Sovereignty Hidden in the Dunes: Astrophysicist Roland Lahoucq Decodes What Science Fiction Can Teach French Technology

Sovereignty Hidden in the Dunes: Astrophysicist Roland Lahoucq Decodes What Science Fiction Can Teach French Technology

Roland Lehoucq is an astrophysicist at the Atomic Energy and Alternative Energies Commission (CEA) in Saclay, a professor at the Sciences Po Institute in Paris-Le Havre and Rennes-Cannes and at the University of Paris-Cité, and is also the president of the Les Utopiales international science fiction festival and the scientific section of the science fiction magazine Bifrost for more than 25 years. But that's not all: the scientist has also published several works including “Dune – A scientific and cultural investigation into the planetary universe”. We met at USI (Unexpected Sources of Inspiration) on June 24, where he explains how science fiction is proving to be important in our understanding of technological sovereignty.

Forbes: What's the point of drawing an analogy with the fictional world of “Dune” to better explain our own world?

Roland Lahouk: I use Dion's fiction to teach at SciencesPo Rennes because it is a fictional approach to science that can allow us to better think about the world of tomorrow. The science fiction genre deals precisely with contemporary themes such as ecology and sovereignty.

Dune is a very rich, varied and above all coherent and documented book world. It reminds me of the story of the giant micromegas from the planet Sirius told by Voltaire. Frank Herbert's point of view has changed and the Earth is in a very distant future (about 20 thousand years after our era). The author questions our relationship with technology and does not consider it a sure guarantee of human progress.

Over 10,000 years before the events recounted in Dune, the Butlerian Jihad is evoked, which consists of fighting the dominance of the “thinking machines” that have enslaved humanity. In other words, artificial intelligence that has simply been banned.

Note also that the term “Butlerian” refers to Samuel Butler, the author of a famous utopian novel published in 1872. The work is called “Erewhon” – nowhere is it the other way around – and describes a world where technology is completely banned. The author elaborates on Darwin's theory by explaining that minerals gave rise to plants, then animals, then humans, and finally machines.

The doctrine of technological solutions is often pushed to the extremes of science fiction and sometimes contributes to the enslavement of humans. I think, for example, of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, but also of the cyberpunk subgenre that has been widespread since the 1980s, but we also forget that science fiction can address the withdrawal of technology without making it disappear too: in Dune, all data analysis tasks are carried out by human experts, the mentalists, who act as advisors to the rulers of the Houses of Empire.

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What lessons do you think French Tech can learn from Dune?

R L: The startup nation can learn that innovation is not an end in itself, and that choosing to undo or eliminate some technical stuff is also a surefire path to innovation. In Dune, technology is also very utilitarian: I think, for example, of the Fremen who invented a suit, distilled it, allowing them to recycle almost all of their body water.

Science fiction can also lead us down wrong paths… I am thinking in particular of the idea of ​​a technological singularity that would represent the true cognitive transcendence of machines over men. This hypothesis does not seem realistic to many experts and scientists, but it is part of the popular imagination.

R L: Yes, that’s right. Science fiction helps shape our collective representations of the technological world. For example, Terminator or I, Robot feature machines that forcefully seize power and suggest that our current AI could do the same. But in practice, we don’t really know how to do that, and these kinds of scenarios will probably never happen.

The right approach is to recognize that these events would not actually happen in this way, but they are still plausible enough to raise social and political questions. This is especially the case with the excellent Black Mirror series.

Science fiction is simply a thought experiment, and above all the fundamental question asked is interesting (what if?). It is a cognitive distancing process that allows us to project ourselves better. Even Albert Einstein in his time was also immersed in this type of exercise: when he was sixteen, he wondered what he could see if he rode a beam of light.

How can science fiction help young politicians or economists in the future in particular?

R L: The scientific and technical culture is actually more superficial at SciencesPo than in engineering schools, for example. But what remains interesting are the political, social and economic consequences that arise from the technological developments discussed in science fiction. This allows my students to realize how important technological developments are and how they shape the way human societies develop.

Science explains the limitations of our world, the indisputable laws of physics. These fixed limitations must be taken into account in order to better organize the political, social and economic life of tomorrow. For example, a student will not be able to become an economist if he does not take into account the relationship between matter and energy or even all the physical and natural limits of our world.

If you smoke a lot and there is a risk of cancer, you should stop. It is simple, but this logic is not the one that takes precedence on a global scale. In the same way, we all know about food satiety but not about financial satiety. Perhaps it is time to apply this satiety to our system of wealth accumulation. Science fiction can help here to modify our imagination and rid us of those who advocate excessive extraction, production and consumption of resources. It also makes us realize that humanity is a Taylorist force that is modifying the planet on a global scale like a volcanic eruption or a tsunami.

What do we learn about sovereignty from science fiction?

R L: Science fiction reminds us that sovereignty is not just legal, it is technical. It teaches us that our independence does not just involve seeking superior technologies, but also those we truly need. Just like the Fremen in Dune who develop their own technologies to ensure their independence.

In Europe today, for example, rather than embarking on a race to produce electric cars, it might be wiser to imagine our own transportation rather than relying on China. Can’t rushing to build giant factories obscure the need for lithium sources elsewhere, while not eliminating cars would be as effective?

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What do you know about “appropriate technology”?

R L: It’s not the best technology out there, but it’s the technology we really need. Technology in the right place at the right time and answering a relevant question. We need more workshops, debates and openness so that we dare to ask questions differently. Whether in business, politics or finance… science fiction can allow us to think outside the box and overcome our cognitive biases to change our perspective.

Dystopia seems easier to envision than utopia, especially when it comes to technology… However, the general public – especially the younger ones – desperately needs a desirable future, don't you think?

R L: Yes, and I will go further: previous generations were part of the climate problem, and we need a social and intergenerational shift. It is not about throwing stones at the elderly, but about trying to include them in this effort.

When it comes to utopia, stories about caring bears are clearly less popular. Dystopia serves as a vantage point, but it can also be a source of discouragement. On the other hand, there are several literary movements that would benefit from being better known: I think of “hopepunk” or “solarpunk,” more optimistic than “cyberpunk.” We can also cite authors Kitty Steward and Becky Chambers, who offer a different kind of science fiction that doesn’t rely solely on disasters.

I could also point to Alain Damasio in his latest work “Les Furtifs” or the American writer Ursula K. Le Guin who theorized the concept of the basket novel in contrast to the arrow novel. In other words, the latter shows that the stories we continue to tell today are very old and resemble cave paintings showing hunting scenes, men killing big game with their bows for food. What Ursula reminds us is that the basket is also a great innovation because without it it would not have been possible to harvest all the resources that come from gathering. Basket-based novels are obviously less exciting, less rich in sound and fury, but they are just as performative. We need more basket stories.

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