Episode 105 - Hieroglyphs Of The Future
Published September 16, 2014
SPECIAL GUEST: Kathryn Cramer. Since the very beginning, there's been a debate in science fiction, on whether or not humanity's future is one of optimism or pessimism. Now Arizona State University's Center For Science and the Imagination has kicked off a new project to help inspire current and future generations of scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and thinkers. The first step in that project is a science fiction anthology, written by some of the biggest authors in the field working with scientists to ensure that the stories told are scientifically accurate, yet extremely hopeful and inspiring. On this episode, we're joined by one of the editors of this anthology, Kathryn Cramer, to talk a little about the project, science fiction, and the future. Recorded 9/14/2014.
You can download the episode here.
Mike & Matt's Recommended Reading:
Kathryn Cramer's website
Project Hieroglyph website
Innovation Starvation, by Neal Stephenson (Wired, 10/27/2011)
Why Hieroglyph Is A Verb, by Kathryn Cramer (Medium, 9/10/2014)
Neal Stephenson & Friends | Hieroglyph - Talks at Google
Alpha: Welcome to another episode of Robot Overlordz, episode number 105. On the show, we take a look at how society is changing, everything from pop culture reviews to political commentary, technology trends to social norms, all in under 30 minutes every Tuesday and Thursday.
Mike Johnston: I'm Mike Johnston.
Matt Bolton: And I'm Matt Bolton.
MJ: And joining us tonight is Kathryn Cramer. Kathyrn, thanks for joining us.
Kathryn Cramer: Thank you.
MJ: You've got a book out now, Hieroglyph.
MJ: Could you tell us a little bit about Hieroglyph and how that project came about?
KC: Hieroglyph has the subtitle Stories and Visions for a Better Future. It's an anthology. The initial idea for the anthology came from Neal Stephenson, who's a bestselling writer with a large following, but Neal wants to write his novels, he doesn't want to edit anthologies, so he made an arrangement with Arizona State University to take over this project. What he wanted science fiction to do was to think big, to imagine us solving the big problems of humanity. The reason that he came to this contemplating infrastructures, problems like the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and realizing that we're living on technology that's decades old, and a lot of those infrastructures are not being improved. So, his idea was that we should do an anthology promoting that through science fiction. The way he came to have the idea in the first place is that he was at a Google conference, and Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University, was also there, and Neal was complaining about our lack of interest in infrastructure these days. Michael Crow, ASU's president, said, well, maybe it's the science fiction writers' fault, maybe we're not thinking big because you guys aren't having big ideas anymore. And so, Neal took this as a challenge and ran with it. I came on board as an experienced editor to work with Ed Finn, who's a professor at Arizona State University and the head of the Center for Science and the Imagination. Together, we put together this book. I know lots of science fiction writers. I've edited, this is my 30th book, and I've edited Year's Best Science Fiction for about a decade before this, so I knew where we could find the writers to do this project, and he put them together with mostly Arizona State University faculty, but scientists who could help them develop their ideas so that they were more developed when they got on the page than in most anthologies.
MJ: Okay. Who would you say is the target audience, then, for the book?
KC: Well, it's got a couple of audiences. I mean, there's an existing audience for science fiction, and particularly hard science fiction. Hard science fiction has a very enthusiastic readership that I'm used to publishing for, but this also has a broader audience, to the science non-fiction audience, to scientists and engineers, and people who enjoy visionary thinking, and so, this is in some ways a more serious project than your usual science fiction anthology because it's speaking to people who actually can implement the kinds of visions we're talking about. We're trying to change the world by talking to people who might be able to implement the kinds of ideas we have, or our ideas might spark them to have good ideas that then change the world.
MJ: You know, it's funny you say that because I'm in sort of the tech space for my day-to-day job, and I've been reading a lot about Silicon Valley kind of suddenly being criticized, or even criticizing itself for taking on sort of easy or trivial things, rather than some of the big projects, so is that an audience you're looking to influence with something like this?
KC: Yeah, definitely. And we had our launch at Google, and also, that same evening, had an event at Kepler's in Menlo Park. The Silicon Valley audience was very enthusiastic about this book. We got a wonderful reception.
MB: Do you think, especially since you're, this is all possible, future-based things, getting it into younger education, more towards junior high and high school type students, where they can start focusing on the future and moving forward?
