Why we need optimistic visions of the future: My long-read Q&A with Ed Finn

Has America become less future-oriented in the past half-century? Does our culture have an overly pessimistic view of the future? Ed Finn joined the Political Economy podcast to discuss how we can think about the possibilities of a better future.

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.”

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation, including brief portions that were cut from the original podcast. You can download the episode here, and don’t forget to subscribe to my podcast on iTunes or Stitcher. Tell your friends, leave a review.

Pethokoukis: What does the Center
for Science and Imagination at Arizona State University do? Why does it need to
exist? Why is it important? It sounds fairly awesome.

Finn: It is fairly awesome. I feel
like I have one of those really amazing jobs, and I am so excited that I get to
keep doing this strange and wonderful work. So maybe the best way to answer
your question is to tell the origin story of the center.

The president of ASU is a guy named Michael Crow, who’s a very interesting experimental thinker about higher education and is always trying strange new things. He was in Washington, DC in 2011 at an event with the science fiction writer Neal Stephenson. Neal Stephenson had written this essay called “Innovation Starvation,” which is a polemic, really, about how he felt we had lost our ambition and our vision to do big stuff. As a kid, he grew up with the Apollo Program, with big national infrastructure projects. The future was Star Trek. It was going to be optimistic and great. And by the time his generation had become adults, it was like, “Well, the future is incremental. The future is expensive. The future is probably going to be really bad.” And we no longer had that same relationship of optimism and that can-do attitude.

And so he was delivering a talk
version of this, and Michael Crow, being the kind of guy he is, said, “Well,
Neal, maybe this is actually your fault. Instead of telling the scientists and
the engineers and the entrepreneurs that they’re not thinking big enough, maybe
what we need are these stories that set the goalposts, that inspire us to build
these really optimistic and exciting futures. Because if you think about the
stories we tell about the future, they’re the Hollywood blockbuster dystopias.
We tell a lot of stories about how bad things are going to be. And the result
is that most people have a really disaffected relationship with the future. You
don’t feel like there’s anything you can do about it. You don’t know what the
future is going to be like. You don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it.
And if you do, it’s hopeless. Or maybe some people in white lab coats, or some
people in Silicon Valley, are going to take care of everything and it’s not
your problem.”

Of course, none of those positions
are really true. And the conversation that Michael Crow and Neal Stephenson had
started this spark to say, “Well, what if we tried to change that relationship?
What if we tried to give people a sense of agency and responsibility about the
future?” Because when you really think about it, it’s the choices that we all
make every day that are going to drive the world we live in. Some of them are
big choices. Some of them are little choices. But just pretending that your
choices don’t matter doesn’t actually absolve you of that responsibility. You
are still making the choices and they’re still going to make change. They’re
going to aggregate into bigger changes.

So this center was our response.
We said, “Well, what if we started to change this relationship with the future?
Modeling it, bringing people together — scientists, engineers, creative
writers, storytellers, artists — to come up with technically-grounded,
optimistic visions of the future.” And as we’ve grown and evolved, we think of
our mission as creating inclusive futures, to bring more people in, to give
them that sense of agency and responsibility, and to inspire collective
imagination.

So that’s how we started, and it’s
been tremendous fun. And we were really making it all up as we went along — there’s
no Department of Imagination out there, so there was no playbook. And so we
just decided to start with our work. One of the big projects was “Hieroglyph.” Neal Stephenson, after
this conversation, started talking to his fellow writers, technologists, other
people in his networks, to say, “Well, what if we did a collection of stories
that took this idea seriously?”

Well, that’s what led me to you
initially. I ran across those stories.

Yeah. And that was a really great
flagship project for us to start with, because it was a great calling card. So
this was a book, and we had a bunch of science fiction writers who were doing
their science fiction thing. But we tried to ask everybody to take some
creative risks and not just do what they normally do.

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So to the writers, we said, “Look,
we don’t want you to just go off to your cave or your writing shack or your rec
room or wherever you go to write a story. We actually want you to collaborate
with these technical experts and share your ideas with them and work together.
And we have some guidelines for you. It’s not just ‘write any story you want.’”
And Neal came up with this idea that there should be no holocausts, no
hyperdrive, and no hackers.

