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Imagining a Radically Different World of Work
The future of work doesn't have to be an extension of today's reality.
The first movie I remember going to as a kid was Who Framed Roger Rabbit. I made my dad take me home after the scene where they dissolved a small cartoon shoe in a barrel of acid.
But the second movie I remember going to as a kid was Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. I would have been 9 years old—so I'm sure I there were other movie outings in my short life that I can't remember.
The scene that seared itself on my young brain was an attack on a Klingon ship. The ship loses artificial gravity, and the Klingons on board are helplessly floating in zero-g. Then, two Star Fleet operatives beam aboard. They're in full encounter suits with helmets obscuring their identities. They begin killing every Klingon they come across—firing phasers that, unlike any other phaser battle I can remember, draw blood. Pink blood. Floating pink globules of blood. It wasn't exactly gruesome—apparently, producers had to make the blood pink to avoid a PG-13 rating—but it was memorable.
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It's safe to say Star Trek is a defining mythology in my life.
Star Trek, along with a social gospel-infused Methodism, shaped my understanding of justice, multiculturalism, and the inherent worth of every being. Star Trek also shaped my view on economics.
It was Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home—that's the one with the whales—that first established that the Federation economy doesn't revolve around money. Then, in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation's first season, Captain Picard explains to a 20th-century financier who's recently been thawed after cryogenic preservation that humanity is no longer obsessed with the accumulation of wealth or possessions. And, of course, there's the scene in Star Trek: First Contact where Captain Picard tells a 21st-century refugee the same.
I like to imagine Picard in a high school 21st-century history class, learning that those unenlightened schmucks in what was then called the United States were obsessed with money. But I digress.
It's not that money doesn't exist in the 23rd and 24th centuries, according to Star Trek. But the Federation doesn't use currency. All needs are provided for, so people work out of a sense of cooperation and curiosity rather than a paycheck. Honestly, I'm not sure how any devoted Star Trek fan could turn out to be anything other than a fervent anti-capitalist.
The Star Trek universe is not the most complete fictional representation of a currency-free economy. We don't, for instance, know how Captain Picard's family owns a vineyard estate. Nor do we know by what economic mechanisms the Chateau Picard distributes its wine. If private property of that sort still exists, it's not hard to imagine that economic inequality still exists.
Welcome to Strange New Work
This is the first installment of a new series here on What Works. It's called Strange New Work, and it uses speculative fiction to help us imagine radically different ways of working and doing business. Over this series, we'll look at the types of work that might exist in the future, how our personal relationships with work could evolve, and whether it's more likely that future workers will form cozy work families or sign their lives away to a multigalactic corporation.
If you're a speculative or science fiction fan, I hope this series gives you a new way to read or view your favorite stories. And if you're not into speculative or science fiction, there will be plenty for you, too. I'll be using speculative fiction to consider futures and ask questions that might not be evident given our current relationships to work and business. But this isn't so much a series about speculative fiction as it is a series about imagining strange new worlds.
What does that mean? Well, before we return to Star Trek, let's examine how speculative fiction can help us give meaningful context to examine the present.
The Case for Speculative Fiction
"There are many bad books," writes Ursula K. Le Guin, "There are no bad genres."
Science fiction gets a bad rap. It's genre fiction—which means it's assumed to be formulaic, "plot-driven," and superficial. It's pulpy—which actually refers to the low-quality paper that mass-market paperbacks are made from. As writing goes, these books aren't even worth decent paper. Serious writers, some think, write about the real. They write about intimate details of strained relationships, untold stories of history, the multitude of ways a person can be immiserated.
Of course, all of those themes are present in science fiction, too. It's not all space operas in which the human remnant has to save the galaxy from an evil artificial intelligence. This is one of the reasons why science fiction is routinely called "speculative fiction" today. The label of speculative fiction gets around some of the hang-ups of science fiction and allows us to grant a story set in the far future or an alternate dimension a bit more literary weight.
Le Guin argues that fantasy, science fiction, and speculative fiction (which are all just different ways of saying stories that take liberties with the laws of physics) actually help us take on a deeper understanding of our lives right here on 21st-century planet Earth. "The most revealing and accurate descriptions of our daily life," she writes, "are shot through with strangeness, or displaced in time, or set on imaginary worlds, or dissolved into the phantasmagoria of drugs or of psychosis, or rise from the mundane suddenly into the visionary and then come out the other side."