KC: Well, this is a book - I mean, science fiction readers range from about 11 or 12 to adult. This is not a book that's going to be assigned in high schools because it's edited to the content standards of contemporary commercial science fiction, which is to say, there are sex scenes. So, a high school teacher is not gonna assign this for class, or probably won't. College, maybe. But it's certainly available on the shelves to that age group, because that age group already reads this.
MJ: I noticed in your Medium article that you mentioned getting into other media as well. Hieroglyph, is that sort of the project's done now with the book being out, or is it gonna be like a running series, or are there plans to do adaptations and things like that?
KC: The book is intended as the start of the project, not as the end of the project. We have a lot of ideas about where we could go next. I mean, of course, the most obvious one is to do a second volume or to do specialized anthologies on individual subject areas like climate change, sustainability, the human genome, things like that, but we're actually already working on graphic novels on a project called EVOKE with the World Bank, and this is a project specifically targeting younger people, trying to inspire them to think about how they could work to solve problems in their community through technology. This is a project that the World Bank's had going on since 2010, and I, through Arizona State University's Center for Science and the Imagination, joined the project about four months ago. We want to expand in the direction of art, and also in the direction of film and TV. In addition to the fact that film and TV have a much larger audience than print science fiction, there's another reason for that, because, when you're trying to get somebody to envision something, it's easier to get them to visualize it if you can show them a picture, and I think one way in which doing the project we did as an anthology falls short is that this is very visual subject matter, and I wish that we'd been able to bring that out more.
MJ: Okay. As an author, I guess, do you see the portrayal of science fiction in sort of the popular media, like films or graphic novels, differently than the way it is in kind of written form?
KC: Well, it's kind of a different game. There are, you know, I think it was Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight had a wonderful article this summer about the features of the blockbuster, and there was a whole bunch of elements you needed, like stuff blowing up, bodies blowing up, people falling off buildings, et cetera, and there's a whole kind of pacing thing and certain kinds of iconic scenes that happen in movies, particularly big-budget science fiction movies that we don't mostly have to worry about in print science fiction. And the pacing is different. There's a lot more information in the science fiction novel than you can pack into a movie because a lot of the information in a movie is visual. Only, if you read out loud something, 9,000 words is about an hour and a half, and a novel is about ten times that length. So, they're really different kind of media, but I'm really looking forward to bringing the visual aspects of things, which is one of the things movies do well, into Hieroglyph.
MJ: Okay. Matt and I have this running debate, and we talked a little bit in our episode 103 about it, that science fiction in films, particularly, seems much more pessimistic and dystopian, just because that's kind of an easy story to write because half your conflict is right there in the structure. It seems optimistic films are much harder to come by, and it seems like Hieroglyph is trying for that optimistic angle that, certainly for me as a fan, I would like to see more optimistic things.
KC: Well, optimism is risky. You have to put your cards on the table and say, this is what I think would be a good idea, and so, it's hard, you have to commit to things where you don't in dystopian fiction. Now I myself actually really like dystopian fiction and I sometimes write dystopian fiction, but the key thing that Neal was getting at is that we want science fiction that is interested in figuring out how problems get solved rather than complaining. We want to influence not so much how people feel but what they do. We want them to go forward and try to invent a better world themselves, having been influenced by what we put in front of them. Now also, there have been, for a long time, actually since the 1920s, for as long as science fiction has had the name, debates about optimism versus pessimism in science fiction. Some of it's revolved around issues like that, but some of it's about happy endings versus sad endings, and whether you have likable characters or not, and a lot of other issues that don't really bear on the project we're trying to do. So, what we're trying to do is write fiction and publish fiction that makes you wanna go out and do something for the world.
MB: Do you think science fiction kind of affects the way or the direction that technology takes overall, and is that part of the Hieroglyph thing is to try and maybe influence a different and better direction than the way it's going maybe currently?
KC: Well, science fiction has had an influence on scientists and technologists, you know, for most of the 20th century, and what we've had so far of the 21st. The peculiar and interesting position we find ourselves in right now is that there is a technology elite that runs the technology industry, and most of the members of the technology elite read and liked science fiction. Some of them continue to read and like science fiction and be interested in it, so, you know, it's like we can talk directly to the Medicis. They are not necessarily the ones we're trying to influence, but the audience is there.
