Science Fiction As a Path to Explore the Future of the Anthropocene and Worlds in Preparation

7 07 2016

Paper (available on request) to be presented at the 3rd ISA Forum of Sociology (“The Futures We Want: Global Sociology and the Struggles for a Better World”) in the Panel “Framing Discourses, Action and Collective Imaginaries about Environmental Issues”, University of Vienna (Austria), Sunday, 10 July 2016.


Should humanity prepare for life on a less and less habitable planet? As suggested by the term “anthropocene,” visible traces are no longer mere scratches on the planetary surface. If, given the magnitude of human activities, the challenge is to think about their consequences, it is useful to explore what imaginative foundations can be used as a basis for collective reflections. From this point of view, science fiction may have the advantage of having anticipated the movement. By initiating and accumulating thought experiments, it offers a cognitive reservoir and a reflexive medium. Its representations are also a vehicle for interpreting the world. One of the few places where one can see “future generations” live, act and organize is science fiction and its imaginary constructions.
The method proposed here is to consider these fictional works as a form of problematization (in the sense of Michel Foucault). Starting from these bases, the proposed contribution will be organized in three sections. The first will show how science fiction, when it deals with ecological dimensions, can be in its way a problematization of planetary habitability and of issues that underpin the notion of anthropocene. The second will show the limits of the classical divide between utopia and dystopia and propose a reopening of the possible modes of apprehension of imaginable futures, precisely by considering the science fiction narrative as a vector of projective exploration of the future. While defending the idea that it is better to take science fiction productions as lines of flight (in the sense of Gilles Deleuze), the third section will aim at identifying and classifying science fiction that, in environmental matters, searches for new or different directions (particularly compared to the currently dominant model). The contribution will thus seek out adaptation pathways that appear closer to the register of hope.

Anarchy in a world of machines

14 01 2010

In the margins of my main research topics, I started to develop some reflections on the relationship between science fiction and political thought. As is often the case, working on a topic leads one to perceive the potential of another more or less related subject. This is typically what happened with a series of novels which are in my opinion very stimulating and may lead me to propose a more substantial text if I can find enough time for such a form of intellectual escape (P.S.: the result is a longer article published in Technology in Society).

By trying to combine a literary starting point and prospective thinking, the idea would be to test a hypothesis that could at first seem to be science-fiction, but that might not be science fiction only. This hypothesis comes from a part of the work of the Scottish writer Iain M. Banks, the one commonly gathered under the name of “Culture cycle”, and from the social organization it describes. This series of science fiction novels, often praised for having revolutionized the genre of “space opera”, presents an intergalactic civilization (“the Culture”), based on anarchist principles and where shortage problems have been put an end to and in which power seems almost dissolved. In this civilization enjoying an elaborate technological development, forms of artificial intelligence (called “minds” in the novels) assume the tasks of administrating collective affairs, freeing up the mass of people for more spiritual or recreational activities. The type of collective organization described by Iain M. Banks in his novels[1] mostly works thanks to the benevolent support of these forms of artificial intelligence.

PlayerofGamesCan such a hypothesis, expressed in a literary register, help one think of the role that smart (or at least greatly advanced) machines could take in a social and political organization? How could the inclusion of such machines be made in collective life? In the civilizational model given by the Culture, certain ontological separations have disappeared, since these entities behave and are treated as individuals. Human beings and machines thus co-exist in a collective that seems to function on the basis of equality, with mutual respect. Ships and space stations have their own “minds” and make their own choices. Somehow, these conscious and sensitive machines outsmarting human intelligence “are” those spacecrafts. They are the thinking infrastructure of the Culture, which they also control more than they live in.

If we follow Iain Banks’ vision, the development and widespread presence of these forms of artificial intelligence have changed the political functioning, and even the design of politics. This is a very peculiar application of anarchist principles. The author has indeed created an organized world in which, thanks to forms of artificial intelligence and the solution given to energy and scarcity impediments, the project of replacing the government of men by the administration of things has been achieved. In this model, there would be no real political choices to be made[2]. Difficult decisions caused by problems of resource allocation would no longer happen, or at the worst they could be resolved by phenomenal powers of calculation. Excesses in the use of power would not have to be feared any more, since this use would be somehow allocated to these artificial intelligences, who would have constitutively moved beyond these issues (or in any case for who such temptations would make little sense).

UseofWeaponsIn the work of Iain M. Banks, these elements do not merely have to do with a science-fiction scenery: they play an important and intimate role in the stories. Beyond a literary analysis, they can be used as a basis for questioning the possibilities of “social” regulation without direct human intervention, or more precisely with the mediation of machines moving towards a form of artificial intelligence. Hence my desire and this proposal to test to what extent and on what basis such an assumption may hold. This reflection in my opinion should be organised on three levels. The first should go back over the anarchist thought to show that the vision of Iain M. Banks can certainly find some matches there, but this thought is somewhat overwhelmed by the challenges that the work of this author highlight. The second would go on by showing the political issues that this work enables to draw about the consequences of advances in artificial intelligence and their effects on the community organization patterns. The third, also from a political angle, would try to establish more concrete connections from lines of evolution discernible in the computerization and automation of technical equipment which can participate in the regulation of social processes.

