What if we turned the sci-fi economics wiki into data?

Recently I have been adding new material to the Science Fiction Economics wiki here on Edgeryders. It’s becoming quite large and sprawling: at 5,000 words it is already at the point when it needs to become more hypertextual and navigable, at the very least.

But here is the thing: I have the impression that, as it gets bigger, this thing wants to be turned into data. And maybe, given my own academic work, I have a hammer, so i see everything as nails: but I would love to grow this thing a bit more and then look at the network of co-occurring economic concepts and ideas in science fiction. The idea is just another angle on a familiar concept in network science: when you have a bunch of document all tagged with keywords, you can easily induce a network of the keywords.

  • The network is undirected and weighted.
  • Two keywords are connected by an edge of weight equal to the number of documents in which they bot appear.

The logic here is exactly the same. Keywords are economic concepts; documents are science fiction novels or short stories. For example, irredeemable personal debt figures both in Doctorow’s Walkaway and in Karl Schroeder’s Stealing Worlds. Walkaway (but not Worlds) also has commons-based peer production, and Worlds (but not Walkaway) has smart contracts. Even if we stop here, we have a small network, with takes the shape of a V with irredeemable personal debt at center, linked to both commons-based peer production and smart contracts. Where it starts to get interesting is if we start to see consensus: if, in other words, the same clusters of economic concepts keep reappearing across different works and authors.

What might such a network tell us exactly? At the simplest level, it would give us a map of what, in economic thinking, appeals to the imagination. Squinting at it, an anthropologist might be able to say something about the values, aspirations, and fears around the economy of science fiction authors and, indirectly, readers. It’s at the border between STS and humanities analytics.

Many ways to do it, of course. A fairly unwieldy (but machine-friendly) way is to use our own forum here plus the OpenEthnographer tool: the wiki’s text would become a set of one-post topics, each one dedicated to a specific author. I could then add the keywords with Open Ethnographers and BANG! The network is there.

Any thoughts, anyone? @Kyle ? @petussing? @Nica ? @zazizoma ? @nadia ? Others?

Okay, first off I love the idea. I’ve been working on mindmapping some complexity economics topics, which isn’t quite the same as demonstrating multiple linkages between concepts, but it does embed a particular concept with others.
Second, and we’ve had this conversation before, our illustrious SF writers are missing a cohesive economic theory that provides the pathway from the imaginative world to the real world. To use your example, Stealing Worlds talks about smart contracts but not at all about actual production. Where does that food that speaks to the delivery person about where it wants to go come from? I think Schroeder took a shortcut by placing most of his narrative in a virtual world where things don’t actually need to be procured and manufactured. Doctorow get’s a little closer with fab technology, but nothing about supply chains and distribution.
That said, perhaps the networks could be structured to illuminate the missing nodes?

This is for sure. Though it’s not entirely fair to fault a sci-fi author for going speculative!


We’re ALL missing that theory ; )


If I understand these concepts aright, it seems to me that you are thinking of how to organize the data that we have currently, so that ideas, especially those that connect to other ideas, don’t get lost. That seems worthwhile. Try it and see if it works on the small, controllable scale you have, and if so, expand.

Zazizoma’s idea seems to me to be to fill in the blanks and connect the dots – like Tolkien’s Silmarillion, the backstory for his entire universe – only for the economics instead of the mythology. If done from an objective point of view, this may have the benefit of identifying what works and separating it from what does not. But the problem is that like the Utopian sci-fi of the late 19th century, authors fall into justifying the system that they have to the extent that they refuse to countenance anything that might imply that it won’t work with real people. So what seems like “connecting dots” might simply be yet one more strenuous fantasy attempt at self-justification.

Ultimately the only way to avoid that is a full-blown plunge into practice. That is what I earlier pointed out is what did NOT happen for Proudhon’s Mutualism, which has meant that from that day to this it has not been seriously tried on a large scale. Current experiments with Universal Basic Income are interesting in that respect, but in fact they can’t tell us much, as they are neither universal nor long-term, and so they only tell us the effects of poor people in a specific cultural milieu getting a guaranteed income for a modest period. By the way, for a science fiction treatment of this theme, look at Robert Heinlein’s 1938 book “For Us, the Living”, published posthumously. It is an important and overlooked work.

It is not impossible that a sufficiently detailed computer simulation could address some of this, but it would need to be programmed with the latest data in social psychology, and as you are aware, we recently found out that some 40% of basic “accepted” studies in psychology cannot be replicated… So it is early days for that – where is Hari Seldon when you need him…?

1 Like

Wow, I definitely will. It’s always Heinlein.

@zazizoma is an ABM modeller, and any sufficiently advanced ABM is indistinguishable from psychohistory! :sweat_smile:

(A joke, everyone! Only a joke! No need for those pitchforks!)

I really like the idea of this kind of data!

It would be really nice for readers to be able to choose books based on the connection of economic concepts. It may be a niche market, but I know I’d pick out a new read of it connected concepts together in ways I’ve never thought of.

I also think the data visualization would be really cool to see. Seeing what economic concepts we currently link together may help showcase the unexplored and missing elements in a way that could inspire writers to address. Perhaps that is similar to what @zazizoma had in mind?

So what are the immediate steps in making that happen? Would more people adding to the wiki be helpful?

The first thing to do is to decide in what form to re-encode the data. The one I proposed has many advantages, and I am inclined to go with it, but any counterproposal would be welcome. The second is…

… this, indeed, because these networks risk being very sparse (depending on how hard we consolidate our taxonomy of economic terms). So, more data => a more connected, therefore more meaningful, network.

1 Like


Do you know these people? They are in Europe and seem like they might be good contacts for you.

Nice to read you Philip! No, I was not aware of BIEN in particular. Good to have them on the radar, thank you!