Monika Bielskyte is a world designer, immersive artist, science fiction critic, and cultivator of Protopia Futures (@ProtopiaFutures on Instagram), which is a an intersectional design practice that was distilled down into a Protopia Futures [Framework] manifesto published on May 18th, 2021 that was created in collaboration with over 30 collaborators. I’ve previously talked with Bielskyte in 2017 about Designing The Future through Sci-Fi World Building and in 2018 about Sci-Fi Worldbuilding to Collaboratively Shape Protopian Futures, and she’s actually been moving away from the concept of “building” and “world building” and more towards the more relational and organic metaphors of world growing and world cultivating.
There’s also been a distillation of the Protopia Futures Framework, that’s anchored into the seven principles of:
- Plurality — Beyond Binaries
- Community — Beyond Borders
- Celebration Of Presence
- Regenerative Action & Life As Technology
- Symbiotic Spirituality
- Creativity & Emergent Subcultures
- Evolution Of Cultural Values
I had a chance to do a pretty epic deep dive into these seven principles with Bielskyte on November 2nd, in a nearly 3-hour conversation that is broken down into four major parts:
- Background context, creative process, & intersectional inspirations for Protopia Futures Framework.
- Deconstructing Denis Villeneuve’s Dune through the lens of Protopia Futures
- Detailed unpacking and breakdown of the seven principles of Protopia Futures
- Deconstruction of Metaverse Sci-Fi, how Meta is basing their vision of the Metaverse on Ready Player One, & deeper decolonial critiques of their techno-utopianism and denial of context.
This is a pretty extensive, nearly 3-hour long episode, but is able to articulate so many deep insights about how those who control the fantasy, control the future. Given the power of these science fiction narratives in how the guide, direct, and shape our technological futures, then it’s worth having some critical frameworks to use to not only deconstruct the deeper patterns of these stories that are being told, but to also provide a design framework, map, checklist, and blue print for a world design, world growing, world cultivating, and future dreaming practice that nurtures radical tenderness, radical hope, and our imaginations for what types of Protopian Futures might be possible.
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[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to The Voices of VR Podcast. So, on today's episode, I have Monika Bielskita. She's a futures researcher who, back in May, published her Protopio Futures Framework. It's a bit of a manifesto looking at the types of worlds that she wants to create. As somebody who is a world designer, she has been working in the realm of science fiction, both critiquing existing science fiction, but also working with authors and consulting and working in XR and immersive design to be able to start to create these worlds that live up to these principles that she calls Protopio Futures. So this conversation is actually a pretty epic conversation. I want to give it a little bit of context before we start to dive in. First of all, in my episode number 1,000, I have a quote from Monica Belsky, where she's talking about how those who control the fantasy control the future. That it's not actually the technological implementers that are building it. I mean, that's certainly a huge part of it. But it's really the stories and the mythology that we have in terms of this imaginal future that we're trying to live into. And it's from those science fiction depictions that actually drive so much of where the technology is going. We can really trace that throughout the history of virtual reality as a technology. And so, as somebody who is thinking about this concept of growing and cultivating and designing these worlds, a part of her practice is to look at the existing science fiction that's out there and really starting to deconstruct it. So, this conversation is going to be in four major parts. First is just to introduce Monica and her background and her journey into this work around Protopia Futures and her process for how she does that. And then the second part, we're going to be diving into deconstructing Dune as a science fiction movie. That just came out on October 21st. And then the third part, we start to really do a deep dive into her Protopius Futures framework that she developed in collaboration with a number of other contributors. And then the last part, we start to reflect upon the metaverse and Facebook, who's now meta, and what types of critiques she has of not only these stories that are being told around the metaverse, but also the embodied behaviors of the company formerly known as Facebook. So that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Monica happened on Tuesday, November 2nd, 2021. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.
[00:02:19.645] Monika Bielskyte: Hello, everybody. I'm Monica Belskite. It's my third time conversing with Kent. It's always a pleasure to chat, exchange ideas. And so I'd love that I can be back now, several years later since my last appearance. So first and foremost, I'm Futures Research is research. I spend a lot of time on the ground. I try to find really signs and the pioneering voices of the future, something that to a lot of other people seems like minority voice, a minority idea, I look at it, you know, is this just minority voice or could this be a pioneering voice? And so how do we find these signs and signifiers of change before everybody else is on it? So most of my time I do spend in different parts of the global South, I was always interested in the perspectives of the future, predominantly from the POV of previously marginalized peoples rather than the currently privileged and historically privileged peoples. My very particular angle onto futurism, research and foresight is very much at that intersection of disability, queer and indigenous justice. So it informs a lot of my work. And yeah, I try to gather these insights. I also talk with a lot of people that are much smarter than me in any given discipline and try to synthesize these ideas. And through that, I do workshops, I give talks, I consult companies, but also nonprofit organizations, grassroots organizations. And more than anything, I try to not just predict where the future is going, not just extrapolate from existing trends, but really see, well, what are these worst case scenarios and how could we try and avoid them? So how do we actively shape the future with the work that we do? Which led me to also think a lot, well, where do futures start? And I think futures always start with our imagination. Before we do anything, first we imagine. And it's really the narrative that we have about the future, which predominantly science fiction narratives and sometimes fantasy narratives, but predominantly sci-fi, that inform a lot of the ways that we think. What is futuristic and what isn't? Who belongs and who does not belong in the future? Who leads and who does not lead the innovation? And what is really important? And I think Overall, I believe that science fiction, as we know, has misguided us quite a lot in thinking that, well, the future is really about science and technology. And I think the future, first and foremost, is about politics, culture, and social change. And I see really science and technology very much as something that flows out of it. I see scientific and technological innovation really as an extension of our biology, our mind, and our cultural values. And so more than anything, I'm interested not in the gadgets, per se, or whatever is the newest bleeding edge scientific discovery, although I am interested in those things. But my main concern is really, well, what would be the impact? Like, what does it really mean? And not just to us as a humanity, but really to our planet. So I think there's that. Oh, sorry, I forgot last thing, which is definitely not least. I've been involved quite a lot with science fiction as an industry, as a genre. I've done world design and world design consulting on different science fiction properties. And that has woven in also with my involvement in the immersive media technology world since, I believe, early 2013. And the reason why I got involved with immersive media technology, so virtual reality at first, and then I was always thinking about it more as extended reality, XR, from even those early days when VR and AR were seen as really separate things, was really because I think that's the ultimate medium to experience world design. So I guess that's enough general introduction about me and I'm happy to discuss any specific part in greater detail.
[00:06:27.198] Kent Bye: Yeah, well, I know that a lot of your work has been focused on trying to look at these larger aspects of culture and not just looking at through, say, a technological deterministic lens of only projecting out future technologies, but really the holistic approach of looking at the entire culture and how we look at different power dynamics and see how that also gets projected out into the future. And not just looking at the technological progression, but also cultural evolution and being in right relationship to the world around us, I think is another general theme as well. And I want to first start with, like, you were living such a nomadic lifestyle and you were traveling all over the world, talking to people, getting all these different perspectives. And I think our last conversation was in 2019, which is kind of the end of my nomadic lifestyle from covering mostly the conferences. I think I went to like 18 different events in 2019 and then like one in 2020. And then, you know, I'll be going to Augmented World Expo, which is kind of like the beginning of the new phase. But I don't think I'll be at the same pace, but you know, certainly the world has slowed down from the pandemic. And I'm curious how you've been able to stay in that vein of what's happening in all these different communities around the world, where so much of your practice has been being this butterfly pollinating all the different insights from all these different communities from around the world. And what it's been like for you to go through that pandemic shift, and maybe something that was born out of that, that wasn't there when you were maybe a little bit more static in your movement.
[00:07:53.642] Monika Bielskyte: Yeah, so Obviously, my life also has definitely slowed down during the pandemic, but I did keep a nomadic lifestyle. I was located in South Africa more than anywhere else during this pandemic. So this place is feeling currently more home than anywhere else. But I also spend time in different parts of the African continent and a little bit of time in Lithuania, which is the country that I was born in. And just more recently, I was for a few weeks in Europe. So, you know, my perspective also over the pandemic and everything that was unfolding was very, very different than people that saw it from Western world and especially sort of upper middle class lens within the Western world. So I was very, very critical of so many articles by the so-called futurists that were talking about pandemic realities, post-pandemic realities, what the world is experiencing. My feeling was really that, well, they were really talking what the upper middle class and predominantly white, predominantly Western world were experiencing. And that was not necessarily pandemic reality in majority of the world. But, you know, I try to continue traveling, taking all of the precautions and obviously spending much longer time in different places and really seeing, well, how this world event has affected people outside of that narrow sliver that seems to have been covered by the international media. I think it was a very necessary slowdown for myself. But at the same time, I cannot see myself being fully settled and fully stationary. It's really just at the core of my work to put my body where the future happens. At the same time, as you said, I'm engaged with really diverse communities around the world. And so people that I have met, and bonded with an exchange and very much real-life scenario several years ago, five years ago, or before the pandemic, I kept up these relationships. For me, it's very important to build, not to build actually, to grow long-term relationships and to check in and really see how people are seeing what's unfolding. in these very different geographical, cultural, class, et cetera, et cetera, contexts. Because otherwise, you are limiting yourself to just your own perspective. And that's way too comfortable, and I would argue, quite dangerous, especially if we're talking about, well, what is the future of the world? You can't say that you are writing or talking about the future of the world or how the world is experiencing a crisis if you really are talking about this tiny sliver of the world within a particular cultural class, geographical, et cetera, context. So I try to really challenge myself by making sure that my network and my community is as inclusive as possible. With everything that I do, I had very little interest to do solo work in the past already. You know, a lot of times people would say, well, Monica, you should write your own movies or you should direct something or you should create your own company or you should write your own book. And I have zero interest of doing my own work as a solo work. You know, I have zero interest in just doing something that is about my own self-expression or whatever. And the pandemic has accentuated that even more. So everything I've been trying to do has been collaboration-based. Every single thing that I've written, every single critique that I've been working on, it was always about checking in with people that have different perspectives than me from the experience within, again, different cultural contexts, different disability-related contexts, different indigeneity-related contexts, different gender-related contexts, etc., etc. So my work is continuously being informed, as I said, by people that have much greater depth than me in any given area. And my role is really to synthesize that. And whilst I do that, it's super important to make sure that I'm crediting and giving thanks to everybody who's doing that. And, you know, here in South Africa, There's a very known term called Ubuntu and Ubuntu is a Nunibantu term that stands very much for humanity. But it's really about this notion that I am because we all are. And so it acknowledges that whatever you do, whatever you think, whoever you are, you never are just like that because of your own self. You know, you are continuously interdependent, you're continuously developing with everybody else that is part of your world. You know, you are continuously being affected and you also are creating impact upon others. And so, you know, therein lies a great responsibility. And that also completely ties in with indigenous perspectives, right, that you live the lives of seven generations. you give the meaning to the lives of three generations before you because they lay their foundation and so in a way you are literally giving meaning to whatever foundation they created for you to whatever suffering, pain, hardship, or blessings that they've experienced. And then you are creating that foundation for the nations that come after you. So it's never about just what you achieve. It's what kind of doors, windows, new spaces that you're creating for the ones that will come after you. So I'm really interested in that. I'm really interested to look into, well, how do we all affect each other? And that's also something very important within disability justice framework. Within disability community, there's a very deep understanding that we are interdependent. Right? So, you know, I cannot do everything just by myself. I do rely on my community and my community can help me out in certain ways, but I can also help out my community in certain ways. So there's a very strong denial of that sort of Joseph Campbellian hero's journey. You know, it's never just the hero achieving these things. There's never that delusional idea of a singular scientist, singular creator, singular innovator, singular whoever. You are always in relationship with your community and you must always give thanks and you must always feel responsibility that every action that you do, every message that you share will be affecting the world, even if that world is like five closest people around you. right? We all have that of a different size, you know, some people have a platform towards five people, just the immediate family, and some people have a platform towards a billion people. You know, that's been something really, really interesting for me to dive deeper into what is that responsibility that comes with having an opportunity, having the privilege, right, to tell the stories of the future, or to create the future through scientific technological never be just about, well, I can do it because I can do it. But why am I doing it? And what will be the impact of my actions and my ideas?
[00:15:16.192] Kent Bye: Yeah, I'm really hearing a lot of themes of relationality, which for me, I've been really drawn to the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, who has a process relational metaphysics saying that all the basis of reality is all about relationship. And just finished listening to the book Sand Talk by Tyson Yukaporta, who lists a number of different types of mind, but one of which is the kinship mind, which is a lot about that relationality of how it's always you in relationship to other people. And the pronouns that he's using, he doesn't use I, he always says us too. And also struck by the article that you wrote, Protopia Futures, the framework that you posted on May 18th, 2021, where you're using the we pronoun rather than I, because it is in relationship to a community that is in the process of creating these frameworks for Protopia Futures. I don't know, you've been actually doing some collaborations with different artists and starting to translate some of these different principles of the framework into visuals and other world building practices. And so maybe you could give a bit more context as to the type of artwork that you've been collaborating with different artists. And, you know, we can dive more into this framework of the Protopia Futures as we go throughout the conversation here and maybe juxtapose how to not do that through some existing science fiction that may have just come out here within the last couple of weeks. But first, let's start with the work that you've been working on with different artists that are trying to live into this vision of Protopia and what that means for you and how that's actually played out in collaboration with these different artists.
