Dystopia, Imagination, Innovation

Linda McGovern, in a web article from 1999, points out the following passage:

Some of my youthful readers are developing wonderful imaginations. This pleases me. Imagination has brought mankind through the Dark Ages to its present state of civilization. Imagination led Columbus to discover America. Imagination led Franklin to discover electricity. Imagination has given us the steam engine, the telephone, the talking-machine and the automobile, for these things had to be dreamed of before they became realities. So I believe that dreams — day dreams, you know, with your eyes wide open and your brain-machinery whizzing — are likely to lead to the betterment of the world. The imaginative child will become the imaginative man or woman most apt to create, to invent, and therefore to foster civilization. A prominent educator tells me that fairy tales are of untold value in developing imagination in the young. I believe it.

L. Frank Baum, the author of the Wizard of Oz books, wrote the above in his introduction to The Lost Princess of Oz. Day dreams, with your brain-machinery whizzing, might better the world.

Imagination guides innovation. Innovation disrupts the status quo with change the status quo didn’t do for itself. Baum does not argue that by imagining a utopia we can find a way to create one, but that by imagining in generally, we find ways to improve what we have got. That’s a distinction to keep in mind.

The Status Quo

When the status quo starts talking innovation, the status quo considers only the innovation that preserves the status quo. Everything else is a threat, or stupid, or off-topic, or untested, or lacking evidence, or not supported by “the leaders.” Once the “leaders” have control of the apparatus for change, then things can proceed in an orderly fashion, on a plan, making progress that plays to the strength of the status quo, develops it in the directions of its stated goals. What is good for the status quo is good for all, or so the status quo would have it. Thus, blue-ribbon panels of scientists and leaderssetting out road maps for research and government policy in which the same blue-ribbon empanelled scientists and leaders get funding to do science and to lead. No surprises. No panel of blue-ribbon climate scientists will meet to recommend that we take the weather as it comes, and put our efforts into regional whether prediction.

The status quo, in all of this, is not static–the status quo, too, desires change, if not simply out of boredom then to disenfranchise workers who might otherwise become too complacent and competent in their jobs and try to gain a greater share of the benefits that arise from owning a nice piece of the status quo rather than carrying a bit of it on one’s shoulders.

A New Science Fiction

Neal Stephenson and others are working with Arizona State University in an effort to develop a new science fiction, on the premise that science fiction may lead science, and if science fiction is chronically dystopian, there’s not much for science to follow with but for coping with decayed cities, governments run by organized crime, sex and drugs everywhere, and advanced technology used to spy on citizens, to run huge, nearly autonomous infrastructures for the benefit of overlords, and to keep everyone subdued, to produce inane entertainments sufficiently more attractive and inexpensive than, say, revolution. Hey, that’s what we have now!

But Stephenson and others think science fiction should be about the future, or at least the near future, and it should be more diverse than simply an exploration of how crappy everything must be that anyone might invent. Here is a bit from Stephenson’s “Thinking Big” post (my emphasis):

The Hieroglyphic Theory. Good SF supplies a plausible, fully thought-out picture of an alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place. It has a coherence and internal logic that makes sense to a scientist or engineer, and provides them with a template that they and their colleagues can use to organize their work. Examples include Asimovian robots, Heinleinian rocket ships, Clarke towers, and Gibsonian cyberspace. As Jim Karkanias of Microsoft Research put it, when I was discussing this with him later, such icons serve as hieroglyphs—simple, recognizable symbols on the significance of which everyone agrees.

“You’re the ones who’ve been slacking off!” proclaimed Michael Crow, the President of Arizona State University, when I ran all of this by him later. He was referring, of course, to the science fiction writers. The scientists and engineers, he seemed to be saying, were ready, and looking for things to do. Time for the SF writers to start pulling their weight!

There is a fundamental point at work here: science is not the primary source of our sense of how to live, what to do. Science articulates explanations for things, imagines from those explanations other possible things to look for, to study, to predict. But knowing about is not use, and physical explanation of cause is not interpretation that connects phenomena with our lives. Science needs an independent societal imagination. For Stephenson, this means imagining with care some new innovation in a near future world and how it might change things. But a societal imagination does not have to imagine new technology things–it can imagine new ways of doing business, or new social institutions, new language. Any of these may also open up new ways for science to operate, and of course, new tools to do what it is we choose to do.

