torsdag 1 mars 2018

Using counterfactual history to imagine computing futures (paper)

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Elina and me submitted a paper to the Fourth Workshop on Computing within Limits, "Meeting the future in the past - using counterfactual history to imagine computing futures". We actually submitted the paper close to three weeks ago - but there's been so much else to write blog posts about lately so this blog post has been stuck in the queue for an extra week or two.

The astute reader of this blog has noticed an uptick in blog posts about counterfactual history lately (the last month), like this week-long workshop applicationthis proposed paper and this research grant application. This paper is yet another such project - a paper that introduces counterfactual thinking to the Computing within Limits community.

The paper was partly written because both me and Elina will attend Limits this year and Elina was dissatisfied about the fact that she didn't have a paper cooking. I was writing a(nother) paper for Limits, but between all the other numerous deadlines as of lately, I in the end didn't have time to finish that paper. So it was very convenient for me to write this paper since 1) Elina insisted on being the first author (a good reason for her to dive in to and read up on counterfactual history - which meant less work for me) and 2) we now know this topic and it was an easy paper to write as papers go.

The paper was actually whipped together in a very short amount of time but we still think it's a good (good enough) paper that has something to contribute to the Limits workshop. As I'm familiar with most of the papers from the previous three Limits workshops, I would say that the one paper that ours is the closest to is "The Limits of Our Imagination: Design Fiction as a Strategy for Engaging with Dystopian Futures" (pdf) by Joshua Tanenbaum, Marcel Pufal and Karen Tanenbaum. Here's the abstract from our paper:

The future is inherently hard to predict, yet we know there are various factors that will limit the future of computing (scarcity of materials, energy shortages and various biophysical limits) in both substantial and disruptive ways. When we look at the past and at mainstream projected computing futures, all we see is exponential growth. While it is easy to reject such trajectories, it is much harder to imagine and propose credible, preferable or evocative alternatives. Breaking away from default modes of thinking about computing is difficult but possible, and we here present a methodology - counterfactual history - that can help us imagine alternative scenarios for computing. We argue that by learning from counterfactual pasts (“what-if scenarios”), we can more easily liberate our ideas from various preconceptions that hamper them and box them in. This makes it possible to generate and entertain a more diverse “portfolio” of  ideas about the future and help us better prepare for meeting future challenges.

Below are two of the figures that Elina drew for the paper; first (left) what design fiction is good for and then (right) why counterfactual history can be better (for certain purposes, see also the text below):


Left: design fiction proposing a wide set of futures that diverges from the present.
Right: counterfactual history proposing a wider set of futures that diverges from a "point of divergence" in the past. 

Counterfactual scenarios furthermore differ from other methodologies for defamiliarization such as design fiction and speculative design since counterfactual history allows for a wider set of possible trajectories compared to those methodologies that start with present and project their consequences into an (inherently uncertain) future. ... Looking forward, we believe that it would be interesting to cooperate with computer historians to discuss interesting and suitable points of divergence particularly in relation to computing. 
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