[00:16:43.686] Monika Bielskyte: Yeah, 100%. So when the pandemic happened, within a space of about one month, I literally had all of my work commitments So obviously that was a massive financial dread and not just career anxiety, but like, okay, how will I pay my bills type of anxiety? And the thing is that I kind of knew that this is where it's going because, you know, being a futurist, anybody who is well informed knew that the question of a global pandemic is just a question of time. You know, it's not whether if it's going to happen, but really when it's going to happen, because all of the conditions were ripe for that. You know, the way we're destroying our environment, the way the world is interconnected, the way industrial agriculture is affecting our health, lack of sleep, stress, you know, so all of these multiple conditions create an environment for a global pandemic. So the moment I heard the first news from China, I was like, this is going to be global. And we entered for at least a year. And people were laughing at me. They were saying that I was exaggerating, I was being paranoid. At the same time, I don't know, when it really started sinking in, how just everything got canceled one by one, I fell into this severe, severe anxiety and stress, you know, financially including. for my physical health, et cetera, et cetera. And then I just said, well, I can't change anything about the situation. I was trying to think how I can really wanting to do for a long time, but I didn't have the time to do because my life was so erratic with all the traveling and speaking and consulting. I just didn't have that subtle time to dive much deeper into something. As you know, I've been quite a few years, and I started off with immersive media technology and how immersive media technology is the future of computational space and how we should be thinking accordingly, etc, etc. And then it kind of got woven together with my previous work in the realm of science fiction, and I was looking at different angles through it. And as I was giving these talks, Initially, my work was very, very critical. Well, what was wrong with these industries? What was wrong with the way we were seeing immersive media technology at that given moment in time? And also what was wrong with science fiction? And more specifically, you know, how dystopia fetishism was really not just sort of limiting our imagination, how we see the future, but really becoming a product roadmap. for Silicon Valley's techno-utopianism. And so ultimately, on one side, my critique of techno-utopianism in relation to immersive media technology and future content technologies, and on the other side, my critique of entertainment industry's dystopianism, they sort of converged. And I realized that I was saying a lot of no, no, no, that this was bad. We have to be aware of that. And this is the issue. So it was very, very critical. And I think critique is very, very important. But it's very hard to not become profoundly discouraged when you are in that space of no, no, no. No's are very, very important. I see that as a major problem with institutions such as TED Talks. Anand Giridharadas wrote a really great book about it, Winners Take All, really comparing that thought leaders industry versus critical thinkers, and how thought leaders was very much about, and here's this brilliant solution. But unless you understand, well, why do we need that solution? What was the problem? It's very hard to understand, well, why do we need that solution? Why is it important? Why do we need to implement a particular change? But also, if you just present a critique it's very easy for people to get discouraged. And so in these early stages of pandemic, I found myself with that question that for many years I was saying, no, no, no. So what is my yes? And especially in the time of this pandemic strife, and again, looking at it and how it was affecting not just upper middle class people who found more time, et cetera, et cetera, but seeing how different friends of mine from the marginalized backgrounds, from the disability community were very severely affected. I felt the need to find a way to translate that into something ultimately not positive, but something that could give us a sense of hope and could motivate us to action and could feel like the light at the end of a tunnel. And that's really what led me to work towards Protopia Futures Design Framework. So it was built. Or it was, I would say, grown. I'm trying to replace all these ideas of building, especially world building, towards world growing and relationship growing, etc. So it was really grown upon years of critique that I had towards techno-utopianism and entertainment's dystopianism. But thinking, well, if these things don't work, if none of these things are the answers, if that false binary is just further misguiding us, then what is the yes vision? What is the vision that we could gather around? and how we could start thinking about future, not as the end destination, but really as a process. And most importantly, as the process of engaging and learning, not saying that, well, this is the dead end street, everything has gone bad in the case of dystopia, or, you know, this is the end destination, in the case of utopia, this is a perfect vision, and don't you dare question, But how can we be more open-ended? How can we say, well, based on our current understanding, You know, here are the solutions to these and these and these problems. And here are the things that we really need to work towards. So what does that mean, specifically coming together with people from marginless backgrounds? And again, most specifically, as I said, within that intersection of indigeneity, queerness and disability justice, and think of a future that is radically hopeful. And so that's where really Portopia Futures was born from. And even if the initial frame or sort of initial sort of skeleton of the text was my own, and I was sort of the main editor of it, it was written with an input of over 30 people. I mean, more people read it, but about 30 people had actively contributed to the edit. And again, those folks were from super, super diverse cultures, super diverse perspectives. Again, when it comes to gender, when it comes to sexuality, when it comes to disability, when it comes to their discipline background, et cetera, et cetera. And I felt that that's the only way how I could even attempt to think of a manifesto of a yes vision of future. If I make it truly participatory, you know, even in its process. And it has really very much been serving as a guide now for some of the other work that we've been doing. And so most notably, it's been collaborations. between myself and digital artists and now we're trying to expand our teams by bringing you know writers and consulting scientists and people that have deep understandings within social political issues etc etc and what we're trying to do is not a full-blown tv series or science fiction film or game or something like that not that it's not in our horizon but it's not in our immediate horizon What I'm thinking more about is something a little bit more like the Netflix TV series, Love, Death and Robots. What I liked about it is that it's a TV series. There's already been two seasons of it. I think there's going to be a third season of it. However, every episode is of a very different duration, very different aesthetical style, different writers, different music, different animators, different directors, et cetera, et cetera. But it's around that loosely connected theme of love, death and robots. Now, I think the form is super, super cool, but I think the content is very problematic, right? So much talent. I mean, because some of those animated shorts, they're really, really beautiful and they're really quite interesting. At the same time, almost all of them are just feeding us with more nightmares, with more fear, with more violence. And so what I would like to do with Potopia Futures is something more around love, life, and the planet. Without it being corny, you know, without it being vanilla, but simply these glimpses into what could a new wave of science fiction content could look like that when we watch those particular films, those particular series, those particular immersive experiences, or we interact with experiences, we feel activated. We feel like, wow, that's what my city could look like. Wow, this is what future educational institutions could look like. Wow, that's what future of mental health care, of palliative care, of health care, et cetera, could look like. You know, so instead of imagining more sort of space operas or robots gone rogue or any of these other overexploited scientific and technological nightmares that we've been producing for however many decades, actually think sort of productively, you know, what will be within the future of most of our lives? Well, all of us will have to think about the future of food. All of us will be dealing with future of education and future of healthcare, et cetera, et cetera. So can we start imagining compelling story worlds that explore that and utilize that very visually captivating science fiction language, but instead of creating more monsters, more nightmares, more violence, more fear, more depictions of human cruelty, actually imagine what could those interactions that are centered on what I've called radical tenderness look like. How could we imagine ourselves as a caring society, you know, and not just caring towards each other as human species, but also towards all life. Right? And again, the idea is not to be super vanilla and be like, everything is perfect. On the contrary, I think Protopia, as I said, it's really about the process of trying, the process of learning. And within that learning, there's tons of misunderstandings, there's conflict, there's difficulties, there's wounds and trauma, and the baggage that we bring from our past. But ultimately, the result of what we've been trying to create so far, which is short animated films, as well as series of images and comics, is really to inspire and to create that imagination space that shifts science fiction to a bit of a different direction. And so for me, to be very honest, both writing that framework and starting these collaborations with a whole lot of really, really wonderful people, you know, from Ruben Wu to Solomon Enos to Studio Dosage, Béla Ram Camaré. I mean, so many, so many really incredible folks. was really about can we think of vision of the future that feel like healing, that feel like medicine in these times when we are collectively living through a dystopia. And again, for me, that's been an antidote to my very critical work as a futurist. Because when I work as a futurist, I always think about what are the worst possible scenarios. I analyze what could be all the worst ways that any particular political, scientific, technological, social development could go. Right? Because we need to be prepared. We need to be aware. And then within my work, in terms of a critique of both science fiction and immersive media technology, same thing. It's really about being, well, this and this and this doesn't work because these representations of this particular approach can be harmful to these communities in those particular ways. And then people have been accusing me that, well, Monica, you're being really negative. You know, why can't you just be happier? Why can't you just see it as only entertainment? And I'm like, You know what? For me, it is negative to give up and say that we should just be happy with what we have. For me, it's negative to look at something and say that we can do better, right? It's actually a positive thing to try and say, well, what doesn't work? And how can we work towards something that is better, that is kinder, that is more inclusive, that is more compassionate, that is more considered? You know, this pandemic has brought me this very interesting duality between my work as a futurist and foresight practitioner and science fiction critic, where, as I said, I'm very, very critical and I can be quite negative about where things are going. And then on the other side, with the project Protopia Futures, it's really about dreaming something that really is about radical hope. Yeah, that's why I've been asked.
[00:30:15.683] Kent Bye: Yeah, that's really helpful. And as you critique the word of building and world building, I think of an alternative of cultivating and growing and future dreaming process where you're trying to imagine a future. I think one of the things that happens is that a lot of times these science fiction stories, they want to have conflict. And a lot of times they embed the conflict within the context of the world going horribly wrong. rather than conflict between people, which you always have conflict between people, but to embed the conflict within the world itself means that you're potentially creating a roadmap towards a dystopic future that we don't actually want to live into. I think that's maybe the common themes that I hear in all your critiques of different science fiction. And so I'd love to, at some point, go through your protopia bullet points, but maybe a good place to start with that is to look at one of the most popular science fiction books of all time, Dune, which just had a recent release of October 21st, 2021. So maybe that might be a good place to start. And then that could be a contrast to some alternative of your protopian approach. So yeah, what did you think of Dune as it came out and what were some, your initial thoughts on that as a piece of science fiction?
[00:31:21.300] Monika Bielskyte: Yeah. So before we go into Dune, I really love that you mentioned this idea of world cultivating and world growing. And that has really been reinforced to me by this pandemic experience. So, you know, when I was a kid, I used to spend summers with my granny and basically working in the garden and then going to the forest and picking mushrooms and berries and medicinal plants. And I was born in Soviet Union, so basically a country that doesn't exist anymore. We had very, very little in terms of food, in terms of medicines. And so to be self-sustaining, to have any food to eat so you wouldn't end up with a scurvy in winter and when you get sick to have any remedies and all of that stuff you kind of had to either go and pick from the forest or you had to sort of grow yourself. So that has been very much a formative experience, you know, to feel that connection with the living world and to have the connection with the soil, to have the connection also with the wilderness, to be able to go in a forest and know that these aren't just random plants. Well, many of these are medicines. From Indigenous perspective, we also see plants not as it, not as things, but as entities, right? As our siblings, as our cousins, as our family. And also, they've been here for much longer than we humans have been. So there's so much that we can learn from how they exist. And obviously, in my very busy life through my 20s and my early 30s, I have now forgotten some of these lessons. But they've been very much in my cultural memory, but not as much in my body memory anymore. And when I finally had a bit more time, and because of my previous health issues, I had to be very, very mindful in terms of isolation. And one of the ways to take care of my mental health was to plant a garden. And more specifically, also medicinal plants garden. And as I was writing Protopia Futures Design Framework, and I was thinking a lot about what is the kind of science fiction that I want to participate in critiquing, I was also gardening for my mental health every single day. And it really made me think about how broken this idea is of world building and how it's completely tied with utopian thought. So most of the utopian thinkers, they have also been tied with movements, ideologies around eugenics. And most of the utopian visions have always been top down. And they have been always about cultural ability, sexuality, et cetera, homogeneity. and they tended to exclude anybody that doesn't fit that very narrow format. And we have to remember that historically a lot of utopias, you know, from Nazi Germany, you know, that was utopia for the Nazis. To apartheid South Africa, that was utopia for the Afrikaners. You know, somebody else was paying the price of these utopias. It was very much related to the fact that they were built and it also very much connects to Judeo-Christian roots of a lot of that utopian thought. You know, it's this idea that a man will upon his dominion, you're looking at it from above, we're building our cities on top of the living world, but it's never really part of it, right? And we as humans, you know, we're not part of, we're not integrated. And so what I'm trying to make that connection with me, like literally digging in the garden and seeing how these different plants are sprouting through it, Like something just really clicked in my head and I said, well, world building is a completely wrong framework. If you want to create anything interesting, you can only grow it. If you want to create anything interesting, even in terms of science fiction, You are never creating it from scratch. It can never be just fantasy. You are taking bits and pieces and elements of the real world, mixing it with your imagination, and really sort of intermingling that. And you can never do it by yourself, right? You have to do it with other people, especially in this day and age. And so there's that delicate balance of seeing, well, I planted this thing, and I created this particular garden bed, and I put that soil, I put that compost, but is this a weed? Or maybe that is a forgotten seed of a different plant that I planted before, maybe a seed that was in the soil. Do I really want to pluck it out, or do I want to let it grow and see what it becomes? So there's that very interesting, very organic process of how you imagine and how you grow from your little vegetable or herb garden to actually the universe of any science fiction project, to also how we supposed to make our cities. Most of the utopian cities never worked out because they were built on top of existing reality. They were built on top of a living landscape and they were built on top of a cultural landscape. And most of the cities that we love and enjoy and want to be living in, there's that heterogeneity because that city has grown. And it has grown through different sort of cultural influxes. It's grown through different sort of interactions between classes, between people coming from different disciplines, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And so this importance of growing, what does that imply really within the creative process, within the design process, within the architectural process, within the production process? When you think about it, not as building, not as engineering, but truly as growing has been really sort of a fundamental thing for myself and rediscovering my childhood roots. And now we talk about Dune, as maybe you have seen, I've been tweeting a lot about it. And I did this whole questionnaire on my Instagram. a couple of days ago, where I asked people all kinds of different questions, because for me, it's also very interesting. It cannot be just my own opinions. I reached out to different friends from different cultural backgrounds. I feel like I read all the tweets that there were from different SWANA, so Southwest Asia and North Africa, authors, activists, et cetera, what they had to say. I was looking into what people with disabilities had to say. And I was looking at what my peers and my friends from these backgrounds had to say about all of that. So I was going to form my own opinion. So there was a lot of things that I have noticed myself. And there were also a lot of things that I collected through reading what other people had to say. And the further I was diving into it, the angrier it made me. Because especially right now, right, like after the pandemic, this is such a prominent science fiction production. It has been receiving so much attention. And it has been receiving a lot of positive attention. And yet, when you sort of try to peel away the surface behind the very aesthetically pleasing cinematography, what was ultimately the message of that story? And what was the process through which it was created? And what could be and what has been already its potential impact? And that made me quite disappointed and quite angry. And so I felt like I need to consolidate some of that critique and share some of that critique. And that's what we're going to try to do with you now. And also, I'm having a separate conversation with Tyson Nkapura, you know, the Australian Indigenous author that you have mentioned, who has become a friend. You know, I'm coming back on this podcast second time. And we've been also discussing with Michael Quentz, of the podcast Tech Empire to look into doing more from that colonial slash decolonial lens. So yeah, I think there's so much to talk about it. And I don't know how you want to do it. Do you want to go dive into any sort of specific thing? Do you want me to just rant all about it?
[00:39:26.626] Kent Bye: Well, I guess a good place to start maybe is the undertone of the piece is a very colonial piece of people coming into another land and harvesting resources. And this was written in 1965. So when I look at a piece like this, it seems to be like of that time period where there wasn't a lot of decolonized thought. And so there's a lot of metaphors that are being used. And there seemed to be also a big psychedelic component of the spice and how that maybe part of the origination of the story was Herbert taking mushrooms himself and accessing other ways of knowing So there's things that when I watch it, there's things that are appealing in terms of this Bene Gesserit order of women who seem to be able to cultivate these extreme powers. And they seem to be in that time period, 1965, women weren't necessarily seen as someone who wielded that much power. So and maybe that time period, there's being able to tap into that, but it's set within a larger context of colonialism. So I guess that's when I look at it, those are the things that I see. I mean, I watched it and I thought it was very visually alluring, and it kind of felt like a dream sequence, transportive into another place in time. And I guess as you start to unpack it, there's things that are maybe cultural coding that is embedded in there that may not be clear on the first look. And I think that's a part of your unpacking these other layers in terms of, was this in right relationship to the cultures that it was representing? Were they appropriating different things or not being as inclusive and just the ways that they were using disability as part of the evil character? So yeah, maybe you could dive in and launch from there in terms of some ways that you start to make sense of this as a story beyond just the narrative components of it, but also the way that it was done and the ways that it may not be in right relationship for the type of worlds that we really want to live into.
