Why sci-fi is important to innovation


October 16, 2014

“Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future” is the first anthology from Arizona State University’s Project Hieroglyph, which aims to reignite humanity’s grand ambitions for the future through the power of storytelling.

On Oct. 22, ASU and Changing Hands Bookstore will co-host a group of nine science fiction authors, scientists, engineers and experts who will share their visions of a better future and sign copies of “Hieroglyph.” The event begins at 7 p.m., at the Crescent Ballroom, 308 N. 2nd Ave. in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased by calling 480-730-0205 or by visiting changinghands.com/event/hieroglyph-oct2014. Ed Finn Download Full Image

The 532-page book, which was published in September by William Morrow, unites twenty of today’s leading thinkers, writers and visionaries – among them Cory Doctorow, Gregory Benford, Elizabeth Bear, Bruce Sterling and Neal Stephenson – to contribute works of “techno-optimism” that challenge us to dream and do “Big Stuff.”

Ed Finn, who is the founding director of ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination, co-edited “Hieroglyph” along with New York-based writer and critic Kathryn Cramer. Finn spoke to ASU News about the book, why science fiction is important to innovation, and how storytelling leads to grand ambition and thinking.

Q: What’s the premise of how the Center for Science and Imagination, and more specifically, how “Hieroglyph” got started?

EF: In 2011, Neal Stephenson and (ASU President) Michael Crow were on a panel together at a conference in Washington, D.C., sponsored by Future Tense. Neal was making the argument that we've lost the practical, hopeful ambition that drove our scientific and technological progress in the early and mid-20th century: the imaginative capacity and willingness to think big and take risks that drove the moon landing, large-scale infrastructure projects like the interstate highway system, and the development of the automobile, the airplane, the microchip and other transformative advances. Michael Crow responded by saying, "Maybe this is your fault!" Crow's perspective is that science fiction writers and filmmakers have filled our cultural imagination with gloomy, dystopian visions of the future, and failed to give today's scientists and engineers the inspiring, creative icons they need to design and build a better future.

Instead of just letting this conversation fade into memory, Crow and Stephenson decided to do something about it. They founded Project Hieroglyph, an effort to build collaborations and new conversations among science fiction authors, scientists, engineers and other researchers, as well as students and members of the public.

As we started developing Hieroglyph at the Center for Science and the Imagination, we immediately realized that this idea was much bigger than just a book project. We see this as an invitation to a conversation that is just getting started. Our digital community at hieroglyph.asu.edu is a portal for people all over the planet to contribute to big ideas, great stories and actual research projects, and a hub for Hieroglyph's growing collaborations with organizations like NASA, Google and the World Bank.

Q: Why do you think we stopped dreaming big as a nation after the space campaigns of the 1960s?

EF: What we've lost is a collective narrative that everyone can buy into about how the future should unfold. The future isn't just a fixed point we're hurtling toward uncontrollably, and it's not something that will be cooked up for us in a lab somewhere. The future is a spectrum of possibilities and choices, and to get everyone involved in that conversation, you need a compelling story that gives people a sense of purpose and agency, a sense that they have a voice and a role to play.

In the mid-20th century, the Cold War and dramatic episodes like the Space Race gave us a gripping story about a future shaped by clashing ideologies and politics. It wasn't always an uplifting story, and it often bred conflict, paranoia and divisiveness, but it did give people a sense of purpose and direction, and it was a story about the future where science and technology played a central and constructive role.

Today we're not as clear on what that compelling, unifying, collective narrative should be, or where it should come from. It's also a challenge to create such a compelling story without having a bogeyman like the USSR posing a military and political threat. My hope is that science fiction, especially projects like Hieroglyph that bring people from diverse backgrounds together, can help generate new visions for the future that will drive research, discovery and innovation.

Q: The idea of science fiction leading the way for scientists and engineers is an appealing one. Can you cite some specific examples of how science fiction can throw down the gauntlet for innovation?

EF: There are a lot of great examples out there. Right now Google is serious about building the Star Trek computer, for instance. Space travel was convincingly foreshadowed by Jules Verne, right down to the rough location of Cape Canaveral as an ideal American launch site. H. G. Wells’ novel about atomic warfare played an important role in the development of real nuclear weapons during World War II, especially through a scientist named Leo Szilard who pushed Einstein to propose the Manhattan Project to the United States.

Q: How did you come to choose the idea of a book to engage in public discourse?

EF: There is nothing like having a tangible, finished product to help anchor a conversation. Project Hieroglyph is about big, ambitious, creative ideas, and I think it was important to encapsulate some of our best conversations and collaborations in a digestible, recognizable format so we could bring people together at events and have public conversations through major national and global media outlets. Books also command attention in a powerful way. Books can create sustained attention and conversation, and at this moment in history, those are valuable and rare commodities.

Q: Once you had the idea of doing a book, how did “Hieroglyph” start taking shape?

EF: This initial book project was a great way to explore different ways to build and foster collaborations between authors, artists and researchers. One huge factor here was working with Kathryn Cramer, my co-editor on the project, who has wrote or edited almost 30 science fiction and fantasy books and anthologies, and has deep roots in the science fiction world. She helped us find and work with really talented writers who were fired up about this idea, and came in ready to try new things and collaborate.

Some of these collaborations, notably the one between Neal Stephenson and Keith Hjelmstad, a professor of structural engineering at ASU who helped Neal design the 20 kilometer tall steel tower at the center of his story, involved face-to-face meetings, email exchanges, phone calls and other traditional methods. Some of the authors used our digital community to share their ideas, collaborate with experts and seek feedback and input from community members. Video conferencing tools like Skype were invaluable for some of the other teams.

I was pleasantly surprised at how motivated everyone was to truly collaborate and open up their creative and thought process. One big concern for us was making sure that the science fiction writers didn't employ the researchers and experts as just fact checkers or technical consultants, and that the researchers didn't see the writers as narrative illustrators for ideas that were already fully baked.

Q: How do you think “Hieroglyph” worked out?

EF: It worked out great: people's assumptions and initial plans and ideas took shape as a result of the conversations, interactions and partnerships. For me, that is a great success and proof of concept: bringing people from very different backgrounds who speak different professional languages together and having them converge on an idea that they are both inspired by and want to learn more about. “Hieroglyph,” in this way, is as much a process as a product. Kathryn Cramer says that Hieroglyph is a verb, not a noun, and collaboration is a big part of the definition of that verb!

For more information on Project Hieroglyph, visit hieroglyph.asu.edu.

Reporter , ASU Now

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