Episode 27: Transcript
Our Opinions Are Correct, Episode 27
Transcription by Keffy Kehrli
Annalee: [00:00:00] Welcome to Our Opinions Are Correct, a podcast about science fiction and society. I’m Annalee Newitz. I’m a science journalist who writes science fiction.
Charlie Jane: [00:00:10] I’m Charlie Jane Anders. I’m a science fiction writer who’s massively inspired by real science.
Annalee: [00:00:15] And our guest this episode is the amazing Rose Eveleth, who is a futurist and does the incredible podcast, Flash Forward, which I hope that you’re already listening to. And she also recently edited a book, an anthology of essays called, “What Future?” which is a collection of the best writing about the future in 2018, so definitely check that out, too.
[00:00:35] What we’re going to be talking about today is basically the future of futurism. First of all, what the heck is futurism, why do people do it for a living, how do they do it for a living and where it’s going? How easy is it now to sort of think about the future and to talk about it in a way that makes sense and is cogent and relevant to what’s going on now.
[00:00:55] Intro music plays: Drums with a bass drop and more science fictional bells and percussion.
Annalee: [00:01:22] The earliest origins of futurism, I guess you could say, maybe it starts with prophecies, like Biblical prophecies. Or, it starts with say, 19th century science fiction, maybe Mary Shelley, or Jules Verne. But really, futurism as a serious endeavor doesn’t really get started until the 20th century. Where does that happen? When do we first see people talking about futurism, using the term futurism?
Rose: [00:01:51] The answer that no one likes that I like to give, which is very on brand for me, which is that in the early 1900s there is an Italian art movement that uses the term Futurism, and it’s very different from what we’re talking about today in that these are artists who are not thinking about technology. They’re not doing like, futureshock. They’re not doing things where they’re saying, I’m going to predict what’s gonna happen. But they are using the term Futurism and I think it’s worth sort of trying to tie them together because I think that it’s actually a good cautionary tale for futurists today.
[00:02:20] So, 1908, there’s a guy named Felippo Marinetti, he’s driving his car. He’s in Italy. He ends up swerving out of the way of a bike because at this point the roads have not been sort of codified as only for cars and how dare you attempt to use a road for anything else. And he ends up—and his car is upside down in a ditch. It’s like totally destroyed, and he’s very angry, and he decides that he wants to write a manifesto about futurism and about progress. Because to him, this is a great example of like, this stupid person on a bike is eschewing progress, where I’m in my car and I am progress. And he’s been part of this Italian art movement for a while that has a variety of people in it. Mostly men. They’re actually very staunchly anti-feminist in all of their texts.
[00:03:02] But he basically writes literally what he calls a manifesto about futurism. I wanted to say a couple of things that are related to this manifesto because I think probably listeners will pick out the similarities from what we’re talking about. Things like, progress, the importance of machines, the power of machines over people, disruption is a word that they like to use a lot. A lot of things that we hear a lot currently, by tech people.
Annalee: [00:03:22] Yeah, especially in Silicon Valley, yeah.
Rose: [00:03:25] Yeah, exactly. And so, I just want to read to you some of the bullet points. I won’t read all of them. This is a poet, and also, this is translated from Italian, so not all of the translations are going to look the same, but…
[00:03:33] Number one: We want to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and rashness.
Charlie Jane: [00:03:39] Wow.
Rose: [00:03:39] Number two. I’m saying, they’re just describing Silicon Valley. Number two: The essential element of our poetry will be courage, audacity, and revolt.
And then they go on to sort of talk about how important it is to trust machines, to really invest in machines, and invest in progress and sort of not look back. It’s important not to look back because we’re futurists, we only look at the future.
[00:03:58] So, this is 1909 that this is published and these Italian futurists end up really sort of spawning this whole movement in Italy that essentially leads to fascism. Buh.
Charlie Jane: [00:04:08] Yay.
Annalee: [00:04:09] Yeah.
Charlie Jane: [00:04:09] Huh.
Rose: [00:04:11] This is a different, I mean, we’re not talking about the kind of futurism that we’re going to eventually talk about in this episode, but I do think it’s worth bringing that up as a kind of proto-futurism because it is sort of a cautionary tale about the ways that just looking at the future without looking at the past can lead down dangerous roads. Especially, maybe now, at a time when fascism is on the rise globally.
Charlie Jane: [00:04:29] Yeah, who would have thought that disruption and trusting machines over people could lead to fascism? I mean, who would have thought that?
Rose: [00:04:34] Who would have thought? Yeah.
Annalee: [00:04:36] Yeah.
Rose: [00:04:36] And like, they also talk about the need for people who are smart and inventive to make their own brands. They talk about—this guy was a poet and he was one of the first poets to really kind of say that poets should have a personal brand, basically, and they should become personas. And this is the way of the future, right?
Charlie Jane: [00:04:49] Wow, oh my gosh.
Rose: [00:04:49] And we have these technologists who are doing this exact thing, and they say things like, there are Silicon Valley guys who have said, literally, “I don’t care about the history. History doesn’t matter to me, all that matters is moving forward.” And that’s literally, exactly what these guys are saying.
Annalee: [00:05:01] Yeah.
Charlie Jane: [00:05:02] Wow.
Annalee: [00:05:02] It’s definitely, like, I kept hearing the phrase, “Move fast and break things,” which is the Facebook credo.