[00:41:09.387] Monika Bielskyte: Yeah. So several things. I mean, I think the most important thing to start with is, you know, it's 2021, right? What are the stories of the future we really want to tell? And what stories of the future have been told many times? And what stories of the future have never been told? So sometimes it's the idea that, well, you know, everything has been told already. And to that, I'll answer absolutely not. so many stories have never, ever been told, and especially so many stories about the future. So most notably, science fiction that happens here on this planet, you know, there's actually very little sci-fi that is not space opera, that is not escape, that doesn't imagine either something happened in space stations, rockets on other planets, et cetera, et cetera, but really engages with our planet. There's very little sci-fi that happens on this planet and imagines anything that is about our relationship with the living world that is not dystopic. And I want to be corrected if I'm wrong, but it seemed to me that Black Panther was the first sci-fi that was still grounded in reality, despite all of that sort of superhero fantastical stuff. But imagine a country where people have embraced different aspects of technological and scientific innovation, yet they still had a deep relationship with the living world. There were still animals. There were actually animals on the screen and those animals were not monsters. They were not carriers of virus. They were not, you know, like in a movie like Inhalation, there was this beautiful animal representations, but ultimately the nature represented in Inhalation was a threat, right? It was sort of monstrous. However, that deep relation between us of different species, the one and only sci-fi that I can think about where I saw that was Black Panther, right? I mean, there's so many stories that we could be exploring, most notably when it comes to biological futures, biological technologies, new human relations, et cetera, et cetera, that could be happening within this planetary context that have not been seen, that have not been done. What I'm very excited about is that there are quite a few really interesting science fiction authors, such as Akwaeke Emezi, N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, whose recent books have all been optioned by the studios. And so they're supposed to be put either as TV adaptations or as film adaptations. Now, a lot of things get optioned and do not get made or take forever to be made. Ursula Le Guin is in the canon of science fiction, and yet we have not seen really spectacular adaptations of her work, as we've seen of Otis E. Clarke, or people like that, or Philip K. Dick, et cetera, et cetera. So the fundamental question that I've seen a lot of people ask is, do we need these books by dead white male authors from to be put on a screen today. And especially, you know, that is being complicated, for example, with something like Asimov's foundation, knowing Asimov's history and legacy of sexual harassment and literal groping of women. that was very publicly known, do we need to wash out that legacy and to, you know, all of a sudden have that diverse cast, but it's still based on the stories of somebody that has that legacy of misogynist, abusive, racist, et cetera, behavior. Is it necessary? Could we not be prioritizing other stories? Now, my answer to that is that I think it's complex. Of course, from my own very personal bias, you know, I think that we should really be focusing more talent, more energy towards projects by authors that don't have that legacy of racism, misogyny, homophobia, et cetera, et cetera. At the same time, if we actually choose to adapt some of these iconic books, such as Dune, that have that sort of very loyal audience that have been wanting to see it on a big screen, do we have to stick to the narrative within the book? So, you know, I had the chance for about a year to work with Sam Esmail, the creator of Mr. Robot. Metropolis, you know, Universal bought the rights to it. And so Sam was assigned to be the director of it. I can't obviously speak much more about it. It got put on hiatus ever since. I don't know what's happening with it right now. But what I found really interesting is how Sam, you know, he was a huge fan of Metropolis. It was a really formative film for him, but he didn't want to just recreate Metropolis. The idea that we were working towards was, well, what is Metropolis for the 21st century? How can we take in some of these elements, some of these storylines, some of these inspirations, some of these aesthetics? But ultimately, we are creating in the third decade of the 21st century. So we don't have to be completely stuck to the narrative that it is. So, you know, director, screenwriters, producers, we actually have agency to adapt it into the present moment, especially when there's been so much of a conversation about, again, really toxic, racist, misogynist, homophobic, ableist, transphobic, separate presentation, and how much of a real impact it has on the world. So when I look at a project such as Dune, I also see that it's a deliberate choice to ride on that belief of a singular genius, in this case Denis Villeneuve. The messiah of Dune ultimately is Denis. And so it's really all about him. And when I want to be, I want to be corrected. But at the very least, when I looked up on IMDb, everybody of the crew that had a picture of, meaning the key producers, meaning screenwriters, meaning, of course, the director, production designer, everybody on the team was a white man. Everybody. Costume designers, two costume designers, one of them was a white man, another one was a white woman. So I find that that is problematic. And so when I pointed that out in my post, people started saying, well, Does that mean that you should only be able to tell stories that are limited to your experience? Meaning your experience of a particular gender, of a particular skin tone, of a particular cultural background, etc. And I say no, absolutely not. I absolutely welcome diverse storytelling. But I think that's a problem when you step in a writer's room and everybody is a man or everybody's white, right? And everybody is able and everybody's cisgendered, whilst the story actually on the screen is not all just white or just male, et cetera, et cetera, right? In the story, there are prominent female characters. There are actors of many different cultural backgrounds and skin tones, et cetera, et cetera. So fundamentally, I think when we address diversity, we cannot just address the diversity on screen, because no matter how diverse your cast is, if people that are writing these stories don't have visceral understanding of an experience of being a woman, of experience of being a colonized peoples, then the story actually suffers, right? And so when I was having this interesting conversation, with a friend of mine who's a concept artist actually of Swana background, who really aesthetically loved the film. And, you know, he was very much actually defensive of the film. And he was telling me, yes, but you know, I'm not Japanese, but I really love anime as a style. So does that mean that I have no right to ever work in an anime? And I said, absolutely not. But I think it's a problem when we look at examples, previous examples that were heavily criticized, such as Ghost in the Shell, where, again, everybody that was key creative on that team was white. I think there was one writer that was a woman. Maybe that was exceptional, but everybody else was also male. And what it does, it creates this culture of homogeneity that is not about like, well, I don't like you just because these are white men or because these are men or whatever, whatever. And this could be women, whatever, right? What I'm saying is that we can never tell a complex story. We can never write these complex characters, especially if there's a conversation around womanhood, if there's a conversation around colonialism, if nobody has a visceral experience of that particular thing. that the subject of the movie revolves around, right? And so, you know, one of my key critiques that I was gathering, both through different friends of mine of North African and Southwest Asian background, but also through reading a lot of the critique, Haris Durrani is one of the authors that has written really, really brilliant articles about it, looking into the roots and analyzing Herbert's Dune and comparing it to Denis Villeneuve's adaptation. is that ultimately not just the story, not just the directing, but also the world design of this particular intellectual property suffers because cultural elements that are very visibly inspired by North African as well as Southwest Asian cultures. And, you know, it's inspirational in quite a ways. There's even some, you know, Native American inspirations within the book. But in the film, it's mostly, you know, in the terms of the Fremen world and the Fremen planet, the key inspirations are predominantly North African indigenous cultures, the Amazigh, the Kabyle, the Berber, and stuff like that, right? Even if there's hints and tonalities that are a bit more dispersed across the region. And of course, the film is also populated with different words coming from those languages, from Arabic, from Persian, et cetera, et cetera. And now, the really interesting kind of irony, and people had responded like, well, but the story is happening millennia and millennia into the future. So maybe the pronunciation of these words has changed. Maybe the pronunciation has become different. Maybe it's not anymore how it's originally pronounced in Persian or in Arabic. Well, the English was pronounced in a very contemporary way. You know, the Chinese was pronounced in a very contemporary way. So why did we butcher these words that were in Persian Arabic? Well, that happened because nobody of those cultures was there. You know, why a lot of the aesthetics, you know, both architectural as well as the costumes, you know, felt ultimately very generic. You know, it was all very beautiful, but none of it was viscerally beautiful. None of it really stood out. It was because people that were creating them didn't have a visceral understanding of none of that iconography, of none of those colors, of none of those architectural elements, right? And this is again echoing the process that happened on Ghost in a Shell. you know, the director, a lot of the digital artists that worked on it, they were all fans of Japanese culture, but none of them had actually extensively lived in Japan, you know, to my knowledge, to what I know, you know, none of them actually were of Japanese background, none of them had that deep visceral connection with it beyond just a very superficial aesthetic level. And so I think that's where the problem lies. So even when people say, well, this film was very beautiful. My question is, was it really beautiful or was it very aesthetically pleasing? Like all of it was very tasteful. All of it was very, very pretty. Cinematography was stunning. But was there a single shot in the film that we looked at and said, wow, I've never seen this previously? Wow, this is something truly original. I mean, when I looked at the film, everything felt like a hint of something that has been done before. And not a hint of something that has been done in the real world, in the real cultural realm, but in other movies. And I think these things happen when we look at cultural elements simply as these superficial aesthetical inspirations, and we do not have a much deeper grasp of the meaning behind it. And so I think therein also lies a trap, you know, even within the casting. You know, you can cast really diverse people, but when you almost strategically choose to exclude anybody of Swana background, you know, there was only one actor who's American, but of Persian descent, who was part of the Harkonnen people and had a very sort of minor role with just a few speaking lines. But nobody else, you know, yes, there were African people. Yes, there were African American people. Yes, Javier Bardem, he's not a typically white person. He's Spanish. But even with all of the critique and all of the suggestions that were made when it was announced that Dennis is casting for this film, why there was still that conscious choice made? to exclude any actors from the region that served as the main inspiration for this universe. Why? And it was very clear there will be disappointment about it. There will be a backlash about it. And my answer to that, and it might be a completely wrong answer, is because people don't want to be made uncomfortable. Right? The moment there would have been any North African or Middle Eastern writer in the writer's room, they would have said, no, your reading of the story is very superficial. No, this could be a more interesting twist. No, this is not how this thing is pronounced, et cetera, et cetera. Right? And that could have made people uncomfortable. And so there's this desire to say, oh, we like your culture. But the message when you choose to exclude people from these cultures, both in front and behind the camera, is ultimately saying, we like your culture, but we don't really like you. We want your aesthetics, but we don't want you as a human. And so what does that mean? What kind of message does that send? And I think, well, it's not a very positive message in that sense. And most of the actors and most of the creatives from that particular region are suffering from being typecasted, are suffering from being sidelined because, well, of Islamophobia, of anti-Arab, et cetera, et cetera, sentiments within the Western cultures. And so this film could have really created a difference and could have really created opportunities, both for creatives behind and in front of the cameras, but consciously chose not to. It's really interesting how it translated even in the musical realm. I mean, there's so many phenomenal musicians coming from the region that inspired the film, and yet they were not really brought on board. neither the vocalists nor people that play different instruments. And in that scene of sort of arrival upon Iraqis, I mean, we literally have like a scene with a bagpipe, which just seems completely misplaced. And I think the reason why that happens is, again, because there were no creatives that would have had a visceral connection with those cultures behind the camera. So I think that's the first step. Then the second step to dismantle is misogyny. And I think in terms of misogyny, this project was rife with it. And that misogyny, it translated both within the book, but I honestly think that Dennis had a choice to rewrite things differently and still make the story equally, if I would say, not more compelling, but he chose not to. So several things that made me really quite uncomfortable. First of all, Chani. So Chani, played by Zendaya, and everybody was excited about her being in that movie. She was advertised as one of the key stars in the film. Yet the only way we really get to see her is as this objectified fantasy through the gaze of Timothée Chalamet, aka Paul. And she only gets a few speaking lines at the very end of the film. Knowing how phenomenal of an actress she is, I mean, seeing her incredible performance within Euphoria and other recent films, it really feels such a waste of talent. And it also feels, I don't know if you've known that, but Netflix is utilizing these tactics a lot, where the supporting actors that have pretty minor roles in the film, who are people of color, that are being advertised as key actors when Netflix would know that the viewer is a person of color, right? So sort of you get basically cheated into believing that this particular movie will provide you a presentation that you can relate to. And yet when you watch the film, you ultimately end up being deceived. It's almost like an extra disappointment that comes with that. right? Because you're being sold that dream that somebody that you can relate to will be playing a major role in it. And then you realize, well, they were just this completely objectified fantasy. So I think that was very problematic. And then people started arguing with me and saying that, well, you know, that's how it was in the book, etc, etc. But again, Dennis has made choices and has rewritten some of the characters. So we didn't have to just show her as this object of Paul's dreams. What would have been more interesting is to show the contrast of how maybe Paul's dreams were very disconnected from Chinese lived reality. But instead of that, we basically got a perfume ad. So I think that's point number one. Point number two, the character of Jessica. Right. So Ben Jesseret, you know, they have these superpowers, these really powerful women that have tapped into this whole other way of perceiving, controlling, et cetera, reality. And yet she's being shown as this cliche of a hysteric white woman, which is very much a tired trope. I mean, that's what Ridley Scott did with his character of mother within the recent TV series Raised by Wolves. And it just feels like this entire trope, yes, she's this very powerful woman, but she's crying for about two third of her scenes. And she's ultimately perceived as not somebody that we are inspired by, or awed by her powers or her understandings, et cetera, et cetera. So I found that very, very problematic. You know, there's no other scene of any male character being emotional or breaking down, et cetera, et cetera. Of course, you know, it will be a woman that will be doing that, you know, and this ties in, you know, more with the book. And could Dennis have found a way to ride differently? I still think he could have, but this specifically comes very much from the book. this notion that, you know, for centuries, you know, Ben Jesserit have been, through this actually very much eugenic experiment, breeding these very powerful women, but they have never succeeded to achieve these, I don't know how you call it, spiritual depths or realms of powers until one of the members, Lady Jessica, has birthed a male. Right? So it keeps echoing this idea that well, you know, woman is only worth half a man, you know, until a woman birth is a man until it's a boy child, it will never be as valuable. So even this notion of little Jessica birthing a boy out of love means that somehow birthing a boy child is superior. And then the boy child she births, of course, is superior to any girl child that any of the Ben-Jessered have birthed before. So, you know, the implications obviously really echo truly horrible things. I mean, we know that girl children to this day are still being murdered because there's this greater desirability for boy children, especially as a firstborn. So it literally results in murdered babies and a science fiction director in the 21st century chooses to actually perpetuate this particular idea. And I find that very, very problematic. Then another thing that obviously is a misogyny that translates through the books is the fact that ultimately a woman's role is to birth children. You know, so, so, you know, woman is only as good as half a man. And then woman is only a woman because she's able to birth children, which naturally excludes anybody who's genderqueer, anybody who's trans and keeps enforcing this very toxic cis heteronormative idea of gender in the 21st century, you know. And so here, I want to speak about something, if we talk about cis-heteronormativity and homophobia, one of the obviously profoundly, profoundly, poisonously homophobic things that was within original Herbert's Dune, which Dennis chose, I guess, consciously to not translate into the film, is this idea that the bad guy is not just gay, but his homosexuality is equated with pedophilia. And we know what's happening today with QAnon conspiracies and things like that. We know how there's that confusion in the extreme right and religious extremism that there's already that false parallel that is being drawn between gay people and pedophilia that ultimately results in conversion therapies, in truly homophobic policies, in actual violence, et cetera, et cetera. And that was something that was very much a crucial part of Herbert's story. And I find that very problematic. And Dennis chose to not translate that. At the same time, he knew that this particular presentation of equating gay with the pedophile was something bad, and he excluded that. But instead of that, he didn't choose to, well, can we actually include, positively include, any queer characters within our narrative? Can anybody be queer within that film? And he didn't, right? So again, that's a conscious choice. We understand that that particular representation of the original Dune is bad, so we're going to not do that, but we're not going to do anything positive to repair maybe historical damage that Dune has had, right? you know, that's a major issue for me, which leads me to talking about the bad guy, right? So, Duke Harkonnen, for me, is absolutely an embodiment of ableism and fatphobia. And this is directly translated from the book, And again, I