A Witness art & research fund?

Last Thursday, @jean_russell organised a salon on distributed collaboration. Had a long chat with Bea Ramos from the Dada Art Collective ( it’s a social network where people speak to one another through drawings). It got me thinking…

What could we unleash if we had a big fund to finance Scifi Economics Art, Games & Research work?

We have done a bit of fundraising for activities here and there: A large public event and workshop with Cory Doctorow and Extinction Rebellion, a series of events exploring mutant economies on earth, we commissioned short stories from Scifi Authors, a research paper, visual art, audio art, fellowship - even a first iteration of a game.

Each activity has been a one-off, a kind of prototype and financed from different sources. Very rewarding - but also very time consuming and inefficient to raise small bits of money everytime we want to finance a specific type of work.

Instead - why not raise larger amount of money for a fund that covers lots of different activities around science fiction economics in general? With special focus on developing Witness?

I would like to hear what you think…

a) “yes, here are some thoughts…”
b) “not exactly but here is something we could do instead…”?

ping @jean_russell @alberto @hugi @yudhanjaya @ivan @owen @giacomo.pinaffo @ebelemogo @SashaOckenden @AlmaAlexander

I believe there is a way to do this. One of the things that I have been observing with some interest is the rise of the effective altruism movement. On one hand, it is tied very much to silicon valley technnologists and venture capital - usually a source of incredibly imprecise thinking and idiocy. However, on the other hand, it is tied to very much to the philosophy of longtermism (especially the work of William McAskill, Elizer Yudkowsky etc) and the idea of understanding future risks and opportunities order to better mitigate or exploit them.

(The strain of thinking is not particularly new. For example, one can look at the influence that Jerry Pournelle had on the Reagan administration and the strategic defence initiative. Or, that of William Gibson on the development of the Internet in general. Or even Neal Stephenson in consumer electronics and what is now sort of been bandied about as “the metaverse”.)

However, we are now at a stage where there is funding for thinking about futures in a way that is of some utility to many of the initiatives generally put forth to improve the human condition. Good science fiction, as Frederick Pohl used to say, can predict not the car, but the traffic jam. There are plenty of traffic jams ahead and plenty of people are willing to publicly throw money at people willing to imagine of those jams might look like. As proof, have a look at this: https://ftxfuturefund.org/area-of-interest/artificial-intelligence/

The traditional way of doing this stuff has been in the form of themed anthologies, typically from UN style bodies or small publishers, and this style does not generate good work. Mostly, even myself having worked on some of these, the submission windows are short, the constraints not very conducive to doing good research.

There should be a way to do data heavy, research heavy science-fiction, backed up by surveys, good theory, and lessons from practitioners. There should be a way of presenting this work in interesting fashions as artefacts that make people think.

Witness is perhaps not the best vehicle for this. Witness is a great product. But it was designed for very specific constraints, and the success of any science fictional world relies on internal consistency with its own logic; stretch Witness too far, and it falls apart. We may be better served by thinking about the great problems of our time, thinking about the research that informs us about the problems and potential solutions, constructing science fiction built on a research oriented speculative futures framework, and thinking about how to build a communications platform that can actually reach a significant number of people and get these messages out to the public. I think that might be something that we can actually fund.

It might sound very wonky, but is not impossible. For example, Watchdog now reaches about 1 million people a month; we have been able to go from being fact checkers to data journalists wielding huge datasets and satellite imagery; and we have been able to transition from that to building open source software for governance and building platforms for conversations on public policy. One of the projects we have in the works involves constructing a scale model of Colombo in Cities: Skylines to model potential urban design and traffic policy interventions. This is futurism is on a very small, very localized scale, but is some something I have been able to raise funds for. I think with the expertise of Edgeryders, we might be able to hit bigger targets.

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