Micah Saul: This project is built on a hypothesis. There are moments in history when the status quo fails. Political systems prove insufficient, religious ideas unsatisfactory, social structures intolerable. These are moments of crisis.
Aengus Anderson: During some of these moments, great minds have entered into conversation and torn apart inherited ideas, dethroning truths, combining old thoughts, and creating new ideas. They've shaped the norms of future generations.
Saul: Every era has its issues, but do ours warrant The Conversation? If they do, is it happening?
Anderson: We'll be exploring these sorts of questions through conversations with a cross-section of American thinkers, people who are critiquing some aspect of normality and offering an alternative vision of the future. People who might be having The Conversation.
Saul: Like a real conversation, this project is going to be subjective. It will frequently change directions, connect unexpected ideas, and wander between the tangible and the abstract. It will leave us with far more questions than answers because after all, nobody has a monopoly on dreaming about the future.
Anderson: I'm Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I'm Micah Saul. And you're listening to The Conversation.
Aengus Anderson: Once again we're back a little late. Micah is out for this one, but I'm here.
Neil Prendergast: And I'm here too. Hey, everybody.
Anderson: This is actually the last conversation I recorded in the first big phase of production. So this was taped in December of 2012, and then we'll be moving into the new round of interviews, which are all San Francisco-based that I did more recently next.
This one is with Ed Finn. He's up at Arizona State University in Tempe. And he's the head of the Center for Science and the Imagination, CSI as an acronym, which is a very excellent thing. But they're not actually a crime-solving unit. The Center was founded as a result of a conversation about the future between a science fiction author, Neal Stephenson, and ASU's president, Michael Crow.
Prendergast: And as the story goes, Stephenson was bemoaning the dearth of grand visions and scientific projects since the 1960s, and our culture's general slide towards dystopian fantasies.
Anderson: Which is kind of awesome, right. Because he's one of the fathers of cyberpunk.
Prendergast: So he's having this conversation with ASU president Michael Crow, and in response Crow suggested that the problem lay partly with science fiction authors and other thinkers who shape how people dream about the future. And this helped create, it seems, Ed's job, which is to bring thinkers together from multiple fields and create realistic but also optimistic visions of the future.
Anderson: So today we're going to be talking a lot about dreaming. And this conversation is going to be…pretty abstract. You know, we've done a lot of ones that were more tangible recently. You know, we've talked about things like cooperatives. But we're really going to be talking a lot about narrative today. And we're going to be talking about different social conditions that lead to different narrative structures or block the time we have for dreaming.
But before we do that, just one little word to add in. We're pitching a panel to South by Southwest, which will be in the spring of 2014. The panel's called "A Sheep in Wolf's Clothes: The Myth of Disruption." And basically we're going to be talking about the sort of tech futurism that we've seen so much of, where there is this kind of blend of free market capitalism and representative democracy, and a certain type of scientism. And there's kind of an unquestioned faith in progress that embodies all of those things that's one of the really big discourses on the future. And what we want to talk about is we've talk to all these different people in this project, and what are the other visions, you know. Because we can see the kind of Silicon Valley vision being advanced in really prominent places like the TED Conference. But you don't always see in conversation with folks like John Zerzan, or more recently say, Carlos Perez de Alejo. So we want to ask, publicly, at South by Southwest, how do you have a conversation between these things?
Prendergast: I think with Aengus is saying is "vote for us."
Anderson: God, you do that so much better than I do. That's probably the best thing. So if you go on the South by Southwest panel picker, look for "A Sheep in Wolf's Clothes: The Myth of Disruption," or you can just search for Micah Saul or Aengus Anderson on there, and give us a vote. And if we're really lucky Neil will be free then and he'll be joining us there too. So, if you've enjoyed this project and you might even be at South by Southwest, you can berate us in person. It'll be a great time.
Prendergast: But for now, let's make some space for dreaming.
Ed Finn: The Center, one of our core goals, our mission statement, is to get people thinking more creatively and ambitiously about the future. What I mean when I talk about that is that we need to come up with better stories about the future. If you want to build a better world you have to imagine that world first. So, I think that creativity is at the core of the conversations we need to be having about the world we want to build, whether that’s in the context of sustainability, or sending manned missions to space, or education reform, anything. You have to start with imagination. You have to start with dreaming and the ways in which we talk about ideas and play with ideas.
So, we have collaborations that bring together science fiction writers with scientists. We have collaborations where we’re trying to get students in college to write really ambitious and creative things about the future. And when we do all of these things, we want to create that safe space, basically, where you can step outside of your disciplinary boundaries, out of your professional identity, and throw out a really crazy idea. What we sometimes call a moonshot idea though I don’t always like the term “moonshot” because I think it overly specifies a certain kind of ambition, and I think of the creativity and the imagination that we are interested in much more broadly. And it includes artistic imagination, it includes literary imagination, it includes kids drawing stuff in their kindergarten class.
