interview

Interview: Author and Hieroglyph Community Member John C. Havens

September 23, 2015 in Hieroglyph

John C. Havens is a Hieroglyph community member, a contributor to Mashable and The Guardian and the author of the book Hacking Happiness. I had a chance to read John’s new book, Heartifical Intelligence (to be published February 2016 by Tarcher/Penguin) and chat with him about his work studying the intersection of emerging technology and personal well-being.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Bob Beard, Project Hieroglyph: How did you find Project Hieroglyph, and what are your expectations for the project?

John C. HavensJohn C. Havens: I’m a huge science fiction fan – which, if you have any self-respect, means that you’re a huge Neal Stephenson fan. Snow Crash is a seminal piece of any nerd’s Bible. When I encountered Hieroglyph I thought, what a fantastic idea to harness the power of storytelling to imagine utopian future visions and then create a pragmatic roadmap to which people can contribute. So instead of just wistfully talking in an esoteric, albeit well-meaning way about how the future could look, why not build stories with the people that are equipped to help make that future a reality? I found that extremely exciting.

BB: What are your expectations for this community, and what would you like to see grow out of it?

JCH: What I’m enjoying is thinking through how stories lead to pragmatic change. So I hope that it continues to be not just amazing stories by Neal Stephenson and other writers of his caliber, but also an exploration of how we can create real pathways to positive futures in the minds of readers.

BB: I think you’re doing that yourself in Heartificial Intelligence; I appreciated one of your descriptors for the book, saying it’s not so much about science fiction as it is about science inflection – essentially using storytelling as a collaborative act in designing the future.

JCH: Thank you very much. I hate calling myself a futurist, although I appreciate the term. I call myself a geeky presentist because of what I know about technologies that already exist, but just aren’t ubiquitous yet. For example, you have Google working on self-driving cars and robots that are entering our homes and advances in AI – these are three separate things – but if you think on the level of mass production and of the embeddedness of technology and culture, those three things are naturally going to come together at some point. Telling stories about possible futures is a way of making connections and saying, “hey, do you see these patterns that I see?”

BB: You frame the book in two different ways. There are certainly some positive vignettes about living with technology, but you have also written some very dark futures that could come to pass if we don’t make conscious, thoughtful choices today. Do you see the future as inescapably apocalyptic if we don’t make these changes? Is that the default?

I’m not anti-tech, but what I am emphatic about telling people is that it is ignorant – and I don’t mean stupid – to ignore the research that shows that when we interact with a device, we lose human qualities that cannot be regained. So if we choose to only spend time with robots, then our human empathy will erode. Our relationship with technology is changing how we interact with other humans; as a result, some of our human qualities are atrophying.

And what we cannot ignore is the underlying fact of how our personal data is analyzed, shared, tracked, mined, and used. A standard terms and conditions agreement for companion robots like Buddy and Pepper is likely not enough to inform buyers about the hardware used to analyze and affect their emotions. In a very real sense, the manufacturers can control how we respond to the robots, effectively manipulating our emotions based on their biases. That’s a pivotal part of the conversation. It’s not privacy; it’s about controlling your identity. It’s not just about money and people manipulating you to buy something. It’s about regaining a space where I don’t have fifty different algorithms telling me what I want.

BB: So where is that space?

JCH: Well there’s a technical answer and an aspirational answer.

Technically, a person could have what’s known as a personal cloud. This has been around for years; it’s a concept called privacy by design, and it simply means that instead of one’s data being fragmented in two or three hundred different places, we have a locus of identity where we can define ourselves. Technologically, a personal cloud structure is pretty doable. There are companies like Personal.com and others in Europe where you’re able to take all your data and set up a dashboard of permissions, specifying who can access it and when. The main reason that’s so hard is that it’s not in Facebook or Google or IBM or LinkedIn’s interest to have you do that, because right now your personal data is a commodity that they use to generate revenue.

Aspirationally, a lot of Heartificial Intelligence is about what I think is a real positive force right now in the AI world: the field of ethics. I didn’t study it in college, so at first it seemed very general and vague to me – I pictured Socrates wearing a robe or Monty Python sketches about philosophers playing soccer. But what I’ve realized is that applied ethics means asking tough questions about people’s values and about their individual choices. A lot of these personalization algorithms are trying to discover what individuals say will make their lives better, so in one sense it hinges on the values. AI manufacturers currently use sensors to observe human behavior and that’s the tracking methodology online and off, and that’s great. There’s a massive wealth of information being generated about our lives, but it doesn’t involve the individual subjectively saying what they feel or think. It only involves the external objective side of things.

