Strategy/Wikimedia movement/2017/Sources/Considering 2030: Learning to expect the unexpected in 2030

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(By Jessica Clark, Dot Connector Studio)

As Wikimedia looks toward 2030, how can the movement help people find trustworthy sources of knowledge?[1]

As part of the Wikimedia 2030 strategy process, the Wikimedia Foundation is working with independent research consultants to understand the key trends that will affect the future of free knowledge and share this information with the movement.[2] This report was prepared by Dot Connector Studio, a Philadelphia-based media research and strategy firm focused on how emerging platforms can be used for social impact, and Lutman & Associates, a St. Paul-based strategy, planning, and evaluation firm focused on the intersections of culture, media, and philanthropy.

How can we know what the world will look like in 2030—and what the Wikimedia movement’s role will be in it?

Over the past several months, the Wikimedia movement has been pursuing a variety of answers to inform the #Wikimedia2030 process: through consultation with community members; expert interviews and group discussions; scanning of industry, government and academic research; and conducting new research on usage and awareness of Wikipedia.

Each of these methods has its own strengths and weaknesses:

  • Community members have intimate knowledge but may be too deep inside current project realities and priorities to pull their eyes away and peer over the horizon.
  • Experts might be too distant from the day-to-day to provide a balanced perspective.
  • For good or ill, group conversations can lead to group consensus.
  • Research reports built from current realities or a focus on one platform or trend can arrive at narrow truths.

Combining all of these methods strengthens the weak spots in each one—providing multiple layers and forms of insight, revealing areas of broad consensus, clarifying the limits of the debate and revealing new ideas about how the world might change. Catch up on what’s been uncovered so far here.

However, there is still more work to be done. After all, the Wikimedia movement is about finding and sharing the best knowledge that the world has to offer. So, it is worth noting that there are additional ways of conceptualizing what the future might hold.

“How can we prepare for what’s likely to happen next?” is not a static question, asked periodically for strategic planning purposes and then set aside. Yes, Wikimedia 2030 offers one extraordinary moment for the movement and the Foundation to focus together on imagining the future. But now that the muscle is flexed, it needs to be regularly exercised to stay strong.

Building the capacity to project and respond to future shifts in technology, policy, demographics, learning, and media habits—and finding the volunteers and partners who are excited and prepared to help—is central to making the Wikimedia projects flourish.

Putting futures into context[edit]

While rational extrapolation of current cultural or technological trends is a useful exercise, it doesn’t account for the unexpected developments that can surprise movements and organizations. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb describes in his 2007 bestseller The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, it is important to build an awareness of large-scale social, natural and political shifts in order to develop “robustness” against negative disruptions.[3]

To grapple with this, governments, corporations and foundations have turned to additional methods that help them imagine future shifts across multiple complex systems. These include scenario planning, speculative fiction, and speculative design. Such approaches harness creativity to surface the human consequences of innovation and unexpected change to help reveal unexpected outcomes.

How does this work in practice? For example, see the Knight Foundation’s Imagining the Future(s) report, which offers three scenarios for how communities might be informed and engaged in 2026.[4] Intended to help guide investments in arts, journalism and communities, the scenarios are based on both research and interviews, and are designed to provide “plausible stories about what alternative futures might look like to facilitate discussion over critical questions.”

Out of more than 80 social, technological, economic, environmental and political forces that could “affect the ways in which people consume information and engage with society,” the Imagining the Future(s) report’s authors chose 20 forces structured around two change drivers: the economy and technology. By combining these in various ways, the authors arrived at three scenarios, each of which has resonance for the #Wikimedia2030 strategy process:

  • Scenario A, named “A Divided Nation in Malaise,” posits a weak economy with growing socio-economic and cultural chasms. This results in uneven distribution of new technologies, growing joblessness, privatized and unequal access to information, pervasive surveillance, and dramatic class segregation. Polarization of media increases, and high-quality news and information decline.
  • Scenario B, named “Rising Tides Lift Many,” posits a strong economy led by technological innovation and a rising standard of living for all. But while the economy grows across the board, the income gap also widens. In this scenario, internet access becomes ubiquitous, but corporations control access to and distribution of content. New opportunities spring up for artists and cultural institutions. While journalism becomes more consolidated and consumer-focused, some forms of in-depth, investigative and community reporting thrive.
  • Scenario C, named “The Next Information Revolution,” posits a society reshaped by automation and big data and a deep social crisis precipitated by widespread automation of work. Community and volunteer organizations flourish, and cities prioritize public life and communal interaction. However, nation by nation, “the world divides into blocs of digital ‘haves’ which are more open, and ‘have-nots’ which are closed.” Routine forms of reporting and fact-checking become automated, but a new form of citizen journalism emerges, “populated by those who plug into complex networks of sensors and big data streams to uncover and verify information in the public interest.”[4]

By sorting a wide range of possibilities into these three scenarios, the Knight report provides enough narrative structure and detail to allow readers to more easily imagine future consequences. Confronting different futures also forces planners to consider their own assumptions and biases.