Rose: [00:05:07] Exactly.
Annalee: [00:05:08] And that’s exactly what they’ve done. Including breaking democracy, and also it’s interesting that the kind of fetishization of machines is there right, early, as it’s being formulated.
Rose: [00:05:20] Totally. This was automobiles and actually one of the big things that the Italian futurists were obsessed with were airplanes. This is like early airplanes, early aviation. And so, you can track that to spaceflight, right? It’s so easy to just track all of this to what we’re seeing now. So, I think… you know, there is no direct line between these fascists and Silicon Valley or any of the people that we’re talking about now, but I think there is something to be said for connecting those things and not letting that kind of first version or earlier version of futurism fade away as a concept because it is so easily tracked onto what we’re talking about now and what we hear people talk about now in futurism. I think every time I bring this up, people think I’m a conspiracy theorist, where I’m like, this was all predicted in 1908, or whatever, which is not true. But, I think that there’s a tendency with that word futurism to think that it’s only looking forward and that’s how you get into trouble is you only look forward and you don’t care about what’s come before. The Italian futurists also talk about how they don’t care about museums and libraries and how those things need to be disrupted and they shouldn’t get so much money, and… you know, things that we’re seeing. Like, digitization, like all this stuff, it just is so prescient and somewhat terrifying to see how it all unfolds, and like, results in the rise of fascism, particularly in 2019 in the US, and in Europe.
Annalee: [00:06:28] Well, it’s especially important for us to be thinking about this because this is the history of futurism, and we don’t want to forget that futurism has a history. I think, to jump forward a little bit and into the American context where we are today, physically and temporally, there’s kind of two strands of futurism that kind of emerge in the mid 20th century. We have a couple of clips that I want to play to kind of demonstrate this.
[00:06:53] The first one is from a documentary narrated by Orson Welles based on Future Shock which was a book that came out in 1970. It was by Alvin and Heidi Toffler. It’s kind of interesting—a bit of a reaction against this Italian futurist idea. I don’t think they were explicitly responding to the Italian futurists but they were talking about how the future is coming so quickly and time is accelerating, or it subjectively seems to be accelerating so fast that people are in shock and they can’t take it in anymore. Here’s a great clip from the very beginning of this documentary where Orson Welles is in a car, and he’s talking about the future smacking us in the face.
Future Shock Clip: [00:07:30] Orson Welles: Our modern technology has achieved a degree of sophistication beyond our wildest dreams. But this technology has exacted a pretty heavy price. We live in an age of anxiety and a time of stress. And with all our sophistication we are in fact the victims of our own technological strength. We are the victims of shock. A future shock.
Annalee: [00:08:01] That was 1970. And the other futurist tradition from the United States starts really kind of in the early ‘60s, and I think a great example of it is Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring. Rachel Carson was a scientist who was very concerned about the use of DDT and other pesticides on the environment, and in ’62 when she publishes this book, it is a work of futurism. She says, look, we’re putting this stuff into the environment. What’s going to happen next? So, let’s listen to her. She’s talking here in a documentary made in the early ‘60s about her book.
Rachel Carson Clip: [00:08:34] But for the population as a whole we must be more concerned with the delayed effects of absorbing small amounts of the pesticides that invisibly contaminate our world. We have to remember the children born today are exposed to these chemicals from birth. Perhaps even before birth. Now what is going to happen to them in adult life as a result of that exposure? We simply don’t know.
Annalee: [00:09:03] The cool thing about thinking about Future Shock and Silent Spring as kind of the progenitors of today’s futurism is that, one is really about how the future is freaking us out. Things are too futuristic and we’re trying to cope with an inundation of futuristic crap, mostly technology. The other is this kind of warning about what might come next, really specific to the environment. So, it’s really focused on earth science, the human environment and how we’re changing it, and how can we plan for it better. So one is really, in a sense, Future Shock is about pushing back against the future and Silent Spring is about, let’s embrace the future and remember that what we do now affects the future.
Charlie Jane: [00:09:46] Another thing to sort of think about in terms of mid-20th century futurism is that sort of rash of articles and retro-futuristic—things that are now retro-futuristic that are like, the world of 2000 where it’s like all of these images of we’re all going to be eating food pills, we’re all going to be like, flying through the air in our personal get packs and there’s going to be amazing robot servants and everything’s going to be beautiful and gleaming white and sparkly. There was a lot of architecture that was trying to evoke that sense of like the wonderful future that was just around the corner. There was, in addition to the kind of warnings and fears that were expressed by Future Shock and Silent Spring, there was this kind of torrent of just random articles and media things that were kind of portraying this beautiful future that was coming for us.
[00:10:33] If you look at a retro-futurism blog that Matt Novak does, it’s just chock full of that stuff.
Rose: [00:10:37] And I wonder there, too, and I don’t know if this is true, this is I am just now making things up, but my opinions are correct because I’m on this podcast, so…
[00:10:44] So, I wonder, too, because there is, at some point there’s a big divergence in futurism and you get sort of techno-utopian futurism, which is sort of what you’re describing, this idea that everything’s going to be better. Improvement is good. Progress is good for the sake of progress. We can’t turn back, all that stuff. And then the folks who are sort of raising the alarm, saying, “Hey, dystopias can happen too,” right? And you have kind of that divergence between the techno-utopian people who believe that all this technology is going to give us these cities underwater or the Tom Swift version of the future. And then you have the other people who, like Rachel Carson, are saying, like, hey, actually, maybe this is not great and maybe we should think before we do things. And this isn’t all going to solve our problems, and rapid acceleration isn’t going to be the best thing. I mean, there are futurists, and we can talk about this, who think that literally the worst thing they can imagine is that the singularity doesn’t come soon enough.