The computer scientist Stuart Russell uses a methodology called inverse reinforcement learning. What he does that most AI manufacturers don’t is when a device or sensors observe a human doing something for a while, the pattern recognition comes back and says, “here’s the pattern,” but then that’s examined further to say, “what human value does this pattern reflect?” I talk about this in the book [Editor’s note – check out an excerpt here]: if a kitchen robot was being created for Cuisinart and it could cook 10,000 recipes, that would be great. But if the robot was trained to have chicken in a recipe and it couldn’t find it, then you have to make sure to program the robot not to make a substitution and cook a pet cat. That’s the kind of substitution that doesn’t align with human values, but the robot needs to be taught that explicitly.

So the practice of applied ethics requires that you take a step back and say, “As we create this product using this algorithm, we cannot ignore the values of the end-user, because those values will define the efficacy and success of what we’re creating.” An increased focus on applied ethics will also help engineers and manufacturers who are often demonized, because they’re not trained to be ethicists.

BB: You write in the book that our “future happiness is dependent on teaching our machines what we value the most.”

JCH: The central question of the book is, “How will machines know what we value if we don’t know ourselves?” Near the end of the book there is a values tracking assessment that I created with a friend, who’s a PhD in positive psychology. We examined different psychological studies that have been done over the years and found that there are twelve values that are common all around the world, across multiple cultures, to both men and women. These are concepts like family, art, education, etc. It’s not that you and I will see those things the same way, but that’s the point.

What I’m encouraging people to do is identify and codify the values that animate their lives, because positive psychology research is showing that if you don’t live according to your values every day, your happiness decreases. And the relationship to AI is – news flash – that a kajillion iterative things are all measuring our values right now, based solely on our externalized behaviors, which are aggregated and analyzed without our input. Without humans in the mix to determine what values mean in a human context, the algorithms will assign us “values” of their own. My position is that we owe it to ourselves to catch up.

BB: So is the values tracking exercise an information audit? An attempt to be more mindful about the elements of our digital personas that we share with the machines?

JCH: Yes, and before the tech there’s a self-help aspect to it. However, if I can get my values codified, and that data was protected, and I felt comfortable sharing it in the privacy by design format we discussed earlier, then I end up with values by design, whereby any digital object in the virtual or real world would know to respond to my values in ways that are granular and utterly relevant to me.

There’s a great engineer and philosopher named Jason Millar who wrote about this idea of moral proxies. In the same way medical proxies dictate treatment methods based on someone’s ethical preferences, a moral proxy might enable devices to act on your behalf based on your values. A self-driving car that drives to my house in ten years is the same hardware and structure that’s going to go in front of your house. But through geo-fencing or whatever technology, as I walk towards the car, the car will read through protocols of my values. So it will know, for instance, how it should perform based on my values – and within in the legal framework of what it can do in that particular city or country. For example, people might be prioritized based on their religious preferences – perhaps an Orthodox Jewish family would be allowed to use the fast lane to beat the clock before the Sabbath begins….

My hope is that large brands and organizations will encourage values by design, not only because they can sell more effectively or build more trust with individual consumers, but also to avoid legal culpability. However, my whole point is that individuals should be given clarity and assurance around their data and how it’s being used. They should be encouraged to track their values so that they have a subjective way of saying “this is who I am” before they are so objectified to the point where preferential algorithms will become redundant because we won’t have any preferences that we’ve created on our own.

John’s book Heartificial Intelligence is excerpted here and will be published in February 2016 by Tarcher/Penguin. You can find John in the Hieroglyph forums at @johnchavens.

 

Author
Bob Beard is a fan of fandom. From Browncoats to Bronies, SCA members, Trekkers, Steampunks and more, Bob is passionate about understanding the performance and identity practices within various fandoms as well as creation of experiences for members of these groups to publicly advocate for themselves and their ideas. Bob is a Marine Corps veteran and double alumnus of Arizona State University, with a master's degree in Communication Studies and a bachelor's degree in Interdisciplinary Studies with a humanities emphasis.

Interview: Haylee Bolinger, Hieroglyph Illustrator

November 24, 2014 in Hieroglyph

Earlier this fall, I sat down with Haylee Bolinger, who illustrated most of the stories in our anthology Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future, to discuss her work on Hieroglyph and other projects. You can learn more about Haylee, see examples of her work, and contact her at her website, http://hayleebolinger.com.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Joey Eschrich, Project Hieroglyph: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Haylee Bolinger: I’m originally from a small town in Wyoming, and I earned my BFA at the University of Wyoming in 2010. I moved to Arizona to get my MFA in Sculpture from Arizona State University. That was quite an adjustment because before coming to ASU I had never lived in a town of more than 30,000 people, so that transition was…interesting. Now I live and work in Los Angeles.

JE: How do you think your upbringing in a small rural community has shaped your work?

HB: A lot of my work incorporates sexual themes, and I wonder if that’s related to being just oblivious to subcultures, sexual or otherwise, and then suddenly becoming aware of the incredible diversity of people, first through the Internet, and then again when I started grad school in Arizona. Wyoming can feel small, closed-off, even isolated sometimes – although I met a lot of really open-minded, cool people there, and I’m always thankful that my parents are supportive of who I am and what I’m doing.