Good Funding for Science Dystopias

Scientists on their own, practicing science or politics, are not doing so well these days. If the Bad Science reports are not bad enough, look at the climate scientists’ acceptance of the idea that warmer weather must lead to a dystopia of drowned cities, monster storms, disease everywhere, animals dying, humans dying–and all this punishment for corporate excess (an excess of carbon dioxide, to be specific) and apparently too much free sex. It’s great movie material, of course, but how good is it as public policy?

The National Climate Assessment Report just released puts the threat of dystopia in a scientific policy register:

The observed warming and other climatic changes are triggering wide-ranging impacts in every region of our country and throughout our economy. Some of these changes can be beneficial over the short run, such as a longer growing season in some regions and a longer shipping season on the Great Lakes. But many more are detrimental, largely because our society and its infrastructure were designed for the climate that we have had, not the rapidly changing climate we now have and can expect in the future.

It’s hard to disbelieve when the language is so secure, so scientifically grounded. Yet look at it. Somehow over the past 200 years we build our cities based on a climate that didn’t change (though it apparently was much colder–how often does the Hudson River freeze over now), but in the future, the climate will change, and for the worse, meaning warmer, with “detrimental” results, all the result of, well, “us”:

Many lines of independent evidence demonstrate that the rapid warming of the past half-century is due primarily to human activities.


While scientists continue to refine projections of the future, observations unequivocally show that climate is changing and that the warming of the past 50 years is primarily due to human-induced emissions of heat-trapping gases. These emissions come mainly from burning coal, oil, and gas, with additional contributions from forest clearing and some agricultural practices.

The idea of a dystopia itself is not the product of science, but rather of a societal imagination bent on freaking out and using the freak-out to direct resources in preferred directions. Around the year 1000, the freak-out was about the soon coming of the Anti-Christ to wreak havoc on the world for its sins, and especially the sins of heretics and other innovators in religion and society. Not much has changed, eh? The freak-out has its use, however, in diverting money from other causes to the scientific study of how to prevent a dystopia that has been imagined, is said to be imminent, but other than that, is not. Consider the “debate” to be one between the dystopian scientists, who see good money in alarm, and other scientists, trying to work out just what we do and do not know.

To be sure, the future is uncertain. Geologists tell some strange stories about the ancient earth. Nothing says those days are gone. Certainly nothing indicates that humans can install a global HVAC system to keep things just as they are. For all that, there is nothing to indicate that things just as they are, climatically speaking, are perfect. But what changes might happen? And from what causes? With what culpability and adaptation by us wee humans? That is not stuff for science, which deals in observation challenging theory. We are talking the stuff of imagination that challenges the status quo. On the one hand, we have the dystopian scientists, fed by a dystopia-worried imagination, afraid the world will warm and all hell break loose unless they get more funding and the government intervenes throughout society raise the cost of energy, or limit its use; on the other, we have anyone else.

That Gnawing Feeling

When the status quo begins happily feeding on dystopia and ways to avoid dystopia by increasing its own power, we then need an imagination that challenges the status quo’s happy meal–even the status quo of institutional-ized science. We need an imagination that, for instance, challenges the idea that any effort to avoid a dystopia is itself not a potential trigger for dystopia, warm weather or not.

It comes as something of a shock to see so many scientists happy with the idea of government control of everything–energy, transportation, weather modification, proper research, data, policy, life–as necessary to prevent a climate-change-caused dystopia. Who is to say whether government control might create a dystopia that’s even worse? Worser still, what if government intervention does not work, despite its justified cause of action, and the ice caps melt anyway, coastlines flood, animals and stuff die, and then we have a double dystopia of a government infrastructure built around avoiding dystopia and a climate dystopia that would make the effects of that government infrastructure “detrimental.”

Of course, what if none of this happens, and we get an entirely different dystopia, caused by, dunno, an unsanitized telephone, as the Golgafrinchams learned, to their great disadvantage? Or, perhaps better, what if we manage to avoid dystopias, and figure out a way to live better, happier lives–still with intrigue, the usual nastinesses and petty rivalries, of course, and drugs and sex and decaying cities, climate variations, bad storms and droughts, and all that other stuff we love? What then? Is it all a rot that we don’t get a climate apocalypse now that so many scientists believe there will be one unless we stop using energy except for running those supercomputers calculating how bad the dystopia could get?