Charlie Jane: [00:11:29] Right.
Rose: [00:11:29] So, if that’s your idea of what the worst possible future is, like you’re in a totally different universe from the people who are like, “Maybe climate change is the worst thing, I don’t know.”
Annalee: [00:11:37] Okay, so let’s have a brief moment to talk about the singularity—
Rose: [00:11:41] Tried to give you an opening.
Annalee: [00:11:41] Because I feel—yeah, thanks very much. Because I think futurism right now in some ways is either reacting against the idea of the singularity, this techno-utopianism, or kind of trying to do an end-run around the singularity, so, one of the great proponents of the singularity is Ray Kurzweil, who is a former computer scientist, now a public intellectual. He works at Google. He writes a lot of books about how soon we will all upload our brains to the universe. And he published a book in 2009 called The Coming Singularity, and here he is talking a little bit about that.
Ray Kurzweil Clip: [00:12:14] The singularity is not just that point where we achieve human level of intelligence in machine. I mean that will start a new revolution, where these machines will continue to grow exponentially in power. They’ll be able to actually improve their own software design. By 2045, we’ll have expanded the intelligence of our human-machine civilization a billion-fold. That will be the singularity.
Annalee: [00:12:38] Earlier in this talk that he’s giving he says, he begins his talk by saying, “By 2020 we’ll have computers that are powerful enough to simulate the human brain.” So, he’s really… one of the things about Ray Kurzweil and a lot of other Singulatarians is they’re really convinced that it’s happening like, right away. And they keep missing the mark. They keep sort of saying it’s going to be in 10 years and it’s always sort of 10 years out. But, what is it about the singularity, you think, that has really caught people’s imaginations? Like, why is that so important to futurists right now?
Rose: [00:12:38] I think it’s a certain kind of futurist. You know, this idea that nothing could be more powerful than the thing that I make is a very specific kind of person’s idea of the future. And I think it’s also, you know, Madeleine Ashby says living forever is great when you’re making compound interest. It’s a very specific kind of person who has a lot of money and a lot of time on their hands and they can’t imagine anything disrupting that power aside from this, like, sort of unfathomable thing that they’ve kind of helped create.
[00:13:35] It’s the same, I think it sort of falls into the same bucket as robot uprising, AI uprising. It’s that nothing is more powerful than these things that I have made.
Annalee: [00:13:42] And of course, the end goal for singulatarians is usually that we eventually turn the entire universe into a substrate for our minds. So, we will literally take over the universe with our great brains.
Rose: [00:13:54] I think it’s appealing right now, especially because the world is kind of falling apart, right? Like, there’s this real feeling of helplessness, I think, among most people that climate change is a problem. Politics—everything feels completely like you’re completely helpless. We know that we’re not IPCC has said that we’re basically not going to fix climate change because these hundred companies that really have the power aren’t going to do it because they won’t make money. So in the face of that, in some ways, it’s like, yeah. If I could just upload my brain and stop worrying about the planet and stop worrying about all this stuff. It’s kind of a nice out. It’s a get out of jail free card, especially among powerful people when they are faced with this fact that they actually can’t fix it and nothing that they do is gonna fix it. This is the only way they can kind of cope with that information.
Charlie Jane: [00:14:35] I actually read an interview years ago with Vernor Vinge, the guy who kind of came up with the idea of the singularity originally, where he basically said that people were asking, why do you believe in the singularity or why do you think it’s possible. And he was like, well, because if the singularity doesn’t happen, I can’t think of another way that we’re not gonna be screwed. Basically.
Rose: [00:14:51] Yeah.
Charlie Jane: [00:14:51] He was like, either we’re going to have the singularity and AIs are going to take care of all these problems that we’ve created, or there’s really no other option for how the human race is not going to be kind of royally screwed. And I think that it is often among people who are like huge believers in the singularity, there is this kind of somewhat egocentric thing of well, the human race might be screwed but I will live forever. I’m going to be—going to become a god. And AIs are going to take us into the stars and we’re going to turn everything into computronium, which is like… I feel like computronium is the new unobtanium.
Annalee: [00:15:24] I mean, or the old unobtanium because it’s been around for a while. There’s a failure of imagination there. Where it’s just, okay, well, either we’re going to become super smart and figure it out later, because that’s what it always is. It’s like, well, eventually we’ll be smarter and we’ll come up with something. Instead of like, well, actually, some of the problems are really like a child could solve them.
Rose: [00:15:43] There is this other element, too, that I think doesn’t get talked about as much in terms of some of the folks who are really into the singularity and into these ideas of this artificial substrate of just putting ourselves somewhere else, is they don’t tend to have a cultural connection to Earth, the actual physical Earth, and the land. And like, you know, maybe they go mountain biking on their fancy thousand dollar mountain bikes or whatever, but there is a dearth of indigenous voices. There is a dearth of voices who have a more direct connection generally, sort of culturally to the actual physical Earth and the outdoors and being outside and having some kind of historical feeling about the planet. I just don’t see that reflected in a lot of the people who are really excited about the singularity. I mean, these are people who, you mentioned food pills, would love to just drink Soylent. Like, the idea of having to take care of a physical body is cumbersome and annoying because it’s not predictable and it doesn’t follow the algorithm and it doesn’t do the efficient thing, right? And all of these inefficient systems that they identify, like their own bodies, or like the Earth where you can’t really wrangle it to do what you want—
Annalee: [00:16:45] Or, like women.