So no holocaust: not another
apocalypse story. No hyperdrive: no imaginary technologies that are not
technically plausible. We wanted all these stories to be grounded in the near
future, such that a young person who reads one of them might say, “I want to make
that thing real.” And they might have a shot within their professional lifetime
of actually bringing the story to reality. And the “no hackers” was actually
the hardest one to achieve because it suggested that instead of imagining a
plucky band of outsiders who are going to rebel against the system and break
all the rules in the classic science fiction tradition, what if we imagined
real systemic progress, where it’s not a revolution, but it’s actually making
things better as a collective whole? And that was the hardest one for the
writers to achieve.

Because that sounds like there’ll
be meetings.

Yeah, right. Exactly. Another one
of my favorite lines from Stephenson was “A good science fiction story can save
you hundreds of hours of meetings and PowerPoints because it puts everybody on
the same page.” But that’s right. And today I have to say, if you read the
stories in “Hieroglyph,” not
many of them really hit that mark, because it’s so difficult for us, first of
all, even to hold the big system in our heads. Very few people understand how
some of these giant social, technical systems work. And it’s even more
difficult, if you can understand it, to imagine how you would change it to make
it better, and certainly to make that palatable and interesting in the story.
So some really interesting challenges there.

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 shocked — and maybe depressed — with how little progress we’ve made. Do
you agree with that? And if so, what do you think happened?

It’s a really interesting
question. So in some ways, what you’re saying is totally true, because you look
at a film like 2001 by Stanley Kubrick, which was made in the ‘60s, and we’re
nowhere close to where he and Arthur C. Clark thought we were going to be in
2001. We’re 20 years beyond that. And in some ways, it feels like our ambitions
in space have moved backwards from the 1960s.

And it’s not just space and flying
cars. It’s really across a range of technologies, whether it’s curing disease
or life extension or a variety of things. Because oftentimes we’ll ask, “Where
are the flying cars?” But it’s just amazing, the broad range of areas of which
I thought life would be wildly different, and it isn’t.

Yeah. And so I think there’s a
lesson here, which is that the past never goes away and everything that we make
in the future is just another layer. Just like if you look at any city that’s
been around for more than a hundred years, it has these archeological layers to
it. And they’re all still in use. The ancient Roman arches are right next to
the Starbucks, and they’re all being activated at the same time. It’s very
difficult to actually erase the past. The past has a way of coming back to
haunt us.

And so those futures that they
imagined in the ’60s — we never got rid of all of the problems of the 20th
century. All those problems are still here with us: inequality, our reliance on
fossil fuels, all these challenges. And those things will continue to be part
of our future for a long time unless we solve that problem of imagining massive
systemic change, which is really, really hard to imagine.

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And even history tells us when you
have massive systemic change, the past comes back anyway. You look at religious
change, and we’re still dragging trees from the forest to our house every year
at Christmas, which is not something that they wrote about in the Bible. That’s
an adaptation of an older religious tradition into Christianity. So this
happens all the time.

And I think the other thing is
that there has been tremendous transformative change. It’s just in areas that very
few people anticipated. The big change has been in computation. And that’s
where you look at the bright young minds of this generation — a lot of them are
going into startups, into the technology world. And the cynical version of that
is: “We’re pouring all of this energy into making Facebook ads better.” But
there are some really positive things that have come out of it as well. But
that’s the Pandora’s box that we’ve opened, for good and for ill. It’s all of
this technological change.

And in some ways we’ve invested so
much of our creative civilizational capital in that, that we haven’t solved the
problems in the real world. And now we’re trying to solve the problems in the real
world by putting a layer of computation over it. And that doesn’t always solve
the problem.

There’s an interesting study from economist Ray Fair, which notes that, starting around 1970, the US began running big budget deficits and investing less in infrastructure in ways that other countries didn’t. Fair concludes that America became less future-oriented after the 1960s.

And when I look at how we’ve
neglected the space program, allowed for declines in science investment,
instituted regulations that make it hard to build infrastructure for the
future, failed to do much of anything about climate change, and were unprepared
for this pandemic, I start to think that he’s right. Fair doesn’t say why he
thinks this happened — just that something changed around 1970, and our society
no longer behaves in a very future-oriented manner.

