Global Discourse
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Foreword to Part 1

Author: Laura Forlano1
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  • 1 Illinois Institute of Technology, USA
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‘The future has become problematic’, wrote the editors of a volume on Speculative Research in 2017 (Wilkie et al, 2017: 2). In this special issue on ‘Staying with Speculation’, authors take up the call to engage critically and creatively with questions around futures, speculations and anticipations of other possible but perhaps still improbable worlds. A deeper understanding of the ways in which futures are projected, shaped, appropriated, experienced, resisted and reimagined is necessary in order to support and scaffold debates about ‘the’ [so-called] ‘future’ [singular] and this begins with the discussions engaged in the papers presented in the first section of this special issue.

To start, it is perhaps useful to develop a literacy around various modes of speculation that are presented in these papers, ranging from the imaginaries of corporate visions presented through advertisements to mundane legal documents such as patents to physical prototypes for new products or, even, more experiential and/or performative real or fictional or engagements in everyday life. For it is in these ‘things’ – whether as critiques or generative interventions – that futures are made durable.

In the field of science and technology studies (STS), the ‘socio-technical imaginary’, defined as ‘as collectively held, institutionally stabilized, and publicly performed visions of desirable futures, animated by shared understandings of forms of social life and social order attainable through, and supportive of, advances in science and technology’ (Jasanoff and Kim, 2015: 4), is a useful concept for thinking through critiques around the ways in which futures are invented, created and sustained over time. For example, analysing the highly speculative fields of space colonies and nanotechnology, Patrick McCray describes the ways in which ‘visioneers’ as he calls them ‘existed at the blurry border between scientific fact, technological possibility, and optimistic speculation’ (2012: 17). As we can see, making futures is not only what is said to be invented in the lab as the product of scientific knowledge (as well as its social context) but also the work of metaphors, imaginaries and communities. McCray writes that ‘visioneering also involves the popularization of ideas, the construction of networks of supporters, and the cultivation of patrons. This combination of activities is what visioneers use to nudge society towards the expansive scenarios of the technological future they imagine’ (2012: 154).

It is essential to continue to critique linear narratives of progress, seamless, aspirational and neutral futures devoid of social context (or set within a normative straight, white, male, ableist and middle-class world), and/or the techno-fetishism of speculations about emerging technologies. But there is also a ‘pressing need to not only account for the role of calculative logics and rationalities in managing societal futures, but to develop alternative approaches and sensibilities that take futures seriously as possibilities that demand new habits and practices of attention, invention and experimentation’ (Wilkie et al, 2017: 2). Here, at the intersection of critique and invention, well-known themes such as glitches (Nakamura, 2013) and gaps, frictions and failures (Sharp and Macklin, 2019), bugs and breakdowns (Star, 1999) expose rich opportunities for critical technological practice (Agre, 1997).

In recent years, scholars in the social sciences and humanities have begun experimenting more liberally with a range of inventive methods (Lury and Wakeford, 2012, Marres et al, 2018) including the arts of speculative fabulation. A few notable examples include recent books by Donna Haraway (2016) and Maria Puig de la Bellacasa (2017) as well as Ruha Benjamin’s speculative ethnographic fieldnotes on biotechnology (2017) and the volume How to Run a City Like Amazon, and Other Fables (Aalbers et al, 2019). These more literary works join a wide range of art and design projects that use images, physical prototypes, data visualisations, videos, participatory workshops and experiential futures as ways of engaging with and intervening in the making of worlds. This praxis between the making of theory and the creative practices of making and storytelling should be expected, for both traditional forms of scholarship and art and design, to require capacities for thinking in new ways, developing new vocabularies and cultivating new perspectives on a research topic or field site. Unfortunately, this form of more playful engagement is still considered risky, experimental and perhaps even something that should not be done (that is, if you want to be taken seriously as a scholar in the social sciences and humanities or that cannot be done until after one has obtained a secure position or senior status). Yet, this investment in and embrace of creative possibilities suggests that perhaps it is the expansiveness of our imaginations rather than the sharpness of our analysis that presents the greatest opportunities for destabilising and resisting the existing status quo as I have argued in a recent article on autonomous vehicles (Forlano, 2019).

Importantly, in bringing traditional scholarly critiques together with experimental interventions such as site-specific artworks, practice-based research and anthropological futures, this special issue has transcended these inconvenient, unrealistic and conservative dichotomies between theory and practice that mainly serve to exclude certain kinds of knowledges, people and practices from discourses about what counts as an important focus of study. Instead, this juxtaposition of critical and creative research supports a greater capacity for speculative praxis as a way of making sense of and making futures. Such a speculative praxis might take up more pluriversal (Escobar, 2018) notions of futures such as those proposed in a new volume on Black and Indigenous relations, stating that these conversations might serve as ‘the conversations around Black and Indigenous relations throughout the collection as new turns that hold promise for realizing the otherwise worlds of Black and Indigenous futures – futures realizable in our present lives’ (King et al, 2020).

