Universe Coherence

Ensuring Futures Fit Together

Asteroid scratch card. Image: Smithery Design: Stanley James Press

This essay is adapted from Changeist newsletter #30.

One great project collaboration we enjoyed in 2017 came in this guise of experiential futures experimentation with the Emerging Technologies team at the Royal Society in London. For it, we partnered with what’s best described as a micro-consortium led by Smithery, and containing talented designer Thomas Forsyth, Stanley James Press, and students and teachers from London’s School 21. The product of this collaboration was a conceit called the Time Capsule Retrieval Service, described in detail by Smithery’s John Willshire in this post.

The purpose of the TCRS was to bring to life the texture, possible impacts and implications of a series of scenarios developed by the Royal Society to engage scientists and policymakers thinking about possible futures. To do that, the Royal Society team chose to populate situations within these scenarios with artefacts that could provide entry points for curiosity and exploration, providing the dispersed details of daily life in these futures — as they might be captured by students creating time capsules — for others to stitch together.

Our role in this was to provide not only some of the artefact concepts — such as the government-backed asteroid mining lottery scratch card picture above* — but to oversee what we called “universe coherence,” a kind of in-scenario plausibility/continuity supervision that ensured we were sensibly tracking alongside technological, social, economic and environmental change at a plausible pace. Think of it as a kind of worldbuilding quality assurance.

An excerpt: “In this scenario, one element is a UN oversight of private asteroid mining licensing, pressuring mining companies to share benefits of mining as a condition of licensing. We played with the idea of a lottery as a form of crowdfunding to build financial support and public opinion favorable to possibly dangerous and messy offworld mining ventures bringing minerals back to Earth markets. Also, with the possibility of fantastical financial payoffs for those holding asteroid mineral rights, lottery prizes/revenue sharing might be equally substantial.”

As we deal with materializing or depicting more complex, interconnected futures, and hug the terrain as well as describe these worlds from cloud level, more carefully considered universe coherence is a priority. These narratives have a greater number of moving parts, and are meant to be traversed by experts and public alike, so careful attention is paid to the speed of various pace layers, and a critical eye is cast on the effects of narrative sinks such as hype cycles. Time spent making sure the bits hang together pays off in richness and engagement.

We’re also experimenting more often with simple tools to assess scenario coherence, normativity, etc. We’ll report more as we learn.

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