Neartopias

Everything is depressing and messed up so let’s take a lunch break to talk about neartopias.

If you look up the phrase “neartopia” on the web you’ll find a couple solitary pages of someone proposing a anarcho-libertarian island government, but that’s not what I mean in my use of the term. Instead, I mean a particular brand of sci-fi — and speculative fiction more generally — that presents a world considerably more socially just and personally fulfilling than the one we currently inhabit in a way that seems at least partially achievable.

Think Kim Stanley Robinson’s Pacific Edge. Le Guin’s Dispossessed. In film, examples are less common, but a recent neartopia would be Black Panther’s Wakanda.

Neartopias are not utopias. They have problems. They have to have problems because problems are what drive plots. And on another level problems are just interesting in a way that non-problems are not. They also aren’t post-scarcity Star Treks, or visions of a perfect 6030 A.D. They are “near”-utopias both in the sense that they lack perfection and in that they seem near-enough to be achievable.

Neartopias also have blindspots. Each neartopia pulls from cultural assumptions that will be eventually — like all things — be revealed as problematic. The Golden Age of sci-fi produced some neartopias, for instance, but had a relationship with technological progress and industry, for example, that was — well, let’s say underdeveloped.

But these visions are fundamentally different than dystopias, which serve as a warning, which map a world we need to try to route around.

I was very into dystopias for a while. But like a lot of others– see, for example, the solarpunks — I’ve worried over the last few years about their efficacy as a tool for social justice and change.

Take Minority Report, a dystopia that imagines a world of constant surveillance and personalization, one where people are judged to be guilty before they commit a crime. A warning, right? Except, somehow when run through capitalism it becomes a blueprint for an IPO.

Worse yet are the “Utopia is secretly a Dystopia” plots, from The Giver, to Gattaca, to… well, just about any film that starts out with a utopian vision. These films often take as their target inequality or other current issues. More common formats recently are “the utopia built on the backs of the poor or non-elite.” or “the government that provides the good life in order to control you.” (Both of these have spawned a thousand YA dystopian series).

Those are important messages, but I wonder if they get garbled a bit in translation. The message of the Secret Dystopia seems to be that social and technical progress is always bought at the expense of someone else and that government provisioned services are always bought at the expense of freedom. But while these are biting critiques of our current moment,  it’s important to remember that these zero-sum patterns are not laws of physics, but rather products of a system designed to produce unequal outcomes and quell dissent. In using the future to critique our current reality, dystopias often serve to reinforce fundamentally conservative viewpoints, treating constructed elements of our current system as eternal truths that will replicate infinitely into the future.

As I’ve gotten deeper and deeper into the disinformation environment I’ve thought more and more about the role that art needs to play in moving forward a society that is overwhelmed by the sludge of our current politics and culture. And I keep coming back to this idea of Solarpunk, and, more broadly, neartopias:

To many, solarpunk represents an ignition for activism. “The great programs of the 20th century often began as fictional proposals, from moon landings to Social Security,” says Flynn. “It’s time we returned to higher ambitions for what we can do as a society.” When Ulibarri picks up a book, she’s looking for an escape that isn’t as familiar as dystopia is. “Maybe it is escapism, but it gives me a sense that things can get better,” she says.

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Paris Smart City, by Vincent Callebaut

There’s not a big finale here — just lunchtime musings. But I’m curious how many other people have a hunger for this new vision of science fiction, from Wakanda to Solarpunk? I can’t be the only one. It’s time to show a future where technological progress is not bought at the cost of the oppressed. Where government can be a tool for good — not House of Cards with more computing power. Where we move beyond this current turd of a result and in to something better.

I’m in the market for neartopias — if you have some favorites I should read, throw them in the comments. Are there significant other strains outside of Solarpunk I should know about?

 

Google’s Big AI Advance Is… Script Theory?

Like many people I watched Google’s demo of their new Android system AI calling up a hair stylist and making an appointment with trepidation — was this ethical, to not disclose that it was an AI?

But now that the smoke has cleared, I’m realizing something a bit more disturbing. After years of Big Data  and personal analytics hype, the advance that Google demonstrated is an application of 1970s AI work that requires none of that.

Setting up a haircut appointment is a social script. It has a sequence of things that happen, usually in a predictable order. The discovery of the importance of social scripts in computational understanding of communication was a big part of what Schank and Abelson brought to the field of AI in the 1970s.

Scripts were important both in terms of computers navigating standard social situations, but also in understanding stories about those situations. When I studied linguistics, one of my favorite little facts was you could often discover socially legible scripts by noticing how stories were elided. For instance, if I say “So I go to a restaurant, and the server gives me the bill…” no one stops me and says “Wait, you got a bill before you ate anything? And who is this server person?” The understanding in storytelling is I can evoke a script and then start at the part of the story that deviates from the script. That’s how core they are to our thinking and discourse, and Schank and Abelson made the case in the 1970s that mapping out these scripts would be core to computer understanding as well.

