Yesterday I went to one of the Worldcon75 panels, one called ‘Mundane SF – Where is it Today?’ I found out about it because of my interest in (read: obsession with) Ian McDonald’s science fiction novels, nearly at the last minute. Still somewhat jetlagged and confused by the warmth of a Finnish summer day, tripping over semi-unpacked luggage, bottles of Chilean pisco and dirty laundry, I finally managed to find my bike key in time to cycle madly to Pasila and get to the panel on time. It was moderated by
Cylia Amendolara with panelists Bob Angell, Ian McDonald and Mark Halmagiu.
So first some thoughts on the panel and the genre of Mundane SF – and then some thoughts beyond science fiction to design, social fictions and design fictions inspired by the discussion.
Bob informed the less SF- and Mundane- literate in the audience (=me) that the genre or concept of Mundane SF stems from 2004 and the creation of The Mundane Manifesto at a Clarion West workshop (see here). “And we all had to sign it,” said Bob. The point was to deliberately exercise constraint as a creative strategy – to curb what the participants saw as the excesses of space operas and the implausibilities of interstellar travel. To temporarily unite in putting on “a tight girdle of discipline to restrain our sf imaginative silhouettes”. Why can’t our own Earth and near-Earth provide a compelling setting for exploring speculative tech futures?
I silently applauded, as it is precisely the mundane in both science fiction literature and SF cinema that has the brightest appeal for me – the gritty street life in Blade Runner, the seemingly mundane barriers to travel and migration in Code 46. It is the dirt, the unpolished, the unshiny and the habitual that bring home what is ‘real’ and human in stories about the future. Ian McDonald’s worlds are fascinating in how he weaves new (for us in the present) technologies into the social fabric of living people with their living bodies – into the social fabric of a city that seems both familiar and strange at the same time. The tech itself is also both strange and familiar – a trajectory of something we already know but projected forward – landing in a character’s life and everyday routines. A hair-raising drone race across the roofs and through the alleys of a not-quite-familiar Istanbul. The sociotechnical assemblage of ragpickers working in and on the margins of ‘tech-trash’ landfills – scavengers, sorters, dismantlers, reassemblers, vendors – as familiar to us as the scenes and horror stories we have already seen in cities from Shenzhen to Abidjan, but in McDonald’s telling, at a much larger scale, in geographic terms, in terms of poisoning and poverty, in material terms. In direct, feel-able impacts on human bodies and the land.
In the panel, Ian referred to his Luna stories about colonizing the moon: the constraints of physics on human beings and how to build a story around it. Constraints therefore form the core of Mundane aesthetics. The panel mentioned that the Mundane Manifesto was also informed by the Dogme movement in film: “Today a technological storm is raging of which the result is the elevation of cosmetics to God. By using new technology anyone at any time can wash the last grains of truth away in the deadly embrace of sensation.”
It can be a horrid word, but there is some ethos here of authenticity – of remaining true to the human experience rather than succumbing to clean, polished, shiny, novel, fantastical illusions. There is an ethos of celebrating our own Earth, protecting it and ourselves, rejoicing in diversity and richness while cautioning against exploitation and destruction. We’re close to destroying our own planet – now we want to conquer the moon, Mars, the universe for our own ends (i.e. rare earth metals). Ian reminded us that we are best suited to life on this planet; “the universe does not owe us a living”. (For my part, I would like to print that on a T-shirt and send it to that guy from NASA who presented at FAB12 Shenzhen last year: the one who thought that moon and asteroid mining would be the key to a better future on Earth. That we would be able to achieve a green, clean, pristine planet if we moved mining operations off it – that ta-da! we would achieve the [illusion of a] happy Earth whose various populations everywhere would be all empowered, prosperous and peaceful.)
An audience member asked about the relationship between Mundane SF and the climate change extension. (And there was a climate change fiction panel at Worldcon75, as well as an academic track session called ‘Environmental Anxieties’, both of which I missed.) Mark answered that he didn’t see that so much as science fiction than “as incoming horror”.
There is an easy marriage between science fiction and design research. As many of you undoubtedly know, tech developers, designers and analysts actually use science fiction narrative as a tool – to design technologies as well as to discuss their implications. (See my colleague Tiina Kylmäläinen’s dissertation on Science Fiction Prototyping here; pdf here.) Design researchers oriented to futures studies build scenarios, often science-fiction-y, to identify potential socio-environmental consequences and opportunities. Design researchers oriented to Science and Technology Studies (STS) may also examine science fiction as popular culture – that reveals how we human-and-tech ensembles make worlds, integrate the digital and physical, embed the new and novel into our existing lives. (See for example Laura Forlano’s paper on ‘cyber-urbanity’ in Digital Culture and Society.)
Science fiction stories contribute to building narratives as imaginaries: visions that we aspire to and therefore mobilize to co-create and co-produce. For some in the FabLab network, most importantly Gershenfeld himself, the narrative of the Star Trek replicator continues to be the imaginary of the future that anchors what should be done in the present. For others, there are alternative visions of a distributed, material peer production future that inspire and activate – visions about communities working together for their own betterment, using governance and economic models that are clear alternatives to the destructive hyper-capitalism, hyper-individualism and neoliberalism of today.
