Valuing Utopia in Speculative and Critical Design. Economic Science Fictions (Editor: Will Davies). Goldsmiths Press. 2018.
Co-authored with Tobias Revell and Justin Pickard, this chapter looks at how speculative and critical design practices can conceive of and materialise alternative value systems in economic structures. Commissioned for the anthology Economic Science Fictions which explores how science fiction can motivate new approaches to economics. (Email me for a full text).
From the post-scarcity economies of Star Trek and Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels to Margaret Atwood’s unfettered free-market capitalism in the Oryx and Crake series to the calorie economics of Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, science fiction has a long history of playing with economic concepts and examining the social and cultural effects of a range of different value systems. Each of these examples makes a stake on utopia – either extant, imminent or expired. The plot lines tend to focus on the struggle of maintaining the utopia or working forwards (or backwards) towards it.
Infrastructure theorist and author Paul Graham Raven divides utopias into three categories: the classical utopia, the technological utopia and the critical utopia. The classical utopia is the perfection of institutional and social order, obviously represented by Thomas Moore’s original Utopia and practised by the communitarians of seventeenth- to nineteenth- century America. The technological utopia is the form most familiar to science fiction, in which humanity’s ills are solved by advances in science and technology – a form of utopia that underlies modernist notions of progress and the ‘solutionist discourses of Silicon Valley’.
The critical utopia, conversely, ‘undermines the notion of utopia as a deliverable project, but nonetheless clearly values the form as an experimental space for exploring its own consequences and failure-states’. Whereas a dystopia would assume a failed state position from the outset, the critical utopia instead highlights the cracks in the utopian vision to expose its failings. It is here that we find the playground of speculative and critical design.