This weekend sees the final days of the Science Fiction in Africa exhibition at The Arnolfini in Bristol. To mark this there have been more events, and this afternoon I attended a talk by two of the founders of the AlterFutures speculative design group. Cher Potter and Daisy Ginsberg are both of South Africa descent, though they currently live in London. Why design, you might ask? Isn’t that what slackers study in art school, like the character in Donald Fagan’s song, “The New Frontier”? Well perhaps, but design is also about making things for people to use, and it is about art, which can be inspirational. Speculative design, therefore, is not just about how we might live in the future, but can also be about creating ideas of futures to which people might aspire.
These days, of course, it is popular to pour scorn on the idea of countries being aspirational, but when the American Dream was first invented it wasn’t about waiting tables in LA until someone notices your face, it was about packing up everything you owned and heading out to start a new life in the new world. Besides, Southern Hemisphere countries have a pretty stark choice: if they don’t aspire to a high tech future of their own, they will surely be part of someone else’s high tech future, and not in a good way. Either that or they will go “back to nature” and become a theme park for Westerners to coo over. Cher and Daisy, therefore, are interested in what sort of future South Africans might aspire to, and what sort of technology they will need to get there.
There are, of course, many professional futurists making plans for Africa (cue XTC). Most of them, however, are either government bureaucrats or employees of multinational corporations. They are the sort of people who want to convince Africans to be less nervous of things like GM food than people in Europe; not because they want to feed the poor, but because they want to recoup the millions they have spent developing these products. When such people envisage a high tech future for Africa it tends to involve vast factory farms growing a single crop and operated by a small number of highly skilled technicians. It doesn’t involve ordinary Africans in rural villages having more prosperous smallholdings and a higher standard of living.
Being old and cynical, I tend to take a fairly dim view of people with plans to save the world. However, from talking to Cher and Daisy afterwards it was clear they they have a very good grasp of the difficulties. High tech solutions can’t just be invented in isolation, they have to be implemented, and have to be capable of working in the culture and conditions where they are to be used. This stuff isn’t easy. But there is a target in sight. In 2014 Cape Town will be the World Design Capital. Cher and Daisy have a dream of presenting something there that will inspire South Africans to dream of a future that is not only better, but is achievable and doesn’t involve selling themselves to multi-national corporations. I wish them the best of luck. And I’ll be emailing Lauren Beukes very shortly.
The event should also have featured Cristina de Middel whose Afronauts series of photographs would have been a wonderful addition to the exhibition. Sadly her flight from Zambia was so badly delayed that she had to cancel. I was really looking forward to hearing more about the Zambian space program (yes, really) on which her project is based.
We made up for that slightly with the presence of a couple a French designers, and a Senegalese friend of theirs, who joined us for a drink afterwards. The main thing I learned from this is that wrestling has become a huge cultural phenomenon in Senegal. Here’s a BBC article about the phenomenon from a couple of years ago.
There are a couple of actual African science fiction films being shown this evening: Africa Paradis (Senegal) and Les Saignantes (Cameroon). Unfortunately the showings didn’t start until 8:00pm and I’d have trouble getting home afterwards, so I have bailed on that. My apologies to Mark Bould.