So that’s what comes to mind when you mention dreaming. And what I think is really important about the work that the Center does is to expand that definition of dreaming and make sure that it includes everybody, to talk about scientists as well as science fiction writers as people who dream about the future and to recognize that inspiration, whether you are an engineer or a poet, probably starts from pretty much the same space. And I don’t know where exactly in the brain that is, but it starts from a certain kind of openness and a willingness to shift your perspective and see the world in a different way, to have an idea. And then I think what’s interesting about dreams is not just that you have this single moment, but a dream is an extended narrative. It’s a space where anything is possible but you also play out some kind of a story. And so, with my background in the humanities I think that storytelling is a crucial part of this whole idea of dreaming.
Now, what’s wonderful about stories is they help us to share a vision of the future in a way that is not overly specific or dominant—it doesn’t say “this is exactly how it’s going to be.” A good story is a sketch of the world. And a lot of the imaginative work is done by the people listening to that story or reading that story. Neal Stephenson, one of our collaborators with the Center, likes to say that a good science fiction story can save hundreds of PowerPoints and boring meetings, because it just puts everybody on the same page with a big idea. You create that sense of momentum, that sense of character and human engagement, how an idea actually fits into a social and a cultural landscape. And those are the key elements to getting people on board in starting to understand what kind of future world we could live in.
Aengus Anderson: One of the things that really resonates with me about when we talk about dreaming is of course this project is The Conversation. And what is The Conversation about? Well, it’s a bunch of wild ideas about the future. It’s the question of how do we want to live? What is the good way to live? And dreaming is of course…maybe that’s the narrative side of the same thing. Do you think that we are dreaming as a society, or as a planet…enough?
Finn: No, I don’t think we are. I think that we are so successful now at filling our days with fragments, and miniatures, and other people’s dreams—or manufactured dreams, that are really just designed to entertain us, that we don’t leave enough space for deep thinking and extended reveries (to extend the dreaming metaphor). And I think that’s really important. I think it’s important to think about the future at every stage in human development. I think it’s especially important now because we’re at the cusp of a lot of really profound changes to human society and the planet that we live on, ranging from the impact of human civilization on the climate and the systems of the Earth, to the increasing interconnection of human society in terms of the digital world and a growing thickness in the mesh of information that wraps our world. To the discoveries that we seem to be on the cusp of in terms of cognition, and memory, biological enhancement. So, in many ways we are beginning to radically redefine, or developing the power to radically define what it means to be human.
I think that dreaming is very important and it’s something that we tend to push aside, because we’ve become so focused on minutia. The explosion of information, the facility with which we can now access all of this information, leaves us with no downtime. I find it fascinating, for example, that in the Middle Ages people had this first sleep and second sleep. And scientists apparently have figured out that when you live on a diurnal cycle and you’re just following the natural progression of the seasons, the human body actually naturally adjusts to, in the wintertime wake up in the middle of the night. You have a first sleep; you know, the sun goes down at five or six o’clock or whatever it is. And you sleep for a few hours. And then you wake up. And you hang out for awhile—an hour, maybe two hours. And then you go back to sleep for a second REM cycle. And this is what your body naturally does.
And so it’s shocking to think that there is this entire cultural phenomenon, this entire phase of the day, that doesn’t exist anymore. If it’s two hours out of twenty‐four, that’s a twelfth of human existence that somehow disappeared because we’ve started to regulate ourselves according to the fiction that we call time, the fiction of the twenty‐four hour day.
That’s really startling. And it was a very weird time. It’s not like being awake during the day. Your brain is in a very different state, and you think of yourself in the world in a different way. It’s obviously dark and there are only a few things that you can plausibly do. And that whole phase of our existence and that whole space is probably a great time to daydream, to reflect on what’s happened or what will happen.
And so it’s really startling to think about moments like that and recognize that we’re already profoundly changing what it is to be human. We now have these vast tendrils of consciousness that extend to all of our devices in different places, our social networks which are so much more complex and mediated than they used to be. We have a lot more power but we also have a lot more…delegated responsibility where we’re counting on all of these algorithms and systems to tell us how to feel and when to pay attention to things.
So we need space for dreaming, more than ever. Because dreaming is a way that you practice for the world. Scientists have studied this as well and you can actually see people rehearsing particular physical movements and states of mind in your REM sleep. But we need to screen more time for daydreaming and for conversation and reflection about the future. Because that’s another way to practice. That’s another way to talk through ideas.
I’m really concerned by the ways in which we’ve created this illusion of depth of field in terms of the kinds of information that we can get online or through watching television or however we get our news these days. But actually, we end up becoming quite narrowly focused, and things like Google profiles end up shaping an informational universe designed just for the individual. That’s really startling because at a certain point as we put more and more of our stuff online and rely more and more on these technical systems to access our memory banks, as it were, we’re increasingly going to live in a world, a Descartes sort of “cogito ergo sum” world that is individual for each of us. And that is another space that then becomes lost for dreaming. It’s another language that we no longer have to dream together and to talk with other people.
Anderson: Yeah, and that seems like a really interesting part. Because when you were first talking about dreaming I was thinking about okay, here’s the individual losing time and space for dreaming in their life. But this is also the community version, right, in that we do collectively dream, and that is how we address big questions of like, how do we live as a group?
A ton of connections there to other things I’ve talked to people about in this project. And maybe maybe the biggest of these connections was sort of the idea of the structure of our society making it difficult for us to dream. I was thinking of John Zerzan, the neoprimitivist, the anti‐technology thinker. And a big part of his critique of technology is that technology has a bias, and that you can’t just say, “No, technology can be used in a bunch of different ways.” He says technologies have specific uses; they encourage the centralization of controlling, they encourage a type of regularization of things.