Rose: [00:16:46] Or like women, or people who don’t agree with them, whoever it is. You know? That is, I think it’s an appealing way to be like, oh, well, in this world we don’t have to deal with that and I don’t have any connection to that so it’s not meaningful to me. And there’s this logical leap they make between, “I don’t have a connection to that” to “It’s not important.” Which is, I think, is worth interrogating. Because it’s not true. But yeah, I think I see that, too.
Annalee: [00:17:08] So, these days, you can actually be a futurist as a job. You can get a college degree. Generally, these kinds of jobs are called forecasting or foresight consulting. So, let’s talk a little bit about that. What does it mean to be a professional futurist. What does that look like and what do people do?
Rose: [00:17:26] Strategic Foresight, yeah. You learn how to make companies make more money and just feed the gaping maw of capitalism.
Annalee: [00:17:32] So, that’s the short answer. You mentioned Madeleine Ashby earlier, and she works as a foresight consultant.
Rose: [00:17:39] Yeah, some of them are good.
Annalee: [00:17:41] Yeah, some of them are good. And she works a lot with the government. So, the Canadian government has been really interested in using this as a way to help make government policy, for example.
Rose: [00:17:50] More and more people are realizing that if you can try to make educated guesses about what’s going to happen, you can make better policy today. And, you know, that’s not a shocking revelation, right? There are strategies, right? Strategic foresight. You learn strategies. Amy Webb is another person who calls herself a quantitative futurist, where she’s reading the papers and actually trying to figure out from what we know now what the likelihood of various things are.
[00:18:10] Tim Maughan also does this because he’s a former reporter and now science fiction writer.
Annalee: [00:18:15] Also in Canada.
Rose: [00:18:15] Also in Canada. There is an element of, if you’ve spent your whole career thinking about the likelihood of X, Y, or Z happening, you’re very useful for a government or a giant corporation to bring in and offer some insight into how things might change. What, if we’re talking about climate change, Coca-Cola’s very interested in how resources might change. How land use might change. How the supply chains might change when they still want to supply Coke instead of water to lots of parts of the world. I am very cynical about these sorts of things, in part because I just see a lot of very talented futurists making a ton of money doing this consulting and sometimes I wonder, is this for the better of the world or is this just to make money because Exxon-Mobil employs tons of futurists to help them figure out how to manage the future of this thing that’s destroying all of us.
[00:19:00] There are good things, people who are very good at it, like Madeleine Ashby is very good at it, and I think is not engaging in some of these things that I’m talking about. But I think there are also sort of more unscrupulous futurists who are just sort of out to make money and they’re not thinking about a global future, they’re thinking about, like, how do I help this particular company.
Annalee: [00:19:14] There’s also a group here in the Bay Area where we are recording this, The Institute for the Future which has been doing this kind of consulting for a really long time, both for private industry and for governments and for non-governmental organizations and one of the things I’ve learned working with them, and I’ve worked with them on a couple of different projects is that foresight—it’s a little different from the classic kind of futurism in that you’re not trying to predict one kind of future. Like, you’re not Rachel Carson saying, “Everybody is going to die.” Or, we’re all going to drive around in super-fast cars that upload our brains or whatever. It’s really about coming up with multiple alternatives. So, one of the hallmarks of a professional futurist, or professional foresight consultant is they’re never going to say to you, absolutely, sure, this is going to happen. They’re going to say, “Here’s four possibilities, depending on money, depending on climate, depending on social unrest, all of these things might go differently.” And I think that’s part of what makes it a professional job. Because it feels like it’s a little bit more informed. It’s not just like what we do in science fiction where we just say, “Sure! Whatever!”
Rose: [00:20:21] And even before that, even before you’re presenting options, you’re saying to a company or to an organization, here are the things you need to know. Here is the information that you’er going to need to go out and gather before you can even come up with those scenarios. Because if you don’t have data, if you don’t have information about hwat you’er thinking about, then you can’t come up with scenarios. A lot of what the consulting work is, is going in and saying, okay, well, you need to know X, Y, and Z before I can even present scenarios to you, because you don’t have the information that you need to be able to figure out what might happen.
[00:20:47] The other thing that I think does happen sometimes in these sort of consulting roles is that big companies like to bring in someone who they say they’ve consulted and then ignore everything that they’ve said. So, I know this happens to a lot of futurists, especially those who maybe don’t give the answers that the big company might want to hear. But they like to have them in and they keep getting invited back because they want to have someone in the room to basically do that thing, and sort of say, “Hey, you know, here’s what you should think about.” And they’re like, “Great.” And then they can say, “Well, we consulted a futurist.”
Annalee: [00:21:12] Right. We’re gonna take a quick musical interlude and when we’re back, the future of futurism.
[00:21:17] Segment change music plays. Drums with a bass line including bass drops.
Annalee: [00:21:31] One of the things we were talking about earlier is that things are really chaotic in the world right now and that’s part of what makes us yearn for futurism because it kind of gives us this way out. But also it makes futurism really hard to do.
