I have been reading up on the discipline of futurism, which academically speaking provides methodological hints for exploring what may happen in the future. One of those approaches, monitoring, and in particular environmental scanning (looking for signs or indicators in large volumes of relevant information) can be of value [1].

Inspired by that and the work of Dourish & Bell in “Reading science fiction alongside ubiquitous computing,” I have begun to work my way through a collection of science fiction, science, and non-fiction books that look forward into the future with respect to climate change. In choosing books, I explored a combination of indie fiction, activist monologues, mainstream science fiction, and scientific writing. In reading these books, I am particularly focusing on how they portray science (or what they say about it) and its interaction with other trends.

I have not had time to read many of the books I’ve found yet, but I have started on a few: Forty Signs of Rain (Robinson) depicts scientists at the NSF in the near future as they try to rethink the role of the organization as the climate reaches a tipping point; The Ultimate Choice (Hinsley) depicts a society in which population growth has eaten up the land needed to grow food and the government is forced to watch its people slowly starve or take more drastic measures; Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution (Rheingold) discusses the interaction between technology and the social nature of human society (but has only one paragraph that mentions climate change); The Windup Girl (Bacigalupi) portrays a world already changed for the worse by genetic engineering but relatively untouched by climate change; Flood (Baxter) posits a world that is slowly drowning in oceans rising at an exponentially increasing weight (non-anthropogenic climate change).

Some of these are books I just happened to read recently for pleasure or research while others were selected specifically for this project. All of them take very different perspectives on what may happen with the climate, and equally different perspectives on technology. For example, Robinson’s book is set in a future whose technologies are exactly those of today, while Hinsley posits an Orwellian society in which most citizens are lucky to have food and a map is a technological luxury. Television, of course still exists, but only the state has modern technologies (and they, again, match todays). In Rheingold’s book, the purpose is to explore cutting edge technology; the role of applications, and their interaction with culture and society society (specifically how to avoid threats to liberty, dignity, and quality of life while enabling tho promise of these technologies). Bacigalupi creates a rich portrayal of a world whose technological innovations are new engineered species (semi-human and others) that are at times indistinguishable from (or competitive with) existing species. In Baxter’s world, technology is more prominent than in the other books, despite the fact that technological innovation has (almost) halted (after the creation of the ultimate music player, one which connects almost magically with the brain, without cords) due to the focus on surviving the disastrous consequences of the unstoppable flood. The most prominent technology in the novel is a 3d projection system that can render the earth and illustrate the coming catastrophe. Perhaps equally important is the solar powered mobile phones that allow climate scientists to “convene” virtually once each year as they pay witness to the disastrous flood overtaking the earth.

At this point, I’m still trying to process all of this. I think it is interesting that technology and climate are so divorced in most of these novels. The exception is technology’s role in science in the Robinson and Baxter novels (supporting communication between scientists, visualizations for non-scientists, and so on). None of the books discuss technologies intended to help save energy or otherwise influence behavior; homes are not smart in these books and phones are just phones for the most part. I wonder if the non-fiction books about dealing with climate change are any more likely to mention technology. I suspect not: There is an aspect of luddism to some of the climate non-fiction that would

[1] Bell, W. (2003). Foundations of Futures Studies: Human science for a new era: History purposes and knowledge (Volume 1). Transaction Publishers.

[2] Dourish, P. & Bell, G. (2008). ‘Resistance is Futile’: Reading Science Fiction Alongside Ubiquitous Computing. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing. In Press.