For example, what would happen to the Wikimedia projects if the economy tanked and donations dried up as in Scenario A? How might a boom in fast, cheap devices accelerate access to Wikimedia projects, as in Scenario B? If a universal basic income were put into place, as in Scenario C, would there be a increase in new volunteers? While these scenarios are U.S.-based, enough of the predictions are relevant to the Wikimedia movement’s global context that they can serve as a useful planning reference.

Using the same principles of scenario planning, the Wikimedia movement can work collaboratively to develop its own, more global, scenarios. In 2017, some of this work is already underway, with the Wikimedia Foundation participating in a scenario planning process with peers in the open knowledge and culture movement coordinated by the Internet Archive and also including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Mozilla, Whose Knowledge? and related experts.

Sci fi insights[edit]

While scenario planning puts three or four possible futures into a narrative context, science fiction picks one possibility and digs deeper, uncovering the human consequences of technological and cultural shifts. This is especially true for the subgenre called “social science fiction,” which turns its attention not only to new scientific or technical innovations, but also the ways in which innovations interact with human behavior, politics, and the natural world. Both dystopia and utopia are forms of social science fiction.

While current technologies and political conditions often shape the possibilities explored in such works, these stories can in turn influence the creation of new technologies and political responses. That is why science fiction writers have been asked to participate in strategic planning exercises such as the recently formed Science Fiction Advisory Council, sponsored by the nonprofit foundation XPRISE.[5] The council brings together 64 bestselling sci-fi writers and filmmakers to imagine possible positive futures—and how to realize them.

This effort builds upon previous collaborations among science fiction writers, governments, corporations and nonprofits. For example, the research institute Data & Society commissioned four science fiction authors to write stories for a 2015 forum exploring the rise of artificial intelligence.[6] Similarly, “speculative design” is used for product development and social critique. “For us,” write Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby in Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming, “futures are not a destination or something to be strived for but a medium to aid imaginative thought—to speculate with.”[7]

For the Wikimedia movement, there are some ready-made science fiction narratives that have already taken Wikipedia’s influence on the world into account. Take Corey Doctorow’s novel Walkaway, which positions wikis as the go-to manual and historical record for a generation of “walkaways” who have left mainstream society (known in the novel as “default”). They live in collective housing where everything from food to the buildings themselves can be fabricated from surplus goods and free online blueprints. Local walkaway groups are connected to a global walkaway network. When they find themselves under siege by corporate and government interests, the main characters use a global wiki to record and debate strategic counterstrikes. The novel is full of observations about the complexities of collective production and information sharing, and asides about the difficulty of predicting technological futures. It also offers a glimpse of what might happen when the boundaries between humans and machines become nearly indistinguishable, as successive generations begin to load their personalities online and struggle to adapt to new modes of consciousness.

Doctorow underscores the unpredictability of technological change. As one character observes, “Any assumption that we’re going to end up like now, but moreso, is so insufficiently weird it’s the only thing you can be sure won’t happen in the future.”[8]

Wikipedia also makes an appearance in Ready Player One—a novel which itself has been highly influential for the current generation of virtual reality designers. In the virtual environment known as OASIS where the main character, Wade Watts, spends both his school and leisure time, Wikipedia is still a widely used resource, alongside other free interactive educational programs.[9]

In the novel, Watts explains, “The OASIS was also the world’s biggest public library, where even a penniless kid like me had access to every book ever written, every song ever recorded, and every movie, television show, videogame, and piece of artwork ever created. The collected knowledge, art, and amusements of all human civilization were there, waiting for me.” This contrasts with much of OASIS, which requires resources to access. Concerns about further privatization of OASIS dominate the novel; Watts must fight his way through a series of puzzles to keep a corporation from taking the virtual world over entirely—resonant considering the current public debate about the future of the web.

Malka Older’s Infomacracy: A Novel takes on the question of how complicated it can be to maintain a global, real-time source of knowledge in a world where governments are rapidly fracturing and reforming.[10] In this future, the global source is simply called “Information,” and its creation is funded by massive legal settlements secured from corporations that had been duping the public with false facts. Unlike Wikipedia, however, Information is a closed bureaucracy, which makes it vulnerable to hacking by political operatives. The book offers a harsh assessment of the role of facts in political life, and the difficulties of engaging members of the public in informed deliberation.

