We are in space. We went to the Moon. We will go to Mars. Fiction writers, especially science fiction authors, were key to this. How did fiction set us on the path to the stars? The world had already seen the romance of space and possible new frontiers, courtesy of science fiction writers. There are other challenges on Earth that could use such a force for transformation, including the pressing need for effective and affordable global education. First, let’s look to space.
On September 12, 1962, President Kennedy gave a speech known for its key message: “We choose to go to the Moon.” In 1961, Kennedy stood before Congress to propose a commitment that America would land humans on the Moon and safely return them to Earth. His 1962 speech was to gain public support for an expensive and hazardous action, where no other humans had made an attempt or succeeded.
“We choose to go to the Moon! We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.”1
As Jordan2 notes, Kennedy needed to convince the American people to give him their “time, energy, sacrifice, and trust” to achieve a moon landing, when the U.S. had, to that point, accumulated less than 16 minutes of crewed flight time. He mentioned new frontiers, a “new sea” upon which to “set sail.” He used epic, romantic language.
The technical effort required to get humans to the Moon was incredible. Approximately four hundred thousand technical specialists worked on many different parts of the problem. As Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the Moon, Collins above, the achievement was more than von Braun’s team’s work on the Saturn V. It was more than Margaret Hamilton’s team’s work on the guidance system, inventing software engineering as they went.3� It was a triumph of will, to show that this was not just possible but achievable.
How was Kennedy able to even put this massive and expensive proposal in front of Congress?
To examine Kennedy’s speech, his new frontiers and space pilgrims, is to see parallels with science fiction. In 1966, Star Trek urged us “to boldly go, where no man has gone before,” both epic and romantic, this phrasing predates Kennedy’s speech. Similar text is found in a White House booklet (1958�4): “the thrust of curiosity that leads men to try to go where no one has gone before.”
These notions drew on the rich tradition of two influential parents of science fiction—Jules Verne, for deep research and highly technical space romance, and H. G. Wells, for a less technical but more sociological and political view of what could be.
Kennedy’s rhetoric drew on existing romantic notions of space, fueled by writers who had made people think that humans in space was achievable and desirable. Writers had made the impossible seem possible, which empowered a president to say, “We choose to go to the Moon.”
This is not an isolated incident. For years, we have read about Mars. Now, Andy Weir’s The Martian, combined with the ever-rescuable Matt Damon, has spread the idea that humans will not only reach Mars, but they will survive no matter what happens. Science fiction writers have been quietly whispering into the minds of the public for years now, and when the presidential language comes, or the now successful private space sector makes a similar stand, those listening will think it is possible. It may be a hard possible but it is still possible. Writers have, without setting foot on Mars, made this possible.
Many works by science fiction authors in the area of space exploration are examples of what Bruce Sterling has referred to as “design fiction,” a term coined by Julian Bleecker of Near Future Laboratory.5� Design fiction is “the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change.” This is not just storytelling; this is designing prototypes and examples of a world that has somehow been changed. In this changed world, we now have new possibility, and this provides room in which creative human thought can posit solutions and pathways to reach this new state. The design fiction may not be real, but it allows visions of new possibilities.
When Verne, Wells, and others wrote about space, they socialized the idea that humans could go into space. By the time Kennedy addressed Congress, science fiction had made landing on the Moon a grand challenge but not an impossibility. Many of these stories were not intentionally design fiction, but the effect was the same. What else could we, as a reading and writing community, achieve through design fiction?
One of the greatest challenges that will face humanity in the latter half of the twenty-first century is humanity itself. To be more precise, a large and growing number of unemployed, effectively unskilled, and underoccupied people. Education will be vital in addressing this, but we have never achieved high quality global and affordable education for every child.
Writers can include design fiction elements regarding the development, adoption, and success of modern educational practice. This can help to convince readers that education is a worthwhile and useful way to change the world in a positive manner. Why is this important?
Labor participation is dropping and has been doing so for some time.6� Large-scale automation and the replacement of human jobs with machine labor is a growing factor. An International Labor Organization (ILO) report7� shows a growing jobs gap, with decreased prospects for the young. Currently, low-skilled and manual jobs make up approximately 45% of global employment, but skilled work and high-skilled, non-routine cognitive jobs are increasing. We see the loss of intermediate-skill jobs, with jobs moving to high skill levels or lower service-level employment that still require humans.
While 45% of work as manual labor appears reasonable, this is down from 51% in 2000. Manual labor is not evenly divided across the world. As the report notes, even in developing countries, increasing education and changes in economic circumstances tend to reduce the availability of manual labor: machinery replaces people or people up-skill for other work.
Today, two billion people are employed in the manual workforce, but opportunities are shrinking. We already have 2.7 billion people out of work. If manual labor were to disappear tomorrow, then we would wake up in a world where 64% of the population was unemployed, without income, and hungry. We would wake up to chaos.