While less physical than dining, booking a haircut over the phone is a script too. It follows a particular sequence and has slots where the unique bits go.  In general we find out if I am in need of a particular stylist, and then drill down on a date and time. Importantly, it works because I’ve learned the script and I know the things the hair stylist will ask and I have the answers the stylist requires. I know I need to provide date, time, and stylist, and I might need to supply a rough time of day preference — mornings, afternoons, end of day, before work. On the other hand, I know the stylist is not going to ask me if I’d rather have a chair nearer to the window or the bathroom or what type of music I prefer in the salon.

Here’s the thing: The precise nature of social scripts is that they often allow people with no knowledge of one another to negotiate transactions successfully. Preferences figure into that but are usually easily enumerated by each party — because that’s part of the script.

Because of this, I don’t really need personal analytics to discover that I like my cappuccinos extra dry. I have years of experience walking through scripts where I’ve learned to specify that, and the script has a very specific spot where that goes. The script has taught me how to concisely enumerate my preferences in ways useful to baristas.

In fact, analytics in these situations end up being a lesser reflection of the explicit inputs into the script. For example, Google might search my flight booking data and find I like window seats towards the front, that I prefer Alaska and layovers with a bit of buffer in them. But the patterns I produce in what I get for flights aren’t a mysterious secret sauce discovered by analytics, they’re the product of me specifically asking for nine things when I book flights. Nine things I can easily rattle off, because I’ve been doing the “booking a flight” script for years.

So here’s the question about the “haircut” demo: if the nature of the social script is you *don’t* need deep knowledge or background for the script to work, then what’s all the talk about personal data being Google’s prime AI asset about? What’s all the machine-learning hype?

After years of sucking up all our data Google’s big AI advance is… Script Theory. Which requires none of this. Maybe we should be talking about that.

Taking Bearings on The Star

One thing people may not realize is I use the exact same techniques we teach to students in my daily work. The skills we are giving students aren’t some dumbed-down protocol. They are great habits for reporters, researchers, and other professionals as well.

As an example, this article came up in my news alerts this morning.

malay

I’m interested in fake news in Southeast Asia, so I’m glad to read analysis and opinion from a place like Malaysia, but I want to source-check, even if I think I know this source. So we strip off everything from that URL and add Wikipedia.

wwwww

 

This pulls up a relevant Wikipedia page:

stars

 

And clicking through we are reminded that The Star is effectively owned by the Malaysian government.

sdhf

And then we’re back to the article after a 30 second detour.

For the record, I still read the column, but I didn’t share it, and if had had shared it I would have noted that it was a legitimate news source to some extent, but possibly compromised by its ownership. Sam Wineburg has talked about this process as taking bearings, and I like that term a lot. Before trudging blindly into an article, pull out the compass and the map and figure out where you landed. It’s so simple to do, there’s really no excuse for not doing it.

(I should note that I’ve elided a number of things I do know about Malaysia and government propaganda there for the sake of clarity in this post — but the truth is if I have any doubt about the source at all I use the process, just the same as a novice. I had a vague memory about this precise ownership issue, but the process is always likely to give me a better result than my unaided memory. And it’s actually less cognitively demanding as well.)

(EDIT: changed “heavily compromised” to “possibly compromised” since the initial wording expressed more certainty than I had wished to portray. Legitimate news organizations with ownership issues are often fine on many issues, whether a particular news item might be influenced is contextual.)

The “Just Add Wikipedia In the Omnibar” Trick

One thing we do in the Digital Polarization Initiative is to hone the actions we encourage students to take down to their most efficient form. Efficient meaning:

  • easy to memorize
  • quick to execute
  • with a high likelihood of providing a direct answer to the question you have

Our student fact-checkers rely heavily on Wikipedia, and usually the best first pass at getting a read on a site is to read the Wikipedia article on it. But what’s the fastest way to get the relevant article?

As an example, consider the organization Nuclear Matters which describes itself this way:

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Nuclear Matters is a national coalition with a diverse roster of allies and members. Our Advocacy Council is made up of leaders from various areas, including labor organizations, environmental supporters, young professionals and women in the nuclear industry, venture capitalists, innovators in advanced nuclear technology and former policymakers and regulators.

This site is not quite claiming to be grass roots, but we notice the one word not here is “industry-funded”. And we’re curious — you have some varied members, but where does the money come from?

As mentioned, the best first stop on this is Wikipedia. I used to show students how to do the site search for Wikipedia using the “site:wikipedia.org” syntax — but I found even faculty I taught this to were forgetting the syntax — or searching for “wikipedia.com” which gives weird search results.

So I now just do this omnibar hack, using the URL to match against Wikipedia pages:

It works for a couple reasons I can discuss at a later time — but it’s a useful enough  habit I wanted to share it in a post.


BTW — In case people coming here don’t know, I currently run a national, cross-institutional project that aims to radically rethink how we teach college students online information literacy, where we teach them tricks and techniques like this. Ask me about it — my DMs are open. Or read the textbook: Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers and apply it to your own class — it’s free!