Aengus Anderson: The strange thing about writing a headstone is that you're simultaneously writing a conclusion, and an introduction.
I’m Aengus Anderson. And if you’ve been listening to The Conversation, you already know that. But if you’re new; if you’re exhuming these interviews from some future date, welcome. I hope that the future you inhabit resembles some of the utopian ideas put forth on this project, not the dystopian horrorshow we occasionally wring our hands over.
Now, in 2011 I began thinking about my next long radio project. I’d already produced two sprawling projects about how Americans perceive the past and the present. This would be the project about the future. And this is the project about the future. This is The Conversation.
It became a thing in early 2012, when I started traveling America and interviewing a cross-section of creative thinkers and doers about how their work was shaping the future, what kind of futures they wanted, and why they thought those futures were good. I told the interviewees about each other, told my cohosts Micah Saul and Neil Prendergast about the interviewees, and from this great game of telephone we looked for patterns, trends, the ever-elusive zeitgeist of our historical moment.
That was, and this remains, an exciting time to be producing audio. Podcasting has finally become professionalized enough to be genuinely good while still being free enough to allow for a range of experimentation that radio has needed for decades. Personally, I think the best podcast are produced by public radio and former public radio producers; this is my bias. But there’s some incredible stuff you can listen to now. And through the sad but effective merger of public-style media and advertising, it’s free and it’s prolific.
That said, I think most of the best work tends to lean towards small stories with emotional personal narratives and…relatively little complexity. They are after all going for listeners, which makes a lot of sense.
On the other end, there’s a sea of amateur podcasts that take long, unedited journeys into the minutia of minutia. And if you’re from outside their fields, they’re completely unlistenable. But if you’re in their field, you love their depth.
Structurally, the conversation grew out of my desire to create something that I wanted to listen to and couldn’t actually find. A podcast the talked about our biggest issues as a society, and talked about them head-on. Obviously I didn’t want to dumb anything down in the hopes of reaching more listeners. You know, I resigned myself to this being a small podcast a long time ago. But at the same time I didn’t want to unleash another esoteric, unedited mess. Now, hopefully I achieved that balance, and hopefully the conversation was worthwhile in the moment for all of you folks who are listening to this as a conclusion.
If I achieved anything of longer-term interest, now, that’s a decision for those of you who are listening to this in the future. But whatever it amounted to, The Conversation was certainly the most satisfying and the most exhausting project I’ve ever worked on. I’m both thrilled to be done with it, and…ah, kinda sad to see it go. I mean, driving hundreds of miles to a strange city to interview an intimidatingly smart person about something vague like The Future or their personal philosophy, that’s terrifying. And it’s even more terrifying when you refuse to write down questions in advance. Which I do. But it certainly makes you feel alive.
It also makes you think about a huge spectrum of the thorniest issues our civilization faces. Environmental collapse. Economic collapse. Hyperindividualism. Scientism. The scalability of democracy. Lots of depressing stuff. Those things became permanent fixtures in my life, not just when I was interviewing or editing. Which was generally between fifteen to twenty hours of editing per interview. But in every bar conversation in San Francisco, every internal monologue while I was jogging in New York, every email, every phone call…
So, coupled with the inescapability of the The Conversation, I started feeling a growing sense of absurdity as the project progressed. Which I hope you did not hear in our discussions at the time. And I certainly hope you didn’t hear it in the interviews. But you can hear it now. It was a sense that the system we’ve created is so complex and out of control that out best thinkers are outgunned. They’re constrained by the very real limits of being human. You know, finite time, an inability to know who the thinkers are outside of their tiny subfields, let alone to comprehend the intersection of global systems. And I began to think that we can’t diagnose our problems. And if we could we couldn’t agree on whose diagnosis to choose. And if we could agree on a diagnosis we couldn’t agree on a plan of action. And if we could agree on a plan of action we could never muster the will to do anything, anyway.
At some point, my perception of the project changed, and some of the exciting and challenging and occasionally brilliant ideas started to sound a little bit more like, faddish, or superstitious hot air. Kind of like we were plankton desperately trying to understand ocean acidification. Which of course is completely unfair, but it’s where sixty-some interviews about big ideas got me.
Yet, even in the moment I knew that each interview had a gem or two in it, that you would enjoy them now, and that I would enjoy them again, more fully, later. Apparently I react to big ideas the same way I react to photographers at an event. A few are exciting to see, but a crowd is…a little offputting.
Perhaps it was this very overdose on big ideas that made me think conversation doesn’t matter that much. In a way, it answered one of the questions that I started the project with. I don’t know if there have been society-wide conversations about the future in past eras—perhaps there have been. But I’m pretty sure there isn’t one now. And even if such a conversation overcame the challenges of emerging from our bizarrely fragmented social and media landscape, I don’t know if it would have the descriptive power, let alone the muscle, to solve any problems.
Which isn’t to say that after this project I think societies can’t change?, or solve problems? Quite the opposite. But when they do, I think it’s reactive, it’s crisis-driven, and just as difficult to predict as any other complex system.