MJ: How does the book tie into the website, and I guess, do you have any direct role in the Project Hieroglyph website on Arizona State University's system?
KC: Well, the history of that website is it was initially supposed to be like the website that Neal Stephenson had for Mongoliad. I was intensely involved in that phase of it, and I was trying to bring that around. Now, that didn't end up working out, partly because the features we most needed hadn't been developed on that system, and we ended up doing something based on a combination of WordPress and BuddyPress. Arizona State University's people mostly took it over. One of the great things about working for the Center for Science and the Imagination is Ed Finn has a staff, so while I am a participant in the website, at this point, I'm much less responsible for it than I used to be. The purpose of the website is to provide a venue for public discussion of ideas. We got it to work well enough for the purpose that we needed it for initially, which is as a way to have an open conversation between writers, and the public, and scientists, and technologists about the ideas in the book while the book was being developed, and that was really the initial purpose of the website. We're now in a second phase, and it's just been re-launched as a place to host conversations about the issues raised by the book, now that the book exists, and so that new life for the website is just beginning now. We invite you to have a look at it. It's hieroglyph.asu.edu is where it is. We intend to be very welcoming, but, like I said earlier, one of the problems with utopian thinking, or thinking about the utopian possibilities of technology is you have to put your cards on the table, and that is kind of a risky thing to do in public, so it's a little harder to jump in on a lot of comment sections.
MJ: Okay. We'll go ahead and put a link to the website in the show notes as well, Kathryn, just so you know. For someone who maybe has just read the book or listened to this potentially, or really any of your interviews then, to get involved they would go to the website to kind of enter that discussion?
KC: Yeah. The website is intended not as the only way you can participate, but as a direct and immediate way that people can become involved. We've also got a number of events coming up where people can talk directly to some of the authors in the book. The New America Foundation is sponsoring a conference in Washington, D.C. We're having an event in New York City, and then Cory Doctorow and Neal Stephenson will be in Seattle at the town hall, and all of these are places where you can actually go and talk to the authors. That's part of the initial rollout, but it is my hope that, as we go on, we will have more organized ways for people to talk in person, because talking on the web is one thing, but a lot of things are a lot more efficient if you're in the same room with someone, and we have hopes for Hieroglyph being welcoming in that way, too.
MJ: I think I noticed that, on the website, there is a section for, like, groups. Is that like local discussion groups, basically, or meetups?
KC: Well, it's intended to be that. That piece of it hasn't really happened yet. We had a small but good discussion going so far, but if you want to have your own group on robots for undersea mining or something like that, you could found your own group there and, if you could attract other people to be there with you, that could be hosted on Hieroglyph. We have a lot of good technological capabilities on that website that I'm hoping that people use.
MJ: Okay. After you and I talked, I did buy a copy of Hieroglyph and I've made it through Neal's story, The Tower, and I certainly found it interesting as a story itself, but also, you know, sort of the take on what it would, technology to get us out into space in a way that's radically different than rocket launches. You know, it seems like there've been a number of theories for that kind of technology, and yet none of them have yet really taken off. Is that a space that was a particular interest of his, do you know, or is that just one of the things that was on your list of topics?
KC: The book was developed in stages, and one of the first stages was conversations between Neal and some of the existing hard science fiction writers, say, for example, Gregory Benford, and one of the things that people think about when they think about, you know, mega-projects, getting big stuff done, is, you know, we never went back to the moon, and there were planned Mars missions that never happened. So, you know, what happened that we lost that ambition? Now, the way we did the book is, rather than parceling out subject areas and telling authors what to write about, we sought out the writers we thought were most suitable for the project that would give a range of different approaches to the problem, and different stylistic approaches, and different points of view, and we let them pick their own problems. And so, we have a book that's fairly wide-ranging in terms of its subject matter, but there is, I don't know, three or four stories about space travel specifically.
MJ: What are some of the other technologies that, you know, I've just sort of skimmed the table of contents, and I noticed some of the author names that I certainly recognize. I mean, you've mentioned some of them already, Cory Doctorow, Gregory Benford, and obviously Neal's name was a big one that I recognized. What are some of the other stories, or authors, or technologies that are in the book?
