Science Fiction and Social Fiction

Bangladeshi Nobel Peace Prize winner and microcredit pioneer Muhammad Yunus delivers a speech during the 4th edition of the G
Bangladeshi Nobel Peace Prize winner and microcredit pioneer Muhammad Yunus delivers a speech during the 4th edition of the Global Social Business Summit, held at the Austria Center, in Vienna, on November 8, 2012. 'This summit is a kind of breath of fresh air. All the gloom and doom in the world, we want to get out of that,' Yunus, 72, said at the three-day event in Vienna. AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER KLEIN (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER KLEIN/AFP/Getty Images)

"We have science fiction, and science follows it. We imagine it, and it comes true. Yet we don't have social fiction, so nothing changes."
--Muhammad Yunus, Skoll Forum 2013

When Muhammad Yunus made this statement at the recent Skoll World Forum in Oxford, I was sitting in the audience with more than a thousand others. We were captivated by his steady, calm delivery, and there was a general sense in the room that this was probably a quotation we'd see repeated for years to come.

His clever turn of phrase in issuing a call to embrace social fiction instantly reminded me of several social media experiences in recent years. To be sure, much of what appears on social media can be accurately categorized as fiction; in fact, social media might well be as close to social fiction as we have today.

The phrase "social fiction" reminded me of comedian Louis C.K.'s brilliant observation on Conan O'Brien's show a few years ago that everything is amazing but nobody is happy. Watch the video; in three minutes C.K. offers an incredibly accurate social commentary on how remarkable technologies have become mundane to us. It is both profound and hilariously funny to hear him talk about a fellow passenger on an airplane who was angered when his high-speed Internet connection quit working. "It's amazing how quickly this guy thinks the world owes him something that he learned existed only 10 seconds ago," observes C.K.

C.K. is right: We live in an incredible moment in time that is wasted on most of us. What would have wowed our grandfathers, mothers or classmates from high school we now accept as normal. In fact, in many cases, what would have amazed us only six months ago is likely now mundane. Our technological imaginations are not only eager to be stretched but expect and demand to be wowed. In fact, like the guy on the plane, we are not merely disappointed but a little angry when they are not.

It is surreal to see this 2012 HuffPost piece that lists 10 science fiction predictions that actually came true. What's even more impressive is to watch this viral Nova Scotia tourism video from 2009 that touts the fictitious Pomegranate smartphone. The video was a wildly successful effort (as far as views; who knows if anyone actually went to Nova Scotia because of it?) predicated upon the fact that the phone seems legitimately credible at first and increasingly sneaks up on the viewer with wildly impossible claims. Now just a few years later, the idea that a phone could translate languages on the fly or project in HD to a wide screen isn't amazing at all. I remain hopeful that the more useful coffee maker, razor and harmonica features are soon to follow.

Yet as our technological imaginations stretch and expect to be wowed, Yunus' call for the same kind of wild imagination applied to social problems appears to be sappy, wishful thinking. A few years ago I mentioned in a blog that my company sought to "end malnutrition." My post garnered a well-written and thoughtful response from a young woman, a graduate student who impressively articulated the complexities involved in global hunger and closed by labeling my goal as "irresponsible and over-ambitious drivel." I have been called on the carpet a few times in my day, but I must admit that never before had the word "drivel" been so directly applied to me -- to my face, anyway.

Other than being completely flattered that a person almost 20 years my junior would refer to me and my company as "irresponsibly over ambitious," I was genuinely forced to do some soul searching on my newfound membership in the subset of human beings who drivel. I replied to my new Twitter follower with an explanation that my overly ambitious drivel was a response to how underwhelmed I was at a recent conference where the attitude toward malnutrition and hunger seemed like pessimistic pragmatism run amok.

Maybe that's why risky, outrageous "social fiction" so captured and inspired me at the Skoll Forum last week. Dr. Paul Farmer, certainly a non-driveling pragmatist in regard to his work in Haiti and Rwanda, spoke of how he is often given awards and accolades and called an innovator for simply suggesting that poor people need access to health care. Sal Khan showed that kids in Mongolia deserve the same education as Bill Gates' kids... and it's literally happening on a small scale, because both Bill Gates' own kids and students in Mongolia use Khan Academy online. Mushtaq Chhapra relayed how one of his pupils in Pakistan asked if he could pay school fees in four installments of 5 cents, each illustrating how his school for the poorest of the poor in Pakistan was changing lives. It was sort of like going to a science fiction conference where crazy inventors showed off zany flying cars and teleporters. I left there wondering if, like the Pomegranate phone, maybe it could soon all be true?

What Dr. Farmer and others emphasize is that it can be true, but it won't be fast or flashy or easy, and it will be based first on science, not just on hope. Because much of the basic science is already available and has been for a while, we can't dub progress in many areas of development as "impossible." Certainly, exciting new developments happen every day, but scientific facts and advancements are not holding us back in the same way that they are with, say, teleportation. In many instances what is holding us back is just a lack of good old-fashioned empathy, will and determination, and with them the creative thinking and optimism it takes to crack tough social problems. So there is something to be said for the imagination and the spirit it takes to believe that the impossible can be possible, to believe, as Yunus encouraged, in social fiction.

Given that bizarre science fiction ideas often push science, perhaps science is not a bad place to start on social problems as well. As for malnutrition, the social problem my company faces, the incredible work of Dr. Mark Manary and others has helped science advance to the point where malnutrition is increasingly beatable. Manary and others pioneered the stuff we now make, a ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF) made of peanut butter that treats and saves malnourished kids. It's amazing stuff, so much so that Doctors Without Borders called it "a revolution in nutritional affairs."

Yet while science is a great place to start, putting all our hopes there is simply not enough. As particle physicist Lawrence Krauss said on NPR recently, "Science never asks why when and when it does; it really means how." Why questions are actually about meaning, and science is inadequate, if not useless, in talking about something so subjective. The tough social ills and problems, the "social fiction" that Yunus was begging the crowd to offer up, involves thoughtful people asking both how and why and then giving their lives not only to causes and solutions but to suffering people. If we don't take up Yunus' challenge, then I fear that Louis C.K.'s observations will not strike us as humorous at all when those of us in the developed world increasingly live lives where everything's amazing but nobody's happy.