Charlie Jane: [00:21:47] I’ve certainly found in my own science fiction writing that sometimes I’ll think I’m writing something that’s the future and it’ll be already outdated by the time it gets published. I had one short story where basically one of the things in the short story is that what if the government starts using drones to kill people and then by the time the story was published the government was using drones to kill people and part of the story is that like there’d be a huge outcry and people would be really outraged if that started happening and guess what? People were just like, “Oh yeah, we’re using drones to kill people. I guess we’re doing that now.” There was like, none of the outcry that I had thought might happen. And it was kind of sad to realize that my story was not only outdated but that I’d been too optimistic about human nature in that story.
[00:22:27] I was just looking back, like, Charles Stross, who used to write a lot of stuff that was set in the near future said about 11 years ago—he said in 2008 that we could no long write near future science fiction because things were changing too quickly and that he’d certainly had some novels that he was working on that were invalid by the time he was finished writing them and he had to go back and and rewrite them. That’s something he complains about a lot on his blog. I think Brexit kind of messed him up on some of the stuff he was working on. I think it’s interesting that he was saying that in 2008 which was maybe a year or two after smart phones came along. And that was a period where people especially felt like every day things are new and different and we can’t keep up, and like any prediction we make is going to be invalid by the time we finish the end of this sentence. I think that the era immediately after the start of smart phones was one of a lot of feeling like things were—technology was moving really quickly. And now it’s more that politics is changing really quickly and nobody really saw Brexit coming. Nobody saw a lot of stuff that’s going on right now coming. It’s a really weird time to think about the near future because any prediction you made a few years ago was devastatingly wrong. And, you know, it’s tough, and there’s no real easy answer other than just to be as weird as possible, I guess.
Annalee: [00:23:41] Rose, what’s the answer?
Rose: [00:23:42] So, this is the thing I love to do that everyone hates, which is I will tell you a story from history.
Charlie Jane: [00:23:47] Yay.
Rose: [00:23:48] Actually, similarly to the Italian futurists, in the US and in the UK, in the early 1900s, there was a similar moment in scientific history at least. They were discovering all of these invisible things. X-rays, the fact that you could telegraph, all of the stuff that you could transmit through the air, and there was this idea that anything was possible. We have no idea what’s going on. We’re discovering all this stuff and this was actually the moment where the idea of telepathy really seized both America and Europe as this potential thing that we could do. Because it made sense, right? Like, there’s invisible stuff traveling through the air all the time that they were discovering. If you can use an X-ray and see into somebody’s body, why wouldn’t the brain also be emitting something, right? It makes sense. And you read some of these documents that they write and they’re so close. They’re like, maybe there’s electrical currents in the brain. And you’re like, yeah, there are, but they’re not like, as strong as a radio signal, you know?
Annalee: [00:24:37] It’s not WiFi.
Rose: [00:24:39] Exactly! They’re so close though, and it totally makes sense that at the time, they really felt like anything was possible, there was no way to predict anything, everybody should just be looking into everything. So we’ve been in stages like this before, so I think that sometimes I get a little frustrated when people are like, “This is a brand new era and we’ve never felt this before” and like, technology is changing. We go through stages. Where this happens and there’s these big booms in understanding the world and trying to figure out what’s going on. I mean, now we know more, just in general, because we have access to more information and all of us can open up our phones and find out what’s going on in whatever part of the world that we might be interested in. It comes in boom and bust cycles. When it comes to predictions, predictions are always a bad idea to make in general. Even if you are in a lull period, even if you are in a period where we aren’t in this big boom of all this stuff happening, it’s really hard to tell what’s going to happen because something can change in an instant. And that’s why most futurists who are good don’t make predictions, as you said, they make kind of, “Here’s five ways it could go,” or “Here’s things you should think about.”
[00:25:35] Predictions are inherently risky, right? In terms of solutions like where is futurism going? I mean, the best thing to do for futurism is to include more people as futurists. I mean, like, so often when people imagine a futurist, they think of like a white guy probably wearing glasses, probably wearing a black t-shirt, and jeans, on a TED talk stage.
Annalee: [00:25:52] And he’s got a really beautifully shaved head.
Rose: [00:25:56] Yes.
Annalee: [00:25:56] Like, perfectly sculpted bald head.
Rose: [00:25:58] Yeah, exactly. And so you know when people say futurist, that’s what people picture, and they’re not necessarily wrong, because those are the people who get the microphone and who get to do those TED talks and all that stuff. Futurism is much more interesting and probably much more accurate if you include more people who might have actually seen some of this fascism coming because they’ve seen hate crimes rising in their neighborhoods because they live in places that aren’t San Jose, or whatever. Certain neighborhoods in San Jose.
[00:26:20] So, I think that that’s the solution. The solution is to like diversify futurism.
Annalee: [00:26:24] There’s a really great new book out from N.K. Jemisin called How Long ‘Til Black Future Month which is a collection of her short stories and we have a great clip here of her at The Strand bookstore in New York talking a little bit about the seed of the idea for that book and how she was thinking about the future.