And so I wonder, what’s the refutation to sort of Zerzan’s claim that maybe this type of hyperspecialization we’re getting just in our social structure… Well one, that that’s an inevitable result of technology. And two, that that would probably lead to reduced dreaming.
Finn: It’s really good question.
Anderson: Because I think he would also agree that we’re dreaming less.
Anderson: But I think he would get there in a very different way?
Finn: So I have a better answer to the second part than the first part. To the first part I’d say I’m not sure if it’s inevitable. But I do agree that technology is a structuring force and that our tools shape us much more than we shape our tools. You know, we design something and then it continues to influence us, and in future generations for as long as we use that tool.
So I think that point is well taken. And I think maybe the second part of my answer sheds some light on the first. I think that what we need to do to combat that problem is to think about narrative and storytelling and ideas of literacy. So this spring I’ll be teaching a class here at Arizona State University called Media Literacies and Composition. Part of what I want to do in the class is to develop a sense of algorithmic literacy, to get my students to think about this digital world, this informational landscape, as one filled with cultural machines. You know, the algorithms that determine which Facebook posts you see or don’t see. The algorithm that recommends books for you. These are machines that may have been designed by engineers who thought they were just solving a technical problem. But as Zerzan mentioned, they actually are power machines, you know. They change the world. They change our cultural landscape. They make certain things impossible or possible, or they make certain things much more difficult than other things.
The example I like to give my students when I talk about this is when you’re playing the game Grand Theft Auto, you just push one button and you can steal any kind of vehicle, right. You proceed through all these complicated actions that most humans wouldn’t normally be able to do. And so obviously that becomes the thing you do in the world because it’s the first word you learned in the language of Grand Theft Auto, and it’s something that you can do wherever you are.
So I think that the response to this argument about technological determinism and growing complexity is to focus on what’s always distinguished us as a species is this power of narrative and storytelling. To create forms of collective belief and to reinvent and reimagine the world. And I think that’s how people always respond to technology. If you’ve ever read the French author Michel de Certeau, he talks about ideas of poaching and resistance. He’s thinking about the technologies in the structures of the workplace, and the ways in which people might steal work time to work on a personal project, or maybe you take a ream of paper home.
These days, people engage in all sorts of complicated games with the tools that we’re supposed to be using in serious ways. You might have a really saucy conversation with the automated reservation agent on the airline phone line, you know. Or you might write a completely farcical memo at work and use satire as a force for disrupting and sort of breaking up some of these forces.
There are lots of things people do and I think people will always do them. Because humans are always humans. We aren’t rational actors. We aren’t machines. And as much as we like to pretend that we are at times, it’s very much a game of dress‐up. And we always end up reinscribing or overriding these rules and creating new spaces for us to be playful and creative, and angry and depressed, and to do all of the things that these very prescribed digital spaces were never intended to do in the first place. So I think that storytelling is really the answer to that challenge.
Anderson: That’s interesting because Zerzan’s answer of course to that problem is well, you can’t really get around it, throw technology away. But what you’re talking about makes me think much more of Douglas Rushkoff when he was writing Program or Be Programmed and in our conversation talking about becoming literate to these systems and realizing that things that seem…normal? have biases and things programmed into them. It’s interesting that with Zerzan and Rushkoff, both can say technology has a bias but one says you can reengineer the bias, and the other one says you can’t, just get rid of technology.
Finn: And you know, I think it’s impossible to get rid of technology. There are many species that use technologies to do stuff. And evolution itself arguably is a technology or it enables us to develop technologies like opposable thumbs and binocular vision. And I think that it’s really implausible, even at that fundamental level, to imagine some sort of total abandonment of technology.
So I’m much more in Rushkoff’s camp. And I think that one of the key and abiding values of the humanities and conceptions of narrative is that you’re really teaching people how to think and how to see the world. And that is fundamentally what’s important. To learn how to take a step back from the received wisdom of whatever this object is. To avoid just buying into the rhetoric that you’re being offered in whatever situation you’re in. And to learn to ask yourself are there other ways that this could be? Are there other ways that this should be? This is some of the stuff I’m hoping to teach my students this spring. And I think that is the only way to maintain our agency in the world.
Anderson: So, if technology is inevitable. And we’ve also talked about how it does have biases. But we’ve also talked about how those biases are fixed. And so, to circle back to dreaming from there, if we’re in a society that for many…it seems like technical reasons does not have time to dream—technical, economic, social reasons, doesn’t have time to dream…why not? What are the structural things that we can do to encourage dreaming?
Finn: So, I think it fundamentally comes down to framing the questions that we explore in different ways. Because we’re dreaming all the time. I mean, all of those…the entertainment products that I mentioned before, shape the way we think about the world, the way we think about the future. The Cosby Show changed the way that we think about race in America. Shows like Star Trek changed the way we think about the future and space travel.
I think the way we get people to dream more productively is we change the framing, and we get people to take the future a little more seriously. One of the things that the Center for Science and the Imagination is trying to do is to get people to think about the future as a spectrum of possibility. Get people to think about the future as not something that some people in white coats are building in a lab somewhere. As not the next product release from Apple. But as something that we’re all invested in, whether we’re making active conscious choices about it or not.
