Cloud Atlas trailer superimposed over modern Mapo, Seoul. It seemed fitting as that one storyline of Cloud Atlas features a futuristic Seoul.

I could introduce a thousand disclaimers here, but a better tact might be too simply list my particular context in approaching this post. I have watched and rewatched the trailer for Cloud Atlas about twenty times and it has stuck in my head like a virus so I thought it best to just have at it. It has inspired me in a way that only fiction can and its greatest testament is that it makes me want to write fiction (again). I will spare us all that inspiration and stick with this trailer and this post on intellectual and emotional context.

  1. I have not read the book Cloud Atlas.
  2. I do not plan on reading the book Cloud Atlas.
  3. I have inexorably over the last decade shed any love of (new) fiction, preferring to occasionally piece through my dog-eared Salingers, Joyces, etc.
  4. I don’t read new fiction. Not because it is bad inherently, but rather because I gravitate towards History. I find much (not all) modern fiction trite and repetitive, more concerned with novelty of form than illumination. I am a bit of a fiction curmudgeon. I wasn’t always so.
  5. I want my art to illuminate. That is the strength of fiction and art at its purest level. Provide a (possible) path through the chaos of the present.
  6. Science fiction, however little I like it as an aesthetic reading experience, is the most illuminating of all writing.

That is it. That is where I am coming from in terms of my approaches to art, my disengagement from fiction (and its sibling, film). That is where I stand. And that is where the trailer for Cloud Atlas spun all of that right around. It illuminated a navigable future (through an exploration of the past). It provided a scaffold to comprehending the complexity of the unknown. It was reassuring in that it made something unlikely, possible. This is the role of art in learning. To articulate a structure without a perceived reality. To take the pattern language of the truth of human existence (love, evolution, power, truth) and render a future out of it.

Maybe I should just present the trailer. Six stories, divergent paths, talismanic batons (diaries, stories, memories, lore) being handed from one generation to the next passing the narrative along. Inspiring. Especially the last few minutes.


The Future is where I extend my emotional and intellectual reach; the past holds less appeal for me now

This trailer, indirectly, forced me to visualize a transition in my own psyche from a focus on the past towards an embrace of the future (ideally through a contented place in the perpetual present). The time for endless reflection and sentimentality is done; that was possession masquerading as introspection.  We have a brave new world before us and we are beholden to future generations for our work now. So my work in elearning, mobile learning, open learning, situated as it is at the crux of comprehension (what does it mean to know when the unknown is so unknown?), takes on added weight. We push through this deconstruction of traditional modes of education, we seek to evolve it as an appropriate response to the challenges of this age, we understand that what we do will ripple through the learning of generations to come. That is the gift of a monumental story arc. By being multi-generational in presentation, it forces us to think multi-generationally. By linking the acts of one age to the developments of another, we see change as epochal, occurring over multiple times and generations (and being decidedly non-linear).

If we challenge learning, it will be to challenge learners to take the long view. To aggressively forge a new future knowing that life will continue, evolve (via technology or otherwise), and prosper (if not for all). The challenge is to take all those millions of facets that contribute to chaos and forge something useful, something illuminating in this present. To perpetually gift the future with our actions today. That is why I feel these activities around (m, e, or open) learning are so important. We are witnessing one of those epochal shifts that we can contribute to.

The Human Race will evolve; that is illumination

I think science fiction provides a real service here. By presenting the future as an augmentation of the present, it illustrates that the challenges of the future, incomprehensible to us now, will be met by the cognitive acumen of an evolved human race. It doesn’t always make sense to us, nor does it to any generation as they are experiencing it. But each generation evolves to meet the challenges of its time. Though we often fail as a human race, life does indeed carry on if not for everyone. I take comfort in that as it permits me again to take the long view and not succumb to apathy in viewing life and the world as inexorable. So as we view Cro-Magnons as inferior, I fully expect we will see the same in future epochs when Homo Sapiens are viewed as a stage in the evolutionary process. We perpetually evolve and in this perpetual evolution, we biologically retool ourselves for modern challenges. The same is true of our learning. We will intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually (read as a pursuit of the unknown) evolve. These are all different forms of intelligence and all will illuminate our future. Once again, we contribute to that through our work, our creation, and our destruction.

So, needless to say, the trailer inspired me. I revised my disengagement with fiction; it serves a distinct purpose not just as an outlet for creativity. It serves society by articulating a future when no construct exists to cast one based on existing realities. It makes connections generationally where none visibly exist. It reasserts the utility of all kinds of intelligence, intellectual, emotional, spiritual, social, in charting the unknown. It tackles complexity and builds a foundation of a possible future on what is extracted from chaos. That emotion, thought, connection, community are the truths on which we build. These are the constants. Everything else is about mustering the resources of humanity to meet the needs and realities of the future. That is reassuring because it is so inherently plausible, so apparently human.

On a side note, why aren’t we teaching more science fiction in schools? Articulating a plausible future might be the greatest reflective learning activity of all time. Also, articulating a non-dystopian one would be a step in the right direction; my gut theory is that the future’s unknown-ness still casts negative emotions through the psyche of artists, thus making the natural gravitation towards dystopianism. I allow that as a distinct possibility for our future, but certainly not the only one. Life goes on and, more than likely, it will go on for most. And I am alright with being a piece of that process. I just reserve the right to etch my name on the wall and let everyone know I was here once and this is what I saw.

By Michael Gallagher

My name is Michael Sean Gallagher. I am a Lecturer in Digital Education at the Centre for Research in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh. I am Co-Founder and Director of Panoply Digital, a consultancy dedicated to ICT and mobile for development (M4D); we have worked with USAID, GSMA, UN Habitat, Cambridge University and more on education and development projects. I was a researcher on the Near Futures Teaching project, a project that explores how teaching at The University of Edinburgh unfold over the coming decades, as technology, social trends, patterns of mobility, new methods and new media continue to shift what it means to be at university. Previously, I was the Research Associate on the NERC, ESRC, and AHRC Global Challenges Research Fund sponsored GCRF Research for Emergency Aftershock Forecasting (REAR) project. I was an Assistant Professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (한국외국어대학교) in Seoul, Korea. I have also completed a doctorate at University College London (formerly the independent Institute of Education, University of London) on mobile learning in the humanities in Korea.

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