I find that really interesting.
And it’s something I’ve thought about a bit. I don’t have a pat explanation for
what might’ve changed in say the ’70s or ’80s. And of course, some people will
tell you, “No, no, it was earlier. No, no, it was later.” 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?” And I do think that there are cultural differences
around this. If you look at Europe, there’s a lot more investment in this idea
that “futures” is a word that you could put into serious government documents,
and that they’re willing to put money into in Japan. There’s been a lot of
thinking about that. China is a country that tends to think in the long term, even
decades-long term.

A general view of the Oriental Science Fiction Valley theme park at sunset, in Guiyang, Guizhou province, China November 16, 2017. Picture taken November 16, 2017. REUTERS/Joseph Campbell

And for whatever reason, we aren’t
doing that right now in the United States. And I agree with you that it’s not
really part of our cultural DNA. And I think it needs to be. I think about this
in terms of imagination, and we need to create more space for imagination because
imagination is what you need. It’s the ignition system for all this stuff that
we know we care about, innovation and creativity. Imagination is what allows us
to avoid failures of imagination. Like, we knew the playbook. We knew exactly
how this pandemic was going to roll out from hundreds of expert studies and war
games and movies and books. And yet, somehow we couldn’t put the pieces
together. We couldn’t anticipate effectively what to do, and to take decisive
action at the right times.

But imagination is also the
ignition system for empathy and caring about other people. I’ve been interested
in the pandemic to see how suddenly, maybe for the first time, millions of
people are making these choices on behalf of strangers, changing their behavior
so that maybe somebody else doesn’t get sick.

So we need to foster imagination,
especially in young people. We celebrate it in little kids, and then we count
it out of everybody through formal education. And then when they’re grownups,
we say, “Well, why aren’t you more like Steve Jobs? Why aren’t you more like
Margaret Atwood or Neal Stephenson?” So we have this very contradictory
relationship with this capacity. But I think it’s one that everybody has. And
if we’re going to survive the 21st century — as a species, as a nation, as
communities — we need to build that capacity up and make sure everybody feels
empowered to imagine their own futures.

This reminds me of Edmund Phelps’s book, “Mass Flourishing,” where he ends on the same issue: Are we teaching kids to have a sense of discovery and curiosity? And he didn’t have any great solutions, though he felt kids should maybe read more swashbuckling adventure stories like he did as a kid.

So how do we instill this sense of
wonder and curiosity, and also of risk taking? I’m already concerned that this
pandemic will make us even more of a risk-averse society and decrease the rate
of company creation and geographic mobility. So how do we make sure that we
still are a risk-taking, imaginative society?

So that’s a great question. And
honestly, my next five years is thinking through, what do we do about this
imagination deficit? And this is something that you’ll see economists and
philosophers talking about. You’ll see people active in the Black Lives Matter
movement talking about it. Everybody’s interested in this question of what
imagination is, and how do we use it to make the world better?

But there are a few things I can
say now. Another thing that’s really key that imagination does for us is
resilience. Imagination is part of what makes amazing human beings carry on in
the face of impossible odds, and inspire other people to follow them. If you
think about somebody like Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi, they were
inspirational users of imagination. And they could motivate themselves and
others to do seemingly impossible things.

How do you teach that? Well, you
have to first create that space where people can fail, where people feel
comfortable failing, and the stakes of failure are not catastrophic and not
traumatic. And so in terms of what you could call the risk economy, I think we
need to think about how risk is already allocated. Because you think about the
kid from an affluent family who goes to college and takes a risk on doing some
crazy thing — does a Mark Zuckerberg, drops out of college. The risk that that
kid takes is ultimately a safer risk than the risk of somebody who grew up in
poverty and is on some kind of a scholarship and got into college. If they take
that risk, it’s a different risk profile. So we need to think about how we
create the gymnastics mat so that people can take these leaps, and if they
don’t time it right, they don’t break their necks. And that’s a really tricky
question.

And then the other piece that I’d
say, in terms of education, is 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 inventors and researchers and
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, and the
ideas circulate. And great things like calculus and sonar get invented multiple
times by multiple people because there’s a gestalt and a dialogue. Ideas
circulate. By the way, ideas circulate between science fiction and science as
well. But we need to foster that and think about how we support groups and
communities in doing imagination and working with one another.

It seems like we lack optimistic
narratives — a lot of movies and books about the future are fairly pessimistic
and dystopian, and have been since the 60s. So we don’t have enough stories of
how the future will work out for the better. And we need those stories —
visions that are both realistic and hopeful about where we’re going — so that
technological progress is connected to some larger purpose that will make
people’s lives better, rather than just providing new gadgets.