feel that Dennis, as this really, really talented director, could have made a choice to not perpetuate the harmful, ableist, fatphobic description of the evil character. But he chose to still do it. And what really, really disappointed me, as I posted questions about it on my Instagram, You know, of course, there were people that said, no, fat phobia is really bad. I really hated this presentation. But there were also quite a few folks that responded, well, he's the bad guy. So he needs to be visibly bad, you know. And while being fat, well, that's a bad thing. And it really, for me, was the proof and point of how does this institutionalized way to represent villainy within the Hollywood industry. And that tends to be coded as disabled, queer, oftentimes fat, and oftentimes either indigenous or dark-skinned. and oftentimes a combination of all of those. Even within the most obvious examples, such as Lion King, right? The good guy, he has a very sort of heteronormative body shape and gender presentation. He is of lighter skin. He is visibly abled, whereas the bad guy, he's darker skinned, he's got the scar, and he's got this sort of queer coding of his mannerisms. You know, even the most recent Bond film, you know, so many people were excited for the Rami Malek's casting. And Rami Malek, we know he's of Egyptian background. And yet himself as a villain, you know, there was still that racial dynamics. of him being possibly white passing, but not really. And then his skin having this sort of visible marks related to either illness he had or some kind of disability, et cetera, et cetera. And you see that across Hollywood. So many of the villains are specifically designed to perpetuate this idea that somebody's disability, somebody's body shape, somebody's sexuality defines them as bad. Right. And I think it's the most lazy and the most toxic trope that Hollywood utilizes and have real harm for people in a real life. And studies have been done about that. Right. Like studies have been done that when people see somebody. who's of a bigger body shape, they automatically assume that person to be less intelligent, that person to be more lazy, etc. When people see somebody disabled, they automatically assume them to be less capable, less intelligent, etc. And when people see somebody that is queer, oftentimes they'll assume all kinds of deviance, they'll assume all kinds of imagined issues that really come from these harmful media stereotypes. And related to that point, I really want to recommend Laverne Cox's produced Netflix documentary that is on Netflix called Disclosure. Right? So I found that the representation of the villain, you know, really further enforced incredibly harmful stereotypes. And so, you know, people ask me then, well, then how would you have represented him? And I'm like, evil doesn't have to look any particular way. And that's where I want to salute what Ryan Coogler had done in Black Panther, right? Kill manga character within Black Panther. was in many ways even hotter than the main character. He was more light-skinned. He was more muscular. He was very charming, very appealing, right? But what made him bad were his actions. What made him bad was his cruelty, his violence, his misogyny, and specifically his violence towards women. You know, that was what identified him that this is the bad guy. You know, he didn't need to look bad. It was really about who he was. And what's interesting, that way, when these sort of evil characters are not caricatured, they're still nuanced and complex. Ultimately, those films really stick in our minds much longer. because we keep coming back to them. Because we start seeing that, well, Killmonger, yes, he was a bad guy because he became violent, right? He became ruthless. But politically, socially, he had points, you know, some of his arguments made sense, right? And he was an interesting person. it does not reduce the drama. To have this completely binary view of the good guy being the sort of vanilla, heteronormative, able this and this and that, and then the bad guy being this caricature that perpetuates ableist, fatphobic, queerphobic, et cetera myths, it doesn't make your story better. It makes, in fact, your story worse, and it creates real harm to people in the real world. So this was a really key point. Then, you know, what's interesting is that somebody pointed out to me that, well, there was sign language, right? So you would think of it as potentially an inclusion of the culture of hard of hearing people. And I had a brief exchange today with a friend of mine, Christine Sun Kim, who's a brilliant artist and activist and thinker who is part of the deaf community. And the point that she pointed out to me was, well, there was in fact a deaf character in the film. And yet that character was not only sort of caricaturized, but it was also killed off within like literally five seconds of appearing on the screen. Right? So in some ways, this kind of occlusion, it ultimately is more harmful. Now, what I'm not saying is that including sign language is bad. I think there was an interesting way that sign language could have been included. For example, if we would have seen the scenes in the beginning of a film of one of Paul's mentors actually being a deaf or hard of hearing person, that would have taught him and his mother that sign language. Right? And them being included in the story, them not being this disposable character that gets killed off within five seconds of appearance, but actually being somebody that is significant within this, you know, hero or, you know, further down the line, Paul, of course, becomes the anti-hero life. Right? But that was not the choice that was made. Right? We had appropriation of deaf culture. We had an exclusion of anybody that is sort of inspiring deaf character. And then the one single deaf character that we had was part of the bad guys and he gets killed off really, really fast. Right? So I think, you know, that's very problematic. And so here I want to speak about, you know, one of the last points, which is who dies and who lives. and where sometimes diverse casting can almost create more harm than benefit. So how does Dune start? Dune starts initially as quite a diversely cast film. But once you start analyzing who gets cast as what, is that the most light-skinned people get cast as the heroes, as the leaders, as the characters that ultimately get to live. And then the dark-skinned people get cast either as the ones serving the light-skinned people or the ones that just brutally, mercilessly get killed off by the end of the film. You know, so we see, of course, the Empress Emissary played by phenomenal musician Benjamin Clementine, who I really hope was not just there for his extraordinary physical beauty, but actually, I really, really hope that Denis Villeneuve will choose to bring him in a much deeper way into the plot in the movie to come, because he's truly a phenomenal artist, both as a musician, but also as a performer at large. But he just happens to be sort of Empress Emissary. Right and I'm really curious who will be cast as emperor and so a lot of people have been suggesting Mahirshala Ali which I think would be the best choice but I don't have too many hopes for it. And then, of course, Jason Momoa, who's one of the most charismatic characters that I think so many of us wanted to see the film because of him. You know, he is also a person of color. We have to not forget that Jason Momoa is somebody of indigenous background. And he, of course, gets sacrificed in the story. He sacrifices himself in order to save two white heroes, Jessica and Paul. And when we start analyzing this particular trope of who gets sacrificed or who offers within the narrative, within the narrative very clearly written by white writers, who gets sacrificed for whom, we keep seeing this recurring trope. of people of indigenous background, people that are darker skinned, people that are brown, people that are black, being sacrificed within these narratives in order to save white people. And I really, actually, I'm inviting listeners to reach out to me. Please send me a message on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, wherever, of any examples of white or light-skinned characters sacrificing themselves for darker-skinned characters. So, you know, I'm sure that a scene like that does exist, but they're really far and few in between, more specifically within the films written and directed by white creatives. You know, it is always the character of color that has to die in order for the white character to live. And again, please, I'm very open to tell me the contrary. Send me any examples within prominent mainstream Hollywood science fiction. You know, and I think that is really harmful. So, you know, we have the sacrifice of Jason Momoa. Then what we have is the situation with Liet Kynes. I don't know how to pronounce correctly, Liet Kynes, Liet Kynes. So that is the character that originally in the books was male and was supposed to be sort of mixed race, but more sort of like olive skin from what I understand. The casting got changed to be a black woman. who is this phenomenal, phenomenal actress that seems, at least within this film of Dune and Dune 1, she seems to be the only female character that has a real agency, a real life of her own, that is not connected, attached in any way to a man. Even with that, there is a caveat. She could have very well been lesbian, but she's precluded to be so with a very explicit sentence that I said at some point saying that she is here on this planet because she had a lover that was of the planet. So it ultimately, you know, her presence is still attached and identified by that invisible man, which precludes us, you know, even imagining that she could have been queer, et cetera, et cetera. But the problem lies within that scene where, you know, they're all trying to escape the army that is coming to try and kill them. And when there's a choice to be made, who goes in the chapter, you know, she says to Jessica and Paul, no, you go. And they say, well, why wouldn't you come with us? And she says, there's only two places. Meaning, I'll sacrifice my life. You go and be safe. And my life is more disposable. And of course, because her life is more disposable in one of the ending scenes of the film is also her being brutally killed. which was entirely unnecessary. And she was a very interesting, very compelling character. It could have been left more open-ended. Maybe she could have been brought back later in the films, etc. Maybe she could have been injured but ridden away on the worm or something like that. But instead of that, there's that explicit scene of a murder of the only one dark-skinned woman within this entire film. And here I want to bring that how, again, it's a trope that keeps being repeated by white directed and white written film people. So an echo of that is within Ridley Scott's Raised by Wolves. Raised by Wolves is a TV series that was shot in Western Cape, South Africa. So it's shot on the African continent. And South Africa has phenomenal, phenomenal actors. And yet within that entire film, the only two black women appear somewhere in the middle of the TV series and they are in fact not really women, they are in fact robots, they are cyborgs that are serving the white male king of the earth and they get brutally murdered on the same episode as they appear within the TV series that was shot on the African continent. Right. So, you know, it keeps, you know, subconsciously, you know, again, I'm not sure, but I think that, you know, maybe the directors, they don't realize what they're doing with these sort of actions they're taking. But it clearly shows the subconscious bias of whose lives are worth saving and whose lives should be taken away, oftentimes in this very explicitly violent manner in order to serve the story. Right? And so here, in a certain way, her being cast as a Black woman is not making that representation positive. It's just further enforcing the violence that Black, brown, indigenous women are suffering on an everyday basis, especially in the Western world, but also in the previously colonized world. You know, so it's just perpetuating the violence. It's not being inclusive. It's just being tokenistic. Right. And so speaking about the choices that have been made. Right. So she was sort of gender flipped and she was race flipped, but also the character of Gurney that was not gender flip, but that was race flipped. So from my understanding, and especially based on Hari's Durrani analysis, originally Gurney was written a sort of Moorish man. So there are some quite clear descriptions of his skin being quite dark. You know, his hair is being described as light, but his skin is being explicitly described as dark. However, in the Dune, Directed by Denis Villeneuve, he's being cast as a white man. And of course, he's one of these characters that gets to live and gets to have this sort of heroic arc throughout the films to come, that we know, you know, are coming because Dune II was greenlit. So as the beginning of the film, it starts off with this very diverse cast. And as we move through the story, characters of color are slowly dying. and they're dying to facilitate the hero's journey of our white savior. And that leads us to the sort of final, really brutal scene that was, of course, direct adaptation from Herbert, but it didn't have to be that way. Dennis didn't have to stick to that specific narrative. He could have made a choice. to change that. And I'm sure if he would have had any authors of indigenous background, they could have helped him to flip that stuff around. So what we end up with is a scene between Paul, Jessica, and the Fremen, where one of the Fremen challenges Paul to a fight. Now, that particular Fremen is again being played by another dark-skinned actor of African descent, His name is Babs Olasamun. Actually, I'm sorry, I forgot the full name, Olasamun. And so there's multiple layers. First of all, he's the one of the planet. He's said to be indigenous of that land. And secondly, he is another dark-skinned actor. And then another layer to that is that Babs actually is a real-life jujitsu master. So I'm just imagining that particular scene of Dennis directing and saying to Babs, well, you know, now we're going to film the scene where basically you have to let this frail, pale settler prince murder you because ultimately he's the stronger one and you're the weaker one. And I spoke about it with somebody when they tried to argue and say, well, you know, this was how it was written in the story. That's what it has to be, et cetera, et cetera. And then, well, if the actors didn't like that plot, well, why did they decide to be in the film? You know, and I think that underestimates how many people of color, especially, you know, black people and people of indigenous backgrounds, you know, we are in a trap, especially people, for example, of Arab, North African, Southwest Asian descent. You know, we are in that trap. of the only way many of us can get an opportunity to be part of this project is to be cast in these narratives that completely disregard our humanity. Right. So, you know, Babs is not an incredibly famous act like somebody like Jason Momoa. Of course, he's got more agency. You know, Jason, if he didn't want to be part of a dune, he could have said, no, I don't want to perpetuate this particular story. You know, I don't need neither. I need more opportunities. No, I need more money, et cetera, et cetera. Right. He's somebody in the position to make that choice. But unfortunately, a lot of the people that are in early stages of their career. or who have been doing phenomenal work, but that work has not been reaching mass audiences, oftentimes you are in the trap. Do you want to accept that role that hopefully will allow you to then do things that you would like to do more, but it will ultimately be dehumanizing? And I think in this case, it is profoundly dehumanizing. You know, for an actor who is an actual real-world jujitsu master, you know, who represents an indigenous people of that planet, who is yet another dark-skinned people that will be the ending line, the ending sort of feeling of the film, are these two very explicitly brutal murders of not just the characters of color, but more specifically, dark-skinned characters. And it's shown in a very visceral manner, and it's shown in order to facilitate our white characters journey. And I think these choices, whether they were made consciously or subconsciously, they're sending a particular message, whose lives are valuable, whose lives are disposable, and why we, as creatives that have never experienced that very real oppression in our lives, we are consciously choosing to not rewrite these storylines, to not try to find a solution that can still drive the conflict, that can still drive the story, but not perpetuate the real world violence that marginalized people are experiencing on an everyday basis already. So, I mean, I think, you know, I might have forgotten some points, but that was my whole long rant on Dune. And I hope the audience is not too bored with so many things that I've said already. And I'm sure there's so, so many more. I mean, these are just the ones that have explicitly jumped in my face. I'm yet to have a conversation with a friend of mine, Jamie Carrera, on the colonial angle of the music, you know, how the entire universe is inspired by, you know, North African, Southwest Asian cultural experience. And yet musically, there's almost none of that represented. And what does that mean? Because it's a continuous trope that has been repeated in other films as well, you know, to choose something else that sounds sort of, vaguely mystical, esoteric, you know, be it some kind of Breton chant or something like that, that is completely culturally disconnected, but it sort of sounds like it could be indigenous, right? That it could be from that mystical context. But again, ultimately perpetuates these erasures. So yeah, and I'm very curious. You know, everybody who's listening, anybody who's in the audience, I'm sure I'll receive plenty of hate mail, as I did already. But, you know, anybody else who doesn't want to send me hate mail, but who wants to see maybe there's something else that you've been noticing. Maybe there's something else that you've been noticing within any other films. You know, how these ramifications of colonial violence get perpetuated throughout science fiction narratives. You know, I'm really interested about that. And I'm working on writing a much bigger text you know, criticizing these repetitive instances and also hopefully offering a bit of a map, you know, a blueprint towards what could be the solutions and how could we tell stories in a different manner yet still make it to be really, really compelling stories.
[01:26:16.519] Kent Bye: Yeah, I'm really struck with the range of different ways in which that Dune was written within a particular cultural context with normative standards and how as time has gone on, some of those things have been updated, but other things have not. And it's useful to be able to analyze from that cultural lens of how much they're in right relationship with each of those different larger normative standards and how science fiction as a medium, as an opportunity to really dream into the future and come up with something that's completely different. And so I think this goes back to your protopian visions, the different principles that you have here. I'm wondering if you might be willing to kind of read through these principles as almost like an antidote, maybe some best practices that just as a quick comment before you do that the this critique that you've had of Joseph Campbell and The Hero's Journey, there's different aspects of how a lot of narratives are put into an individual and they go on to an individual journey. It's all about their individuation and how they're individually going through ordeals. And maybe as a medium for virtual and augmented reality, I see a potential for creating entire worlds where you as the participant is an interactor that becomes more about your embodied experiences within this larger context. and that maybe that shift from existing narrative tropes of drama from 2D, we can start to imagine other experiences that actually feel good as an individual, but maybe lead into some of these more protopian visions. And then maybe that'll eventually filter back down into the 2D films and we can have more films like Black Panther that has this real aspirational, world-cultivating, future-dreaming aspects to it that is really inspiring people to really live into those futures that they actually want to live into, rather than these dystopic visions that are almost by default easier to do just because of the conceits of drama, that you don't really critique a lot of those things. But I'm wondering if you could maybe just read through some of those protopian visions and what the principles are of your approach and your community's approach of this protopian framework.