So I really think that we need to emancipate the future. We need to break it out of that lab, we need to break it out of the corporate product line‐up and say no, it involves a lot more stuff. It involves everything. And there are a lot of different pathways that we could follow. When you start with that framework, then the conversations you have can still involve all of the same things—they can still involve Star Trek or they could involve the car you drive to work. But the framing is different and so then the stories that you tell about that stuff, they’re going to be different stories.
Anderson: Why do you think we have this disempowered sense when we think about the future? Is that related to complexity elsewhere in our society, where it feels like society is so complex that when we look at it as individuals it feels like we are much too small and we’ve started to realize the daunting complexity of the thing that we have created and are embedded in?
Finn: I think there are a lot of factors in it. I mean, one factor is that we haven’t had a really convincing global narrative for the future since 1989. Nothing helps sharpen your sense of belonging in progress like a good enemy, right. And so that was a phase after World War II where there was…relative stability on our planet. And people were working hard and there was you know, generally a sense of progress. And there was a sense of a collective pathway and a collective vision. And I think ever since then we’ve been struggling to come up with a new version of that.
But I don’t think that it’s really true that we’ve been completely wayward and lost. Because we keep seeing these incredible manifestations of the positive power of the network and these digital technologies. The Arab spring, which upended exactly the kind of regimes that the Cold War Era would have described as essentially endless.
And the power of a good story is that you can just transform behavior overnight. I had a conversation with Peter Peter Byck, who’s a director who made the documentary Carbon Nation a few weeks ago. And he is trying to figure out how he can get people to think of sustainability and climate change as a World War II‐style moment. Because after Pearl Harbor the United States, within a matter of months completely transformed the manufacturing and production cycle of the US. We went from a nearly total peacetime manufacturing structure to this incredible war machine that just kept getting stronger and stronger over the next few years. But even within that first year they were producing thousands of planes, they were producing all these ships. And if you were measuring it in percentage points, you know this huge percentage of the population—you would see these huge shifts in social behavior, in a very short amount of time.
And one of the problems we have when we think about technology, and this is something that the dean of the School of Sustainability here at ASU has said, is when we think about just trying to solve these problems with technologies, you’re struggling to find a 5%, a 10% improvement in some particular corner of say, the climate change and sustainability conversation. But technology is what got us into this problem in the first place, you know. And if you keep trying to come up with innovation to get yourself out of the hole that you innovated yourself into, you’re not going to be able to do it. You have to come up with those transformative stories. You have to get people on the right page to understand a broader social context. And that becomes a question of agency again. Because if you just tell people exactly what they have to do to resolve this problem, you’re never going to succeed because people aren’t going to do it, they’re not going to understand why, they’re not going to care. But if you can convince people to care, if you can come up with that narrative and let them figure out what it is they should do, you give them the agency and you delegate this responsibility to the future to them, then you start to see really profound changes.
Anderson: This connects out two really interesting conversations I recorded on opposite ends of the country. One was with David Korten of the New Economy Working Group. We talked a bit about narrative, which really surprised me. And he felt you need a new narrative, the narrative of being embedded.
And kind of on the other end of the country how that manifested itself politically was in this other conversation I had with a guy named Puck Mykleby, and he’s a Marine colonel. And he along with another guy in the Pentagon redesigned the United State’s strategic narrative, to go from containment to sustainment, broadening the definition of what is the current threat. Well, the current threat is sustainability. And how do you get to that? Well, it’s not just an environmental question. The strategic imperative for the country is partially environmental, but it’s also all these other things that lead you to thinking environmentally.
Do you think that we can have a new narrative around something as nebulous as sustainability? You know, I mean Russia, you can paint it red on a map, but sustainable climate? That’s fuzzy. We can’t even agree on whether or not that exists.
Finn: I really like your mentioning of this idea of embedded consciousness, and frames of thought, and cultural frames that recognize the we’re embedded in different systems. It reminds me of Buckminster Fuller’s great books Spaceship Earth and the idea that the Earth is a complicated organism, a mechanism, that has all these different moving parts and we’re just one element in a much broader system. Which both reduces our sense of hubris and makes us recognize that we’re part of something much bigger. But also still increases our sense of responsibility by pointing out that when we screw up certain things it has all of these far‐reaching implications with the rest of the system because we’re still part of it, this much bigger thing.
So what I think is important is to recognize that we’re also embedded in time, and to expand the horizons that we think of. One of the really profound challenges we have right now is that I think we don’t think very far ahead into the future. Politics in America is not very well‐suited to thinking even one or two years ahead, much less ten years ahead, or twenty years ahead. That’s a major problem, and I think that’s actually how we should tackle this question of sustainability and better narratives. Because once you extend your horizon just a little bit farther out, you start to see how sustainability is really in your self interest. It’s not about believing in some new religion. It’s about oh, if I do this now I’m going to save all this money and I’m going to save all this time. When you extend your vision in the temporal horizon you begin to see all of those hidden costs become more visible, and all of the externalized problems that we don’t see reflected in the price tags in our supermarket suddenly become a lot more obvious. And I think that’s really important.