N.K. Jemisin Clip: [00:26:40] And so I grew up watching The Jetsons and thinking, okay, one day we’ll all live in this wonderful future where we’re flying around in these nice cars and we’ve all got robot butlers—I do have a Roomba. But… um… and so on. As I got older it suddenly started to occur to me that there’s nobody black in the Jetsons world. And they all live in this city above the clouds, and we don’t know what’s going on beneath the clouds. And I started to—even the robot is white. I started to wonder, oh, is that where they are? Throughout the Jetsons—is this wonderful happy utopia masking a horrifying dystopia beneath the clouds. So I began to realize science fiction again and again and again was filled with these unspoken, silent, deeply disturbing dystopias and apocalypses. These genocides that no one ever mentioned.
Annalee: [00:27:34] So there she was specifically talking about the idea of Afro-futurism and what it does and what it means to think about a future for African-Americans as well as for white people and other groups and I love the fact that she’s picking on The Jetsons because every time I talk to people about the future I feel like The Jetsons comes up. Either as something we’re rejecting or something that we think is awesome. It’s always like, oh, well that’s what the future will be like. And she’s like, actually, did you ever think about how there had to have been some horrible genocide in order for everyone to be white in this show? And so I think that’s part of what you lose is if you don’t have diverse visions in futurism. And I think that’s now becoming even more obvious as we’re seeing kind of a retreat into nationalism where the fate of people in different parts of the world may look really different. So, are there futurists that you think are doing really good work in this area that we should be paying attention to?
Rose: [00:28:31] There are a lot of people who are doing really interesting things and thinking about the future, but they don’t call themselves futurists. And in fact, the things that they’re doing are very close-term futurism, because they’re working in communities on the ground trying to make things happen right now. And sort of in the near-near future as oopposed to thinking about the singularity, right?
Annalee: [00:28:49] Like, sort of in the Rachel Carson vein.
Rose: [00:28:51] Exactly. There’s a woman named Aisha Nyandoro who is working in Jackson, Mississippi on a basic income project. And she is completely divorced from the Silicon Valley folks who think that this is what we need to do because robots are going to take all of our jobs so everyone needs basic income. She had worked for years and years in Jackson, Mississippi trying to close the gap, the inequality gap, specifically for black mothers in Jackson. And it wasn’t working. She was doing all this stuff and what she was saying is like they just need money. Like, we could have a million social programs for them and they just need money. And so she’s working on this program which UBI is such a buzz word right now in futurism, but she’s not included in those conversations about futurism. So I think those are the kinds of things that I’m interested in, in terms of people who are trying to work on community action and sort of smaller scale things that don’t end up getting included in those conversations about sort of big F Futurism, right? And when I asked her, when I was like, “Do you ever think about the robot whatever?” And she was like, “I never think about robots.” Which is so—but I would still consider her a futurist, right? Because she’s thinking about how do I make my community better in the future. I mean, there are people who were calling out the rise in fascism long before Trump was elected, that weren’t included in those conversations. Sometimes when people say, there’s futurism with a small f where it comes to Adrienne Maree Brown or Walidah Imarisha, who are both doing really interesting things trying to change the conversation around the future but don’t consider themselves necessarily futurists with a capital F and probably wouldn’t even be invited into some of the professional societies because they don’t have the credentials that are required.
Annalee: [00:30:19] Yeah, it sounds like in a sense we’re back at square one where only certain people are allowed to define the future, and then people who are working in communities who are actually building a future are somehow considered to be lesser. Because what they’re doing is short-term, like you said, and it’s also based on practice as opposed to theory, as opposed to going into a room with a bunch of people and giving them pieces of paper. That’s depressing but also kind of liberating because it means there’s this whole space out there that we can take over and start talking about the future and those strategic foresight people can just go have fun by themselves.
Rose: [00:30:56] And in some ways I get it, right? If you are trying to create a professional organization and trying to define a profession, which I think they are still trying to do. I don’t know that futurism is really defined like engineering, you know, where you get a ring when you graduate from your weird program, whatever. Which you literally do, you get a ring!
Annalee: [00:31:12] No, you do, and I mean, there should be a futurist ring.
Rose: [00:31:15] We should make that.
Annalee: [00:31:15] Yeah, exactly.
Charlie Jane: [00:31:16] It should like, glow in the dark, I don’t know.
Annalee: [00:31:18] But it should be democratic. Like, anyone can be a futurist—as long as you’ve planned for the future, including like, just making a really good shopping list. That’s futurism.
Rose: [00:31:26] That’s a Kickstarter, if I’ve ever heard one. But if you’re trying to build a professional society around a very specific set of qualifications, I get why you’re trying to protect that. And that’s where I think the word futurism almost is kind of muddy and maybe they should pick a different word or we should pick a different word, or…
[00:31:40] I think there are many ways to do futurism and one of them is that very specific consulting kind of strategic foresight. And then there’s a million other ways that I think are vastly more interesting and more important that other people are doing. I’m biased because that’s the kind of stuff I’m doing. I’m not doing that consulting stuff. But I think that when you think about what’s going to make an actual impact in the future and who are the people who you kind of want to get behind when you’re thinking, okay, if I have to line up behind somebody and run at a future, I’m not lining up behind the strategic foresight people. I’m lining behind the people who are trying to like, fortify their communities for the future in a really thoughtful and smart and on the ground and kind of like knowledgeable way.
Annalee: [00:32:12] I wanted to talk a little bit about Flash Forward and what you do as a lower-case f futurist there, because every episode starts with a fictional version of the future and then you talk to people about the reality. So, tell us a little bit about combining fiction and nonfiction and futurism.