[01:28:10.401] Monika Bielskyte: Yeah, thank you for that specification. Definitely, as I said, you know, the Protobian framework is birthed through community. Now, I really believe that any kind of future change will happen through not leaderless, but leaderful movements. So yes, at some point, somebody might need to take the torch, somebody might need to be leading the project, etc, etc. but you're never doing it alone. And you also, instead of trying to claim all the fame and try to say that, you know, this is my project and, you know, Pretopia, I want it to be associated only with my work. You know, for me, it's really like I wanted to become an alternative. I wanted to become as familiar as Utopia and Dystopia as a framework. I have to say, you know, the caveat is that the word itself, you know, that was not coined by me. That was coined by Kevin Kelly in 2011 in his blog post. Now, I have a deep respect for Kevin Kelly, but I also have quite a lot of critique. We know that Kevin Kelly, Stuart Brand, you know, they're very much sort of attached to techno-utopian thoughts. And that he originally coined Protopia, you know, it was about this idea of a better future, but predominantly through incremental technological innovation. Now, for me, Praetopia is a better future that is really about a humanitarian evolution that is aided by emergent science and by technological innovation, but is not driven by the gadgetry of it all. It's really driven by evolution of our cultural values and our relationships with each other and with the living world. So Praetopian visions are really anchored in these seven principles, but they're not limited to them. And I'm very open to anybody who listens to point out any additional points. And, you know, we are here to expand and adjust and open up the framework. So number one is plurality beyond the binaries. Number two is community beyond the borders. Number three is celebration of presence. Number four is regenerative action in life as technology. Number five is symbiotic spirituality. Number six is creativity and emergence of cultures. And the last but not least, point number seven is evolution of cultural values. So these are the key driving principles and then they're not seen as separate. They're really interrelated and they affect each other. They leak and bleed and touch each other. So yeah, going into specific details of it, point number one would be plurality. And here, I'm very consciously changing that word from diversity, because I think diversity has quite a lot of baggage. You know, when we say that, oh, this particular group is diverse, or this individual is a diverse candidate, et cetera, we oftentimes assume that somebody is the default. And now, truly, nobody is a default. And whoever that has been deemed to be the default in the past, ultimately, if we look at it through demographic lens, has been a minority population. It's just people that have had the greatest amount of power and privilege that made the narratives of world revolve around them. But that's not the case. So I use the word plurality because it already implies the fact that, as Audrey Tang says, when we hear the singularities near, let us remember pluralities here. you know, the fact that we come from so many different walks of life, from so many different disciplines, cultural perspectives, gender identifications, et cetera, et cetera, you know, that is truly our wealth. And it's in those spaces in between, in between our knowledge, in between our lived experience, in between our perspectives, that's where our wealth really lies. So when I say plurality, you know, I think it's really important to think beyond just the binary, right? Beyond the binary of gender, beyond just sort of, you know, let's have more women, future is female, but also say, well, what are those interesting spaces in between? you know, how to queer the futures. You know, it's not just about making more inclusive for queer people, but it's opening that space for many more of us to live our true selves, right? To not be narrowed down or limited by the expectations that come to us if we are perceived as male or female, et cetera. And what is that truly productive, truly fertile space that is not within a binary? You know, like, What really bugs me is how a transhumanist movement sort of hijacked the conversation that initially came from people identifying as trans, right? And so, especially right now with so much transphobia going on in the mainstream media, I could not echo more of a need to watch Verna Cox's documentary Disclosure to understand how Trans representation, in this case, it has always been here. However, most of the time it's been specifically transphobic, right? So anything that was not fitting within that narrow colonial binary of gender was depicted as despicable, as monstrous, et cetera, et cetera. Whereas what we now are starting to understand is that, no, in fact, that space in between is the most interesting space. And similarly, beyond the binaries, beyond the racial binary, I truly, truly celebrate projects such as Black Panther. I also had a bit of a chance to interact with both of the production designers, Hannah Beachler and Ryan Coogler, who are truly, for me, they represent, even if I'm critical of quite a few aspects of Black Panther, You know, I truly admire what both Hannah and Ryan have been trying to do, you know, very differently from so many other people in the entertainment industry. You know, what was so palpable for me from them is that it's not just about their own individual creations, not about just, you know, Ryan getting to direct this $200 million movie to express himself as an artist, but it was really about creating impact. And it was really about thinking, even when he received some of the critique after Black Panther won, which, you know, it did not include disability. It was still quite heteronormative. But instead of saying that, no, I'm an artist. I have the right to do whatever I want. He said, I hear you. I hear you. You know, this is just the first step. Let me see how I could be expanding upon my understanding what that future world of Wakanda could be like. Right? So, as I said, I really celebrate Black Panther. At the same time, you know, just the fact that we have more Black superhero films or brown superhero films, it also is not the answer. It is one of the answers, but we also need to have these depictions of a future that really explore these spaces in between. right, that really explores people from many, many different cultures together, and especially people that are third culture, right? So many of us today, we either, you know, our parents might be coming from very different cultural ethnic backgrounds. We might have been born in one place and might have been living in another place. You know, refugee identity, you know, is something that is obviously increasing with all the climate issues in the world. And so I think it's really interesting to explore beyond the very sort of easy stereotype racial-cultural binary as well. Then, of course, it's beyond the sexual binaries, but also beyond the age binaries. I think it's very interesting to also think what are those interesting spaces that are really intergenerational and how we should not be stuck in thinking that, well, because this character is old, that's how we're going to stereotype them. And because this character is young, then that's how they're going to be. You know, what is that generational plurality without binary? And last but not least is, of course, disability. And disability is not just about issues of physical mobility or, you know, some of the most sort of obvious physical disabilities, but also neurodiversity and different mental health related disabilities. That should not be again stereotype as something that is villainous or something that's monstrous, something that is negative, but actually, you know, as something that is simply different and that's something that is rich and something that comes with a culture. that could be really interesting for more of us to immerse ourselves in and understand and maybe have our world truly enriched by, right? So that's plurality. That's quite a lot. Community, as you said, that's really tackling this idea of Joseph Campbellian myth of the hero's journey. I think personally that because of social media and especially with this pandemic, so many of us have been becoming more and more lonely. And so to have that isolation further being enforced through these stories that are in many ways also very eugenic, you know, a lot of superheroes, a lot of heroes within mainstream storytelling, they are heroes because they were somehow either genetically or intellectually or whatever way superior to all of us. which makes it way less relatable. And secondly, it makes for a very lonely journey, that everything revolves about that particular character and everybody else is sort of like just side pieces to their story. And people will say, well, but that is the universal, that's how stories are being told. And my answer to that is that, no, that is a dominant form of a narrative within settler colonial culture. Within indigenous cultures, the dominant narrative is the narrative of communities. And I think that's what's so interesting as a space to explore, especially through science fiction, is these narratives of people coming together, right? And people, you know, through their differences, working out. And sometimes it's not easy, right? That can generate disagreements, that can generate conflict. But I think within our narratives, a conflict that results from people where one party is the bad guy, and the other party, the good guys, the perfect guys, you know, it's not a very compelling conflict. However, when you have a conflict, when you have a drama between people that, you know, have a point in their own unique ways, and that, you know, sometimes they actually really love each other, but it's still difficult. And, you know, as humans, we still disagree, we still fight, we still hurt each other. You know, we live also with these generational wounds and to explore complex stories like that, what does it mean to come together? And what does it mean to tell these stories that are collected, that are not just sort of no characters, right? Again, as I said, these are not the stories that are leaderless, you know, sort of figureless, but more figureful, right? They don't revolve about just one person. you know, and everybody else is just serving that story. But, you know, it's a story that revolves through people. And I think the Wachowski sisters have been trying to do that through something like Sense8. And I think that's sort of a bit of a beginning of that. You know, some people liked it, some people didn't. But I think that's, it's a really, really interesting space to explore. Celebration of presence, you know, again, I feel like there's such a major need of that. during the pandemic. I mean, you know, if you have to think of what is that most cliche image of a sci-fi world design, you know, it's going to be a singular character somewhere on a rooftop looking over a dystopian city and with a polluted skyline that is being animated by the sort of super corny advertising holograms. Like we've seen this 10 million times already. Right? And what if we change that? What if instead of that scene, we imagine a scene on a green rooftop garden? that is a community center, that is also a creative space, that is also growing food, that is connected through these other buildings with the living plant, wine, sort of bridges, instead of just one single, lonely character. It's a group of people from very different backgrounds, with different bodies and skin tones and genders, etc. you know, sitting there or doing something together and interacting with each other? And what if that kind of image could become the new defining image of a kind of science fiction story that we could tell? You know, and so for me, it's really interesting to imagine what are these stories of a future that are about human connection, that are about presence, that are about caring for each other, touching each other, loving each other, that are not just about, you know, fucking robots in the most violent way, a la the altered carbon, like really sort of creepy storyline, you know, of this very perverse engagement with female cyborgs that are being brutalized. What if we shift that story and we start telling stories of actually what could love, what could caring, what could friendship look like in a future that's actually really been embodied? What does it mean to catch each other as we fall? What does it mean to really hold each other? And what are the truly neurodiverse and disability inclusive ways of imagining that? And I really haven't seen that enough. And I think it's so, so interesting to explore that. You know, how also technological innovation could not just be utilized for military or police state purposes, but could be utilized to connect us, to bond us together, right, to allow us to experience each other in ways that we have not before, to care for each other. So that's really the presence part and really celebrating that. That's also, I want to come back to Duna a little bit with this point. I mean, it didn't seem that people were enjoying being alive in that world, right? Like, I want to see scenes of people dancing, of people embracing, of people, you know, joyfully experiencing each other's bodies. Right? And that's so extremely rare within sci-fi. Right? And to feel that embodiment, to feel that people that are our characters of our future sci-fi stories, they really enjoy being embodied. They enjoy what their bodies allow besides just murdering, killing, fighting, et cetera. You know, what type of bodily creative expression and what type of bodily connection we could be having with each other and as a community. I think that's just so, so, so important. So that leads us to regenerative action and life as technology. And I think that's a really, really crucial thing. And that's what I would really love to see more in science fiction, is instead of these, again, talking about Dune and the aesthetics of Dune, you know, seeing this sort of spacecraft that is very much just sort of another regurgitation of very Star Wars-like, brutalistic architecture. I mean, that spacecraft is not aerodynamic. It is not going to fly. It just won't. And they used an element of that in their chapter design. But for me, it seemed like a direct inspiration from Ghost in the Shell Innocence. And I think Ghost in the Shell Innocence did it much better. I love that film, by the way. Mamoru Oshi is definitely one of my heroes. But right now, you know, there's an extraordinary research that is happening that is bridging together understanding of biological realms and our understanding of technological and engineering realms. So when you look at the insects, Right? When you look at different animals, you realize that no robotics that we currently have is as perfect as what nature has created. Right? So to really think how much more of our technology and much more of also our actual designs, instead of perpetuating this sort of completely like overutilized retro future trope, of Mussolini-era fascist Italian architecture, what are these future biological shapes and forms, both of our technology but also of our lived spaces? How could we think of architectures that are not just built but also grown? and are based on living organic materials that are covered with lichen and wines and algae that are biomimetic. And what does it mean for these spaces to be alive? What does it mean for our technology to be much more inspired by the living world and integrated with the living world? our technology, but also our architecture, right? So imagine, instead of that very minimalistic, brutalist type of a city that imitates the very impoverished version, ultimately, of Egyptian architecture from the times of the pharaohs. I mean, that was a lot of the evocations that was for me very much sort of a fetishization of architecture in Egypt. which is a country that I spent a lot of time in, that I will say if you actually spent enough time in Egypt, what you realize is that a lot of these sort of very minimalist, sort of brutalist looking lines of pyramids and whatever, whatever, they look minimalist and brutalist right now, right? Back in the day, all that stuff was full of color, was full of texture and decoration, et cetera, et cetera. It all looks minimalist and brutalist right now. But I'm not even talking about that, right? That all of those inspirations that a project like Dune took, but it sucked the life away from it, which is also something that a movie like Elysium did. You know, Elysium filmed, Neil Blomkamp filmed in Iztapalapa, which is a very impoverished area of Mexico City, but it's also a very culturally and socially vibrant area of the city. And instead of keeping in that culturally vibrant texture, he just sort of sucked all of that life out and just kept the carcasses of the houses. And he made sure to not film the streets that have street art and murals and stuff like that, right? And so I think that's what also Hollywood perpetuates. David Rudnick, A friend of mine did a whole thread on Twitter called hashtag future without art. And in a way that's embodiment of fascism is to show future where there's no life, there's no creativity, there's no art. So I think talking about that, I basically went to the next point, which is creativity and emergence of cultures. So creativity and emergence of cultures, that's really about that. It's kind of thinking how, and I want to merge this point a bit together with regentive action life as technology, how we could imagine that marriage of creativity. What if future murals and future urban art is not just paint sprayed on the walls, maybe it's these massive murals made out of fungi and lichen. And imagine if in that particular desert city on the planet Arrakis, instead of these bare walls, they could have all been covered with this super intricate and delicate desert adapted lichen or fungi or whatever, which had temperature isolating properties, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. So these, for me, would have been way richer opportunities for the world design to create something that we have never previously seen. So creativity is really, really important for me. To think also about technology that is not, again, just military police state purposes, but how the future drones and exoskeleton body suits could be utilized in a futuristic carnival of Rio de Janeiro. Right, how some of the performers that are maybe really elderly performers, maybe people with disabilities could be doing this sort of fantastical performance that could allow them to, you know, move beyond the rules of gravity utilizing particular technologies, how drones could be creating this really beautiful spectacles, you know, how we could express culture and creativity within the context of technologically, scientifically innovative universe in a way that we bring more life to it, right, instead of just making it lifeless and brutalist and minimalistic and just ultimately flat and boring. Which leads me to another point, and I want to bring it back also a bit to Dune. You know, what I would have loved to see, you know, it's a city on a planet Arrakis that is inhabited by people that are coded as somehow descendants or connected to the cultures of North Africa, as we said, specifically being inspired by the Kabil, Barber, and the Amazigh people. but also certain Islamic influences. So let's imagine that main hall where all these events were happening, instead of it being, again, that very, very brutalistic type of very minimal space. Well, what was a futuristic take on the mosque architecture? I've had the chance to visit truly, truly, truly amazing mosques a bit around the world. And what really struck me is how a lot of design of the mosques and it's sort of generative art before the generative art and it was an expression of this mathematical beauty and mathematical patterns like centuries before we had a word for it right and so what if we could imagine the future version of that Wouldn't those scenes have been more original and more compelling if we would have looked at something like that as an inspiration? And so with that idea of symbiotic spirituality, I really want to think how in our future lives and the future stories, what is that space that we make for ritual and spiritual practices? Because, you know, no matter how much we think about future cities or the smart cities and everything's about these practical solutions and just thinking how do we have to deal with impending problems of climate change and rising inequality, et cetera, et cetera, you know, the truth is that spirituality is really important for us and has, from the beginnings of humanity, that has been a driving force in us becoming who we have become, which is not necessarily always a good thing. So maybe we need to reconsider what are the rituals of the future? If we can imagine ourselves as living in peace and living in a symbiotic relationship with the planet and understanding that we're not on top of the ecology, we're really part of that ecology. Well, what are those spaces? for the spiritual practices like that. What are these rituals? What are those songs? What are those dances? What are those prayers? What are those sounds? What are those expressions, right? And I think it's just such an exciting space to explore as world designers and world growers. And again, an example within a potentially really culturally rich and inspirational world such as Dune, I found it completely, completely underexploited. And then this leads to the last point of Protopia, which is evolution of cultural values. And it's a less visual point, but I think it's the most fundamental point. And it kind of leads back us to thinking that ultimately all of these visual expressions all of the technology, all of the architecture, all of the science, none of these things are the drivers of civilization. It's ultimately who and what do we consider valuable. And so if we think of a future that is to explore radical hope and radical tenderness, if we are to think of a world where the wealth is not measured by the physical possessions, where power is not about power to exploit, we try to reimagine how we can move away from culture of exploitation to culture of contribution, which is much more of indigenous framework. In indigenous cultures, power is about responsibility. If you are powerful means you have to be responsible, means you have to give back, you have to share. It's not just about you. To be powerful means to have responsibilities, means to find ways to live in an equanimity, to live in reciprocity with other beings, human and non-human, right? And so I think that's a much more philosophical last point, but I think it's a point that ultimately informs everything else, right? All of the technology, all of the science, all of the design, all of the architecture kind of has to reflect and trickle out of that. So that's a very long introduction to the imagination around Protopia. And I really hope that some of the people, especially people that are script writers, people that are digital artists, people that are especially working in the immersive media realm, who are working on their demos, who are thinking about VR, AR experiences in games, that instead of sort of recreating more experiences that are built around fear, around violence, that some of you listening to this would say, well, could I imagine something built around this idea of radical hope and radical tenderness? I guess to finish the conversation around Praetopia and the kind of fictions of the future that we want to see, you know, a lot of people say, oh, you work so much in science fiction. So, you know, what are the movies that you fan of? What are the books that you fan of? And although I think there's been so, so many really extraordinary talented people that have worked in this field, my main love for science fiction, you know, both in a film format and the literary format, and hopefully soon more in immersive and game formats, it's not so much about what has been done already, it's about what can be done. What I'm in love with is not what it has been, because a lot of the times, unfortunately, sci-fi has perpetuated. really sort of harmful biases around racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. But I think it doesn't have to stay that way. And so what really guides me is something that Walida Imarisha and Adrian Maria Brown have written about. And it is this quote of theirs, all organizing science fiction. And so I want to really rephrase that science fiction is not about space opera, it's not about killer robots, it's not about AI gone rogue, whatever. To imagine science fiction is to imagine a world that could be different. is to imagine a possibility. And if you're working towards a more just world, if you're working towards a more creative world, towards a more inventive world, towards a more, hopefully not just sustainable, but also regenerative world, all of that, you imagine possibilities that don't exist. So in a way, you are creating science fiction. And so what I would like is to really, you know, inspire more sci-fi that is not just driven by science and technology, but is driven by change that we want to see within ourselves as culture and civilization. And when I found that it's very, very interesting. So Adrian and Maria Brown definitely recommend both of their books. Pleasure Activism, as well as Emergent Strategy. When I was reading Emergent Strategy, it's a book that they've written quite a few years back that I only have read right now because I was waiting for the audiobook because they're just amazing reader of their own books. It's just this wonderful recordings that really take you on a journey with them. And what they really rephrased, because they're also huge fans of sci-fi, but they said, well, we need more is visionary fiction. So this idea of science fiction that imagines possibilities rather than limitations and closures, you know, is this kind of new emergent genre that is visionary fiction. And so I really would love to see more of that and visionary fiction, not just within literature, but also as movies and TV series, and especially with an immersive experience realm. Because what's so exciting, and we spoke about it with you, Kent, in the previous episodes, that within augmented, virtual, mixed, extended reality to be able to really bring people into a possible future world that is an inspiring future world could really help to activate and motivate us. to create it in real life, to create that change, to work towards something that is more regenerative, that is kinder, that is more inclusive, et cetera, et cetera. Because when you just read about it, that still leaves a lot of space for imagination. When you watch it as a film or TV series, it somehow brings it closer and also makes it much more accessible to much larger audiences. However, if you experience that, in that immersive realm, all of a sudden it just brings it so much closer. It makes it so much more real. So in a way, it's the next step that you have to do is just like work towards it in your real life, you know? And I think that's what I was being passionate about in my involvement with XR at large is how instead of it being that space to escape, it can more become a space that we go into so we could come back better into the real world. So it's not a space for, unfortunately right now, it has been a lot of space for isolation, but it doesn't have to be, you know, it could be more space to not education of co-creation of collaboration of co-presence. I know something that ultimately makes us feel more connected to each other into this planet, rather than more disconnected from everything and everyone.