Now, I don’t think that’s necessarily easy. And I think that again it’s the kind of thing where you have to come up with a whole set of narratives and stories that connect to one another, and gradually shift consciousness. And I think it ranges from people who believe very much in that God and man‐centered universe, evangelicals who say we’re stewards of the Earth and it is our responsibility to protect this world that God has given us, to those who say we adopt sustainability as a strategic initiative, we adopt sustainability as a core national defense issue. To people who just say, “You know, I think this is a moral imperative because many people will suffer if the oceans rise or crops start dying out.”
So I think there are all these different narratives, but I think that the core of what needs to change is we need to expand that horizon of our thinking. The 10,000 Year Clock from the Long Now Foundation [crosstalk] is a nice example.
Anderson: Yeah, I spoke to Alexander Rose and I was thinking about him as you were saying that, you know, because he was talking about once you expand your time horizon, then a lot of things that seem impossible to solve become possible. And I think what I have to ask when I hear a claim like that is of course, are we biologically inclined to favor the short‐term? And, if we are is narrative the way to sort of trick ourselves into thinking long‐term because you’ve got this deeper understanding that is now part of a story, and that’s why you don’t like, eat all the chocolate right now.
Finn: We may never have been as shortsighted as we are now.
Finn: Think about the planning and vision it took to build the pyramids. The cathedrals that took centuries to build. People used to have a very different understanding of themselves in the broader universe. That Christian you know, Western religious mythos of God and man working together put man at the center of the universe but also had a very different temporal frame for how we lived in the world. This present time on Earth was really just a small part of what would be an eternal existence, and that you know, if you lived a good Christian life you would go on to Heaven and the time you spend on Earth, the suffering that you endure here is going to be insignificant in that broader frame.
And when you start thinking of the world in those terms it suddenly becomes reasonable to say well you know, I’m going to spend my thirty years of professional life or you know, probably fifteen or twenty years at that period in history of professional life, working on this building. It’s not going to be done. It’s not even going to be half-done by the time I die. And I know I’m going to die not so long from now. But this is good work, and it’s part of something bigger, and I believe in that bigger thing.
If you can just establish that frame, then all of these other elements start to fall into place. And I don’t think that it requires some kind of radical biological engineering of the human mind or anything like that. Sure, we have these very powerful, innate systems in our brains that tell us how to act. But I’ve got to say I think it’s nothing on the power of the social, and the power of the systems that we build communally. You know, everything that we’ve done as a species is because we’ve learned to work together, to collaborate in these incredibly powerful, explosive, exciting, dangerous, thrilling ways. And the things we can achieve when we just come up with a story that we all buy into are limitless.
Anderson: It seems like you feel that we are too eager to sort of consign these things to biology, in a way, that almost makes them inevitable and then take them off the table for discussion?
Finn: Yeah. I value the study of evolutionary psychology and I value the study of cognition in the ways in which we operate. I think that’s extremely important and fascinating work. But I think it’s a little too easy to push things off the table because we say well, that’s just how humans are built and there’s no way to change that. I think understanding how our innate systems work, how our motivations work, is very important. But you can use that knowledge to change almost any kind of human behavior.
Anderson: An avenue actually I think we need to explore is of course what happens if we keep dreaming in ways that are very incremental and small. Or we are willing to outsource our dreaming to a research lab, or to people who seem smarter than us and we see on…you know, getting a TED talk and we’re like, “Well, those people have really got it. They’ve got lots of advanced degrees. I’m just gonna go to work, take care of my family. They’re dreaming.”
Finn: So I think one of the problems we have as humans is that we are pattern‐seeking animals. And we like genre. We’re kind of lazy. And so we like stories that makes sense because we know how they’re going to turn out and they fit into what’s a normal, standard, officially approved, acceptable ending. And so we tend to outsource our really ambitious thinking and our risk‐taking and our dreaming to a few different groups of people who then become the sort of professional risk‐takers and dreamers.
But they get sucked into the genre, too. Genre has rules, and genre has boundaries. And TED talks are a kind of genre. The Silicon Valley entrepreneur is a genre. The medical researcher battling cancer has a genre. And all of these people are really smart and they do really important and interesting work. And some of them might even see the genre walls around them and want to break out but you know, they’ve got to apply for the next grant. They’ve got to pitch this idea to a very particular audience. And so they play to the crowd, and they play to the genre rules that are set up before them. And we end up repeating and recapitulating ideas that we’ve had before. And we end up losing a lot of really good information and good thinking because it doesn’t fit into the very unique genre of science fiction that is the grant proposal.
Anderson: Early in our conversation we mentioned like, environmental questions or the integration of social and economic systems which you need to work to have people survive. Or the potentiality of altering the genome, or cybernetically enhanced ourselves. Those are some of the issues. And if not dreaming is a problem, where does it go if we are trapped in genres?
Finn: Well I think people are dreaming. I think that there’s been a shift in the zeitgeist, in the past year or two especially. And this project you’re working on is one example. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has this new Grand Challenges initiative. There a lot of people who are recognizing that we need to get back to thinking big and doing big stuff, being really ambitious in our work.