KC: Well, Annalee Newitz, for example, concentrated on the issue of sustainable cities, and she has two different types of sustainable cities she worked out. While on the one hand, it would be nice to go back to the moon, all of us are going to live in cities. The urban thinking that she was getting into is actually very important and pragmatic in terms of what our actual future is. Madeline Ashby took on the matter of what our borders might look like in the future, with some thinking about how we would really decide who we wanted to let into the United States, and how would that work itself out if we did. Karl Schroeder took on the topic of decision making, of crowdsourcing of decisions, and how that could radically change and improve the political process and improve the quality of decisions. Vandana Singh took on the problem of global warming and the thawing out of methane that can actually exaggerate the situation much more than some of the existing pollution. So, there's a lot of different subject matters that were taken on, and the authors figured out what they wanted to write about, and then Ed put them together with scientists in the right discipline and they went forward with their projects, and then elaborated on them. Some of the stories also touch on more than one technology as well, so there's sort of layers.
MB: Just to go back, Mike reads a lot, more books and novels, but for somebody, I enjoy short stories, I just, I do. I enjoy them more than long novels because I have a very short attention span. Is this something, obviously, that I'm gonna like more than a longer novel?
KC: Well, novels give you space to really work out an idea, like, you know, Larry Niven's Ringworld. Short stories, on the other hand, we were able in one book to present a wide variety of ideas on a wide variety of topics. So, as an opening act for our later project, I think this is a good place to start. I think if we had started with, say, a series of six novels or something like that, it would be a much tougher rollout to convey what this project is about than starting with, you know, with the anthology form. A lot of these are also fairly long by short story standards, because we made these authors do all this research and talk to scientists, of course, and then every time we had them talk to another scientist, their stories got longer, so these are fairly meaty stories. I think the longest is Cory Doctorow's, which is 36,000 words, and, you know, Vandana Singh's 22,000 words. You remember those old format paperbacks? Novels run a little longer now, but the old format paperback was about 60,000 words, so some of these are pretty big.
MB: Wow. Yeah, I'm more of a, if I read a short story or even go so far as to say a news article that's very fascinating, then I start researching it further kind of in my own time at my own pace, but, so this is gonna be, this sounds more like it's gonna have enough meat on it even in short story format.
KC: Yeah. Well, one of the things about this project is, on the one hand, we're being visionary, but on the other hand, I don't think we're necessarily going to be predictive, which is to say we can have you think about these projects, and some of them may be better ideas than others and some of them may not actually work, but the real point is to get people thinking about the future in a particularly constructive way, and part of that game, in terms of the way we set up the website and so on is we have to expose ourselves to the possibility of being wrong and being told we're wrong. So, you know, you may read the story and say, well, that wouldn't work, and that wouldn't work, and that wouldn't work. Well, we wanna know that. I mean, we want to start the conversations to figure out what the vision is, what the problems are, and how do we get further with the kinds of problems we want to solve.
MJ: Kathryn, from a general standpoint, it seems like in society, there is somewhat pessimism about the future nowadays compared to, maybe, in the past, in things like the '50s, when people were maybe more optimistic about the possibilities of the future. How do you personally feel about kind of where the world is at, or where the US is at, or just the possibilities for the future?
KC: Well, I think there are a lot of unimaginably wonderful possibilities for the future through some of the things that are changing very fast. On the other hand, I could give you a long list of things that have gone wrong and that, you know, the nature of democracy and privacy and so on that I grew up thinking the United States was about seem to be going away pretty fast. But, you know, we have a choice. We can think optimistically and try to take on the problems we think there are, and some of those are problems, and some of those problems might be, well, how do we reclaim ourselves, our privacy from the NSA? That's a legitimate problem. But the problem-solving framework that our optimism is about, I think Ed Finn's term for it is thoughtful optimism, you know, if we don't solve our problems, who's gonna do it for us? When I was researching my speech for Google, I found this wonderful quote from Ursula Le Guin, good artists make the roads. I think, in a very direct and literal way, that's what Hieroglyph aspires to be about, to open roads to places we might not have gone if a book like this did not exist.
MJ: Fantastic. Okay. Kathryn, thanks very much for joining us.
KC: Thank you.
A: That's all for this episode of Robot Overlordz. You can find our show notes, including links from this episode, on our website at RobotOverlordz.fm. That's FM like radio broadcasting. We also have discussion forum where you can share your own thoughts on the episode or topic with us and other listeners.
MJ: Thanks everyone for listening.