How Do We Make the Future?

by Fred Gibbs, Erika Lorraine Milam, and Joanna Radin

Many academic workshops suffer from the proverbial falling-tree-in-the-woods syndrome, where a brief symphony, orchestrated in a new place around new faces and new ideas, fades into distant and ultimately inaudible murmurs as the participants scatter. We wanted to experiment with a new form of scholarship to give our two-day workshop on “Histories of the Future” a much longer and meaningful echo.

We set out to explore the question of how futures are made—sometimes deliberately, sometimes inadvertently—in a world of continuous scientific and technological invention. As historians of science, technology, and medicine, we constantly wrestle with time, innovation, and change as historical challenges. This makes us uniquely situated to scrutinize these futures.

We invited a group of scholars whose expertise spans a wide range of intellectual interests, geographies, and chronologies, to explore the intersection between professional and popular theorizing about the future of the cosmos, nature, and technology. Such futures linger at the edge of scientific respectability, and our participants analyzed a range of historical actors, from academically credible scientists, physicians, and engineers, to the authors of science fiction (and their occasional overlap). Their thoughtful reflections are now freely available at our workshop website, Histories of the Future (histscifi.com).

Each essay illustrates ways that science fiction and speculative nonfiction interact to provide both scientists and popular audiences with visions of the future that are often surprising in their coherence. The spectrum of topics is breathtaking, yet it was energizing and almost disconcertingly easy to identify key themes common to core groups of essays—in some cases explicitly, in other cases entirely implicitly. Our authors examine tales of harrowing survival, contested accounts of animacy, and voyages through space and time; they discuss the transmission of knowledge and material entities, the enhancement of bodies and minds, and authorial speculations about the future and past. Taking a broad view, our groupings of the collected essays raise provocative questions (hopefully for future essays) about the ubiquity of these themes across the kinds of sources explored by our authors—and of course what other themes may have escaped our attention. Together, they represent a coordinated effort to understand how scientists and authors of speculative fiction bring the future into being.

Authors submitted an initial essay prior to the workshop and discussion of these contributions gave us a shared body of work to draw on together. Frédérique Aït-Touati analogizes space and time as two mechanisms by which authors of speculative fiction create distance between commonly accepted images of the world and an alternative reality. Also wrestling with issues of temporality, Colin Milburn focuses on faster-than-light tachyons as objects of both scientific research and science-fictional narratives. The theme of bodily enhancement informs Oliver Gaycken’s explorations of x-ray vision and the anxieties raised by the possibility of super-human senses among authors and filmmakers alike. Extra-ordinary humanity in the form of undead paranimates drive Projit Mukharji’s essay on Bengali science fictions of the late-nineteenth century. A different kind of animacy characterizes Michelle Murphy’s essays, which dissect the processes by which technoscience animates phantasmagrams of life, gender, kinship, and nation in South Asia. Further illustrating the power of speculative futures, Ruha Benjamin mobilizes her training as a sociologist of science to create her own fictional narrative critically examining race, science, and subjectivity from the perspective of 2064. Turning to Bolshevik science fiction, Nikolai Krementsov illustrates the value of speculative science fiction as a cultural resource increasing the public visibility and cultural authority of the life sciences in the 1920s. More futuristically, biomedical survival features centrally in Patrick McCray’s essays on cryonics research in the American 1960s that link the hopes of cryonicists for a future in which they might live again. The subjects of Erika Milam’s essay worried that this chromed future might never come to pass and invoked a primitive evolutionary past to warn the public of the dire potential consequences of the Cold War. Questions of liveliness occur, too, in Steph Dick’s account of the future of thinking as conceptualized by early artificial intelligence research. Stories of communication and contact are of course hallmarks of science fiction. On this theme, Joanna Radin concentrates on Michael Crichton’s techno-thrillers about our genetic futures, especially The Andromeda Strain (1969) and more recently the movie version of Jurassic World (2015). More linguistically, Michael Gordin analyzes how some science fiction authors confronting the aftermath of nuclear war creatively highlighted the evolution of languages.

In addition to first-rate writing about the history of the future, we wanted to think futuristically about how we might better share our work. We endeavored to provide both a place to “publish” essays before convening in person, and a place where revised essays could be available long after our tree toppled noiselessly and everyone returned home.