Of course, there have always been people doing that. And I think some of our most successful, world‐changing figures are people who had some really big ambitious idea and they just went for it. We are creating these broader conversations but I think it’s important for what we’re doing here at the Center and at ASU more generally to keep doing it, and to lead by example. And I think one of the great challenges when you’re trying something new is taking that first step or conducting that first experiment. And so one of the things I’m most excited about as we launch this new thing is that we’re just doing stuff. We’re trying it out and we’re going to see how it works. A really important part of dreaming and of good creative work in general is to embrace failure as a valid and valuable outcome, something that you can learn from, something that if it doesn’t happen often enough you should be a little suspicious. And something that is really in a lot of ways no less useful than success in helping to learn and shape your thinking about what you’re doing.
Anderson: We’ve been talking a lot about dreaming. The implicit assumption being that we can do better. What does a better future look like? And of course, obviously you’re interested in creating a space for a conversation; you’re not going to be so dogmatic that you have one. But in general sort of parameters, what are some good things to be working towards?
Finn: I think I’d like to talk about thoughtful optimism, which is what I am trying to work toward with the Center. I am not endorsing the Panglossian view of the world as “this is the best of all possible worlds; the future’s going to be even better; it’s all gonna be great; don’t worry about it.” That’s really not what I’m trying to do. If we think about the future as a space of possibility, then we can avoid the fallacy of determinism. We can avoid thinking that the people elsewhere, the people in the white coats, or governments, or some other third party entity, or the machinery of technology and civilization itself is somehow going to just grind out the future that we’re going to live in and we have no power to change it.
Instead, we need to try and figure out what we want to happen, and we need to come up with a really great story about why that should happen. And if enough people believe that story than we can build towards that world. We can figure out how to get there.
I really think that’s at the core of the world that I want to live in, is having that conversation and connecting the humanities, and the sciences, and the arts in ways that don’t end up privilege in one or the other or perpetrating the weird narrative we have now that like oh, scientists can’t really be creative, or if you’re an artist you can’t do math. but just to create a whole new axis along this idea of the imagination. And welcome everybody into it.
There was this passage that one of my teachers in high school made us all memorize. And I can only remember a small fragment of it now but it was about what makes for a good education. The part that I remember, ironically, is—to paraphrase the part that I don’t remember—is you know, you’re going to learn a lot of stuff in school, and you may forget some of it. But the shadow of lost knowledge at least protects you for many illusions. And I think that’s a really important function of a good education, is to expose people to all of these different intellectual structures, all of these different systems of thinking and ways of thinking. And you don’t have to embrace all of them and you don’t even have to remember everything that you learn. When you have enough diversity of thought like that, you get people making more thoughtful decisions. You get people avoiding more obvious pitfalls. You get better stories.
Anderson: I spoke to a philosopher, Lawrence Torcello in this project, and we talked a lot about conversation and how do you bring people with different arational assumptions together to talk about a collective future. And he was talking about pluralism and classical liberalism. You know, needing to work towards a common good but there are times, there are people, who are just never ever going to have that conversation with you.
And he ended up on sort of a…pessimistic note, in a lot of ways. So I think what’s interesting in our conversation today—and maybe this is a note to close on, is the idea that narrative can maybe get you around some of that. That you can have this sort of classical Enlightenment‐era Jeffersonian conversation about government. And it won’t work, because you’re talking to someone who has a fundamentally different idea of the world than you. Do you think you can bridge some of that through sharing a story? Which is perhaps almost ambivalent enough that everyone can read a little bit different into it but maybe also gives you a common value which isn’t stated in an explicit legal way?
Finn: I have two answers for you. The first answer is that there are certain cultural objects and ideas that can serve as really helpful common ground, where everybody thinks they know how to read this thing. Because they all feel like they kind of own it; they know what it is and they know how to talk about it. Then when you have the actual conversation, everybody’s quite surprised, because they have very different visions of this single thing.
Finding the common ground, finding that space, that open space where people can actually have the conversation, is really the most important step. Because as soon as they start talking to one another, they are exchanging ideas, right, and they’re engaging in the fundamental cultural process of communication. In a lot of ways what we struggle with now, especially in the US, is a breakdown in that fundamental kind of communication.
But my second answer is a little trickier. We are pattern‐seeking animals but we also understand the world through narrative. Our brain is fundamentally a narrative engine. It takes all the sensory input and it makes these stories out of it. And that’s why we ignore lots of things; that’s why magic tricks work, because you can kind of glitch the narrative engine, right, you can trick it in different ways. That’s how presidential elections work, too.
And so, narrative itself, in some sense, really is reality. Now, I’m sure there are physicists who would strongly disagree and say there’s this positivistic external universe. And that’s also a narrative so I’m not sure that I disagree. I think we probably disagree about how far down the turtles go.
But, I think that from a cultural perspective, narrative is really the world itself. And so when you’re talking about getting people to share narratives and come to communal understandings, it’s very tricky to say where that ends and where an empirical universe begins. From our everyday experience as human beings, and especially our experience as cultural actors, we create these narratives of the universe and that’s where we live. And that’s where we make all of our decisions. So in a lot of ways I think narrative is really the whole ballgame. And so if you can get people talking about things, if you can come up with narratives that people can share—and maybe not sure entirely but at least step into somebody else’s consciousness. Because until cognitive science makes several great leaps, narrative is really the only technology we have for actually inhabiting somebody else’s mind in terms of true empathy. And that’s the fundamental engine of community and the fundamental bridge between the monad, the individual lost in space, and a sense of the collective.
