Rule of Nature — A Fictional Panel

Collaborative worldbuilding on AI-mediated ecology, later presented as a fictional panel discussion in public
18 Dec 2018
Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS)
In Collaboration With
Kerstin Fritzsche, IASS Potsdam
Kai Wagner
Dr. Manuel Rivera, IASS Potsdam
Wenzel Mehnert, UDK
For The Event
Bits & Bäume
On Show
Bits & Bäume 2018
AUG 2018 — DEC 2018
Berlin, DE

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.