[01:57:48.744] Kent Bye: Hmm. Yeah, well, just to recap your protopian futures framework of protopian visions are anchored in principles of plurality beyond binaries, community beyond borders, celebration of presence, regenerative action and life as technology, symbiotic spirituality, creativity and emergent subcultures and evolution of cultural values. I think that's a really great list of those seven points and if there's anything that I would add it would be the focus of relationality and process as being a core part of the foundation of reality, rather than Western metaphysics being substance metaphysics really focused on physical static concrete objects. But I think relationality is kind of built into each of those points that you're pointing out. So in some ways I see the relationality as being the primary fundamental aspect. And again, for me, I point to Alfred North Whitehead's process philosophy, but it's also embedded into indigenous wisdom and all my relations and, you know, just finish, listen to sand talk. you know, a lot of that same themes of relationality comes up again and again and again. And I'm sitting with the big pivot that Facebook made into becoming meta this past Thursday, where they're really rebranding themselves as a metaverse company rather than just a social media company. And we have to go back to like Snow Crash to kind of see the seeds of this vision of the moving into a new immersive world that is embodied and have presence. And, you know, you can have this open interoperability. And I hear a lot of rhetoric that's coming from Facebook, but yet you know, I guess I'm skeptical that they're going to do anything other than their digital colonial ways of just trying to have one giant network that's 3.58 billion people and all the different issues that have come up from that. And so I also see the countervailing force that's happening right now with the blockchain and the decentralization. And, you know, there's a part of me that has hope in that, but also worries that this tech oligarchy is going to be just replaced by a crypto oligarchy that's basically replicating the core values of something that's not in harmony with the earth, or something that's regenerative, in a way that is replicating this infinite growth mindset that we have? And are we building new technological architectures that are just not actually getting us closer to being in right relationship to the world around us? Which is, I guess, where I'll hand it off to you to hear some of your thoughts on both the potentials and perils of these concepts of the metaverse, Whereas it could be this real opportunity for people to come together and do something completely different. Or it could just be the next iteration of what we've had before, but just with a new veneer of technological architecture that gives the illusion of people have more choice and autonomy, but really it's just a continuation of the existing levers of control that we've been dealing with for years.
[02:00:28.966] Monika Bielskyte: Yeah, I very much echo everything that you just said and. I want to kind of bring it back to this idea that there's this perception that it's the Elon Musk's and Zuckerberg's and Sergey Brin's and Jeff Bezos that are creating the future. But those who control the fantasy control the future. It's none of those guys. It's actually specific books and films that they have picked up when they were kids or teenagers or young adults that have informed, you know, what is that world that they want to design towards, that they want to innovate towards? And I think it's never been as explicit as over the course of the pandemic, right? Sort of as millions of people were sick and dying and experiencing this sort of very much a real-life dystopia and extreme strife. And then he was seeing these billionaires launch their tourist rockets to space. And then you're seeing somebody like Mark Zuckerberg doing this demo, but even saying that that's the greatest thing that we could do as humanity, you know, whilst so much of the world is experiencing extreme suffering, you know, that's just been such a extraordinary juxtaposition. that was really just in our faces. And unfortunately, the world that they seem to be designing their technologies for is the world that perpetuates the worst of colonial mindset and just colonial infrastructures, right? I mean, somebody like Musk, You know, he even called his like Mars colonial rover. And Elon Musk, he's a child of apartheid South Africa. His wealth is built upon the stolen emerald mine in Baghdad, Rhodesia, currently Zambia, that his father sort of owned. You know, his companies were rife with racism, misogyny and all of those things. Right. And so with all of that, he never, ever bothered to reexamine how maybe colonizing Mars is not the best thing that we could do. You know, someone like Jeff Bezos, so much of the stuff that he's done, as well as folks at Google have done, was about trying to bring Star Trek technologies to life, right? And a lot of people argue that Star Trek is utopian. I don't see it as utopian, especially from perspective of queerness, disability, indigeneity, which is very much my sort of lived experience. I don't see that as utopian at all. I see it as colonial. Right? And so, unfortunately, because the stories of the future that we have, you know, have been driven around this idea of colonizing, colonizing our cities, colonizing outer space, just colonizing in every single of its aspects, even if they were written as cautionary tales, they have absolutely become instruction manuals. And so what you're seeing with Facebook and Metaverse, at Oculus, Ready Player One was a must-read book, right? And Paul Malek explicitly was stating that what he wants to create is the metaverse of the Ready Player One. That was his fantasy. That's what he thought was dope. Right. And it filtered them for the downline into the Oculus culture. And then, you know, how lucky he was out because, well, you know, he's racist, misogynist and all those things, you know, gamer, gator, whatever, whatever. Not like, you know, nobody knew about it, but people chose to close their eyes when two billions were powered into his company. You know, it is reflected in the choices that Mark is making right now. And I think it's also from the first two conversations that we have initially had, and from the time when I started giving talks about virtual reality, start with an extended reality further down the line, I always said that it's not about games, it's not about any of that gimmicky entertainment stuff. Ultimately, where we're going with extended reality, it's about future of computation, right? Computation is moving away from the frame of a screen and into computational space, and that will happen. You know, there's a lot of interesting opportunities within that, but it's not what Chris Melk was preaching that it's, you know, the ultimate empathy machine is the ultimate mind manipulation machine. for better or worse. And unfortunately, because of the cultural state in which we are right now, it is potentially a terrible thing. It becomes the ultimate surveillance space. We can not just read everything that you say and everything you click on and everything that you like and everything that you disengage from, but we can literally soon start reading your mind and influencing you in that most visceral manner. Right? I mean, even with augmented reality, you know, what's really interesting is when people take these examples, such as the episode within Black Mirror, right, where there's a combat situation where the soldiers are being made to believe that whoever is identified as their enemy, in fact, aren't even fully human. They're sort of cockroaches. And so it's that complete next level of dehumanization. Now, of course, that's the most dystopian scenario, but it doesn't have to be as extreme. And sometimes it's just about little tweaks to your reality. And now what we've seen, what over pandemic, what has happened with this information, we've seen how Facebook was a key driver of it. And in the cases of in Myanmar, that literally facilitated a genocide. And so without any reckoning with what has happened, with what has been done, what still is being done in terms of weaponizing disinformation that led to actual loss of people's lives. you know, and dissolution of families, dissolution of social groups, et cetera, et cetera, all of a sudden now we're just going to jump into this fictional world of a metaverse, which for me is just another rebranding of virtual reality and trying to make it cool. I mean, and we've seen this technological hype cycles, right? I mean, when we met initially, it was the hype cycle of VR and all the VCs were funding VR. And then when it was blockchain, then it was ICOs and then new sort of crypto stuff. And now it's the metaverse. But these are just names, these aren't actual meanings. There was a good article recently by Ian Bogost, Why Metaverse is Bad. And I shared it with my additional commentary that the reason why VR was not fully adopted, and it could have been, especially during the course of the pandemic, is not because of the failings of technology per se. Yes, technology remains still imperfect and janky and whatever, but it's because the failures of how this stuff was funded. The stuff that was funded was a whole bunch of gimmicky Unnecessary and oftentimes really violent content targeted towards people that do not have to live with the trauma of dehumanization, right? That are able to sort of indulge in experiences and content that actually doesn't really deliver any real value to their lives. And that's why VR has flopped. Because we're thinking, how do we want to bring things such as the gimmicky world of Ready Player One to life and how that's our main goal, rather than thinking, how can we actually make this something that makes people's lives better? You know, not better that they can virtually wear Gucci, but better that it can help us understand each other. It can help us understand our planet. It can help us understand our history, our culture, our society. you know, better that it can help us expand our potential. And not just intellectually and physically, but also creatively and emotionally. And so little funding has been poured into these purposes. And people were saying that these were sort of niche content spaces or niche platforms, etc, etc. And yet, I think this pandemic has proven us that this was everything but. Mental health is a global issue. Physical health is a global issue. Education is a global issue. Lack of human connection and social cohesion is a global issue. On a global scale, in different manners, we are all suffering from it. And unfortunately, nothing that I'm seeing of what has been announced of the metaverse feels like anything but trying to rebrand the VR that is ultimately, again, coming directly. And I think more specifically within Facebook, it's less of a Snow Crash direct influence. It's much more of a Ready Player One influence. You know, I think Snow Crash is almost like it's too intellectual, you know what I mean? It's almost too nerdy. It really feels that it's this idea of Ready Player One. And I mean, to be honest, you know, when people were, when it was originally announced that, you know, Ready Player One is being made into a sci-fi movie, you know, I saw so many people and critically saying, well, maybe this is finally what will create this hype around VR adoption. And I was like, that is dystopia. This is more than anything. This should warn us off from the adoption. This is not inspirational story that we should be telling for the future of moving away from computational screens to computational space. Like, this is the ultimate how not to and why not to. Right. And so, again, for me, it's just another proof and point that those who control the fantasy control the future. And if we only tell dystopian stories on a larger scale, on a population scale, it makes us disengage. It makes us feel that everything is doomed. Hence, there's nothing that we can do about it. Hence, our actions matter. Hence, we should just consume further, which is why fossil fuel industry loves dystopian storytelling, right? Because it just makes us be like, well, might as well dance on the deck of a Titanic because it's sinking anyways, right? And then on the other side, it absolutely does become a product roadmap. And Ready Player One and the metaverse is case in point. Minority Report and their surveillance state dystopia of predicted crime is case in point because it resulted directly in what Palantir has been doing. And I think as science fiction creators and as also citizens, as consumers of technology, we really need to start questioning, is this the future we want and how each of us is participating in it? And what are maybe things that we don't want to participate? And what are the things that we are being sold with some kind of fancy name that is everything but? And how maybe people that we think are the leaders, that we think are, I think there's that perception also that somebody who is a billionaire somehow, they are so smart, they are so amazing, they're so whatever. And then you see somebody like Elon Musk, who has four models of his cars, He reserved the names for them to result as they were coming out in sequence for it to be sexy. And the only reason why it didn't become sexy is because, what is it, Mercedes patented model E, so they had to change, you know, instead of E to number three. And just recently he tweeted that, you know, he wants to found the Texas Institute of Technology and Science, which it stood for TITS, right? And then he was further tweeting saying that these get the degrees, right, which is, knowing how misogynist, how sexist is academia, how misogynist and sexist is technological environments, to have these things as the butt of jokes, it just perpetuates the violence within which we're living. And it also shows that these people aren't necessarily some kind of genius. They were privileged. Maybe they were lucky. And maybe they're not the ones that we should be taking our clues to as of what is and what is not future worthy.
