Tales of the Con’s Washington DC correspondent David Campbell was in attendance for a panel titled “What can DC learn from Sc-Fi?”. Here is his coverage:
“What Can DC Learn from Sci-Fi?” this was the name of the panel covered by Tales of the Con (TOTC) on May 24, 2016 in Washington, DC. This panel was comprised of Kevin Bankston, Director of the Open Technology Institute at New America, Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst & Editor at the Free Future blog, and bestselling science-fiction author Charles Stross.
Within the first few words of Kevin Bankston’s introductory remarks it became remarkably clear why this was an important panel for TOTC to cover. His opening statements hit the nail of TOTC spirit square on the head:
“In a very real way, I do what I do – working in the public interest to ensure that every community benefits equitably from advances in digital technology – because of science-fiction. Science-fiction is one of the things that inspired me to dedicate my career to technology policy and reading new science-fiction is what helps keep me inspired… and I’m not alone”
This is exactly the spirit of TOTC and what we hope to coax out of others. Using the inspiration one finds in fantasy, science-fiction, and counter-culture to propel oneself forward in a positive way is what TOTC is about. For Kevin Bankston, he harnessed that inspiration and focused it towards a career dedicated to the public interest and advances in technology. For the TOTC crew, a platform for social connectedness and a sense of community was established. For others, the opportunities and directions are endless. Bankston continued his opening remarks in a similar fashion to the previous quote and explained that so many of the people he has met in DC, White House staffers, think-tankers, policy advocates, analysts, and many others all find the inspiration and creative drive to do what they do, in large part, because of their interest in science-fiction. This was the important take away from the evening and is what leads us to the meat and potatoes of the actual question… “What can DC Learn from Sci-fi?”
The answer to this question is multifaceted and complex but, at the same time, invariably simple… A LOT! Many of the topics covered by the panel – space exploration and colonization, defiant artificial intelligence and singularity, a variety of dystopian futures, and many others – are topics that policy makers and academics the world over are scrambling to address as they rapidly emerge from the abstraction of fiction to the crushing reality of non-fiction. Though, science-fiction, comic-book, and nerd cultures have been thinking about these topics for years… and in grotesque detail! In fact, as discussed by the panel, many of the great moments in recent history were either prophesied or closely worked out by the science fiction novels that predated them. As Charles Stross quite clearly stated during the panel, “space exploration has always been science fiction, until in 1969 when it wasn’t” and this isn’t the only example. Consider the innumerable sci-fi gadgets that have flooded the market in recent years and earlier. Drones, 3D printers, video calls, oculus rift, the list goes on and on. We can harness the energy from the sun to electrify our cities; we are on the verge of widespread driverless cars; we can access the world’s entire archive of human knowledge with the device in our pockets; and privately funded citizens are launching their own spaceships. These are all things that were dreamt up as science-fiction just a few short years ago but are now positioned firmly in our everyday reality. So how has the policy world responded to this ever-expanding bridge between science-fiction and reality? I personally believe the trend is for policy folk to claw their way through the murk and the mire of ambiguity, uncertainty, fear, and confusion until they decide they understand the changing pace of the world and pass laws to restrict its expansion. In terms of solar technology and the laws governing drone use, I think our current policy folk are underwater in terms of how we adjust today’s reality to function properly with yesterday’s science-fiction.
Having a personal affinity toward Dungeons & Dragons, I can attest to the level of meticulous detail, planning, and forethought that goes into developing a fantasy world. When developing policy in DC, as with developing policy in the fantasy realm, considerations have to be made in regard to people, the environment, political structure, international governmental relations, and the serious wide-reaching implications of every decision made at every level of policy development. The strange part is how untapped, disregarded, and seemingly disrespected the sci-fi, comic-book, and nerd communities are in the mainstream… regardless of how vibrantly creative and deeply thoughtful the individuals who occupy these spaces actually are. Instead of tapping into the creative wealth that this sub-culture has to offer in terms of its real life potential for policy research, development, and implementation what you see instead is disconnection, suppression, and discouragement. In reality, you see legions of young freshly accredited academics march into Washington with the intention of influencing policy. These legions carry with them degrees from highly respected institutions that they wield like swords to cut their way into the policy world and they are often successful in chopping down their competition. Unfortunately, and in large numbers, the creative edge of that sword has been dulled by their adherence to the structure and rigor of mainstream academic success. They often lack the imaginative depth that our evolving policy world so desperately needs. As technology advances and the far-future of science fiction becomes the not-so-distant future of reality our policy designers and DC decision makers will continue to scramble and paw their way towards answers unless they tap into the well of experience that nerd-culture has to offer.
The call-to-arms that I felt boiling out of the panel, as well as what I am trying to put across in this article, is that those science-fiction authors, comic-book nerds, and all those who occupy the spaces outside of the mundane who are currently shunned from the mainstream need to be recognized for what they have to offer in this changing world. As we move towards the Mad Max style dystopia that Charles Stross prophesied during the panel, who is better suited to tackle the changing political, social, and environmental challenges than those who have been obsessively scrutinizing every detail of that scenario since before the 1980’s? Nerd culture has a special set of tools at its disposal that those outside of it lack – they have been deeply considering, analyzing, and logically answering the questions that will be and are currently baffling our nation’s leaders. So, what can DC learn from Sci-fi? Well, from this sub-culture of incredible intellectuals who are well versed in answering the questions of tomorrow and solving the problems that those questions bring, again, I say A LOT!
For more details of the panel discussion please visit: https://www.newamerica.org/oti/events/what-can-dc-learn-sci-fi/