Better Business through Sci-Fi? Better Futures through Storytelling

A coworker recently shared the following article with me. She knows I love SF and that I’m perennially fascinated by all things storytelling.

Better Business through Sci-Fi by Nick Romeo
(published by The New Yorker, July 30, 2017)

I admit, I do find this idea fascinating: using storytelling techniques to envision new products and services, craft new vision and mission statements, new marketing campaigns, new strategic initiatives. I’d be interested to see what, if anything, comes of it.

It brings to mind a friend of mine back in Chicago. He started a consulting business a few years ago to work with businesses to teach them storytelling. As he puts it:

Most people communicate backwards. They talk about what they do, and rarely mention why any of it is important. The easiest way to fix that is storytelling. A story moves from why you should care about the problem at hand to the details of how it gets solved.

His mission resonates with me because I believe many businesses need an infusion of humanity and empathy. Stories are more powerful motivators than anything else. As I’m fond of stating: we’re storytelling creatures, after all.

It’s all too easy for businesses to make decisions based only on their bottom line. They care mostly about efficiencies and costs and outputs. How these things affect real people in the real world often gets lost.

Stories relate business to people and vice versa. For a business to integrate storytelling into its planning and strategy can bring a human awareness to the process that’s too easily and too often devalued or overlooked.

So I’m inclined to see something like this article in a very favorable light.

But I remember, too, that the scifi of my childhood was used by the government and the Pentagon to craft military technology and strategy (the Pentagon paid hard scifi writers as consultants). Military scifi in the ’80s was frighteningly jingoistic and uncritical of military motivations.

I also have some concern that scifi too readily glorifies technology at the expense of characters. When that happens, it loses its power to humanize.

So that makes me worry about initiatives like this.

I recall a conversation I had with my mother-in-law just a couple of days ago: we were remarking on how often scifi from the ’30s through the ’70s got their predictions wrong versus how often they got things right. What strikes me is how often they envisioned future technology correctly but got the timeline wrong (most thought we’d be living in a Jetson’s age a lot sooner).

Increasingly, scifi predictions are coming true not because any particular author was particularly insightful, but because some kid grew up reading scifi and decided to become a scientist, or engineer, or tech guru, so they could build the technology from their favorite books. The visions of scifi have been guiding our technological development for the past couple of decades because scifi fans are now our technology and business leaders.

The kind of initiative described in the article above seems like a natural development of what’s been happening for a long time.

Ultimately, it comes down to what a client wants from a scifi writer. Stories have tremendous power to motivate and transform us, but only if we allow them to challenge us. Without challenge to our preconceived, comfortable notions, nothing can change.

If the stories are allowed to be critical and challenging, this approach could be extremely beneficial for a business.

If a client insists on affirmational cheerleading, feel-good only stories, this becomes nothing but a solipsistic echo chamber. One would hope that these businesses would get no good from the effort and thus fail.

Then there’s a more conceptual factor:

Let me approach this point by telling a story. A few years ago, a colleague of mine mentioned how they “really need to learn more social media and computer stuff because this is where the future is going.”

As though we have no choice in the matter. As though technology is an inexorable force. As if we don’t control the development of our own technologies and decide how they get implemented in our society.

Too often, those who create our definitive new technologies have only been guided by what’s possible and haven’t paid much attention to what’s needed, what’s unnecessary, what’s healthy, what’s unhealthy. They build things for the joy of building, because they can, without thinking critically about their creation.

We live in a world where too many of the people driving technological development fetishize new ideas and disruption. A cult of “new is always good.” A worship of change for the sake of change. Technology becomes more important than people.

Storytelling gives control back to human beings by envisioning not merely what’s possible, but by telling us what it means: culturally, socially, politically, physically, ethically, morally, spiritually, ecologically. Storytelling has incredible power to help us conceptualize what we want and how we want it to work on a human scale in a human world. We don’t have to be at the mercy of technological progress.

This kind of storytelling is how we build better futures, rather than resigning ourselves to worse ones.

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