News | 4 January 2024


By Theresa Hice-Fromille, Sarah Papazoglakis


This is a guest post by UCSC alumnae and former Public Fellows at The Humanities Institute, Theresa Hice-Fromille and Sarah Papazoglakis, who worked together at Reality Labs, Meta.

2023 was a “breakout year for generative AI” with the public releases of LLMs ranging from Open AI’s ChatGPT and Google’s Bard to Meta’s LLaMA and Anthropic’s Claude. Major news outlets closed out 2023 with predictions for developments in AI in 2024, nearly all of which focused on business developments foreshadowing the increased use and application of AI in the workplace, in particular.  While AI has been a hot topic in news coverage and podcasts eager to predict the future impact of GenAI and “the next big thing” for the year ahead, we have yet to meaningfully grapple with what exactly is unleashed here and now. The fierce competition in this space among the major companies vying for AI dominance has shaped the dominant discourse around AI. Many of the most visible, most circulated narratives on AI offer either techno-utopian visions of technology solving social and political problems or AI doomerism narratives that predict a dystopian future in which technology overwrites the needs of a human labor force and instigates the abandonment of creative and critical thought.

For its part, the corporate AI arms race reveals little about the tangible impact on the public and society writ large, especially the material impact of emerging AI tools on the ways we live, work, learn, communicate, and build and sustain relationships. Furthermore, much of the information about AI developments are filtered through talking heads and industry-centric news coverage making it difficult for the vast majority of people working outside of AI-focused companies to access the credible and diverse information needed to form an opinion about emerging technologies and the ethics driving them.

In 2024, we recommend a turn to Afrofuturism—and Science Fiction and Speculative Fiction more broadly—as a democratic, publicly accessible entry point into the discussion of AI that centers people, communities, and the social impacts of technology rather than business. Afrofuturism, in particular, is a mode of storytelling that engages the past, present, and future by centering Africans and African-descendants and their technological engagements. In doing so, it redefines “technology” and prompts consideration of what technologies are made out of, how they are created, what purposes they serve, and who may be most negatively impacted by them. They furnish stories that engage readers and invite them into conversations about emerging technology.

The following reading list is made up of 10 texts we analyzed in the Speculative Fictions Fellowship between The Humanities Institute and Reality Labs at Meta in 2022 with the goal of exploring themes from science and speculative fictions that can serve as a guide for building inclusive, equitable emerging technologies. As we built an archive, primarily featuring Afrofuturist texts, we found that stories focused on the past, like Washington Black (2018), are critical for projecting visions of the future. Through this project, we mapped themes that emerged across the original archive of 39 examined texts to develop a framework for inspiring product design. We also created a reading guide for people working within and outside of the companies and startups building these foundational AI and metaverse technologies to consider the positive and negative impacts emerging technologies can have on society.

There are many texts that one can and should read to become more familiar with how emerging generative AI tools work, including Melanie Mitchell’s Artificial Intelligence: A Guide for Thinking Humans and Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction. The reading and viewing guide that we propose is focused on how technologies empower and disempower people—especially marginalized people and those under-repesented in tech spaces— rather than on how these tools function.

10 Afrofuturist texts to inspire equitable AI:  

1)    Washington Black, a novel by Esi Edugyan (2018) – born in 1818, the same year Frankenstein was written, Washington Black escapes slavery in Barbados as the apprentice for a scientist-abolitionist whose brother enslaved him. While a new invention helps him escape the plantation, he finds technology alone cannot free him from the psychological conditions of slavery. By drawing parallels between the 19th century world of the novel and the legacy of slavery that shapes social conditions today, readers can reflect on how similar concerns over invention, ownership, and access to innovation in the past can inform how we think about questions like who builds and owns generative AI and tools for the metaverse today.

2)    Parable of the Talents, a novel by Octavia Butler (1998) – the sequel to Parable of the Sower picks up 5 years after the first novel ends, toggling between mother<>daughter perspectives from the 2030s and the 2050s. Like VR headsets today, dreamasks in the novel are a source of entertainment and propaganda, and the novel’s critique of them offers insights into the impacts of immersive virtual reality technologies on creativity, politics, and critical thinking.

3)    Unkindness of Ghosts, a novel by Rivers Solomon (2017) – Aster, a mostly self-taught scientist living on a massive space ship that has been orbiting an uninhabitable Earth for the past 100 years, works to decipher the coded messages that her disappeared mother, Lune, left behind. The story offers a unique critique of surveillance and its disproportionate impact on marginalized communities that draws on the history of plantation violence to better understand issues in tech surveillance. Lune’s use of coded messages references the devoted secrecy with which enslaved African and African-descendant communities guard(ed) their stories during colonial surveillance, including in quilts, hair braiding, and drumming patterns.