[02:13:04.073] Kent Bye: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I have some thoughts and responses on the metaverse related things. One is that I agree on a lot of the points that you're saying about Facebook in general. I have some points to elaborate on that. But the point that I'd say that gives me hope at least is after talking to over 1600 people over the last seven years and publishing over a thousand of those interviews and doing a whole three hour episode 1000, you know, there is quite a lot of exciting potentials for what the technology is going to be able to enable. And at the same time, some of the most inspiring things for me in a novel like Ready Player One was the oasis, which was this vision of being able to go and learn about anything. And that, of course, was the one thing that was immediately cut from the film depiction of Ready Player One. But it's also by the choices of Facebook themselves have created decisions where they want to prioritize gaming and surveillance capitalism to the point where the VR headsets are not even FERPA compliant, meaning that educational context can't even literally use the headsets because they're not following the baseline of privacy that you would need to even use it in a public school education. So in some ways, the seeds of the potential that are embedded into stories like Ready Player One, but the actual embodied actions of these companies are such that are doing the exact opposite. So even though they're giving $150 million away for people to create learning experiences, those learning experiences can't even be shown to kids in school because their practices of surveillance capitalism are not following the baseline for privacy for education or even for medical applications. So there's a whole classes of medical applications that have also been eliminated because they're prioritizing both gaming and surveillance capitalism. So to go back to the colonial impulse for Meta, formerly Facebook, it's a colonial impulse to seize your data, to seize what's happening inside your mind. And Rafael Eusta is one of the founders of the Morningstar group, who's come forth with a series of five different neuro rights principles. When those principles are the right to identity, the right to agency, the right to mental privacy, the right to be free from algorithmic bias, and the right to have free and equitable access to technology. And some of those rights, those newer rights, are going in direct contradiction to the existing practices of how meta is defining privacy. They define privacy as the 1973 Fair Information Practice Principles and the FTC enforcement of that, which is that privacy is the control of information. And as long as you tell consumers what you're going to do with that data, then you're all clear. And basically it's an adhesion contract where you're being forced to agree to something that you may not realize all the different implications of. But because of that, their first responsible innovation principle is don't surprise people. And that's because they're quote unquote disclosing to us to get informed consent over the way that they're using our data. Now, there's certainly a lot of arguments that that is not actually informed consent. And there's a lot of arguments that the way that they're seizing all our data is not done in a way that is within what Nissenbaum calls contextual integrity, meaning that it's contextually appropriate for the context with these new normative standards that are being developed. So that for me is the big concern, is that all of these visions of the metaverse as meta now, formerly Facebook, with Zuckerberg saying that they don't want to have a 30% tax because they want to create new economic opportunities that are fair and equitable, meaning they're subsidizing the costs of the headsets by mortgaging our privacy and being able to basically seize all this data and to do targeted advertising. So I think that for me is what is the most disturbing is that even after seeing all of the things that have happened with their social media adventures with Facebook, at the very beginning, Mark says, we're going to build in the future. And this talk is dedicated to people who are dedicated into building something new. without any real accounting or truth and reconciliation with the mistakes that were made before, and without actually changing some of the fundamental things that are going to lead potentially to the exact same results as we've seen in the 2D realm, which is having these big giant networks that are going to potentially not be conjecturally appropriate to going into these places without real subject matter expertise and create things that like happened in Myanmar, where there's genocides that happened because there's no buddy that was at Facebook that was paying attention to what was happening on the network on that corner of the world, which is like their colonial empire in some ways. So for me, I guess I'm skeptical about the utility of having networks that are that large and a lack of interrogation with some of these different practices that are going to potentially lead into the exact same thing that we've seen before. And I guess that lack of acknowledgement and truth, speaking of the truth, what's happened and reconciling it and by reconciling it, by actually changing the core practices in the absence of changing those core practices, then I just see that even though I'm a huge proponent of the potential of VR as a medium, Facebook now meta doing these same practices is something that I'm not optimistic that this is going to turn out in a utopic vision or protopic vision, even what the metaverse could be.
[02:17:59.572] Monika Bielskyte: Yeah. I really appreciate the very specific details that you dove into and I'm definitely in agreement with everything just said. You know, what I find really interesting is that. And so this is a huge part of Protopia visions of the future and sort of Protopia framework. My issue with Utopia is that Utopia tends to leapfrog any of the realities, issues and problems of today's world. And it says, well, and here's the better future. And somehow we got here. And don't you dare the question, how do we get here? It's actually better. You know, right now it's the world that is environment is sustainable, is post gender, is post race and crypto communism or whatever, whatever. Right. And I'm like, that's not how these things work. There's no way. And that's, for me, a fundamental issue with utopia. There's no way to just say, and now we're going to do it right. And now we're going to do it better. And now it's going to work out. If you are unwilling to confront the mistakes that you've done, the trauma that you've caused, and the wounds that not only are not healed, they are still profoundly infected. And we see that with technology companies. We see that in exactly the way that you have described. with Facebook now meta that sort of rebranded itself because they're being very much aware how sullied Facebook name has become. But I see that also with governments. I see that with everything that's happening in the United States of America. I see that with also a lot of things that are happening here in South Africa where I'm right now. If there is no real reckoning, well, what is that painful history? and who it has crushed under its wheels, and upon whose sweat and blood and bones this had been built. And in order to do it right, we need to repair the past. In order to do better future, it means that you need to address the past inequities. And to address the past inequities, you need to ultimately do the reparations for it. And reparations are not just sort of financial reparations. You know, money doesn't solve all problems. First of all, it's about acknowledging that and then really analyzing how whatever you project in the future does not perpetuate the same things. And what that requires is to have really uncomfortable conversations. What that requires is for us to look ourselves in the mirror and see how many more of us than we are willing to admit have been complicit in that. So what we're seeing with Facebook, now Meta, is also what we're seeing with most of the officially former colonial but still very much neo-colonial imperial governments. is this unwillingness to say and to admit that the only way that we have a chance to do better is to actually look into where we've come from. And the only way to do it right is not to center the visions, dreams, desires of the most privileged, but always ask how it's the ones that would be the most harmed What do they have to say? How can this be made safe for them? And how we should not be designing for them, but truly how design should be led by them and absolutely with them, right? So even what we've been living through this pandemic, you know, for me, this pandemic was just another expression of the eugenic undertone of settler colonial culture. It's because we said, well, only the weak ones are going to die. Only the ones that are old and with pre-existing conditions and this and that. And ultimately, that endangered all of us, right? However, whenever we do anything, be it any type of urban redesign, or technology design, or technological infrastructure design, or cultural initiative restructuring, et cetera, et cetera, when we are centering the needs of people that are really at that edge of the harm, we make it better for everybody. So if we talk about the policies that we need for dealing with this global pandemic, the people whose needs we should have centered, first and foremost, were people with disabilities, were people with different conditions that were most in harm's way of this virus. And if we would have done that, This pandemic would have been way shorter and way less people would have died and way less people would have ended up with long COVID and long term disabilities. And so many of us who have not maybe even been sick or who we've been sick later, you know, we still lost families. We still now are living with the grief of that loss and the loss of the ones around us. Right? And it happened because we didn't center the most vulnerable ones. When we talk about all the geopolitics and all of the both international, local policy related to climate change, we must be centering the rights of indigenous people. Right? Because they're the ones that live the closest to the land. They're the first ones to be impacted in the most harmful manner. And so their needs and their visions should be centered in there. And so if we talk about metaverse, if we talk about Facebook, if we talk about the future of moving into the computational space and what would be that UX and what would be that UI, who we need to ask? Well, people who have been the most harmed by it. And these tend to be generally people of color, a lot of the times women of color, a lot of the times trans women of color, a lot of the times disabled people of color, right? Those are the people that have experienced the worst type of harassment, the worst type of hate campaign, the worst type of targeting, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, right? And if these people would be leading these efforts, if these people would be the voices defining how do we make these designs safe? How do we make these designs inclusive? then we wouldn't end up with the dystopia that we're in today, you know? So that is the problem, right? It's the major misperception that exists that somehow science and technology are these objective things. They've never been objective. They have always been driven by societal values. And if you study the history of science and the history of technology, you see how it's been driven by not the needs of the greater population, but the wants of the privileged few. And generally those wants were related to accumulation of wealth and power and ability to exploit. And it continues to be done that way. So unless we actually reckon with that and really recenter our priorities and really reconsider who should be the leaders, unfortunately, I feel we will keep coming in circles. And unfortunately, as any of these technological tools and platforms become more and more powerful, the danger does not diminish, it just rises. So that's one thing. But then what I want to finish on is that You know, I was I was born in the totalitarian regime. You know, I was born into this complete dictatorship. I grew up with the stories, you know, as somebody who's queer, as somebody who's neurodiverse. I grew up with my father telling me that if I were born in his generation, chances are I would not be alive today because I would have been seen and perceived as a threat to the regime. And threats of the regime were disposed of in very decisive manner. Right. And to have been born into that kind of totalitarian dystopia and to also having seen it collapse and not like everything is perfect. And, you know, there were really different fractured realities among the countries that were part of the Soviet Union. And what we're seeing right now in Poland, what we're seeing right now in Hungary, and it was really horrifying what we've been seeing, of course, in Ukraine was a full blown out war. What we're seeing in Belarus, you know, more recently, you know, is obviously it's the last dictatorship of Europe. In the recent election, the opposition leader won, and then she was forced to flee. And, you know, so many issues and sort of so many problems. And obviously, you know, what happened in Russia, there's a really brilliant book that I definitely suggest to the readers, The Future is History by Masha Gessen. That regime has collapsed. And some of the countries have moved in a different direction. Some of the countries, some of the territories, you know, had that kind of system reentrenched just maybe under a different name. Yeah, at the same time, I've seen oppressive systems collapse in my very lifetime. I've seen how my life and my very being became possible because something that seemed to be there forever had fallen apart under its own weight. And so what I want to say is that, you know, even things that seem inevitable in how oppressive, how exploitative, how powerful they are, you know, sometimes they do collapse under their own weight. It's like in that Charlie Chaplin monologue where he says, you know, as long as men die, liberty will never perish. You know, sort of nothing is forever. And I think we all are doing our part. And I'm recording this from South Africa. And even if South Africa is experiencing so much strife today, and there's so much inequality, and there's still so much of a racialized power structure, et cetera, et cetera, here, at the same time, the regime of apartheid fell. It collapsed under its own weight. And yet it seemed indestructible. It seemed omnipotent. and yet it collapsed. So at some point when oppressive systems become so oppressive, they ultimately do collapse under their own weight. And what's a real issue is that as these things start collapsing or as we're fighting for a different world, we cannot just create a power vacuum. we must imagine an alternative. Because if we just destroy the oppressive system as we have today, but we don't have a vision of something better, then it gets us usurped by the warlords. And that has happened throughout the history in very different cultural, geographical, etc. contexts. And that's what would happen today. And that's why I feel there's a real urgency to imagine better. And that's why there's a real urgency to fight for something better. And that's why I feel we should not lose the hope, no matter how rich or powerful omnipresent something means. Sometimes these things do absolutely collapse under their own weight.
[02:29:43.913] Kent Bye: Wow. Well, just one quick final question, which is I usually ask people the ultimate potential of the virtual reality technologies, but I'm really curious what you think the ultimate potential of these protopian visions, however, they're transmitted, whether it's through images or art or cultural practice, it feels like there are some real paradigm shifts for a world that we want to live into. So what do you see as the ultimate potential if people were to really directly embody and create art and be inspired by these visions of these protopian futures?
[02:30:15.200] Monika Bielskyte: Thank you so much for that little exception of asking me a modified question. And I think it's related, right? Because I see so much of the Platopian vision, you know, if it could be made immersive through augmented virtual mixed extended reality, I think that could be that much more compelling. But, you know, what I'm seeing right now is that, of course, there's multiple visions of a future that are colliding, but there's still these two dominant strands. And it's not just this old vision of the future that is suffocating the new emergent vision of future. And it's not just some of the old people, people from the baby boomer generation that are suffocating the visions. of the younger age of millennia and sort of gen-z or generation. And again, I don't want to be ageist. These are not universals. These are just sort of general extrapolations from people's values that they assign themselves to, people's voting tendencies, et cetera, et cetera. But there's something even worse. And I don't know. I think this is a fact I want to share because a lot of people don't realize that. So in the UK, the Conservatives, the Tory party, as of a couple of years ago, they've been receiving more money from dead people than from the living. Meaning that people that are dying, who will not inhabit this world, are leaving in their wealth money to further fight for these quote-unquote conservative causes. But they're not conservative, they're truly regressive. You know, they are about further entrenching the inequalities, the bigotries and the extractive colonial system, not just between the global north and global south, but also upon the living world. Right. And what I've been seeing over this pandemic, too, is that there's been a massive rift between a lot of families. where the older generation that possesses most of the wealth, they still want to preserve their racist, misogynist, homophobic, and especially right now, you know, vision of the world that is also sort of anti-vax, anti-mask, anti-healthcare, anti-science, etc, etc. And there's this rift that is happening between younger and older generations. And what I'm worried about is that we've been hoping that as that wealth transfers to the younger generation, so it's people that have very different kinds of values. And again, I'm talking about averages, right? And those tendencies you cannot, there are young people that are subscribing to incredibly bigoted views and there are old people that are incredibly inclusive, et cetera, et cetera. But still overall, there are very specific voting tendencies and there's very specific tendencies around people that care about biosphere collapse, climate change, and these tend to be younger populations, and these tend to be sort of more culturally diverse populations. But right now, this possibility of literally dead people, people from the grave, not just sort of, you know, the ones that are dying, but the dead ones, leaving their wealth, to further destroy the world versus the younger generation that has so little still of the wealth and power fighting for this idea of hopeful world, of inclusive world, of regenerative world. You know, the power imbalance is immense and the timeline is incredibly tense. We really don't have time with everything that's happening right now. But where I am trying to not lose hope is in that realization that when people are driven by anger, when people are driven by hatred, they can only achieve that much. When we are driven by love, by care, by desire for something that is better, that is kinder, we are a much more potent force, even if all the cards are stacked against us. And so, you know, what I really am hoping with Protopia Futures is to not allow, you know, and in some ways, you know, that extends even to science fiction. I mean, look at these science fiction narratives of these long dead people continuing to influence what we think about the future. In a way, there's an interesting parallel. Between that and these dead people that have left money in their wills to fund these regressive causes, there's something very similar, right? I mean, a lot of these science fiction authors, as if they left their books, their wills, their testaments, that continue perpetuating these really harmful stereotypes of what is and what is not possible for us as humanity in the future. You know, there's an interesting parallel in that. And so what I want Protopia to be is an alternative to that. What I want it to be is something that what it did to me, you know, over the pandemic, it helped me to find hope. It helped me to reconnect with people that I love and that inspire me. It helped me to wake up every day. It helped me to work towards it. It helped me to just live. You know, it was my survival strategy. And I think in the years to come, and especially decades to come, we will need a lot of survival strategies. Right. And I want to recall another story that really brought this back home to me. So several years ago, I was on a tour with Massive Attack. And we happened to arrive to Istanbul, Turkey, the day of the election that some of the Turkish folks, especially younger generation, had hoped could limit Erdogan's encroachment upon power. But in fact, it became everything but. It became an election that has consolidated his power. And the concert, the show, happened the night after, like the next day after the election results were announced. And, you know, people in audience, you know, Massive Attack's work is very political, you know, and they have these really beautiful but very powerful imagery by a friend of mine, Giles Dooley, as their backgrounds for their music. A lot of their lyrics are very political, a lot of the writing on the background of their show screen is very political. But ultimately, the message is the message of hope. And in that very dark day, when people felt like they lost, they lost hope in real life, they lost their political hope, they lost their social hope, a lot of people's hearts, spirits were crushed. And yet, art, imagination, music pulled us through that night. And I remember in the backstage, you know, people crying and hugging. And in a way, even when anything in that immediate horizon of tangible action, of tangible change, people were robbed of that. But art was that light at the end of a tunnel. that helped us to survive that day. And I really believe that visions of hope, visions of possibility, and this idea of visionary fiction, visionary imagination, as Adrienne Maria Brown and Valdiria Marisha say, it's something that can pull us through the darkest of times. And it's something that can keep our spirits and our bodies alive when things get really, really difficult. And if we keep doing that, if we keep sharing that, if we keep working towards it together, then somehow we can motivate each other to not give in and not give up and to ask for better. And I want to keep echoing that thing that I said in the beginning when people said, oh, but you're so critical, you're so negative. And I'm like, no, negative is to say that this is the best that we can do. Negative is to not believe that we could actually do better. And so that's my dream for Patopia, is for it to be one of hopefully many survival strategies in certainly difficult times to come that would not allow us to give up. on hope, on each other, and also simply on awe and wonder of this world. You know, I feel so blessed and I feel so privileged. You know, that was not the case, for example, for my father. You know, he was born and lived half of his life behind the Iron Curtain, right? To travel the world, to see the world, to see the world in such granularity, in such proximity, both the living world, the landscapes, you know, the other species and other humans, you know, that was not something that he could do in his youth. That's what I was able to do. And so I saw so much of the beauty. Yes, I saw violence. Yes, I saw cruelty. Yes, I saw meanness. But I also saw so much beauty all around this planet in the shape of the earth living landscapes, in the shape of all of the other non-human species, in the shape of human culture, in the shape of many, many, many extraordinary, brilliant, talented, compassionate, kind individuals, right? And so I cannot give up hope because I feel like I've been given so much. And so if we can tell the kind of stories that make us see the beautiful side of our living world and of us as humanity, then I hope that we won't give up and we'll keep fighting for what's right.
