news and performed reality, that makes them profoundly current. We’ll do our best to get to grips with them, exploring exactly how they resonate today.

And then there’s reality. Paradoxically, as Dick’s slippery fictions have gone out into the world they’ve driven the creation of something very hard-and-fast. They’ve become one of the great engines driving modern SF cinema, sitting directly behind major movies like ‘Blade Runner’, ‘Total Recall’, ‘A Scanner Darkly’ and ‘Minority Report’, and indirectly behind many more. And cinema demands the real – for SF to work onscreen, it has to show us entire, absolutely convincing worlds.

So, inspired by Dick, production designers have created very concrete visions of tomorrow. Industrial designer Syd Mead went from designing cars, hotels and consumer tech to building a whole world for ‘Blade Runner’. The gestural interface Tom Cruise uses in ‘Minority Report’ was directly based on work from the MIT Media Lab. Even the relatively cartoonish world of ‘Total Recall’ is suffused with technologies that – taken on their own terms – are entirely consistent and credible.

In bringing Dick’s futures to life, film makers have done far more than just engage with the slippery nature of his (un)realities. They’ve prototyped futures – and there’s as much to learn from those concrete futures as there is from his original visions. So we’ll be looking at those very real things too,  seeing exactly what practical lessons we can take away from them.

I’m sure that it will all combine in very exciting ways. It could be we’ll find a road map to steer us past the pot holes and wrong turns and confusions of now; it could be that – like so many of his heroes – we’ll find that losing ourselves in them all is the only way to move on.

Either way, we’ll have a blast. I can’t wait to see where we end up – and if you’re around in Brighton while any of it’s going on, I hope you’ll join us for some or all of it – drop me an email if you want to get on the mailing list for it all. If you can’t, do keep checking in here – I’ll be writing about all of our adventures in Dick’s worlds, while hopefully keeping a reasonably firm grip on this one too. So, see you at the next post!