And the mundane? The Mundane SF panel joked that using the very word mundane was a dodgy marketing strategy: who would buy into – and buy – something about mundanity? The original signees wished to acknowledge the “relief of focusing on what science tells us is likely rather than what is almost impossible such as warp drives. The relief will come from a sense of being honest.” There is a related ethos in some design circles, who want to promote everyday design over superstar, elite design. The one that pops first to mind is the ‘Super Normal’ exhibition and book by Naoto Fukasawa and Jasper Morrison. The second is the design philosophy in Finland, where I happily live and work, greatly influenced by designer and design educator Kaj Franck. Finnish tableware, for example, is good design for everyone and for everyday. It is also exceedingly collectible – and steal-able. In recent years the long-standing tableware design firm Arabia has exploited the very mundanity (appearing in every Finnish home – and I do not exaggerate), collectibility and longevity of their products in their slogan Against Throwaway Design (although now we seem to be focusing more on Finland’s 100th Anniversary year in Arabia marketing). So: Mundane=Good.
Researchers in academia (usually) use a different way of exploring our world and where we are going compared to science fiction authors, but there are many who argue that focusing on the mundane does indeed foster awareness of what is likely and possible rather than what is utopian and unrealistic. For example in practice theory, particularly Elizabeth Shove’s take on it, not enough attention is paid in sustainability-oriented research to exactly the mundane: the everyday habits, behaviours and routines that accumulate into large-scale social, environmental and economic impacts. We are not even aware of our changing hygiene standards, for instance. We shower more often and for longer; we clean our houses more, using more toxic chemicals. Mundanity from this perspective thereby takes on ontological importance.
For those of us examining designer-user relations, focusing on the mundane is also an ontological and empirical strategy, because, in STS terms, it helps us better understand how things-and-activities – materials and technologies combined with our practices, actions and interactions – become stabiliized. How new ways of doing things, and how old ways of doing things but with new objects, start off as novel, but over time become normalized, domesticated, routine – mundane. The once new and exciting 3D printer becomes invisible infrastructure. New ways of designing and producing things become established ways.
In sustainability-oriented research, we normatively want to encourage less destructive practices. We want the mundane to have less negative environmental impact. If material peer production in digital fabrication communities can have socio-environmental benefits compared to our current mass production system, let’s foster these new practices into becoming mundane routines and habits. If we aspire to models of ‘sufficiency’ or ‘degrowth’, what is the mundanity within these models that we can achieve today? In other words, what novel sociotechnical elements today, such as new and unfamiliar p2p governance models being experimented with, hold promise as a component that can have a trajectory into our vision of the future? How can we turn the novel into the mundane? Science fiction writers surely do this – project what they find compelling in the present and project it into their future world-making – for better and for worse.
In my dissertation, however, I also argued that mundanity is a double-edged sword. (See here and the pdf is available here.) Sustainable world-making is not just about wanting to stabilize and domesticate desired sociomaterial ensembles into mundanity. Mundanity is also about the routine practices and incumbent institutions that we need to combat, as Shove argues, in order to foster change to a ‘better’ present. So also: Mundanity=Barrier to positive change.
In my studies, I examined how new making and fabbing practices compete with incumbent institutional structures. FabLab managers are so busy with everyday tasks that vision-making and vision-enacting become really hard work. They take shortcuts and make compromises, which freeze into infrastructure and routine that future practitioners will not question. Already now we are failing to acknowledge the technical antecedents of maker/fabber culture (I argue this also in a paper that is forthcoming, hopefully). We don’t question enough current routines in FabLabs or why things are done a certain way in Fab Academy.
The mundanity of the outside world is eclipsed by the fantastical ideology of the FabLab and Maker Movement: democratization of production technologies and empowerment of all people to make what they want, where they want and how they want. Outside the FabLab walls, there are issues around supply chains, component origins, the provenance of rare earths, working conditions, mountains of e-waste, growing gaps between rich and poor, corporate exploitation and co-option of ideals, and so on – that are rarely discussed inside FabLabs or in FabLab events and meetings. This mundanity is the reality of mass production and capitalist ills that is so easily ignored by a blissful, naïve, well-meaning but under-strategic fabber community.
What would Von Trier and Winterberg say? “By using new technology anyone at any time can wash the last grains of truth away in the deadly embrace of sensation.” Star Trek replicators as an aspiration? I think this oversimplifies the visions actually espoused by the maker/fabber movement, including the replicator fans themselves, and it renders invisible dirty, gritty current realities. In turn, what is deemed desirable and achievable for humanity and our planet is not tuned to these dirty, mundane realities. Maker/fabber ideologies float in air like utopian castles, unmoored from our sociomaterial present, rapturously ignorant of politics and power dynamics. A little injection of Mundane aesthetics, the ethos of mundanity, might serve us a little better in building strategies for future world-making – to help us build the transparency and ongoing dialogue we need in co-creating new governance models that are resistant to enclosure and co-option. That is – if that is what we want.