Article published in Economia: Methods for Reclaiming Economy (Baltan Laboratories, 2018)
To summarize an observation made by Frederick Jameson: it’s much easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. He was referring to our contemporary use of science fiction, which is full of natural disasters, war-driven apocalypses, and social disorder. Our fiction of the future is obsessed with disaster, because that seems more likely than the abolishment of the status quo.
To compete with these apocalyptic narratives, TerraEconomics uses fiction as a thought experiment to more easily imagine an economic alternative. It serves as (1) a method of critical research, (2) a collaborative thinking exercise in the form of a workshop, and finally (3) an interactive sculpture to sum up the idea. The initial research was sparked by the frustration that economics is treated as a hard science by both professionals and observers. We rely on datasets and fluctuating numbers as a projection of reality, rather than a metaphor for human values, desires, and the overall volatility of humanity. The economy that rules our world is not a given– it’s a social science, a result of a social contract that we all agreed upon. Therefore, it’s something we we can change, if we want to.
TerraEconomics is based on a fictional premise, or a provocative question, to begin dialogue where we second-guess the way we determine value. In the fiction, an algorithm is developed that measures how each and every small quantity of manufactured material negatively affects the earth’s environment. A supercomputer watches global trade routes, as well as reads the dynamic feedback of the living bio material of the earth collected from data points all over the world, in the oceans, forests, and atmosphere. A couple nations decide to experiment with their economy in a radical way: no longer are the value of goods determined by the invisible forces of supply and demand, but by the flux of the natural environment, the Earth’s A.I. They call this unique system TerraEconomics.
The premise serves as an imagination vehicle to reverse the paradigm we blindly accept in our economy. Value is often based on resource extraction from the earth, and this extraction is awarded to as property to those who have the right to it via violence or myth. Inspired by ideas of non-human personhood from thinkers such as Timothy Morton and Donna Haraway, TerraEconomics puts nature in the position of an autonomous actor in the economy, and changes the way we perceive that core relationship between nature and finance.
The project is, in all its forms, a thought experiment. Therefore, it was essential to open the experiment to a diverse group to people, and to probe for their interpretations and expansion.
Opening the conversation through a workshop, participants were prompted to imagine a world where the stock market is controlled by the health of the earth. Using a series of collaborative exercises, a group of designers, architects, philosophers, scientists, engineers, and writers imagined several artifacts that serve as metaphors to critique and speculate on how we manage our economic values today.
The collaborative method is called a workshop, but it is less of a process of learning, and rather a process of doing and collaborating inside of a fictional space, giving the participants the freedom to depart from the constraints of reality, and have more radical imagination. The workshops are designed to transform the participants into reverse archeologists, challenging them to look at our world from an alien perspective, questioning why things are simply the way they are. The goal is to decolonize our imaginations and shake off the prejudices and assumptions that we have when we imagine our future.
The unique model of this workshop is to collaboratively create a fictional world, not to solve an existing problem, but to understand better our social and systemic constraints and discover the possibilities to break through them. The resulting prototypes serve as practical insights into complex problems, using fictional storytelling for creative epiphanies, systemic thinking, and a way to critique our current reality.
In the first exercise, participants were challenged to imagine a future world where nature would dictate our financial value system, and organizing their thoughts according to natural elements and their consequences: atmosphere, oceans, earth, and forests. What type of industries would exist in this new world? What are the things you personally value, and how would they look different?
Second, participants created a character for this world, writing a mini-biography of 50 words, and embodying this character in a speculative LARP (live action role play) exercise where they encountered each other’s characters and discussed if they would collaborate or conflict in this world?
Finally, they populate these interactions, imagining where they exist in the world of TerraEconomics, and what are the artifacts (objects, systems, algorithms, fashion, buildings, tools, etc) that exist in these encounters. Ideating these artifacts, they draw or act them out for the group, and lead a discussion around the implications of this artifact in our own current reality.
As an example, a few results from the workshop are The Rainbow Inquisition, Slimenet, and the License to Destroy. The Rainbow Inquisition mimicked the credit scores that define and limit people’s opportunities in our world today, but for a world where value is determined by your relationship to sustainability and the earth. Citizens must reveal their ‘sustainability’ score to receive any financial benefits. SlimeNet imagined an organic and omniscient network where people exchanged knowledge and messages through slime mould DNA; an organic critique of all of the personal data hazards that come with products like Google and Facebook. License to Destroy was a city zoning law for rewilding, where urban developers were incentivized through value and finance to actually remove buildings, so that the increasingly valuable nature could have more room to grow.
Each idea critiqued a current aspect of our reality that we take for granted, but which is completely human made, and human changeable. These ideas show the potential of of the fictional world building workshop to question, change, and redesign the policy, systems, values, and norms of our society that may have corrupted or stagnated, but which we cling to.
Future of the project
This project was part of a larger school of thought that speculates the role of non-humans (particularly nature and algorithms), and imagines ways that their autonomy can encourage more thoughtful behavior from humanity. The potential of this project is as creative methodology for taking action towards these ideas. By using the formula of the workshop, and combining design thinking and science fiction, there is an opportunity to export this to other spaces, from public policy to corporate policy, to how we invent and apply new technology, from blockchain and smart contracts, to online trading and market bots.
Monique Grimord, Imagination of things.