Speculative fiction, after all, isn't about the future. It's about seeing the present differently.
I never did think much about the future.
I’m only interested really in the present and the past.
— Ursula K. Le Guin
When Annalee Newitz imagines construction workers specially designed and decanted by the company that owns them for the purpose of building a city on a terraformed world, they give us the chance to consider whether our situation feels much different. When China Miéville imagines two cities occupying the same geographic space, each with its own language, economy, and culture, he gives us the chance to consider the ways our own society is bifurcated, the ways we move through the world "unseeing" (but not really) the world we don't belong to. When Octavia Butler imagines a young woman rising out of an even more violent and horrifically unequal version of the United States than our own, forming a new religion, and creating her own brand of institutional power, she gives us the chance to consider how a different worldview today might change our fates.
All of the books I mention in this series are in the Strange New Work Bookshop list.
That's what tech bros who worship at the altar of Ayn Rand don't get about speculative fiction. They're not asking the questions hiding in plain sight within the authors' texts. They think cautionary tales are fodder for capitalist plunder—with no hint of irony.
Writer Packy McCormick recently compiled a database of all the "inventions" contained in science fiction that have yet to be invented. McCormick described science fiction ideas as "[floating] around in latent space" until the technology in the present catches up enough to make it (or something like it) reality. "When the time is right," he explains, "an inventor or entrepreneur grabs it and tries to wrestle it into the real world. ...sci-fi is a goldmine of ideas for startups."
For what it's worth, I think the database project is pretty cool. However, the inventions of science fiction aren't the products to be sold.
The inventions of science fiction are new social, political, economic, and epistemic worlds.
Take Vauhini Vara's 2022 novel, The Immortal King Rao.
In the near-future world Vara imagines, the world is run by an algorithm. Instead of democracy, there is Shareholder Government. Instead of politicians, there is a Master Algorithm. The novel's narrator explains:
Using people’s Social Profiles as inputs, the Algo would make informed decisions using not only demographic markers but lived experience. Rather than pledging one’s labor to any single corporation, trading hours for dollars, kyats, or cedis, Shareholders would sell it at will and be compensated in Social Capital, based on the Algo’s prediction of the actual value they had produced.
As the Algorithm determined a Shareholder's Social Capital, so too did it determine how resources would be allocated to that Shareholder. Shareholders' needs would be fulfilled through a monthly withdrawal of their Social Capital, "the Algo determining the most efficient investment of funds."
The architect of this system is a brilliant tech entrepreneur—the titular King Rao. He grew up a dalit, the lowest caste in the Indian caste system. But founded his own company in the US and grew it to be the largest in the world. He made a fortune that would turn Bezos green with envy.
Vara's story is not a utopia, though.
The Shareholder Government and the Master Algorithm aren't portrayed as a positive social innovation. Rao isn't a role model. But it's easy to imagine what the general idea of this ultimate product might inspire Zuckerberg, Musk, or Bezos to dream up.
But instead, Vara's story, when read in full, asks much bigger questions. They are questions of identity, memory, family, justice, and the pursuit of truth within the context of unrelenting surveillance.
Some of my favorite works of speculative fiction ask questions about colonialism, gender, neurodiversity, inequality, language, sexuality, religion, and vocation. Sure, there are sapient robots, interstellar communication devices, asteroid mines, and faster-than-light travel. But those inventions serve the questions the author wants to explore.
These are also questions being asked in realist fiction. Any novel that's long-listed for one of the big literary prizes is guaranteed to be asking at least one big, hairy question. But speculative fiction allows us to consider these questions without the hangups of our current time.
The Stranger the World, the More Subversive the Ideas
If I ask you to consider how the world might be different five years from now, you'd most likely start with what you know about the world now. You'd think about current trends, social progress, and political friction. Then you'd take what you know about now and run a sort of simulation that gets you about five years out. It might or might not be accurate—but it's unlikely that the world you imagine living in five years from now is very different from the one we live in today.
However, if I ask you to consider how the world might be different 100, 200, 500, or 1000 years in the future, you're likely to make some pretty creative leaps.