Labor participation is steadily declining and, unfortunately, we may see this scenario playing out soon. In 2041, the Earth will hold approximately nine billion people. Assuming no technological breakthroughs such as household robots or industrial androids, the manual labor participation rate will hit 36% (based on the ILO report). However, with increasing home automation, the work on driverless cars and related applied robotics work, this is a questionable assumption. Thirty-six percent is probably naively optimistic. A recent Australian study puts the number as low as 20% by 2036.�8
Highly skilled job numbers are growing in areas such as advanced service provision and new technical roles, but appropriate skills and knowledge are essential—which requires education. We’ll need to find ways to retrain people and develop new skills, and we’re going to have to do it quickly, cheaply, and effectively, on a massive scale. Effective educational systems are vital to prepare people for a rapidly changing future.
By 2041, my goal is to have global, affordable, high-quality education to support the training, skill development, and occupation of billions. The resourcing, the scale—the challenge—is daunting. Yet, if we have the will, we’ve shown we can go to the Moon.
Do we already have the best educational systems? Not in many places around the world. Educators and philosophers have been trying to improve teaching for centuries, but resources have been lacking. In many cases the will to change has been lacking. Without knowing what could be, why even seek change?
Writers can make the impossible seem possible. Design fiction can reinforce an accurate and positive view of contemporary education, leading to innovation, better educational systems, and better educational outcomes. This frees people to think about how to get “there” from “here.” It becomes possible.
We’ve already made leaps and bounds in the development of high quality education, but standards of education vary widely, inside and between countries. Countries have achieved high quality and relatively homogeneous educational systems but rarely at the scale of large states such as the United States, Russia, or China. Cultural factors are usually strongly linked with successful countrywide efforts.
We do see innovative, entertaining, and developed explorations of education in fiction, whether Terry Pratchett’s arcane Unseen University, the Vulcan Science Academy of Star Trek, the magical training in Magician or The Name of the Wind, or even the military academic models in the Battle School of Ender’s Game.
But, sadly, when many people write of education in fiction, it’s negative: bored students, stereotypes of high achievers, division between haves and have-nots, the boring lecturer talking to a bored class. This reinforces negative stereotypes that we know have an influential effect upon student participation in education. The antisocial perception of computer science, my own discipline, means that some groups of American students have to study it without their friends finding out, resulting in a tragically low participation rate from certain communities.9�
Many authors portray a system rejected by the American pragmatists one hundred years ago, not reflecting what we do in 2016. Education has changed and improved. Active learning,�10 where students participate in the educational activity, is now used much more frequently, because it increases student performance. Student creativity is harnessed. Groups are used to form highly effective learning clusters. Educators now have serious debates as to whether they should expose students to a sequence of lectures (with an information retention rate around 20%) when they could be working with the students in active learning (retention around 60%).�11
What can writers do? There are already many excellent panels on education at conventions, but we can ask for more of these, to provide vital background as to what twenty-first-century education looks like. There are academic journals and conferences, talks given by local Universities, blogs, and outreach activities.
I would like this article to help start a community of practice between educators and writers, on design fiction to support educational aims.
For those who want to write larger works, what would a world with a generation of global education behind it look like? What would be the occupation of humans who lived there?
My first design fiction requirement is a very simple request. It is a request that education is no longer seen as some punitive and dull exercise. The Moon was never mundane, something that you may do if you could be bothered; it was always a grand adventure. The opportunities offered by education are immense and increasingly important. We are already seeing the decline of the job-for-life, the one skill to take you to retirement, and the ability to put learning behind you. When you introduce an educational setting into your work, could you be positive, accurate, and constructive? It is the tiniest of changes to your world, ignoring possibly your own experience and what is the experience for too many students today, but it is a benign fiction. It wants to be true. It actually is true for many, and it could be true for all.
Then you will have taken the impossible and, through one small action, started to make it seem possible.
There are many educational researchers who write in this space but may assume an existing level of knowledge of theory or practice. However, the writings of John Dewey12� and Benjamin Bloom�13 are approachable. In terms of how people learn, significant contributions have been made by many, including Lev Vygotsky and his work on how students learn in groups, Jean Piaget and the developmental stages of children, and Seymour Papert, whose seminal text on computer science education, Mindstorms,14� is highly readable. Alfie Kohn’s thoughts on assessment, deeply tied into understanding people, are also well worth reading. The books Unlocking the Clubhouse (Margolis and Fisher) and Stuck in the Shallow End (Margolis) are highly recommended for those seeking to understand gender or racial issues in the educational divide.
1 “1962-09-12 Rice University”, (Video recording), John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, recorded 09/12/1962, Digital Identifier USG-15-r29.
2 J. W. Jordan, “Kennedy’s Romantic Moon and Its Rhetorical Legacy for Space Exploration,” Rhetoric & Public Affairs, Volume 6, Number 2, Summer 2003, pp. 209-231 | 10.1353/rap.2003.0047
4 “Introduction to Outer Space,” The White House. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C., 26 March 1958.
7 “World Employment and Social Outlook: Trends 2015” http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/@dgreports/@dcomm/@publ/documents/publication/wcms_337069.pdf
9 Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing, Margolis, J., MIT Press, 2010, p63.
10 “Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics,” Freeman et al, PNAS 111 (23), June, 2014. http://www.pnas.org/content/111/23/8410.full.pdf