A Refreshed Collective Imagination

No, the effort should be to imagine what we are capable of, not merely that which will daunt us. This, folks, is humanism writ large, Pico style:

But what is the purpose of all this? That we may understand — since we have been born into this condition of being what we choose to be — that we ought to be sure above all else that it may never be said against us that, born to a high position, we failed to appreciate it, but fell instead to the estate of brutes and uncomprehending beasts of burden; and that the saying of Aspah the Prophet, “You are all Gods and sons of the Most High,” might rather be true; and finally that we may not, through abuse of the generosity of a most indulgent Father, pervert the free option which he has given us from a saving to a damning gift. Let a certain saving ambition invade our souls so that, impatient of mediocrity, we pant after the highest things and (since, if we will, we can) bend all our efforts to their attainment.


Imagine! The great generosity of God! The happiness of man! To man it is allowed to be whatever he chooses to be! As soon as an animal is born, it brings out of its mother’s womb all that it will ever possess. Spiritual beings from the beginning become what they are to be for all eternity.

Man, when he entered life, the Father gave the seeds of every kind and every way of life possible. Whatever seeds each man sows and cultivates will grow and bear him their proper fruit. If these seeds are vegetative, he will be like a plant. If these seeds are sensitive, he will be like an animal. If these seeds are intellectual, he will be an angel and the son of God. And if, satisfied with no created thing, he removes himself to the center of his own unity, his spiritual soul, united with God, alone in the darkness of God, who is above all things, he will surpass every created thing. Who could not help but admire this great shape-shifter? In fact, how could one admire anything else?

That is an optimism that we don’t have much around these days. Instead, we get The Wrath of Khan, where anything surpassing normal humanity must needs become evil, not good. And yet folks go to school to better themselves, and we still stick with the idea of social progress, even if that is only marked by better special effects in remakes of The Wrath of Khan.

What we need is a refreshed collective imagination. Not simply funding for institutionalized professional imaginators, but rather we need to cultivate imagination diversely. Science fiction writers are one source. There are others. Consider, even in math, how we spend so much time teaching the discipline of, say, statistics, and so little time seriously considering the problem of “lamplight probabilities” as Bart Kosco calls them–whether all that complex mathematics actually properly applies, especially where there may be fat tails.

We are talking here about re-imagining mathematical concepts and their application. In such a world, to do math is to be able to create a formalism that captures an observation, not merely by convention treating each observation as it must fit a pre-existing, ready-made and approved math. We prefer our math these days to be mildly and helpfully predictive for what would be predictable anyway, and wildly uncertain at the edges, where having a reliable knowledge might actually matter, but would require an unconventional math. Is it not remarkable that math curriculum is consumed with teaching conventional maths, nearly all the way through four years of college? At least in the humanities they teach writing along with literature.

L. Frank Baum continues his introduction to The Lost Princess of Oz:

Among the letters I receive from children are many containing suggestions of “what to write about in the next Oz Book.” Some of the ideas advanced are mighty interesting, while others are too extravagant to be seriously considered — even in a fairy tale. Yet I like them all, and I must admit that the main idea in “The Lost Princess of Oz” was suggested to me by a sweet little girl of eleven who called to see me and to talk about the Land of Oz. Said she: “I s’pose if Ozma ever got lost, or stolen, ev’rybody in Oz would be dreadful sorry.”

That was all, but quite enough foundation to build this present story on. If you happen to like the story, give credit to my little friend’s clever hint.

The imagination we are looking for may come from any direction. Certainly we need more than professional imaginators doing all the heavy lifting for us, and certainly upon certainly we should not expect STEM training to lead to innovation, though it is often helpful to have some folks capable of conventional science and math about. What we need, rather, is a broader cultivation of the imagination, Pico-style, with a sense of what comes with power–not just the bad–that we can manage, so things work out better than now in directions we have discovered we really do desire to go. That direction is not Oz or Utopia, but Oz and Utopia may be thinking tools to get us there. The question is, how do we do such thinking?

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