Rose: [00:32:28] It’s really fun. I mean, I think that there’s a long tradition, right? Of like, combining fiction, and I mean, you both do this, so, you know… I did not invent this, right?
Annalee: [00:32:36] Maybe.
Charlie Jane: [00:32:36] A little bit.
Rose: [00:32:37] To me, there is power in that Rachel Carson version of imagining the future where you say, okay, let’s just pretend for a second that we go down this road. What does that look like? And then pull back and say, okay, what do we know about this? What do we know about things we can do about it? I do think that there is some hazard in potentially mixing because on the show, I actually am very clear every episode and say very specifically, like, this part is fake and this part is real because for the first couple episodes we sent out a couple of like test episodes before it came out and people didn’t know what was real and what wasn’t. People were like, is this part real? Or are the experts fake? And there was this confusion about what was real and what wasn’t. And I was like, oh no. This is bad. I mean, it’s kind of interesting from like an arts perspective, but as a journalist, I was like, no, no, we have to be very clear.
Especially now when we start thinking about the future of Fake News and the future of the ways things get separated from their context and can sometimes accelerate in directions that you never expected. I am very careful and I worry all the time about making sure that that mixture is done ethically and isn’t done in such a way to perpetuate any kind of like Fake News situation. But I do think it’s a useful tool. Right? It’s a useful tool to be able to present, like, hey, okay, let’s take this and run with it as far as we can. Really, like, how far can we go with this idea and what does that world actually look like from like a character perspective and if you were living in that world what would that be like? Because I think sometimes the future as it’s presented can feel very abstract and very hard to relate to.
Annalee: [00:34:02] No, it’s super interesting. One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot, both for fiction and nonfiction is why do we do this? Why do we talk about the future as opposed to talking about history or just sort of writing about the way things are now. And I think that we’re at this point where futurism is just key to our survival, especially when it comes to climate change. I think so much of science now is kind of futurism and we have all of these predictive models about the climate that we’re arguing over their believability.
Rose: [00:34:33] Yeah.
Annalee: [00:34:33] We’re basically arguing over well, what is the future going to be? Are we actually accurately surmising that sea level will rise or that weather will become more unpredictable. And I think part of futurism for me is just getting people used to the idea that yeah, actually, based on historical data we can make educated guesses that sometimes are really accurate and not in terms of like, who is going to win the next president necessarily, but how hot the planet is going to be over the next thousand years. We can kind of, we actually can do that.
Rose: [00:35:06] Yeah.
Charlie Jane: [00:35:06] There are models. Yeah.
Rose: [00:35:09] One of the episodes in this coming season which I think will go up before this episode, so I’m not spoiling anything, is about geoengineering, and about sort of solar radiation management and what if you spewed a bunch of sulfate into the air to try to control the climate. All of this is based on modeling, right? We’re trying to understand, if we do this, what are the impacts. And we know that the impacts will not be uniform. We know that it won’t be just that the planet cools uniformly and nothing else happens. That’s like a fantasy land. And so these models try to look at, okay, where do the monsoons get worse? Where does the drought get worse? How does this change the climate cycles and all of those are futurisms. All of those are trying to guess what’s going to happen based on the information that you have.
[00:35:47] And there’s this interesting thing that happens with those models. Scientists are generally very good at saying, here are the assumptions that I’m making, here’s what’s going into the model. Here’s the data I have, here’s the data I don’t have. And when you read the papers they’re very meticulous about that. When you talk to scientists and get into it, they really say, here is the confidence that I have in this model. Here’s what this model is not good at seeing. This model is not good at clouds, this model is not good at—and they can have that conversation. But then there’s this thing that happens when you take those models and then you pull back to ethics or policy. And so few ethicists or policy makers actually understand what models are and how they work. These models become sort of facts in this really interesting way that I’m sort of fascinated by in terms of how do you communicate uncertainty, not necessarily even to the public but to people who are trying to decide is this an ethical thing to do?
[00:36:31] All of these ethics papers, they go through and they look at these models and they basically say, if we do this, this will happen. And we actually can’t say that. And so I think that people are going to need to be able to get really comfortable with degrees of uncertainty in futurism and this idea of here’s what we can guess, and here’s what we know, and here’s what we can’t know. Because they’re going to be a huge part in those decision making processes, like if we do decide, like are we going to do this? Are we going to geoengineer the planet? If we assume that those models are fact, then that leads us down one road. If we assume they’re not it leads us down another road.
[00:37:03] I’m fascinated by the ways that people understand models and what they are and aren’t, even within academic disciplines. Ethicists really present them as like, this is what will happen, and scientists are like, No! Don’t say that!
Annalee: [00:37:14] Yeah.
Charlie Jane: [00:37:14] Oh my God.
Rose: [00:37:14] You have to land somewhere in between because otherwise—I mean there’s some certainty. We do know some things. We can say with pretty high confidence certain things will happen, but there is that like, weird fuzzy middle ground that ethicists love and scientists hates and there is like this battle between who wins.
Annalee: [00:37:27] Yeah, and there’s that hard thing of when you’re talking about climate change, it’s something that’s going to take place over a long period of time and there’s going to be all kinds of perturbations in the mean time. So it’s like, well, yeah, we’re having a really rainy year in California. Does that mean that we’re out of a drought? No. Actually, it doesn’t.
