Why has America become less future-oriented, and what role do scientists, engineers, and storytellers all have in changing this? Ed Finn recently joined the Political Economy podcast to discuss these questions and many more.
Ed is the founding director of the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University where he is an associate professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and the School of Arts, Media, and Engineering. He is the co-editor of many books, including “Future Tense Fiction:Stories of Tomorrow” and “Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future.”
Pethokoukis: What does the Center
for Science and Imagination at Arizona State University do? Why is it
Finn: The best way to answer your question is to tell the center’s origin story. In 2011, ASU President Michael Crow was at an event with the science fiction writer Neal Stephenson, who had written this essay about how we had lost our ambition, our vision to do big stuff, and our optimism and can-do attitude. And Crow said, “Neal, instead of telling the scientists that they’re not thinking big enough, maybe we need stories that inspire us to build optimistic and exciting futures. Instead, we tell dystopic stories about how bad things are going to be, and most people feel like there’s nothing they can do about it. So they don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it — either it’s hopeless, or it’s the job of people in white lab coats to take care of everything.”
That conversation raised the
question: “What if we tried to change that relationship? What if we tried to
give people a sense of agency and responsibility about the future?” So this center
is our endeavor to start to change this relationship with the future by bringing
people together — scientists, engineers, creative writers, storytellers,
artists — to come up with technically-grounded, optimistic visions of the
If you went back to the ‘60s,
there was a lot of optimism among those predicting what the world would look
like by 2020. I think if these same people were transported here today, they
would be disappointed with how little progress we’ve made. Do you agree with
that? And if so, what do you think happened?
In some ways, that’s true. For
instance, we’re nowhere close to where Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clark
thought we would be in “2001: A Space Odyssey” — even 20 years later. And in
some ways, it feels like our ambitions in space have moved backwards from the
One problem is that we never got rid of the problems of the 20th century, from inequality to our reliance on fossil fuels. And those things will continue to be part of our future unless we solve that problem of imagining massive systemic change, which is really hard.
And while there has been transformative technological change, it has mostly just been in computation. And we’ve invested so much of our creative civilizational capital in computation that we haven’t solved the problems in the real world. And now we’re trying to solve those problems by putting a layer of computation over it, which doesn’t always work.
Given that we’ve neglected the space program, allowed for declines in science investment, instituted regulations that make it hard to build infrastructure, and failed to do much of anything about climate change, do you agree that America became less future-oriented after the 1960s?
I find that really interesting,
and I’ve thought about this a bit. I don’t have a pat explanation for what
might’ve changed. But I think about Kurt Vonnegut saying, “Why is there no secretary
for the future in the cabinet? Why is there no institutional space for thinking
about the long term, at least in the United States?”
This is partly a result of cultural differences — compared to Europe or China, Americans aren’t thinking in the long term. It’s not really part of our cultural DNA, but it needs to be. We need to create more space for imagination, because imagination is the ignition system for all this stuff that we care about, like innovation, creativity, and empathy. So if we’re going to survive the 21st century, we need to foster imagination, especially in young people.
How do we do that? How do we make
sure that we still are an imaginative, dynamic, risk-taking society?
Two things. First, you have to
first create spaces where people can fail, where people feel comfortable
failing, and the stakes of failure are not catastrophic and not traumatic. We
need to recognize that kids from affluent families are safer when taking risks
than those who grow up in poverty, and we need to think about how we create the
gymnastics mat so that people can take these leaps without breaking their necks
if they fail.
Second, we have to remember that
imagination is not about individuals. It’s also about collectives that people
imagine together. And if you think about all of the great innovators that we
celebrate, there’s a myth that we build up around them — that they do this all
as individuals. But it’s always a team effort. We need to foster that in our education system
and think about how we support groups and communities working with one another.
What stories do you think about
that are optimistic and forward-thinking without being utopian?
Kim Stanley Robinson writes very technically-grounded stories but also takes leaps and imagines positive futures. For instance, in “New York 2140,” he portrays New York adapting to rising sea levels and becoming a kind of Venice. There are a lot of beautiful things in the book, as well as lots of suffering. And “2312” imagines humans occupying the solar system and building a real solar system-level civilization and economy. So Robinson imagines what life might be like for good and for ill, including all of the conflicts that we carry with us from the present. And he takes seriously the possibility of positive change and then explores its second and third order effects. That’s the kind of storytelling that we need more of.