Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

11.31: Futurism, with Trina Marie Phillips

Trina Marie Phillips joined us at Phoenix Comic Con to talk about her work as a futurist. Futurism, for those unfamiliar with our use of the term here, is related to science fiction, but it remains rooted in existing technology and trends, then seeks to be predictive in useful ways.

Liner Notes: Trina mentioned some online resources (and a four-year educational program!) for those interested in working as futurists:

Catch-phrase of the episode: “all we need is a billionaire with a secure facility and a steady supply of monkeys.”

Credits: This episode was recorded by Jeff Cools, and mastered by Alex Jackson. 

Homework: Pick a city and write what you think it will look like in the year 045.

Thing of the week: The City of the Future, edited by Trina Marie Phillips.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Futurism and science fiction are two sides of the same coin, but futurism needs to be rooted in believable fact. Futurism usually looks 10, 20, 50 or 100 years out. Realistic projections in useful ways. Lots of SF is not waiting for the technology to be developed, just for the strike point that makes it happen, often funding. To go beyond projecting a single tech, you have to look at ecosystems, and how society adopts to change. Also, think of leapfrogging. Most writers don’t think far enough ahead. Technology is widely available. Part of futurism is using storytelling to show why companies should invest in projects, by showing them what the outcomes are likely to be.

[Mary] Season 11, Episode 31.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Futurism, with Trina Phillips.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Brandon] And we have special guest star, Trina Phillips. Trina, tell us about yourself.
[Trina] I am a science fiction writer that has found my way into being a futurist, and I will say, it is a major upgrade from working retail for many years.
[Trina] So now I get to do both. In my own time, I’m writing stories and novels. For work, I’m working with Fortune 500 companies to look at the future. Usually, there the big, old companies that do everything slow. So they don’t know how to deal with how quickly things are changing nowadays.
[Brandon] Excellent. I want to mention, we are live at Phoenix ComicCon.

[Brandon] We are very thankful for the crowd here in the audience. I want to ask you, can you just outline a little bit more of what futurism is, just in case there are listeners who don’t know.
[Trina] Futurism and science fiction are sort of two sides of the same coin, but they’re rather different. Futurism needs to be somewhat rooted in a believable fact. I say that because when we write our science-fiction, we can go way out in other galaxies, use some handwavium, make anything happen. But futurism, most of the time in my job I’m looking 10 to 20 years out, a lot of futurists look up to 50 to 100 years out, but we need to root it in the technology that exists today and understand how quickly that’s changing, how quickly people are going to adapt to it, and make some somewhat realistic projections on where we think things will be.
[Howard] To my understanding, good futurism seeks to be predictive in useful ways.
[Trina] Absolutely. Although Arthur C. Clarke is really well known for saying that if… Anything that you predict now that sounds reasonable, isn’t going far enough, and if it sounds absolutely crazy, you’re probably going to be proved right in 50 years, but everyone right now is going to think you’re crazy. That’s paraphrasing.
[Brandon] It seems like futurism might have grown out of science fiction writing. Because a lot of the early futurists were people like Arthur C. Clarke.
[Trina] Absolutely. They’ve always kind of run side-by-side.
[Brandon] Excellent. So let me ask you this. How does your work in futurism inform your writing?
[Trina] Well, it definitely makes me think of things like the idea of trans-humanism and people altering themselves. In my earlier writing, I didn’t really use that much. I took regular people and put them in the future. Now, if people aren’t being augmented in 100, 200, 500 years, I think there needs to be a reason why. You need a society where somehow that has broken down. So if you look at what we’re already capable of now, and you just imagine how quickly things are changing, because everything is just getting faster and faster and smaller, you just have to imagine that anything is going to be possible. It’s not 500 years down the line, it’s one or 200 years down the line.
[Howard] There was a conversation in the Facebook group for the Schlock Mercenary fans where somebody said, “We don’t need to worry about that, because uplift of primates is a couple of hundred years off.” I said, “No, we’ve got enough of the primate genome now that all you need is a billionaire with a secure facility and an unlimited sup… Excuse me, a steady supply of monkeys.”
[Brandon] Maybe a secret lair.
[Howard] But the point being a lot of these things that we talk about as science-fiction are not waiting for the technology to be developed, they’re waiting for some sort of a strike point where the right things come together so that it happens.
[Mary] Frequently, that strike point is funding. Like we actually had the technology to go to Mars. There was a Mars plan in 1944 (1994?) that they could have done with the technology available then. But they didn’t have the funding.
[Dan] It’s really kind of amazing how many futurist concepts have suddenly become plausible thanks to Elon Musk. Just being rich and deciding to do it.
[Brandon] Right. All it takes is one super villain…
[Brandon] And everything comes together.

