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 pod­casts 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 that 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. 

Further Reference

This episode at the Conversation web site, with project notes, com­ments, and tax­o­nom­ic orga­ni­za­tion spe­cif­ic to The Conversation.