Reading and discussing books such as these can help the Wikimedia movement gain perspective on the present and prepare for unexpected developments. Some anthologies such as Hieroglyph or the MIT Technology Review’s Twelve Tomorrows[11] series are even specifically designed to reflect on and influence current technologies.

“The goal of Twelve Tomorrows is to provoke thought about the future in ways that journalism, however perceptive, can’t,” writes the editor of the 2016 edition, Stephen Cass. “Imagination must fill in the blanks in our projections and suggest some of the unexpected twists and turns that inevitably mark how technologies manifest themselves.”[12]

Whose Futures?[edit]

Of course, any future scenario or narrative will be shaped by the author or participants who create it. The role of bias in science fiction has been a hot topic in recent years, with a raft of English-language anthologies seeking to offer alternative perspectives and realities. For example, see the DESTROY project, a series of collections by nontraditional authors who seek to “destroy” sci fi, horror, and fantasy genres by writing stories from their own identities and perspectives.[13] Similarly, the Afrofuturism movement explores historical and cultural concerns related to the African diaspora through science fiction as well as speculative art, music and fashion.

Why does this matter for the Wikimedia movement? Because it reflects the same challenges the Wikimedia projects are facing. If the contributors are too homogenous, all coming from similar geographic regions, races, genders, or ideological contexts, then the quality of information and insight suffers. Understanding the full range of futures requires involving a broad array of futurists with different backgrounds and experiences.

“[A]ll organizing is science fiction,” writes Walidah Imarisha in Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements, “we are dreaming new worlds every time we think about the changes we want to make in the world.”[14] The Wikimedia projects are themselves the product of a utopian vision: “Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge.”

With its global reach and visibility, the Wikimedia movement is well-positioned to gather and consider speculative visions from across the globe, and apply them to understanding how its projects should evolve. This is just one example of how a future-facing orientation can be built into the movement.

Some Wikimedians are already thinking along these lines. “It's vital to think ahead to the trends that will impact Wikimedia in the future to ensure its success and indeed survival— with numerous threats to the open internet emerging every day,” says Deji Bryce Olukoton, who recently wrote a post that touches on the #Wikimedia2030 efforts.[15] “Maybe using science fiction thinking could assist in this process, which may entail working with sci fi writers or just helping Wikimedians to think creatively and use worldbuilding to imagine the future they want.”

What might such a Wikifutures project look like? That is up to the movement to imagine and design—not only this year, but continuously in our ever-evolving world.

References[edit]

  1. While many of the links on this page point to the English Wikipedia, the language in which this brief was originally written, similar pages and policies exist on many other Wikimedia sites. Translators are welcome to substitute links here with the equivalents on other language Wikimedia wikis.
  2. "How will external forces hinder or help the future of the Wikimedia movement? – Wikimedia Blog". Retrieved 2017-07-13. 
  3. Taleb, Nassim Nicholas, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (New York: Random House, 2007).
  4. a b “Imagining the Future(s),” Knight Foundation report, January 19, 2017, https://knightfoundation.org/reports/imagining-the-future-s
  5. Bankston, Kevin, “Prototyping a Better Tomorrow,” Future Tense, Slate, June 12, 2017, http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2017/06/more_science_fiction_can_help_us_create_a_better_tomorrow.html
  6. “Feature Forum 2015,” Intelligence and Autonomy, accessed September 14, 2017, http://autonomy.datasociety.net/futures-forum/
  7. Dunne, Anthony, and Fiona Raby, Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2013).
  8. Doctorow, Corey, Walkaway (New York: Tor Books: 2017).
  9. Cline, Ernest, Ready Player One (New York: Broadway Books, 2012).
  10. Older, Malka, Informacracy: A Novel (New York: Tor/Macmillan, 2016).
  11. Twelve Tomorrows:Visionary Stories of the Near Future Inspired by Today’s Technology, Bruce Sterling, ed. (Cambridge: MIT Technology Review, 2015). https://www.technologyreview.com/twelvetomorrows/
  12. Twelve Tomorrows: Visionary Stories of the Near Future Inspired by Today’s Technology, Stephen Cass, ed. (Cambridge: MIT Technology Review, 2013).
  13. “People of Col(u)r Destroy Special Issues,” DESTROY, accessed September 14, 2017, http://www.destroysf.com/
  14. Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements, Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown, eds. (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2015). https://www.akpress.org/octavia-s-brood.html
  15. Olukotun, Deji Bryce, “Moving Towards Science Fiction Thinking,” And Related Subjects blog, Tor.com, https://www.tor.com/2017/09/13/moving-towards-science-fiction-thinking/