The Convergence - An Army Mad Scientist Podcast

37. Realer Than Real: Useful Fiction with P.W. Singer and August Cole

37. Realer Than Real: Useful Fiction with P.W. Singer and August Cole
The Convergence - An Army Mad Scientist Podcast
37. Realer Than Real: Useful Fiction with P.W. Singer and August Cole
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Peter Warren Singer is Strategist and Senior Fellow at New America. He has been named by the Smithsonian as one of the nation’s 100 leading innovators, by Defense News as one of the 100 most influential people in defense issues, and by Foreign Policy to their Top 100 Global Thinkers List.  Mr. Singer is the author of multiple best-selling, award winning books in both fiction and nonfiction.  Described in the Wall Street Journal as “the premier futurist in the national-security environment,” Mr. Singer is considered one of the world’s leading experts on changes in 21st century warfare, with more books on the military professional reading lists than any other author, living or dead. He has consulted for the U.S. Military, Defense Intelligence Agency, and FBI, as well as advised a range of entertainment programs, including for Warner Brothers, Dreamworks, Universal, HBO, Discovery, History Channel, and the video game series Call of Duty.

August Cole is an author and futurist exploring the future of conflict through fiction and other forms of storytelling.  He is a non-resident fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council; he directed the Council’s Art of the Future Project, which explores creative and narrative works for insight into the future of conflict, from its inception in 2014 through 2017.  Mr. Cole is a regular speaker to private sector, academic, and U.S. and allied government audiences.  He also leads the Strategy team for the Warring with Machines AI ethics project at the Peace Research Institute Oslo.

Messrs. Singer and Cole co-authored the best selling Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War, a near-future thriller about the next world war.  Foreign Policy states “Every Army officer should read it…. we need to imagine what war will look like in the future so that we are prepared to win.”  Last year, Messrs. Singer and Cole co-authored Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution — our colleagues at War on the Rocks stated that this novel “will do more for defense experts’ understanding of this brave new world with literature than a thousand non-fiction assessments would have.

In today’s podcast, Messrs. Singer and Cole discuss the power of fictional intelligence; the importance of storytelling, narrative, and verisimilitude in crafting tales of future possibilities that resonate and inform; and the significance of imagination.  The following bullet points highlight key insights from our discussion:

  • FicInt, also known as fictional intelligence or ‘useful fiction,’ combines extensive research and futures forecasting with worldbuilding and narrative, one of the oldest forms of communication. The finished product involves an engaging and plausible storyline to introduce readers to novel trends and problems.

  • FicInt has four “rules of the real” that separate it from science fiction:  research must be embedded in the story (usually via footnotes); the story must take place in a real-world setting; the story must involve real world people; and the timeline must be realistic. Using these rules, any white paper, report, or executive summary can be distilled into its key themes and drafted into narrative.

  • FicInt is also distinguished from science fiction via its engagement with the policy community. Fictional intelligence strives to react and be useful to the policy community, and thus engages with policy experts before, during, and after its development. This engagement may involve commissioned stories, workshops on how to create FicInt, or briefings on the end product.

  • The goal of FicInt is often to expose and prevent a possible future, rather than predict it. By creating plausible storylines, the security industry can adapt and develop programs and technologies to create an alternate future that prepares for the situations exposed by FicInt.
  • The value of narrative, compared to non-fiction research, can be found in three elements:

    • Understanding: Narrative effectively packages information the way our brains are designed to absorb it, creating lasting messages.

    • Action: By connecting information to our emotions, narrative is more likely to promote action.

    • Connection:  People are driven to share narratives, leading the audience of FicInt to become part of its marketing. This virality contributes to the creation of a network of people with increased understanding of potential futures.

  • Establishing FicInt credibility involves connection with target audiences and the real-world people featured in the narratives and responding to their feedback. This process ensures the end story is as accurate and plausible as possible.

Stay tuned to the Mad Scientist Laboratory for our next episode of “The Convergence,” featuring our interview with Dr. Malka Older – author of the Centenal Cycle series of science fiction novels – where she’ll discuss world-building, experiential learning, and inspiration from her humanitarian work in the third of our special series of podcasts exploring the power of science fiction, the importance of storytelling and narrative, and the significance of imagination.


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