Absolutely. So I like to think
about this as thoughtful optimism. The work we do at the Center is not about
magical rainbows and unicorns thinking, where everything is just going to be
great. The work that we do is to try to imagine positive futures that still
have their problems and their flops. The past comes into these futures. And
it’s not like everybody is happy all the time, because that makes for really
boring stories. There are real problems and real conflicts. But there’s this
idea that if we think about the future, we can change it for the better, if we
explore the full possibility space. And that’s the thoughtfulness part.

And we might not all agree on what
that better future looks like. And that’s why this exercise is so important. We
need to have the stories to explore these possibilities and have some of these
debates about what we really want. Because ultimately every conversation about
the future is also a conversation about the present and the past. They’re
connected. And we’re always projecting the things we know about, what’s
happening now, and what has happened, into these dreams, these visions of what
we’d like to happen. So I think the exercise is really important. And if the
only stories you tell are the dark ones, then you’re sending this message that
the better future is inaccessible or impossible or not important.

And the dystopias are important,
too. “1984” was an incredibly
important book. There are many very important dystopias, and those warnings are
valuable. We need to hang on to them. But we have lots of those stories and we
tend to repeat them over and over again. And we don’t have nearly as many of
those optimistic narratives that say, “Well, here’s something we could be
working towards.”

So to wrap up, what story do you
tell yourself that isn’t about an apocalypse or a dystopian wasteland? And also
isn’t something so far in the future, like the Singularity, that it’s
incomprehensible? What are the stories you think about that are optimistic,
forward-thinking, and… still relatable to people today and how we imagine
tomorrow?

Well, one author that I like to point to, who really articulates this view and has been doing it for decades, is Kim Stanley Robinson, who writes very technically-grounded stories but also takes these leaps. And he imagines positive futures. A couple of his books come to mind. One is “New York 2140.” If you read this book just as an environmental novel, you’d say, “Wow, the future is going to be really bad because the sea level is going to rise and it’s going to cause all of these problems.” But the novel is not a pessimistic novel. It’s about humans adapting, and New York becomes a kind of Venice. And there are a lot of beautiful things, as well as lots of suffering. So I really liked that.

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And another one of his books, “2312,” is set farther in the future. It imagines humans occupying the solar system and building a real solar system-level civilization and economy. So he takes those leaps, and he imagines what life might be like for good and for ill, and all of the conflicts that we carry with us from the present.

And so that’s the kind of
storytelling that I think we need more of — that takes seriously the possibility
of positive change and then explores its second and third order effects. One of
the tragedies of our world right now is that even the people who are fighting
for positive change don’t know what the positive future looks like. Let’s look
at climate change, for example. There are all these people, policy people,
scientists around the world, doing these big climate meetings and international
discussions and accords. Most of them don’t really know what the positive
future looks like, what the victory condition looks like. And we need more
concrete visions of that.

You need to inspire people with
what is going to be beautiful and great about this future, where we’re reducing
our reliance on fossil fuels and we’re addressing carbon and all of that, instead
of the narrative that’s like, “You have to stop what you’re doing. This is bad,
this is wrong.” And to lead with the positive ideas instead of the negative
ideas — and positive visions rather than negative visions — is surprisingly
difficult. And I think it’s easier to be a critic than it is to be a positivist
and an advancer of a vision. And so again, it’s about creating that safety net,
that safe space for people to be willing to take those risks, and to say, “It’s
okay to do this, and it’s okay to be wrong.” And this is why so few science fiction
writers write near-future fiction, because in five years, your book is going to
be proven completely wrong.

Then people mock you like the
writers and these forecasts in the ’60s, who rather than predicting Uber or
Lyft, predicted we’d be chauffeured to airports by enhanced orangutans or
something.

Right. And honestly, that’s just
as ridiculous as the people who spend a lot of time celebrating science fiction
writers for being oracles and seers, because it’s the same thing. It’s really
not the point of science fiction. They weren’t trying to predict the future.
They’re trying to do this extrapolating and exploring the possibility space.
And it’s more important to think about the things that might happen, rather
than to try to place your bets on one particular thing happening.

My guest today has been Ed Finn.
Ed, thanks for coming on the podcast.

Thanks so much for having me.

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