Charlie Jane: [00:37:44] When it comes to climate, things like climate, we’re talking about really complex systems that involve a lot of factors that are really hard to predict or quantify in some cases. It’s a really complicated system that’s been shaped over millions of years. The changes are going to be over a long period of time as well, although in the medium term, I think there’s going to be some noticeable changes. In addition to providing models of how we could grapple with climate change, or what we could do to avoid the worst effects of climate change through geoengineering or just through trying to reduce carbon emissions, it’s just important to try to visualize—like, people have a really hard time visualizing a future that’s not a continuation of the present. Like, I think that’s part of the problem of futurism is that people always want to prognosticate in a straight line. All the trendlines that are happening right now will continue forever.
Annalee: [00:38:29] Linear, yeah.
Charlie Jane: [00:38:29] Into the future, forever, just like, straight lines as far as the eye can see.
Annalee: [00:38:33] Until you hit the singularity.
Charlie Jane: [00:38:34] And you know, you see that in economics where people are like, well, we’ve had X amount of growth in the past 10 quarters, therefore it’ll continue to grow at that rate until the end of time. I wrote articles about this for io9, about the psychology of thinking about the future and how people can’t really imagine a future that’s not a direct continuation. And so it takes a lot of just trying to make people understand potential futures that are radically different. Just to get past that weird inability that we have to see other possibilities. That’s a problem with human nature in a way.
Rose: [00:39:08] There are some studies that suggest that reading fiction does help with that. They know that reading fiction helps you empathize with others because you have to put yourself in the character’s shoes and whatever. I’ve seen one or two papers that reading science fiction and reading things about the future helps you kind of be able to think about the future in a way that you can’t necessarily naturally. Climate pessimists often say that we’re doomed because people can’t imagine their grandchildren. They just can’t—you know that they might exist but you can’t really truly picture. And if you can’t do that then you can’t make the decisions that you need ot make. The people that are the most pessismistic about climate say that we’re just fucked because there’s no way that—because humans just can’t do it.
[00:39:42] I don’t know if I’m that pessimistic, although I am often very pessimistic in general, because there are some studies that say that this is something you can train. Like, we can learn how to think better about time and about space and about the future. There are actually some really interesting scholars who are working on ways to try to make people think about time less linearly. And if that can kind of open up the ways that we think about the future of the Earth and the system. I don’t know that there’s been results that have been quantified there, but I think it’s really interesting and it’s worth trying. It’s like, why not? We’re not doing a good job right now. I’d love to see a little bit more research on how helpful we are being by writing science fiction to save the future, because that’s what I want to know.
Annalee: [00:40:18] I think that’s a good place to end.
Charlie Jane: [00:40:20] Yeah.
Annalee: [00:40:22] More research is needed. That’s like the end of every scientific paper pretty much. So.
Rose: [00:40:27] It’s terrible.
Annalee: [00:40:26] So, the new season of Flash Forward is just starting. Where can people find it? Tell us more.
Rose: [00:40:30] People can find it on any podcasting app. FlashForwardPod.com. We’re also on Twitter and Instagram and all those places. I just got new merch in the store which I’m very excited about. One is a shirt that says, “Imagine better futures” which is very on point for this conversation.
Charlie Jane: [00:40:43] Ooh, I want that shirt.
Annalee: [00:40:43] Yeah.
Rose: [00:40:46] It’s five episodes all about the Earth and so everything from geoengineering to what would happen if the poles reversed to all sorts of other stuff that’s fun and weird. There are some very fun little fictional scenes at the top that are all based on a fictional shark tank television show, which—it’s funny. It’s a fun little episode. Season. I can’t wait.
Charlie Jane: [00:41:03] Yay!
Annalee: [00:41:05] Yay! Well, thanks so much for joining us.
Charlie Jane: [00:41:05] Thanks so much for joining us.
Rose: [00:41:06] Thanks for having me, this is so fun.
[00:41:07] Segment change music plays. Drums with a bass line including bass drops.
Annalee: [00:41:22] Thanks so much, that was another awesome episode. Thanks to our guest, Rose Eveleth for joining us. Here’s a reminder to you that Our Opinions Are Correct has a Patreon, and we would love it if you would think about supporting us. You can give us a dollar, you can give us a pet canary. We’re not really sure what we would—
Charlie Jane: [00:41:38] Don’t give us a pet canary.
Annalee: [00:41:38] —do with that, but.
Charlie Jane: [00:41:39] Don’t do that.
Annalee: [00:41:41] Give us the financial equivalent of a pet canary. We would really appreciate that. You can find us on Twitter at @OOACPod, you can find us on Interweb, OurOpinionsAreCorrect.com, and that’s where we put all our show notes. And also you can get our stream on Libsyn or Apple Podcasts or any other great place for finding podcasts. And please do review us on Apple Podcasts because that really helps people find us.
[00:42:08] Our Opinions Are Correct is recorded at Women’s Audio Mission and our producer is Veronica Simonetti, who is like, incredibly awesome and badass. And our music is by Chris Palmer. And we will hear you soon. Or you’ll hear us soon.
Charlie Jane: [00:42:24] Thank you!
Annalee: [00:42:23]Thanks! Bye!
Charlie Jane: [00:42:24] Bye!
[00:42:24] Outro music plays. Drums with a bass line including bass drops.