Neil Prendergast: Well, Aengus. That was one of the most abstract conversations I think we’ve seen so far.
Aengus Anderson: And I really like it. Maybe it’s because I’m a humanities dork and I’m always excited when someone says “narrative is reality.”
Prendergast: Yeah, I was sort of, I admit, sucked in to his discussion of narrative because I see a lot of value in storytelling myself, too.
Anderson: You know, we’ve talked about narrative before. In this piece I mentioned David Korten’s conversation. But it’s been a while since it’s come up, and I’m glad were actually devoting a big chunk of time to it—like a full episode, basically, to that and dreaming. So let’s maybe break down how these different pieces work together and what they mean.
One of the big underlying issues here is that… God, I think Rushkoff said this. We’ve lost the narrative.
Prendergast: Right. If I recall correctly, Rushkoff was saying in our conversation that the sort of barrage of media that’s in front of us today has made it difficult to see any kind of coherence among all these different voices. And also to sort of see any kind of change over time, which is of course also an incredibly important component of narrative. Instead we’re sort of stuck not really knowing where to look. Not really knowing what the story is. So I think it’s a great moment for someone like Ed Finn to step in and make an argument for narrative.
Anderson: Right. And it’s interesting, you know, just gonna bounce another thing off of Rushkoff’s idea there. We also talked to Ethan Zuckerman a long time ago. And he was talking about the role of serendipity, in that one of the challenges we were facing with…well, the Internet age, is that you get search, which is you looking directly for something. And you get social, which is our friends pointing you to their articles. But if you really want to pull in things outside of your group, you need something else. Zuckerman was advocating out basically like a serendipity engine…
Prendergast: Right. So Zuckerman seemed to be saying that people get stuck in these eddies on the Internet, where they can’t look out to see the big picture. And it seemed like Rushkoff was saying well, even if you’re not stuck in an eddy, it doesn’t matter because the way you experience the Internet is to not see the big picture because there’s so many things coming at you so quickly and they’re all in such small pieces.
So it seems like even though the critiques are different, which I really enjoy, those differences, it seems like they’re coming to the same point that Ed Finn can pick up on, which is, “Hey, where is that big story?” And you know, I think as you point out, where is that bit Cold War story, or something of that scale?
Anderson: Can we even have that Cold War story again? And this isn’t something we get into as much in the piece but I think it’s something that we should talk about here. Because obviously the Cold War story exists in a very different technological and media landscape than the one that we’re living in now.
This is where I think Rushkoff and Zuckerman, and even going back to Andrew Keen much earlier in the project—you know, a lot of people who talk about the role of communications technology in our larger politicalscape. And I think this is where they become really relevant. Can we have the kind of dream, or the kind of narrative, that Ed wants us to have now? Is it even possible? I think Zuckerman hold out that maybe it is possible if you get something like the serendipity engine. You know, he really disputed the idea that we couldn’t keep up with the information because of time. He felt that we couldn’t keep up with the information because we weren’t interested. Because we almost weren’t disciplined enough to be eclectic consumers of information. I don’t think Rushkoff felt that way. I think Rushkoff felt more that we’d hit our biological limits and there was so much information that was the real problem.
Prendergast: It seems like those are the critiques regarding the technology. And you know, I’d also add in that Finn has sort of touched upon a critique that’s…a little sort of cultural? Not to sort of totally separate that out from technology? But the Cold War was a different moment. The Cold War was a moment when the United States seemed to feel all the resources of the world are at our fingertips. Certainly there was fear of the Soviet Union. But there was also the success from World War II that drove the national feeling. And I think the current feeling is different. The War on Terror is such a defensive feeling, as compared to the Cold War. And that might seem odd to say. The word “defense” was all over the Cold War era. But I don’t think people always felt offensive. But I think today it’s a much more common feeling.
Anderson: Right. And I mean, just the fact that the Cold War is something that you can…you can identify your adversary, right.
Anderson: And the War on Terror, as a narrative, doesn’t have that quality. It’s difficult to figure out when does it end? What are its parameters? How is it won? Is it won? If it’s not won is it really a narrative in the same way? Does it motivate in the same way? Or is it more like something you just try to push into the background, you know? It doesn’t inspire the same sort of Herculean efforts towards greatness, in a way. It inspires more airport checkpoints.
Prendergast: Right. And of course you know, Americans don’t share the assumptions that it’s “the good war” in the same way that so many Americans shared that assumption for the Cold War.
Anderson: Yet, Ed seems to think that it’s possible to create a new narrative, right. If he didn’t think that he wouldn’t be doing his job. He probably wouldn’t have gotten hired.
Anderson: He talks about thoughtful optimism, and a big part of that seems to be a confidence or maybe a faith or a hope that despite the current media landscape, we can share a pretty broad narrative. And I’m not really sure I’m convinced of that. I mean, I want to be convinced of that. But I feel like things that Ethan Zuckerman pointed out are really significant problems. That with such a fragmented media it’s hard to get that kind of common ground for a narrative.
