Bob Beard, Communication and Public Engagement Strategist for the Center for Science and the Imagination (CSI) took me out for a rambling lunch at House of Tricks on a January day so lovely we ate outdoors. During our meal, three other CSI cast members joined us for a rolling conversation. Ed Finn is CSI’s Founding Director. Ruth Wylie, (from yesterday’s profile) has a joint appointment as CSI Assistant Director. Joey Eshrich is Editor and Program Manager. If ASU’s focus on the future portends anything, it’s that we’re all going to live in a world of many titles.
Besides being the most ubiquitous television show in history, CSI is a non-academic unit of ASU that draws people from multiple disciplines and departments. When ASU President Michael Crow met Futurist/Science Fiction writer Neal Stephenson at a conference the two engaged in a productive academic tangle. Stevenson had written a paper called “Innovation Starvation” in which he challenged universities with thinking bigger. President Crow retorted that science fiction wasn’t giving us big enough pictures to pursue. All that dystopia. The result of their interchange was Hieroglyph scientists and science fiction writers working together. Although Hieroglyph pre-dated CSI, it was the kernel from which CSI formed.
Today, CSI is a handful of thought leaders and a Futurist in Residence (currently inventor and sci-fi author Brian David Johnson). CSI is funded by NSF, NASA, ASU as well as the World Bank. Considering the size of the staff, breadth of funders, and scope of the future, I asked how they decide what to pursue. Joey laughed, “Everybody in future space is connected. We want to do what we do well and not duplicate other efforts.” Ruth explained CSI’s two basic criteria: “First, it has to align with our mission as a center. Second, it has to be something that at least one of us is really excited about. Actually, the second is more important than the first.”
Other excerpts from our conversation:
Ruth: “Our focus is creating a shared vision of the future. The future is not waiting to be unveiled. That’s why your question is so valuable. It’s accessible: a simple question to ask that is difficult to answer. I believe that you don’t ask a question unless you think there is an answer that you can enact.”
Ed: “The point of CSI is to create agency – to give people choice and responsibility. We are lazy in our storytelling. It’s either post-nuclear apocalypse or some other Michael Bay movie. It’s damaging. It replaces agency with disillusionment. The dystopian scenarios are rote. The best stories are the ones we inhabit. That’s why Frankenstein is a great myth. He’s scary but vulnerable. He’s this sort of messy, raggedy guy. We reshape the story all the time. That’s what makes it so good.”
Ruth: “The bigger, crazier ideas invite participation. Outlandish stories invite response. People fill in the gaps between now and the big idea. No one thing defines the response.”
Ed: “Breaking out of the present allows us to create new perspectives. A drone delivering stuff in one hour is a great thing. But where does it lead? What is the logical conclusion of it? Faster? More? Sustainability is a good narrative frame for discussing the future. But it’s only one way to look at the world we live in.
“All narrative frameworks have to be set in our best interests. There is latitude of how we define self-interest. Immediate satisfaction and long-term satisfaction are often not satisfied by the same thing. Biological self-interest should include our children and our children’s children’s interests.
“The thickness of the social media network will bring us together. The Boston Marathon bombers were real people. We heard from their friends from high school. Knowing this didn’t change the magnitude or trauma of their crime. But they were not cardboard demons. They were complex people, with real lives, more like us than we cared to admit. This is a positive that counters the shallow aspects of social media.”
Joey: “I’ve been at CSI since the beginning. I’m Ed’s Jack-of-all-trades.I do whatever falls in the cracks. Not everything we do is big funded. The Intel Tomorrow Project, five volumes of science fiction writing by high school students, was a collaboration, not a grant. They supported the project, CSI provided editorial guidance, and devoted time to selecting stories, and helped with distribution.
“‘Future Tense’ is a joint venture of ASU, Slate, and the New America Foundation. The tag line is ‘A citizen’s guide to the future’. The online publication discusses how technology can affect our lives. Recently, the focus has been on privacy.
“I teach one class a year. This year, its “History of the Future’ which includes historical writing about the future from different periods and perspectives. At the end of the course, each student will write a future scenario for Arizona.”
How will we live tomorrow?
“What I’d like to see is a tomorrow where we worry less about what we know and more about that we understand. Knowledge by itself is not that valuable. Applying knowledge to bridge understanding is the key.” – Ed Finn
“Information is easy to get but people don’t take advantage of it. We want to cut through the clutter and try to engage people. I hope that people will acclimate, use, and embrace what is available to us.
“Another piece. There is all this great culture out there. But we’re bad a ferreting out information to know what is valuable. Our relationship to pop culture has changed. It used to be that we bought records and newspapers and books and tickets to concerts. Now we don’t pay. There’s good journalism out there, with ads. We’ve replaced paying with money with paying with our time. I have started subscribing to things digitally. I pay because I don’t want to live in a world of ads. I subscribe to Dan Savage because I appreciate what he has to say and I want him to get paid for it.” – Joey
“The idea is communities shared communities, knowledge communities. Shared information allows us to find our communities and our identities earlier in life. Our families of origin are important, but they will become less so. They will be supplanted by on-line communities of choice.” – Bob