So while realist fiction and speculative fiction both involve invented characters and conflicts, realist fiction will inevitably rely on our present expectations. It can ask big important questions, but it has a hard time imagining how a particular answer might play out in a way that doesn't implicate our present prejudices and structural problems.
Speculative fiction, on the other hand, offers unique epistemic value—or so claim philosophers Johan De Smedt and Helen De Cruz. They argue that speculative fiction offers a distinctly meaningful way to consider philosophical questions apart from realist fiction or the philosophical thought experiment.
First, they point to the creative power of thinking about the distant future as I just outlined.
Then, they reflect on the transportive quality in works of speculative fiction as part of this argument. Transportation as they use it was coined by Richard Gerrig in 1993. It means that a story evokes the experience of being "fully immersed and drawn into a fictional world."
Through transportation, we can feel out the broader context of story—including its moral framework.
We can try on a set of ethical principles that might be foreign to us but are taken for granted in the world of the story.
Take for instance, the character of Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Data is a machine—and android. He looks mostly human, except for the thick slick of jaundice-colored skin over his cybernetic frame. He behaves mostly humanly—aside from some quirky movements and incredibly powerful artificial intelligence. But he is inorganic through and through.
The crew of the Enterprise, however, treat him as totally equal with everyone else.
Throughout the series, we're introduced to people who don't treat him equally, who don't even treat him as sentient. But according to the moral framework of the Star Trek universe, that behavior is seen as aberrant. The people who don't treat Data like a person are very clearly represented as bad people (or at least in need of a serious moral upgrade).
The viewer takes on this same moral framework—Data is a person. He deserves everything a person deserves. He should have the same rights and opportunities.
Data has always been my favorite Star Trek character.
And it's really no wonder why. Data is a character rich with autistic traits. His experience of the social world is one in which he's encouraged to participate but never quite belongs to. He requires a special chip to experience emotions—and when he finally gets that chip, the results are strange and unpredictable, often overwhelming to the point where he turns the chip off again.
And despite all that, Data is portrayed as a critical member of the crew—not only in his duties but in his relationships to fellow crew members. His intelligence, senses, strength, and memory are all valuable to the Enterprise—but so is his company and friendship.
The Star Trek universe is one in which I could imagine being fully accepted in. Data isn't a perfect character—his motivation is always becoming more human rather than becoming more Data. But the world that loves Data is as close to perfect as I can imagine.
Being transported into the world of Star Trek gives me a new knowledge framework with which to imagine the future. I'm no longer epistemically trapped in what I know of the past and present—the future becomes something where my usual assumptions are no longer given. The realism of today gives way to the possibility of tomorrow.
Imagining Our Way Out of Capitalist Realism
If the idea Mark Fisher proposes as capitalist realism means the inability to imagine a world shaped by systems other than capitalism, then speculative fiction offers a way to imagine the unreality of capitalism.
Speculative fiction often invites us to see our economic systems and the institution of work as downright absurd. On screen or on paper, these stories normalize all sorts of ways of creating, maintaining, and working together.
Not all speculative fiction paints a rosy picture of the future of work and economics, of course. But even in the more dystopian stories, at least the questions are still being asked. The assumptions are still being challenged. The absurdity is laid bare.
Speculative fiction offers a way to imagine the unreality of capitalism.
Science fiction author Samuel Delaney describes one of the tasks of these stories as moving us away from either/or thinking. It doesn't matter, therefore, whether the speculative fiction we're engaging is either utopian or dystopian. Whether the picture of the future is one that's good for workers or bad for workers. Instead, what matters is imagining a third, fourth, fifth, or 97th way things could turn out. The point is curiosity, asking questions, and imagining strange new answers.
If SF is affirmative, it is not through any obligatory happy ending, but rather through the breadth of vision it affords, through the complex interweave of these multiple visions of human origins and destinations. Certainly such breadth of vision does not abolish tragedy. But it does make a little rarer the particular needless tragedy that comes from a certain type of narrow-mindedness.
If we're to imagine strange new worlds of work, it's this "certain type of narrow-mindedness" we must challenge. And if that means we get to adventure beyond our own solar system in the process, all the better.
Next week’s installment of Strange New Work is about world-building—or the actual process of constructing strange new worlds. I talk withabout how she uses world-building as a practice of hope and how a similar process can be used to make work more sustainable and accessible.
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