[Dan] Okay. I have a question for you, Trina. My new series is cyberpunk, set about 35 years in the future. I have found that it is relatively easy… Ha ha ha… To predict where one branch of tech is going to be in 35 years. I think I have a pretty good handle on say self driving cars and where that’s going. But trying to predict what society will look like when self driving cars and drone technology and Internet and space and gene and bio printing… All of those combined, what would that look like? How do you do that?
[Trina] Well, you have to look at… You do. You look at ecosystems and what’s going to affect everything else. You have to know that certain parts of society are going to adopt and accept certain things. Certain parts of society will reject it. Things like… Countries that are Third World are behind where we are now. What are they going to look like in 30 years? It will be way different than what the more advanced countries are doing, yet they are still going to be far ahead of where we are now.
[Howard] What I found, when I traveled to South Africa in 99, is that they had already leapfrogged us in deployment of cellular tech, mobile tech, because they could not afford to lay down the wires. They didn’t have the infrastructure. So everybody wanted telephones, so… Pop, pop, pop… Up go the cell towers and everyone is talking on cell phones. I was amazed.
[Trina] There’s a lot of leapfrogging. Like India is going to leapfrog right over… If they start getting on the renewable energy, they’re going to leapfrog over a lot of the coal and oil stuff, and just go straight to solar and all that very… In the next 10, 15 years.
[Mary] Historically, one of the things that’s interesting was that whoever is controlling power… Like actually has power, like Holland was wind power, England was coal, so I’m going to be interested to see if they leapfrog us in terms of energy, what that would do to societal thing. [Trina] The interesting thing with energy though, is if it just gets to the point where every country is producing their own, it’s going to have an interesting effect on the market.
[Mary] Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.
[Trina] Because we can all produce our own.

[Brandon] I have a question for you that takes it a slightly different direction. Are there certain strategies you have seen or that are in your discipline that have had better results for prediction… Predicting the future as opposed to other strategies? Are the things that writers, perhaps our listeners, might be doing wrong if they want to be accurate, and ways they might have a better shot?
[Trina] I think the biggest thing I see… We work with a lot of writers, freelance. I think the biggest thing I see is that they’re not thinking far enough ahead. They’re not looking at… They’re looking at what we have now, and thinking when we say 10 years out, they’re going to give me something that’s two years out. So you have to really just look at how quickly things are changing. So much technology is now in the hands of everyday people. Things… Gene splicing and all of that is much more accessible than we would ever have thought it to be.
[Brandon] Is there any discussion of AIs and the control problem and things like that, or is that just kind of not where your companies are looking?
[Trina] Well, we are working… We’re creating like Alexa apps and that sort of thing. That’s one of the things we do. So we’re looking at AI. We’re sort of assuming it’s going to happen. As far as preventing it from being the disaster of science… That we see in all our science fiction movies, we aren’t… We’re not bending the right ears for that. We’re trusting that someone else is handling that.
[Brandon] Someone else. From what I understand, that’s what everyone working in AI is saying, but…

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week. Which is actually The City of the Future, edited by you. Can you tell us a little bit about The City of the Future?
[Trina] We just put together the anthology. We decided on a theme of The City of the Future between now and 2050. We asked our writers to all contribute. We got such a diverse mix of stories. We got stories all over the planet. We got stories where there were cities that were running themselves, but had a great personality. We had Third World countries that were just getting started with everything being connected, and a city where everything is always surveilled, and yet that made the people feel safe rather than watched over and Big Brother.
[Brandon] Interesting.
[Trina] So we got a really excellent selection and…
[Brandon] This is a collection of short fiction with a futurist bent, trying to accurately predict what the city of the future would be like?
[Trina] Relatively. But… I’ll be honest, in this case, we asked our science fiction writers to just write science-fiction. I have a story in there, and I did that because we give this to a lot of our clients. If they’re going to hire us, they should kind of know my abilities. Normally, I know the editor doesn’t put their own story in.
[Brandon] Well, George always puts one in the George Martin anthologies, so I think that there’s precedent.
[Trina] But my story, I tried to bridge science-fiction and futurism. But we didn’t actually ask that of our authors.
[Brandon] Okay. Excellent. Where can people get a copy of this?
[Trina] Honestly, you can get it on pretty much every electronic media. Barnes & Noble, everything else. It’s also available in print, Amazon CreateSpace.
[Brandon] Great.
[Trina] So that’s every format.
[Howard] I see two hardcopies here on the table and not five.
[Trina] We have a whole backpack full of them. We have some for the audience, too.
[Howard] Outstanding.
[Trina] I can’t get everybody, but…
[Mary] Sorry. Listeners that are not here with us.
[Howard] You can’t see the great, huge smile on my face.
[Brandon] They can all go buy copies.