Especially given the subject matter, producing an edited collection in the typical academic fashion seemed like a missed opportunity. We elected, then, with the generous agreement of our contributors, to adopt an open-access policy so that our scholarship will be visible and accessible to anyone interested in it. Contributors have done everyone a great service in putting their time, energy, and scholarly productivity into a non-traditional publication that, we all hope, will garner much wider readership and interest than it could otherwise. We also hope that the design of the website and the presentations of the essays strike a balance between scholarly authority and exploratory playfulness, to assure readers that the scholarship is of the highest quality, as we remain approachable to non-specialists in somewhat shorter and less detailed (but no less rigorous) essays than typically appear in scholarly journals. We have tried to balance an energetic aesthetic with entirely minimal essay presentations that keep the focus where it should be—the creative thinking and writing of our authors.

As we hope future workshops might adopt a similar open-access strategy, a brief quick look under the hood may be useful. We host our site with GitHub Pages, a well-documented platform that provides precisely the key functionality we need—an open, versioned repository for managing discrete texts—so that we can focus on the essays rather than the website infrastructure itself. Authors wrote in what was most comfortable for them (usually MS Word), but we then converted the files (fairly seamlessly, with pandoc) to Markdown, a plain-text editing language that avoids problems of proprietary file formats that change (and break) over time. Small editorial changes to essays are easily made to the online version, and records of those changes are automatically managed by GitHub, initially designed for programmers and their code, but which excels as an editorial platform. From a sustainability perspective, required resources are minimal: no hosting service to pay for, no platform installations to maintain, no special software required. The essays (and in fact the entire website) remain easily exportable.

Despite what we consider many successes, we fell short of our ideal plan. In the interest of learning from failure, and with hopes others will build on our experience, we want to share some of our lessons gleaned from the process. Part of the motivation for an online viewing platform (both pre- and post-conference), was to integrate images and other media, and to emphasize the design of scholarship from the outset. Several of our authors embraced this aspect, particularly the outstanding images and embedded video in Michelle Murphy’s set of essays, and Michael Gordin’s visual translation effects. Most of the essays, however, while usually including an image or two (because we insisted!), primarily followed a more traditional form. In retrospect, we needed to provide more encouragement and assistance during the first draft stage to better leverage our non-print publishing platform. This may even raise the question of whether graduate training in the humanities generally may benefit from encouraging multi-media writing in addition to long-form text-only essays.

Our original hope to sustain the energy of the workshop beyond its short logistical existence, and to widen the discussion beyond the academy, was to maintain an open-submission window so that even those not involved with the conference could contribute to the conversation after the initial rounds of essays were published. While our enthusiasm made such an editorial agenda seem not only desirable but obtainable, we realized as time went on and essays trickled in at various times, that we had not adequately planned for folding the requisite administrative, editorial, and publishing work into our already full schedules, especially as relatively junior scholars required to display productivity in more traditional venues.

Additionally, despite frantic and diligent note-taking, much of the insightful commentary, questions, and replies during the workshop did not make its way onto the website. Our conversations, of course, informed revised versions of the essays, and inspired a second round (or more) of essays from several participants. In retrospect, we should have prepared ahead of time, and discussed at the beginning of the workshop, how we might have made even more of the internal dialog of the workshop visible.

Even so, we believe that the Histories of the Future website largely serves our principal goal of highlighting the various analytical frameworks in the history of science, medicine, and technology, and their utility—if not necessity—for understanding the ways in which futures have been described and ultimately created, and how those processes continue to work and shape our collective futures. We hope, too, that the variety of essays will inspire more scholarship on the subject and will engage the widest possible readership with truly innovative and path-breaking scholarly work in new media.

Most importantly, we ask that you visit histscifi.com and take a look around. Read an essay or two. Come back later, and read some more. They print out nicely, too, if you prefer to read on paper. Our success, despite having already assembled and edited what we think is an extraordinary collection of essays, depends on getting the word out and increasing the visibility of the essays. Please tell your friends! Of course we welcome any feedback, either about the individual essays, the site as a whole, or our publishing experiment. Send us an email or tweet about it: #histscifi.

To the future,
Fred Gibbs, fwgibbs@unm.edu
Erika Lorraine Milam, emilam@princeton.edu
Joanna Radin, joanna.radin@yale.edu