In collaboration with the Potsdam Institute for Advanced Sustainable Studies, we prepared a fictional panel to be performed at Bits & Bäume, the conference looking at issues of digitalization and sustainability in Berlin.
Workshop and Initial Ideas
A design fiction workshop took place a month before the event, which gathered a group of academics, entrepreneurs, policy-makers and creatives to collectively imagine and draft futures around the topic of automatization and ecology. During the session, participants engaged with topics as varied as "Dream Economy," "Automated Nature," or "Space Organs." Then from this process, a fictional scenario emerged. One within which automated environmental governance would entrust obscure algorithms to accurately translate planet-wide data captured through omnipresent sensors, but also to devise and enforce new regulations. Added to this core were other fringe phenomena such as advanced dream imagery allowing people to capture such dreams and translate them into virtual and even physical spaces, or sensory trade networks, through which users were able to experience others’ neural activity, their pleasure, their death, as well as the sensual experience of a deep-space probe.
The Collaborative Fiction Crystalizing
Based on this collaboratively built future society, we crafted three fictional personas and a hybrid one — half fake, half real: Kerstin Fritzsche, IASS employee, retained her name and role, only taking on the extra hat of EUAEGI collaborator, the fictional ‘European Automated Environmental Government Initiative’ already at work prototyping a new social system powered by geo- and bio-dynamic algorithms in the town of Treuerbrietzen. This fiction relied heavily on ‘GAIAI,’ the software architecture developed by Earth Intelligence Systems’ make-believe CTO Kai Andreas Ingólfsson, which was already put to the test during a controversial project in Costa Rica. As Dr. Thomas Müller, cognitive psychologist and founder of Human-Machine Mediation practice HuMM, would explain: such projects raise important ethical questions about the role of humans in decision-making, about digital illiteracy and other already existing inequalities which are sure to undermine the already underprivileged, and about the risk of cultural agglomeration should local specificities be disregarded. Dr. Müller was our third panelist.
A Fictional Public Panel
Titled “Let Nature Rule — Exploring solutions and impacts of automated environmental decision systems”, the talks were moderated by our last fictional persona: Honduran journalist Alberto Jimenez Mendoza, whose years living with the Kayapo and Wajapi communities in the Amazon forest led him to investigate the issues of deforestation, ecosystem management and biopiracy — an experience he narrates in “The Real Jungle Book”.
The panel talk, under Alberto Jimenez Mendoza’s moderation, allowed our fictional guests to present, discuss, argument, and argue on a variety of topics merging the real and the fake, and through the fiction, raising important questions on the subjects of environmental management, bias by design, digital (il)literacy, enforcement of political agendas and civic outreach, human trust in algorithms, the need for change in general, and the means we as a species are willing to give ourselves to that end. During half an hour, each of the panelists contributed to build and communicate a complex picture, an effort which culminated in a Q&A session revealing a strong discomfort with some of the topics raised. Partisanship made itself sensible, with some audience members convinced by the need to push for Automated Environmental Governance at any cost, while others shared Dr. Müller’s concerns about the value of saving a humanity void of culture.
When the veil was finally lifted from the fiction, Kerstin Fritzsche switched her EUAEGI hat for that of IASS to explain that her institute’s interest in our design fiction method stemmed from its capacity to spark debate from different vantage points, each of them an extrapolation from where we currently stand as a society — although none of the projects presented were true, the questions raised in the process were of the utmost importance. Meanwhile, feedback questionnaires were being distributed within the audience in order to gather insight and their opinions on automated environmental governance.