4)    Bitter Root, a 15-issue comic series by Chuck Brown, David F. Walker, and Sanford Green (2018-2021) – The eclectic members of the Sangreye family unite to fight supernatural entities and humans with darkened hearts and minds using an herbal remedy called fif’no. The family’s understanding of the chaos that requires treatment with fif’no expands as they realize that experiences of anger, grief, and dispossession affect the bodymind in increasingly complex ways. Although the steampunk storyline does not address artificial intelligence directly, the series investigates the characteristics of corrupt systems (think: data and hard drive corruption) and offers reflections on the ways that human-centered processes and behaviors influence and can prevent corruption.  

5)    Destroyer, a graphic novel by Victor LaValle (2017) – Another spin on Frankenstein in a story about current social justice issues. Scientist Dr. Josephine Baker uses advanced technology to bring her son who was killed by the police back to life. In addition to the main narrative arc, illustrations tell an alternative history of modern technology than the utopian one so often asserted. This history is traced visually from Thomas Edison inventing the lightbulb to the use of technology in the trenches of WWI and ends with police body cameras capturing police using advanced smaller but equally lethal firearms to shoot an unarmed young man in the back.

6)    Eve, a multi-series comic collection by Victor LaValle, Jo Mi-Gyeong, and Brittany Peer (2022-) – A young girl and a teddy bear android attempt to save the planet after a mysterious disease released in the air through the effects of climate change wipe out most of the human population. Perhaps more than any of the other stories in this list, Eve directly confronts questions about the capacities of artificial intelligence by placing young people at the center of the discussion.   

7)    The Memory Librarian and other stories of Dirty Computer, a collection of short stories written by award-winning musician Janelle Monae and others (2022) – The stories in this collection draw on metaphors of hacking, bugging, and glitching to offer queer critiques of the world governed by the dictatorial forces of New Dawn (originally depicted in Monae’s emotion picture (visual album), Dirty Computer (2018)). Each story contemplates the complexity of memory – how it is initiated, sustained, imagined, felt, and eroded – and its twin, time. In the final story, “Timebox Alter(ed),” a group of children build an ark/alter that conjures an alternative spacetime reminiscent of hybrid spiritual practices found throughout the African diaspora and unreachable by New Dawn entities. 

8)    Neptune Frost, a musical film directed by Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman (2022) – Set in Burundi and filmed in Rwanda, the characters traverse diverse landscapes including coltan mines, student-led urban protests, and whimsical countryside until arriving at a discreet community of rebel hackers. The motherboard, who like her technological counterpart, holds the capacity of memory and distributes energy throughout the community of circuits, takes the form of Neptune – a young intersex survivor of sexual abuse. Call-and-response, rap, and drumming demonstrate the diasporic significance of music as a liberatory technology. 

9)    They Cloned Tyrone, a film directed by Juel Taylor (2023) – This speculative comedy follows Fontaine, Slick Charles, and Yo-Yo, a trio of characters enveloped in the underground economies of drug sale and prostitution, as they uncover a national conspiracy in which poor African American communities are the targets of government surveillance and scientific experimentation. Following a common trope of Afrofuturism, the main characters defy expectations that only those with privileged technological skills can effect change.


10)    Sankofa City, a short film produced as a community design project led by Karl Baumann  (2018) – An imagined, alternative future of a “smart city” that offers “prototypes for the future of urban technology” that resist gentrification and cultural displacement based in Leimert Park in South LA. Viewers can see how augmented reality and AI assistants can serve as a repository for histories and cultures under erasure. Driverless “smart shuttles” provide guided tours that revitalize the past and project former theaters and cultural institutions onto the spaces where they used to be. Technologies envisioned in Sankofa City augment and enhance rather than replace or erase history, culture, art, music, and community connection.

Theresa Hice-Fromille (right) is an Assistant Professor at Ohio State University. She holds a PhD in Sociology from UC Santa Cruz, and she was a THI Public Fellow at Reality Labs at Meta in Summer 2022. 
Sarah Papazoglakis (left) is a privacy and trust strategist for virtual reality at Reality Labs at Meta. She received her PhD in Literature at UC Santa Cruz, was a THI GSR and Fellow, and currently serves on the UCSC Humanities Dean’s Council.

Banner Image: Top row (left to right): film poster for They Cloned Tyrone, film poster for Neptune Frost, book cover for The Memory Librarian, book cover for eve, book cover for Destroyer; bottom row (left to right): book cover for Bitter Root, book cover for Unkindness of Ghosts, book cover for Washington Black, book cover for Parable of the Talents, film poster for Sankofa City.