In emphasising the plural engagement in both the critical understanding of futures, speculations and anticipations, as well as the doing, making and fabulating that is essential for the creation of otherwise worlds, taken together, these four papers offer the possibility of new research agendas for the more inventive corners of the social sciences and humanities as well as the more critical approaches to practice-based research in art and design. Dissolving these boundaries and/or experimenting on their margins (Rosner, 2018) may also make way for the inclusion of more activist approaches that draw on lived experiences of intersectional oppression in future work on speculation.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

References

  • Aalbers, M., Alizadeh, T., Ash, J., Graham, M., Rose, G. and Shaw, J. (2019) How to Run A City Like Amazon, and Other Fables, Oxford: Meatspace Press.

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  • Agre, P. (1997) Toward a critical technical practice: lessons learned in trying to reform AI, Bridging the Great Divide: Social Science, Technical Systems, and Cooperative Work, Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, pp 13157.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Benjamin, R. (2017) Designer and discarded genomes, Future Perfect, New York, NY: Data & Society Research Institute.

  • Escobar, A. (2018) Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

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  • Forlano, L. (2019) Stabilizing/Destabilizing the driverless city: speculative futures and autonomous vehicles, International Journal of Communication, 13, pp 28112838.

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    • Export Citation
  • Haraway, D.J. (2016) Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

  • Jasanoff, S. and Kim, S.H. (2015) Dreamscapes of Modernity: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and the Fabrication of Power, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

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    • Export Citation
  • King, T.L., Navarro, J. and Smith, A. (2020) Otherwise Worlds: Against Settler Colonialism and Anti-Blackness, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lury, C. and Wakeford, N. (2012) Inventive Methods: The Happening of the Social, New York: Routledge.

  • Marres, N., Guggenheim, M. and Wilkie, A. (2018) Inventing the Social, London: Mattering Press.

  • McCray, W.P. (2012) The Visioneers: How A Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and A Limitless Future, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Nakamura, L. (2013) Glitch racism: networks as actors within vernacular internet theory, Culture Digitally, https://culturedigitally.org/2013/12/glitch-racism-networks-as-actors-within-vernacular-internet-theory/.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Puig de la Bellacasa, M. (2017) Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rosner, D.K. (2018) Critical Fabulations: Reworking the Methods and Margins of Design, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  • Sharp, J. and Macklin, C. (2019) Iterate: Ten Lessons in Design and Failure, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  • Star, S.L. (1999) The ethnography of infrastructure, American Behavioral Scientist, 43(3): 377. doi: 10.1177/00027649921955326

  • Wilkie, A., Savransky, M. and Rosengarten, M. (2017) Speculative Research: The Lure of Possible Futures, London: Routledge.

  • Aalbers, M., Alizadeh, T., Ash, J., Graham, M., Rose, G. and Shaw, J. (2019) How to Run A City Like Amazon, and Other Fables, Oxford: Meatspace Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Agre, P. (1997) Toward a critical technical practice: lessons learned in trying to reform AI, Bridging the Great Divide: Social Science, Technical Systems, and Cooperative Work, Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, pp 13157.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Benjamin, R. (2017) Designer and discarded genomes, Future Perfect, New York, NY: Data & Society Research Institute.

  • Escobar, A. (2018) Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Forlano, L. (2019) Stabilizing/Destabilizing the driverless city: speculative futures and autonomous vehicles, International Journal of Communication, 13, pp 28112838.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Haraway, D.J. (2016) Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

  • Jasanoff, S. and Kim, S.H. (2015) Dreamscapes of Modernity: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and the Fabrication of Power, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • King, T.L., Navarro, J. and Smith, A. (2020) Otherwise Worlds: Against Settler Colonialism and Anti-Blackness, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lury, C. and Wakeford, N. (2012) Inventive Methods: The Happening of the Social, New York: Routledge.

  • Marres, N., Guggenheim, M. and Wilkie, A. (2018) Inventing the Social, London: Mattering Press.

  • McCray, W.P. (2012) The Visioneers: How A Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and A Limitless Future, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Nakamura, L. (2013) Glitch racism: networks as actors within vernacular internet theory, Culture Digitally, https://culturedigitally.org/2013/12/glitch-racism-networks-as-actors-within-vernacular-internet-theory/.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Puig de la Bellacasa, M. (2017) Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rosner, D.K. (2018) Critical Fabulations: Reworking the Methods and Margins of Design, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  • Sharp, J. and Macklin, C. (2019) Iterate: Ten Lessons in Design and Failure, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  • Star, S.L. (1999) The ethnography of infrastructure, American Behavioral Scientist, 43(3): 377. doi: 10.1177/00027649921955326

  • Wilkie, A., Savransky, M. and Rosengarten, M. (2017) Speculative Research: The Lure of Possible Futures, London: Routledge.

  • 1 Illinois Institute of Technology, USA

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