Friday, May 18, 2018

Prompts for economic SF

A version of this list will be appearing in FOCUS in late 2018.

As a writer responding to one of these prompts, you'll probably want to ask two questions: (a) why are things like this in the first place? (b) What are the implications?
  • Think of an economic system to which you are politically opposed. Imagine, in as much detail as possible, a working version of this system. Make it a bit like utopia. Take all your objections seriously, but devise science fictional solutions to them. Use this as a setting to tell any kind of story you like.
  • A story featuring a designer market or a complementary currency (see e.g. Bernard Lietaer) whose purpose is not to solve a specific set of social problems, but to create them.
  • Your story is set in an intimately surveilled (or sousveilled) society. In this society, if an analysis of your behaviour suggests that you want something, you automatically buy it (even if that puts you into debt).
  • Write a thriller, a love story, a murder mystery, a coming-of-age-fable, and/or a comedy of manners. Set it in the near future, during the transition to a Universal Basic Income system. Make sure there are lots of kinks in the process.
  • Imagine an economy without economies of scale. Why don't they exist? What are the implications?
  • Precarious workers in the gig economy start to gain a little more security by developing their own digital tools for distributed solidarity. What data do they gather and how do they share and use it? What might a social media platform look like if it were organised around workers' interests? How might algorithmic curation work if it were trying to drive not engagement, but class consciousness? 
  • Imagine an economy in which all prices and wages have a random element. (Maybe things are priced in this format: something like $3d6 means the cost will be $3-18, but with a higher chance of it being $9 than $3 or $18. Something like $1d20 means the cost will be $1-20, with every price equally likely). Why? What are the implications?
  • Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has dominated economic policy and politics, despite its many well-demonstrated shortcomings. Various alternatives exist; e.g. Bhutan uses a Gross National Happiness Index. Imagine a world where economic policy is focused on some unusual alternative to GDP. Perhaps the story is about trying to change to a different metric, and the unexpected consequences.
  • Imagine an alternative timeline in which the 1973 Chilean coup failed or never happened in the first place. What next for Stafford Beer and Cybersyn? (You may want to read Eden Medina's Cybernetic Revolutionaries first).
  • Invent a few new cognitive biases, or exaggerate some existing cognitive biases, and extrapolate how they will reshape the economy. 
  • Imagine an alternative timeline in which the Soviet Union pursued the project of a computational command economy in a big way. (You may want to read Francis Spufford's Red Plenty first).
  • A tweet-based currency.
  • Industrial disputes are handled algorithmically, and/or are gamified.
  • An economy that has been designed with institutions specifically to disincentivize all kinds of rational egoist, homo economicus type behaviour.
  • Set your story in a future where regenerative design, redistributive design, and generous design have become normalized. The economy is based on processes that revitalize the resources they need, that distribute value widely instead of letting it pool and concentrate, and that aim to create positive externalities (rather than just no negative externalities. Check out Kate Raworth's Doughnut Economics to find out more about these terms). These features could be in the foreground, or just in the background. You could stress test the world you have invented in various ways. You could explore what happens when these principles are so ingrained, even the bad guys operate by them. E.g. how does a scientist supervillain, or a mercenary company, or a giant killer robot, try to abide by such principles?
  • A reputation based currency but with some twist. The twist is up to you, but just for example, you can start by reading Cory Doctorow's critique of his invention reputation currency Whuffie (and this post may be handy too). How might things be different if you had several reputation scores, and any increase in one of your reputation scores meant a decrease in your others?
  • Imagine a world in which all "markets" are actually networked barter systems. There is no money as such. Goods and services are "priced" in credits, but there's no such thing as owning credits by themselves. What you can do is request goods or services, and list your own goods and services in exchange. The system gets around the coincidence of wants problem by some kind of multilateral matching algorithm, and clears all requests as quickly as feasible. Think through the details of the system, and imagine how it reshapes the economy and people's everyday lives.
  • What we usually call "ownership" is actually a bundle of rights, for instance the right to use something (in certain ways), the right to earn income from it, the right to transfer it, the right to exclude others from using it, the right to dispose of it, etc. Think of different ways of dividing up "ownership." Imagine a society in which these rights are not typically bundled together. 
  • Similar to the last one: imagine a world in which it is easy to place complex conditions on how something will be used when it is sold. What kinds of conditions do people place? Why? What are the second- and third-order effects? 
  • Again similar to the last one: technology gives most commodities a fine-grained modularity. Ownership as we know it is obsolete, but there are competing ideas about what new forms should take its place. Some producers, still seeking to maximize profit no matter what, want to extract value from micro-licensing long after they have "sold" something. Other actors are trying to establish a circular economy that is restorative and regenerative by design.
  • Military science fiction featuring a company of high tech mercenaries that seek to reconcile their chosen profession with being green and sustainable.
  • A world of great abundance -- perhaps kind of post-scarcity -- in which anything that is paid for is paid for with on-the-spot by micro-labour (never more than ten minutes).
  • Imagine a universe without Nash equilibria.
  • Imagine a universe without Pareto optimality.