If the galactic civilization described by Iain M. Banks has an anarchist basis[3], the shape of the project is indeed not easy to place in relation with the anarchist tradition, especially regarding the thinking related to technical progress. Some thinkers see in technology potentials that can pull in the direction of emancipation. One can find in Mikhail Bakunin’s thinking the idea that technology can reduce the workload burden on individuals and thus participate in the destabilization of the capitalist order. Murray Bookchin, in his attempt to justify theoretically a “social ecology”, contemplated the possibility of a “liberatory technology”[4]. But there has also remained a strong distrust of technology in anarchist circles (with technology being more or less associated with capitalist domination). This suggests that advances in artificial intelligence could have an at least ambivalent reception among anarchist circles, and probably not such an optimistic one as in the fictionalized version of Iain Banks.

ExcessionThe linking between the artistic vision of science-fiction and political-philosophical views may well be an interesting way to question the political implications of advances in artificial intelligence. What tasks can be assigned to machines that are more than simple machines? Can these tasks interfere with other tasks being a matter for collective human choices? What implications does this have in the management of collective affairs? Is an anarchist project more credible because it uses such advanced machines? Unlike older approaches to technology, such machines would also no longer be treated as tools, but would have greater access to the status of actors able to act independently. By reading the novels of the Culture cycle, one can also wonder if the reliance on forms of artificial intelligence and the abandonment of certain tasks and activities do not lead to a form of human passivity. In short, in this form of  “computer-aided” anarchy, the idea of government does not make sense any more, but also at least because much power of decision is more or less consciously delegated and distributed to the vast network of artificial intelligences.

The socio-technical organization of the Culture described by Iain M. Banks is even more interesting that it can find matches in the developments of the late twentieth century. Computerization has penetrated many technical devices, in ways that may even lead to renegotiate more or less directly the place of human beings. Many social processes are more and more often automated. Computerized management of road traffic through traffic lights for example involves a redistribution of roles and functions between human beings and automation[5]. “Automated trading systems” now operate on financial markets as well. Advances in the field of artificial intelligence are likely to reinforce the questions about the reconfiguration of decisional spaces (if indeed it is still possible to discern them). The stakes are not merely technical but rather political, and this could be one of the merits of the fiction of Iain M. Banks that it has succeeded, even if it remains in the order of the imaginary, in presenting these stakes in a sufficiently coherent way to encourage further reflection on the intertwining of social, philosophical and political aspects which are far from being minor.

[1] An explanatory text entitled “A Few Notes on the Culture” had also been posted on the Internet in 1994 and is available via Iain M. Banks’ website ( ).

[2] Cf. Chris Brown, “`Special Circumstances’: Intervention by a Liberal Utopia”, Millennium – Journal of International Studies, vol. 30, n° 3, 2001, especially p. 632.

[3] Which would according to him be rendered necessary for people to be able to live together in space and due to the correlated technological sophistication: “Essentially, the contention is that our currently dominant power systems cannot long survive in space; beyond a certain technological level a degree of anarchy is arguably inevitable and anyway preferable” (“A Few Notes on the Culture”, op. cit.).

[4] Cf. Murray Bookchin, “Towards a liberatory technology”, in Post-Scarcity Anarchism, Berkeley, Ramparts Press, 1971.

[5] Cf. Bruno Latour, “The Prince for Machines as well as for Machinations”, in Brian Elliot (ed.), Technology and Social Process, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, pp. 20-43.

For a longer explanation, see the resulting article:
« Artificial intelligences and political organization: an exploration based on the science fiction work of Iain M. Banks », Technology in Society, Volume 34, Issue 1, February 2012.
This article can be downloaded here.

Science-fiction and social theory

31 07 2009

I don’t have enough time to translate my writings, but fortunately there are friendly comments which can give you a good idea of what I try to theorize. There was a recent post on The Global Sociology Blog which synthesizes a series of arguments I tried to develop about science-fiction and social theory (this summarizing post on this very informative blog is entitled “Social-Scientific Analysis of Science-Fiction”). These arguments were presented on my blog as parts of a paper prepared for a conference in Cerisy-la-Salle (“How to dream science-fiction today?”, July 2009).

My line of reasoning ventures beyond the narrative dimension and is built on three steps. First, I show that science-fiction has a wealth of thought experiments to draw on. Then, I consider the works in this genre as a way of problematizing (in the Foucauldian sense) science and technology and their consequences on social and political systems. Third, I show that, behind the apparent diversity, science-fiction deals with social change as underlying theme. For all these reasons, I conclude by saying that science-fiction should not only be regarded as a thinking tool, but that it could also help to build some sort of collective reflexivity and responsibility towards the future.

The paper can be downloaded in French.