[02:40:09.080] Kent Bye: Awesome. Is there anything else that's left and said that you'd like to say to the immersive community?
[02:40:17.910] Monika Bielskyte: Just the fact that, you know, imagination is survival strategy. So let's not use it to create more fear, more nightmares, more violence, but let's think of imagination as something that allows us to be better and do better. So really, imagination is survival strategy. Let's help each other.
[02:40:40.871] Kent Bye: Well, Monica, I just really enjoyed being able to hear all your latest insights about all the things that are happening in the world and your travels amongst all the different networks and trying to distill all the different relational wisdom from communities from around the world. Just to also reflect on what's happening in a world that we see from big tech. and also sci-fi visions. The quote that you said that the people who have the real power about the future are not the technologists, but it's really the storytellers and the sci-fi creators. That's part of the big reason why I wanted to just spend this time with you, having you both analyze the science fiction stories that we're seeing, not only in the Dune, but also these modern depictions of the metaverse and where this is all going. So just really appreciate the principles that you have with the protopia futures, and hopefully that will help provide a baseline to be able to measure some of these different visions of the future against. so that we can have at least a baseline critical framework to be able to evaluate whether or not we're actually having any cultural evolution or that we're actually having depictions of the future that are actually taking us backwards and regressing back to ideas about what the future might be from the 60s without any modern updates to that. So I appreciate all those different insights that you've provided today and also the work that you've done with this Pro W Futures with you and the rest of your community. And thanks for coming on the podcast to be able to unpack it all.
[02:41:56.457] Monika Bielskyte: Thank you. Thank you so much. It's always a pleasure. And yeah, I mean, you know, these seven principles and then obviously in the manifesto framework document, you know, you can dive in much deeper, but I almost want people to start using it as a cheat sheet. You know, when you think that you're imagining sci-fi that is positive, that is trying to be inclusive, let's kind of go through these points and think like, did you think about all of that? You know, and I find it, it really makes me feel like, you know, my work is worth doing. When I have people write me like, oh my God, I just rewrote my entire screenplay, or I just really reconsidered the kind of digital art that I'm creating because I read this thing. Because now when I think about it, even if I was thinking about, you know, let's say environmentally sustainable, regenerative futures, I was not thinking about, well, you know, what is the role of creativity in there? Or if I was thinking about what is the future of creativity, maybe I was not thinking about how that relates to spirituality. Maybe I was not thinking how to raise the values, etc, etc. So I like this idea of also being a bit of a cheat sheet that people could go through and be like, did I really think about all these points? Or is there something I still need to think about? And more than anything, also to make them bring on board folks that would know, would have deeper knowledge in any particular area. Because as I said, you know, even with an example such as Dune, you know, it's not about like, oh, Dennis had no right to direct this film, right? Or this particular writer shouldn't have written it. What I'm saying is that if that team was more inclusive, if that team was not just inclusive in a tokenistic manner, but actually would have listened, to what people that come from these diverse backgrounds, not just cultural, but also again, gender, disability, et cetera, et cetera, had to say, I think the result not only would have been more morally informed, but just more compelling and more exciting and more full of life. That's it, you know what I mean? It would have actually been a better thing. It would have been a better story. It would have been a more exciting world, you know? So by actually coming together and by actually thinking about all these aspects, we can make what we do better. So yeah, use it as a cheat sheet. Use it to inform the immersive experiences that you're creating. Use it to inform the platforms that you're designing. Use it to inform the tools that you are engineering. So that's my hope, really.
[02:44:28.493] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, thanks again.
[02:44:30.496] Monika Bielskyte: Thank you. Thank you. Have a good one.
[02:44:33.688] Kent Bye: So that was Monica Bellaschitta. She's a world designer, science fiction critic, futures researcher, and the instigator for the Protopio Futures Framework. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that, first of all, well, first, just deconstructing the word world builder and building and how building implies that you're building these concrete static objects that are in this techno-utopian vein where you're trying to build on top of something existing and almost kind of leapfrogging into something that's new. And Protopia is more focused on this incremental change that's more of a process of change rather than something that you're architecting or building on top of something else. At the very beginning of Mark Zuckerberg's speech, he was emphasizing the role of builders and how it's really important to build the future. I think that illustrates that seller-colonial mindset of just ignoring the context of the existing situation and trying to collapse that context and just deny the history and move forward into architecting this utopic vision. But usually, that is at the cost of something else. It's never neutral in that sense. The Protopia Futures framework is not only something to be able to critique what's happening within the realm of science fiction, but also to look at what's happening within the stories that are being told within the culture, but also how that feeds into the technologies that we're building and what we want to do with those technologies, and who's being prioritized within those technologies. I think the big theme of the work that Monica's doing is to look at the folks who are the most marginalized and to see what they think about the future, and then to really center their perspectives to be able to build the future around that. And that when you do that, it actually becomes much more inclusive and pluralistic and really trying to address some of the deeper ways in which that we've not necessarily been in right relationship with a lot of these marginalized folks, whether it's people of color, disability, neurodivergent, LGBTQIA plus. So her particular visions is anchored in the principles of plurality beyond binaries community beyond borders celebration of presence regenerative action and life as technology Symbolic spirituality creativity and emergent subcultures and the evolution of cultural values. I think the evolution of culture Values for me I think is probably the one that I see the most in terms of looking at how different ways in which our normative standards within our culture are embedded into these cultural artifacts such as these stories and that the way that some of these decisions that are put into these narratives in these stories are then translated and propagated throughout different phases of culture and then they're reimagined reinterpreted so looking at the biases that may be there and seeing how that may have been harmful or toxic within that context and then how it shouldn't be translated into the modern depictions of these stories, but Also how a lot of times there's things that don't get translated at all and so I think by looking at Dune as a piece of modern pop culture that is you know one of the largest selling science fiction novels of all time and then Deconstructing all the different aspects of that story and how some of them were translated But not all of them so different ways that it still propagates different aspects of misogyny how it's fundamentally disconnected from the region that is being shot in and so it's not really a integrating different aspects of the culture the Southwest Asian and North Africa the swan area and How when if you have a lack of diversity within the content creators that are creating these pieces? Then you start to replicate a lot of these different aspects So if it's a story about colonialism and you don't have anybody who's actually suffered directly under those experiences of colonialism then it's just going to recreate a lot of those different aspects without really interrogating and some of the different decisions that are made and recreating all these different tropes, whether it's looking at people of color and how they are not really being fully integrated into the design within the worlds, but also how they're just seen as disposable and not as valuable as the white characters who end up being these heroes and how these people of color are sacrificing themselves for these individual white characters who end up being this hero narrative that everything is centering around them. But also just looking at different aspects of disability and fatphobia, different ways of visually depicting villainy within the Hollywood system is being replicated here within Dune as well. So Monica is just not only pointing out all of these different things, but also advocating, well, you know, you don't have to actually have these physical embodiments of these characteristics to depict that someone's bad. It's through their actions and how they're in relationship to the world around them that is depicting on whether or not they're good or bad. And that actually is an opportunity to have a little bit more moral complexity and nuance within these characters without these gross characterizations that are recreating these tropes and propagating toxic stereotypes that are continuing the cycle of violence amongst these marginalized people. So I think the antidote of all of that is to look at something like a protopian futures framework to be able to not only do a critique of some of these different visions of the future that are being created, but also to look at the process under which that they're being created and making sure that it's in proper relationship to all these other various considerations. So also just interesting to hear how Monica has been able to, as she's been slowing down, focus more on these collaborations and creating art and starting to put together different writers and artists and creatives and starting to create more work out of those different collaborations as she was doing a lot of speaking. And she's still doing that, of course, but I think. There's a transition that's happened in her practice that I see that she's starting to be more involved in helping to promote and create these alternative visions rather than just critiquing the mainstream culture that's out there. I mean, she's always had that as part of her practice, but I think in the process of moving from that idea of building into this growing and cultivating and nurturing those relationships and starting to create some of these cultural artifacts, but also potentially creating some of the stories of her own. To focus on some of the aspects of the metaverse since this is the voices of VR podcast and mostly focusing on these immersive technologies But generally this process of building these worlds. I think is a huge part of what makes the medium so strong I mean Monica says that XR is the medium that is the best medium to be able to explore these worlds that are being created because you have this embodied experiences and it is one step closer from this virtual representation of the worlds and to actually have the direct embodied experiences that then can be a motivating factor to actually go out and create them in different ways and Really thinking about how these worlds are more living worlds, the regenerative actions, and how there's art and creativity, and that there's community, and that there's plurality and inclusion. She mentions the word plurality as a substitute to diversity, because that can be a bit of a catchphrase of diversity and inclusion. But rather than seeing individuals as their surface-level characteristics, it's really diving deep into a broader range of intersections and pluralities and things that are contributed beyond just people being the default. But there's also depictions of the future that have different aspects of ritual and things that are more life-sustaining rather than looking at things like sex, death and robots as a good trope and looking at things like love, life and the planet. And so getting away from these existing tropes of space operas and killer robots and AI going rogue and really focusing on the future of science fiction that is actually embedded within the context of the Earth. and how we're in right relationship with the Earth. So much of this kind of escapist moving out into the space is recreating a lot of these colonial themes that come up again and again and again, not only in the cellular colonial mindset, but are embedded into the context of these science fiction pieces that are constantly in space and disconnected from the world around us. So, really thinking about what does the future look like where we're not escaping the Earth, but we're actually living on the Earth and in right relationship with the Earth. So, just some final thoughts on the metaverse and how different depictions of the metaverse are less from the Snow Crash and more from the Brighter Player One is what Monica is saying. And I think that's right in terms of really Creating these game worlds that are focused on a very specific subsection and actually at connect 2021 Chris Pruitt had mentioned that oculus had done this whole study about you know What are the different demographics that they should be focusing on in gaming and you know? They had these different player archetypes and what was interesting was that? Facebook was trying to create this ready player one vision of the world by only focusing on a very specific type of game and experiences from how they've been curating a lot of different experiences that they've been having. Historically, the Oculus Rift was a lot more experiences, but then they really tried to live into the vision of the metaverse that's propagated by Ready Player One, which is all about gamers and centering the experiences of gamers. They've been more focused on those games, but also eliminating so many other different aspects of the medium. She says that a lot of the stuff that was funded were experiences that were pretty gimmicky, unnecessary, and violence that was targeted towards a demographic of people who don't have to live with the trauma of dehumanization and are able to indulge in experiences that don't deliver any real value to their lives. Obviously, there's certain aspects of those games that people have these embodied experiences and people enjoy them, but I think the larger point of really focusing on very specific gaming contexts has meant that they're focusing on very narrow demographics. On December 9, 2020, there was a post that was called Understanding the VR Gaming Market, where they did all this demographic research. They came up with these different segments and archetypes, from the dedicated gamer, play-to-win gamer, steady gamer, participant, parent, the story seeker, the bench player, and the time passer. They had these targets, these three checklists. The target demographics they were focusing on were the dedicated gamer, play-to-win gamer, and the steady gamer. The breakdown of those different demographics for both the dedicated gamer and the play-to-win gamer were both 74% male, 26% female, and the steady gamer was 66% male and 34% female. I think this is a good example of how utilitarian mindsets start to create these worlds that are really privileging the biggest demographics that are interested in these technologies, but then start to perpetrate the larger inequities that are really designing these systems that are excluding people who may be interested in other types of experiences. People who want to have just an experience that doesn't have any sort of these gamified elements. Some of the aspects that Monica says, what are the things that are going to help us to better understand our planet, our society, and understand our potential for what is possible? Even a lot of these different health applications and education applications have largely disappeared, as well. I think there's a part of the curation that Facebook is doing that is literally trying to create this vision of Ready Player One, and that is the primary roadmap for what they think the metaverse is. And just also just looking at these larger themes of colonialism that is within American culture and how that gets translated into different aspects of technology. For Facebook in particular, they have a network of 3.58 billion people from around the world, which essentially becomes like this colonial empire that there's some regions that don't get as much attention. So, you have situations like in Myanmar, where you have a genocide that comes because they don't have anybody that was at Facebook, now META, that really had these language expertise to be able to understand what was happening. And then, as a result, you have a military who's propagating hate speech, which then results in a genocide. So, because of that, then there's this trying to collapse all the historical context and ignore all the lessons that are being learned, not really accounting for why that happened or to create ways to be able to do things better in a way that may be in more right relationship, and they're just going to push forward and build into the future without really accounting for a lot of that, as well. I think there's something about that that just is a little bit more unsettling, where it's just this focus of this techno-utopic vision of building on top of something that is already not so great, and just a magic jump from where we're at now into this new future without really looking at it as more of a cultivation or a growing process that is in more of a relationship with where the world is at right now, and really considering a lot of the different things that need to happen in order to really make that into a vision that's co-created by the world, not something that's projected onto us by these people that have these techno-utopic visions of what the future might be. I think this conversation with Monica really helped to reflect that for myself, but also the way she articulates it is just better than I could say it here, which is grounded in her practice of talking to people who are the most marginalized and listening to what they have to say, and then to try to design futures that are really the most inclusive possible. And when you do that, then it becomes these worlds that are exciting to be able to think about the potentials of where things can go. So this type of visionary fiction that imagines possibilities rather than limitations and closures especially within the context of giving these embodied immersive experiences, but also focusing on radical hope and radical tenderness. And for me, a lot of these different principles that she has within her Protopia framework get back to elements of relationality and thinking about things, not of these static things that are built, but things that are grown and organically cultivated within relationships of communities and people coming together and Generally being in right relationship with the world around us and really tries to create a world that works for a lot more people Than the world that we've created now that is working for a handful of people But other people is not working for at all And so as we move forward really centering these marginalized voices and their perspectives as part of this world design world cultivating and future dreaming process So, that's all that I have for today, and I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoyed the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a listener-supported podcast, and I do rely upon donations from people like yourself in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So, you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. Thanks for listening.