[Brandon] Now, you had something else when we were talking before that was really interesting to me. You talked about writing for corp companies, in a corporate structure. This is a little off topic, but I think it could be really useful to our listeners to hear about how a writer like yourself who is primarily a science fiction writer ended up writing for Fortune 500 companies and what it’s like to do writing for them.
[Trina] It is something very different. I ended up… I started out freelancing for Sci Futures. They liked my work enough and I was local and everything worked out great, so they ended up hiring me.
[Brandon] So, Sci Futures is the company that provides the futurist…
[Trina] Yes. We are actually a science fiction prototyping company. So the ideas that we come up with, we also have a tech side that can build them. So we kind of create things out of thin air.
[Howard] I’m so happy that that’s a thing.
[Mary] I’m like, I want that job.
[Trina] So part of what I do is I help… A lot of times… As I say, I work for big, old companies, most often. Not always. But we have to sometimes convince those big, old companies that they need to do something more progressive, and they need to move faster and they need to be thinking ahead. Part of what I do is I help in the storytelling make that a much more palatable thing as to why they should spend all this money on doing these projects. I don’t mean that in a sleazy salesperson kind of way. I’m trying to show why these technologies will benefit people, as well as their company. But why they’re a good thing to move toward.
[Dan] So if I’m understanding correctly, does this mean that like say a huge financing company comes to you and you want to teach them the value of some particular technology, and so you write a story that uses it?
[Trina] Yes.
[Dan] That kind of normalizes it and helps them see it functioning?
[Trina] Yes.
[Dan] That is so cool. That’s amazing.
[Mary] I’m actually judging a similar contest for… It’s called Futurescapes. It’s designed to come up with cities that are accessible in a way that is understood… We all understand the power of narrative. It’s to go to mayors in all American cities.
[Howard] When I worked at Novell, we did what we called contextual inquiries, which is where we would watch users do the things that they tried to do during a day and then try to communicate this back to engineering. It always broke down because we tried to describe what they were doing to the engineers, instead of doing what you do, which is storifying so that the engineer has a narrative that they can picture.
[Trina] And I’ve had the good fortune also, we’ve worked in a graphic novel format, we’ve done animatics, short films. So I get to explore all these different media.
[Howard] Why is this not my job already?
[Mary] I know. I like this. This is the coolest thing.
[Trina] It is. It’s absolutely awesome. There is… Kind of… My boss likes to call it a healthy tension. I’ll call it a slightly frustrating tension between pure creativity and corporate need. It’s not that frustrating, but… Sometimes it’s like, “Oh, the story was great, but they want to put in all these things that slow it down a little bit and all of that, or change it.” The first year, there was a lot of back and forth. I had to learn, no, you can’t have a story do everything in 12 graphic novel pages. Then I had to learn where it’s like, okay, well, that’s what the customer wants, so we’ve got to get it in.

[Dan] Okay. So I really want to ask, and maybe you’re under like a nondisclosure so you can’t answer this question, but could you give us a specific example? Of something you’ve taught to a company this way?
[Trina] Well, I’ll give you a couple company names. We’ve worked with Ford and Crayola and Hershey’s and Lowes and General Mills. I will say that Ford and Hershey’s, I have specifically seen things get to market that we worked with them on.
[Trina] Some 3-D printing of candy.
[Brandon] I saw [inaudible] 3-D candy printer. My kids wanted one. They were like 50 bucks or something… I mean, I’m exaggerating but it was really expensive. But they were like, “Oh, I can make whatever I want into candy and then destroy it and eat it? It sounds great to me.”

[Brandon] Let’s say our listeners are like I want to get more involved in futurism. I think this would help my writing or it’s just interesting to me. What resources could you point them toward if they want to get involved in this?
[Trina] There’s some newsletters I try to keep up with. One is PSFK laboratories. Another is the Creators Project. That’s a little more artistic, but they always have some tech stuff going on. Singularity Hub is a good way to go. Arizona State University, I believe, has a program. But also, there is the World Future Society. They’ve been going through a little flux and change recently, but they’re probably worth at least looking into.
[Brandon] Excellent. Well, we want to thank you very much for coming and being on the podcast. We want to thank Phoenix ComicCon audience.
[Brandon] Trina Phillips, thank you very, very much.
[Trina] Thank you. This has been awesome.

[Brandon] Trina, would you be able to give us a writing prompt?
[Trina] How about we have everyone try to write… Pick a city, anywhere in the world, and write what you think it will look like in the year 2045.
[Brandon] Excellent.
[Mary] That’s awesome.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.