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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So I’ve been thinking about where we can take Witness (this is post a chat with @alberto about building an expanded volume of stories, something that can work as a book or lend itself to TV). To prepare for the task, I went back and re-analyzed some of the most loved series in fantasy and science fiction, as well as large IPs, old and new, that have an extensive fan-contributed life: Warhammer 40K, Star Wars, Cyberpunk, BattleTech, League of Legends, to name a few . . . even smaller ones like the Black Company.

I also invited some friends (authors, an agent, a couple of editors) to take a look at what we have on the table.

So rough consensus is as follows:

  1. Worlds build followings based on their characters, events and stories. Like yes, people dig Quenya and Sindarin, but it’s a minute fraction compared to the people who find themselves following the stories of Frodo and Sam.

  2. We have a world, but not necessarily stories. Essentially, we have very cool systems that work and are very impressive . . . but we need to put in significant legwork building the stories.

  3. In doing so, we will have to deviate necessarily from the econ focus - the economics influences how the characters make choices and the circumstances they find themselves in, but a pure econ focus will lead to a systems-based story, where characters have little agency and become flat and uninteresting.

  4. Stepping away from the econ angle makes the project risky as far as funding is concerned. “Look, the story of this thief, who, compelled by circumstance, went from preying on the rich to becoming rich and introspecting on their journey” is a hard sell to funders, who want things to be . . . relevant. We may create ten stories, and one may turn out to be relevant, and we may not really know which one in advance. That’s not a great sell. At the same time, if the goal is to get to films and books, it’s required . . .

We essentially need a body of work, of stories that build off Witness, but it’s expensive to go “chaaaarge” and have at it (LucasArts, Games Workshop, Battlemech etc did it by hiring writers to write tons of books, which . . . we don’t have money for).

So we find ourselves at an impasse, and I have an idea.

I can take Witness, set it in a larger canvas to play with without doing damage to the main repository, and work on a set of stories on my own time . . . if something strikes a nerve and ‘takes off’, we can come back and spend group effort recast it into the Witness of our era.

I haven’t yet decided what this larger canvas might look like. Space opera is an obvious candidate, and so is fantasy. I had a plan to spend the next year writing a number of short stories in collaboration with AI (most likely Claude, GPT-3, or my own modified GPT-Neo variants); there may be a possibility of using that tech here. I’m going through my notebooks at the moment, but TL;DR: this lets us set up a slow burn with a Witness-derivative project that I can keep going at my own pace. We use that as lessons to understand what the public imagination is drawn to, and keep feeding back to Witness.



Ok, I can see where you are coming from.

That’s great for sure. Do you imagine a participatory angle? At the moment I find myself short on time I can allocate to pure labour of love. And yet, I think powerful projects are projects that people can easily contribute to.

Not for the derivative project, because I find myself needing to manage things around my time - and collabs aren’t great for that. And depending on what kind of project I decide to abstract Witness social structures and stick them into, collab might be completely off the table - but I’ll keep coming back and adding lessons learned from those implementations. So that ultimately collab work has some of the risky pathfinding done, some road to follow, and so on.

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this makes sense to me. Let me know where/if I can help.

@nadia @alberto @yudhanjaya Please allow me to chime in.
I joined some of the first “scifi economics” web sessions (an interesting topic!) and contributed to various parts of the project which evolved into Witness. What I witnessed (sic) was enormous interest from a great number of people. They joined, discussed, debated with great enthusiasm, contributed to the crowdsourcing by EdgeRyders, and they left with the expectation that there will be a follow-up. I think this group of people’s expectations were not met, or their energy not utilised fully, and the project kind of went on internally with a small group discussion. The “outside” contributors were not mobilised to the extent that we could have. Please correct me if I am wrong - I know a lot may have taken place in the meanwhile without my knowledge while busy with other things…
Can we do another round of large scale crowdsourcing and open idea exchange? :slight_smile:

This does not have to conflict with any ongoing ideas for funding - there’s enough room.


I love the idea, but then you’ll have to lead it. This thread discusses what we, realistically, can do as a follow up, and chooses the backburner strategy. Happy to support a more “muscular” strategy if you take the lead, of course!

I’ve sent you a PM

I have a question for @ivan - Do you know where are we with the festival collab with Messina?

We are at our preliminary accord from December.
We needed to understand the team’s availability in order to discuss it further.

It is the right moment to have a conversation about it.

Actually, there has been an update. The festival board met (online), in March. I was invited, but could not make it. I then reached out to @giacomo.pinaffo to organize a catch-up call, but it has not happened yet. Let’s refocus here.