Prendergast: And so I think there may be a question here about whether or not the type of narrative that Ed Finn is describing is possible on the Web. Or maybe it’s only possible elsewhere and it would just be marketed through the Internet.
Anderson: So I guess the question is just one of how do you view the digital technology? Do you think that it can get us to a broad narrative? Or do you think that we can get to a point where culturally we’re so desperate for a narrative that we all went to one common place, despite having a fragmented media?
Prendergast: Yeah, and I think that’s simply an open question, as we’ve seen people in The Conversation have disagreed about that. I think that that just kind of remains to be seen.
Anderson: Mm hm.
Prendergast: But I think that one thing that Ed Finn is saying that makes a lot of sense to me is that storytelling will always be with us because it is simply a part of who we are as humans. He I think mentions at one stage very briefly the way the brain functions. And I find that to be sort of a fascinating component of storytelling, in that storytelling connects that sort of logical part of your brain—the left brain—with the more sort of intuitive, emotional part of your brain—the right brain. And as I think everybody knows, good stories are logical. The cause and effect makes sense. But they also take you somewhere emotionally. And I think that’s why they’re so satisfying. It’s why storytelling so wonderful for us as humans, because it lets us travel back and forth between these two different parts of the brain.
So I would say that biologically we’re hardwired to want this. It’s obviously an open question how we’re able to get it, and if we can get it on such a scale that everyone in the country, or a hemisphere, or even larger scale can participate in the same narrative. But I think there’s no question that we’re a narrative species.
Anderson: That’s really intriguing. And, what I like is that you actually, whether wittingly or not, you really set the stage for an upcoming interview—my conversation with George Lakoff, when we go way into talking about the brain, and stories, and well…how that affects politics. So we’ll just leave that as a nice little bit of foreshadowing for a really great up and coming conversation.
At the same time, having said that, I think there’s a really important question which actually ties into something you said earlier about “defensive.” I think you mentioned the word defensive. And, we may find it innately satisfying to have narratives as humans—that’s fine and dandy, right. But we can have viciously competing narratives. We could have two giant narratives with two radically different political camps—does this sound like I’m describing reality at all? [Prendergast laughs] And maybe we’re too defensive to even listen to the other side’s narrative. And I mean, Ed seems to have faith that the narrative can be an ambiguous enough thing where people can read different elements into it. But is that really the case? Or are we too defensive to even hear each other’s narratives.
Prendergast: Right. So it seems like we can have on the one hand narratives that are perhaps a little explicit about what they mean, maybe, politically. On the other hand we can have narratives that are so ambiguous that you can read anything you want into them. And the where is the conversation?
Anderson: In which case is it even a useful narrative, right?
Prendergast: Right. So maybe the question is you know, how do you find something in the magic middle? And maybe that’s quite a difficult task. And I think it kind of runs against, actually, the project here. One our positions I think is that we want The Conversation to be possible.
Anderson: Sort of desperately. If narrative works in the way that Ed wants it to work, then it should bring people together to have a conversation. Its very ambiguity should do that. I don’t know if I buy that, but it’s a great assertion. But if that’s true, then does a project like this matter at all? This project, The Conversation, is about sort of explicitly talking about what is good. It’s based on the notion that you’re going to sit down—and we’re not crafting a narrative here. We’re talking about values right out in the open. We’re talking about philosophy in the open. We’re talking about people’s spiritual beliefs out in the open. And that takes a real level of candor that we’re lucky to have from most of our interviewees. But it’s very different than having a narrative bring people together, isn’t it?
Prendergast: I think you’re right. I think that we are being a lot more explicit about ideas than can happen, or that maybe commonly happens in say some science fiction. Although some science fiction is pretty explicit about the values embedded in it. But certainly we’re running right towards the explicit here in The Conversation. And maybe that’s creating too hard a line to open it up to others. I’m not sure.
But to kind of mark us on a spectrum, I do think that we’re a long way away from the sort of confrontational style of communication that you would find say on cable news.
Anderson: Right. And I mean that’s— You know, part of the hope of this project is that you don’t need the narrative, in a way, to bring people together. Although it’s great, and I like the idea. But that was really never even in our thinking when we were working on this project. Our thinking was go beneath the current conversation that’s about really obvious issues and try to get into stuff that underlies them. And I feel like we’re— Like Ed Finn’s narrative is basically trying to create a depoliticized space where people of different backgrounds can talk safely about the future. And I feel like we’re trying to do that same thing with…abstract philosophy a lot of the time in this project.
Prendergast: Right, right.
Anderson: And I’m not sure if we’re going to do it any better. The narrative is probably a better hope, and I’m not—in my heart I’m not convinced that that will work either. But I like the idea that there are these different roads of doing it.
Prendergast: I feel very much like we are in league with Ed Finn.
Anderson: Oh God, yes. And maybe that’s one of the reasons this was such a fun conversation.
That was Ed Finn recorded December 19th, 2012 in Tempe, Arizona on the campus of Arizona State University.
Micah Saul: And you are of course listening to The Conversation. Find us on the web at findtheconversation.com.
Prendergast: You can follow us on Twitter at @aengusanderson.
Saul: I’m Micah Saul.
Prendergast: I’m Neil Prendergast.
Anderson: And I’m Aengus Anderson. Thanks for listening.
This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.