In a horrible way I feel like I kind of—I’m aligning with Joseph Tainter, even though in so many ways I found his interview…really hard to deal with, because it was so…deterministic. But like many others I want conversation to matter. Because conversation, even when it’s illogical and driven entirely by emotion, still implies that we’re governed by a higher form of logic, right? An orderliness the can be mapped from above by psychologists or sociologists or advertisers or…someone. That’s appealing. It gives us conscious agency of a sort.
But, we are so much more than conscious agency. Both as individuals and as a collective. And we can’t predict how ideas ricocheting through a society influence which way the herd is gonna break. There are just too many other variables.
A few interviewees in the project have suggested the conversation may not matter in the moment, but it does expand the menu of ideas future generations have to choose from. You don’t suddenly persuade people to take up urban farming on a massive scale today, nor do you persuade them to stop driving and cut carbon emissions. But, maybe you can make those behaviors a little more normal so the next generation adopts a few of those ideas without ever having a conversation. Or maybe they just get kicked in the face by scarcity, and they adapt with an ease which would have been inconceivable to a previous generation.
This isn’t exactly a conversation, by traditional definition. But I think it’s a lot more realistic than the salon model of conversation I began this project with. It’s a nice middle ground between arguing that conversation and logic and persuasion matter, and simply throwing up one’s hands and becoming a lame cynical determinist. I mean, seriously. Who wants to be one of those?
I recorded the last interview for The Conversation in the summer of 2013, and at the time I was considering if I should try to catapult the project into a self-sustaining series. To make a real job of it rather than a year-and-a-half-long project financed by my dwindling savings and the unbelievable generosity of friends and family. There were so many cool people left to interview on my list, and there still are. And interviewing is incredibly fun, just as reading all of your comments and emails has been.
But, back in 2013 I also felt like my brain didn’t need anymore ideas, or couldn’t handle anymore ideas. And that my enthusiasm was certainly mutating into something between boredom and disgust. And that prolonging The Conversation would be routinized work rather than a fun personal project, which is what these things should be.
Perhaps, as a subconscious antidote, I bought a crumbling stone and adobe house, which I’m sitting in right now. And in its demands it required the opposite of what The Conversation needed. From the global and the long-term and the intellectual, I pivoted to a project that was local and immediate and physical.
The laptop and microphone gave way to the crowbar and sledgehammer, which is a really satisfying trade. And I focused my creative attention elsewhere. And then the months sort of fused into years, and the years sank into the past. And I kept postponing editing the final episodes of The Conversation, because there was always more wiring to be done, another window to be added, another concrete floor to be polished. And all of those things are nicer to think about than the real crisis of the present. If you remember Tim Morton’s episode, he talked about how you could really only think about that for maybe one second a day. I think I get that now.
So that brings us here, to this moment, the summer of 2016. I roped Micah and Neil into recording the final episode discussions last winter. And then I worked through the remaining edits, which I admit was partly out of guilt…but partly out of excitement. And also partly to clear my slate for the next project. And it was really fun to revisit The Conversation. And I still have spasms of wanting to record more episodes. I still have that list of interviewees I want to talk to.
And maybe I will someday. But right now I’m pointing my creative energies at a new project. One which is, in a lot of ways the intellectual descendant of The Conversation. So if, for some strange reason, you want to hear more of my work, you’ll find me searching for the essence of place over at Tucsonense. I don’t think there are a lot of good place-based podcasts right now, so I’m determined to start one.
Of course the more I dig, the more I realize that basically no one has a good definition of what a place is, anyway. So I’m going in search of the essence of Tucson, which is home for me. And of course I won’t to find it. Because I don’t think you really find the essence of a place. But maybe I’ll catch a few hints of it out of the corner of my eye. And maybe some of the questions about place will be interesting to other people trying to make sense of other places.
As for Micah and Neil, they’ve drawn their own conclusions from The Conversation, and they would probably write totally different concluding episodes. We all have really radically different experiences. I don’t suspect they would be as jaded as I would about the prospect of conversation being different. And this is something that we wanted to sit down and talk about in person because it’s been a long, epic project and it’s the kind of thing where you really want to like, talk face-to-face and recap. And we want to record that someday, and maybe we’ll post that, too. But we haven’t made that happen yet. And, you never know how these things go.
So this is where I sign off. Where this conversation ends. And I cannot thank you enough for listening. The Conversation is not a sexy project. It takes a lot of patience. It takes a lot of focus to get into it. There isn’t a narrative arc, an emotional hook, an “ooh, wow” reveal moment. We don’t have any of the crutches of normal narrative radio. And yet there are a lot of you who’ve followed along from the beginning. And so, thank you again for all of your time, all of your emails, all of your comments. You’ve led us to amazing interviewees. You’ve led me, and Neil, and Micah to thinking about the work we do in really different ways. And I hope that the interviews we’ve presented here have a legacy long after this project is done in the way you think about things, and the way you approach the world and ideas. So thanks again for listening, whether you’ve just finished the project, or you’re about to start.
I’m Aengus Anderson. This is The Conversation. And this ponderous closing monologue was recorded on May 15th, 2016 in Tucson, Arizona.
This episode at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.