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!

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!

leaving the future behind

Fiction, Science Fiction, Writing

On the face of it, science fiction’s all about technological change. But actually, when you sit down to write it, I think it sets a more interesting challenge: how to tell a story that can leave key parts of its future behind. SF’s most enduring works don’t live on because they accurately predict tomorrow. In fact, technologically speaking they’re very often wrong about it. They stay readable because they think about what change does to people and how we cope with it.

That’s most obvious in the near future stuff, whose technological speculations can be very easily tested – you just need to wait for a few years and see what happens. As someone who grew up in the 80s, I’m going to use a classic piece of SF from back then to illustrate that – ‘Blade Runner’. It’s set a couple of years ahead of us now, in 2019, but shows us a tomorrow with no internet or smartphones, but plenty of flying cars and artificial humans and animals.

And yet it remains one of science fiction’s profound masterworks. What keeps ‘Blade Runner’ so engaging is not its powers of prediction, but rather what the change it shows us does to the people in it. When it was made, it looked forward not factually but emotionally. There’s a nostalgia for an unreachable and so-much-less-broken past, a deep, anguished sense of personal powerlessness and a massive fear that even the most intimate parts of yourself – your entire life’s memories, for example – could suddenly turn out to be an externally sourced corporate construct. It nails a very specific kind of rootlessness and paranoia that’s very easy to feel right now.

The enduring accuracy of that emotional vision makes the failure of Ridley Scott’s more practical predictions pretty much irrelevant. As one of the 80s’ other great cyberpunks, William Gibson, noted: ‘I’ve never really been very interested in computers themselves. I don’t watch them; I watch how people behave around them.’ The ‘Blade Runner’ solution to a profoundly negative set of changes – be as human as possible, even if you’re not – is one that hasn’t yet dated. As new tech keeps on forcing us to rethink what it means to be human I think it’ll continue to resonate for a long time yet.

But what about the further future stuff? Is this an argument that works in the context of the tomorrows far beyond tomorrow, where technologies that we’ll never live to see leap through science fiction stories? How can we test the science in such impossible imaginings?

I went to another piece of 80s science fiction – C.J. Cherryh’s 1988 novel ‘Cyteen’ – when I started thinking about that. It’s set a few hundred years in the future, and describes a society built on technological achievements that it’s safe to say none of us will ever witness. But it does so much more than just talk about them. It’s a rich and detailed study of how culture, family and even strong-minded individuals write personality into children as they grow and become adults. The book’s fascinated by growth, maturity and the self, and the relationships between them. The change it talks about is the change we all go through as our adult selves grow into being.

But on the other hand, it explores all that through the medium of tapes, using a kind of tape-to-mind content transference process as a way of thinking about how the people around you can shape you as you grow. Those tapes were a wonderful sustained metaphor, one you couldn’t really achieve in any more realist fiction, but as science they kept on throwing me out of the book. I associated them with clunky 70s supercomputers and screeching 80s cassette drives. I didn’t even understand why Cherryh was presenting them as such a futuristic, powerful tool until I started reading cyberneticists like 60s maven Norbert Wiener. That showed me both what she was getting at with them and how the technological context that had once supported this thoughtful, powerful novel had so quickly dropped away from it.

And that, for me, was a moment that confirmed that science and technology aren’t actually central to science fiction. In fact, the specific details of how all the shiny stuff works are in the long run pretty irrelevant. After all, scientific theories exist to either be improved or disproved. Technology is constantly becoming outdated. All of it’s provisional, all of it will go. Any piece of SF that ties itself too firmly to a particular snapshot of scientific thinking or technological progress will itself become obsolete in very short order.

So ironically, perhaps the only way that any piece of science fiction can be sure that it will remain resonant as the years pass is to make sure that any technical speculation can drop away once it’s no longer relevant. The science will fall back to Earth like an exhausted booster section, tumbling away from the rocket that will one day reach the stars. And then we’ll be left with stories about how people change when change arrives – and that, for me, is what science fiction is.