  • Imagine a universe in which Walrasian general equilibrium is not even theoretically possible, although partial equilibrium is.
  • Imagine a democracy based on rotating through Nash equilibria rather than political parties.
  • Imagine all the people, living life in peace, yoo hoo ooh-ooh-ooh.
  • All economic transactions are done through some kind of a Vickrey auction.
  • There are already many LETS communities and time banks all over the world. Imagine one system growing until it fundamentally alters the nature of capitalism, or perhaps in some sense replaces it.
  • Imagine an economy in which some or all goods aren't characterized by diminishing marginal utility, but by more complex curves that go up and down at different amounts. How? Why? So what?
  • Imagine an economy where each quantum of cash bears a record of all the historical transactions it has been involved in. (So a bit like a blockchain, but imagine that the data is a bit more rich than what amounts were transferred).
  • Create a magic system based on the stock exchange.
  • Imagine a sophisticated form of economics that uses little or no mathematics. Maybe it is mainly visual.
  • There is a small close-to-post-scarcity utopia existing at the fringe of a large capitalist society. How do the utopians deal with the arbitrage
  • Build an economy in which every good or service has a different price depending on who's buying it. Among other things, think about how such an economy handles its complex arbitrage problems.
  • Imagine a world in which certain categories of goods periodically "rotate," e.g. all instances of commodity a turn into commodity b, all commodity b into commodity c, c into d, d into e, and e into a. Why? And how do people adjust to this phenomenon?
  • Imagine a society in which the division of labour is done in some radically different way.
  • Imagine a functioning economy and financial system in which there is no interest (and also probably no arrangements like buy-to-lease which in some ways functionally approximate interest bearing loans).
  • Imagine a world in which all transaction costs are zero. Or, imagine a world in which all or key transaction costs are exotic in some way, perhaps fluctuating predictably according to some irresistible external impulse.
  • Imagine a society without what David Graeber calls "bullshit jobs." Or imagine the difficult transition to such a society.
  • Imagine a science fictional reason for an unambiguous positive correlation between inflation and unemployment.
  • A world in which something called "smart inflation" exists. What is it, and how does it work? How does it reshape the economy and society?
  • Some kind of biopunk world in which affect (feelings) can be transferred, commodified, bought and sold. 
  • In the near future, the Earth divides into just two societies: one Left Accelerationist, the other Right Accelerationist. What happens?
  • In the near future, the Earth divides into just two societies: a Promethean Leftist society, and a Green Leftist society. What goes down?
  • Can you imagine a "Promethean deep ecological" society?
  • Cash and markets come to an extremely advanced, complex alien society that has never had such things in all their history.
  • Another variant on Doctorow's Whuffie, from Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. In the novel, you can't really "spend" Whuffie to buy things. It just goes up and down depending what people think of you. But what if you could spend it? What if you gained credits automatically through conduct people approve of, which you can choose to deplete to buy things? The credits are erased, rather than transferred. 
  • Design a blockchain utopia. Make it an ambiguous, critical utopia (think Le Guin's Dispossessed), and don't write it from an anarcho-capitalist perspective.
  • Research (or find somebody who knows about) an extremely intricate, dull, and complicated episode of economic history. For instance, research rail fares in the UK 1970-2020. In what ways have they changed? Why? What choices were made? What lessons have been learned? What models are in operation? What challenges are now being faced? Now try to tell the most exciting science fictional story you can, preserving the underlying economic logic. You may want to change the subject matter entirely, but try to preserve (in particular) any insights into the design of policies, institutions and incentives, and/or the counter-intuitive, emergent behaviour of systems whose wholes are greater than the sum of their parts.
  • Imagine the transition to full communism from the perspective of someone working in a particular role in a particular organisation (whether it's a business, a non-profit, something else). Try to include the detailed, mundane challenges in your story -- the kind of stuff the protagonist thinks would be too complicated to explain to anybody who didn't do the job they do.
  • A freak temporal storm transports Kim Stanley Robinson to 1900.
  • It's a highly networked society, and all payments are digital. When you pay for a good or service, there's a suggested price, but you can pay whatever you want for it. If a good or service is unavailable, you can state what price you would have paid for it. Periodically (every month, say) there is a Rebalancing in which a sort of version of a Vickrey auction is computed. The price of the good or service is set at that offered by the highest bidder who would have lost, if this had been a normal Vickrey auction. Everyone's bank balances are then adjusted according to the price (if they paid more, they get some money back; if they paid less, they are charged a top-up). But how does the system deal with the fact that some people have already consumed goods which, if this were a normal Vickrey auction, they would not have any right to? What incentives are there to pay higher rather than lower prices? And what are the wider economic, social, and cultural ramifications of this system?
  • The world is a computer simulation, and everyone knows it. It's also a democracy, and elections aren't just about choosing government officials, they're about choosing new realities. Between elections, the main form of currency is backed by story prompts for economic science fiction, and the economic science fiction based on those prompts.


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  2. Make Double-Entry Accounting mandatory in the schools and be sure they know about the Depreciation of Durable Consumer Goods.

    A businesswoman told me a couple of years ago that the 2008 recession would never have happened if everyone knew accounting.