JE: What are you hoping to accomplish when you address sexuality in your work? Are you trying to provoke a certain kind of response?

HB: When I’m working with controversial themes like sexuality, I’m trying to present them in a way that feels comfortable for everyone. I guess I’m trying to make the topic of sexuality a little bit more approachable for people from all backgrounds, and I think growing up in a conservative community in Wyoming is part of that.

One way of making sexuality more comfortable is to address it to an object or product that is desirable, or well-designed, then alter that object in a way that is a bit more overtly risqué or sexual.

JE: A number of your sculpture pieces involve taking consumer objects and morphing them in a way that brings out something in the way they look or feel that connects to sexual allure. Why do you think you’re drawn to that kind of approach?

HB: A lot of the objects I choose are knick-knacks that might have decorated people’s homes in the 1970s and 80s. Once upon a time they were incredibly desirable objects, but now you can find them at Goodwill or the Salvation Army. They lost their allure somewhere along the way.

 

  • An untitled small sculpture by Haylee Bolinger

 

I alter these objects in a way that’s kind of juicy and voluptuous, but often really silly too. And that’s because I remember seeing these exact objects and playing with them as a kid and thinking that they were funny things to have in your house. Like why do you need an ornate steel basket to hold hard candy – and now I think, why were those specific one’s clearly so popular? I like the concept that the object was once desirable, before I ever came along and did anything to it. I capitalize on these well-designed objects by making either drastic or minimal alterations, to give them a new alluring personality. It’s kind of like dressing up your grandma in too youthful clothing; it’s a little awkward and funny.

JE: Are there other themes or ideas that you return to again and again in your work?

"Peeping Don," by Haylee Bolinger, for the "Momentum: Women Art Technology" exhibition

“Peeping Don,” by Haylee Bolinger, for the “Momentum: Women Art Technology” exhibition

HB: I really like working with technology. To be honest, I’m not entirely tech-savvy, so usually I need a collaborator. But when I find that help and work with technology, it’s usually something that responds to the body. Recently I made a piece, “Peeping Don,” for the “Momentum: Women Art Technology” exhibit at the Night Gallery (in Tempe, AZ). The technology in that piece enables it to respond as if it’s alive, like it has a personality, but it really it only has one response and it only does it because of movement nearby. But it does give the impression that you had violated its space: if you get too close, it hides, like an animal – maybe a sea urchin. Something very simple can create the sense of a personality or a relationship with the viewer.

I’m getting more interested in pieces that actively provoke a response. You can’t always know how people are relating to the work intellectually or emotionally, but they do relate to the physicality of it. Maybe someone just walks by, no paying much attention to the artwork, but when it moves, it’s difficult to find a person that does not actively engage. “What is this thing? What’s it doing?” I actually had a few people scream. I don’t think it’s a scary piece, but they were just so surprised that they let out a little scream when it suddenly moved.

JE: I think as humans we’re always ready to give inanimate objects personality. Like you said, the piece only does one thing, but even so we want to imbue it with a selfhood.

HB: I think that’s very true, and it’s nothing new, even for things that don’t move. In my family, each person has a different chair that they always sit in. And there’s some identity built into that chair because that person sat in it all the time and maybe the left leg is a little shorter, I don’t know, something weird like that, or it has a special design that appeals to them, or expresses something about them.

I’m a lot younger than my siblings, so growing up I spent a lot of time by myself coming up with these alternate realities where each object in the room had its own life and did stuff when we weren’t around. I think people really love objects and so the idea that they have personalities of their own is really natural.

JE: Why did you get involved in Project Hieroglyph? What piqued your interest?

HB: I’m not a science fiction buff but I do read science fiction books and watch movies. And I didn’t know if I could do it. But I wanted to try. I bring my own crazy things to life in drawings and sculptures, and I wanted to see if I could rise to the challenge of doing it for someone else.

It was a lot harder than I thought it would be. I thought that I would read the stories, and the images would just be there. And I wanted to do things that were really original – I didn’t want to draw something that looked like the images that you expect to see in science fiction.

JE: What was your process in creating the illustrations for Hieroglyph?

HB: I would usually start by reading through a whole story in one sitting, and while I was reading I would make visual notes and sketches in the margins, write a few notes, and highlight some of the really descriptive lines. And some stories were harder than others because they were so visual, with so much information and so many good scenes to choose from.

David Brin’s “Transition Generation” is so visual that it could almost be a graphic novel. He is so descriptive and puts so many images in your head. In some of the other stories, the descriptions of the technology were a little less vivid.

JE: I know you spent a lot of time on illustrations for Neal Stephenson’s Tall Tower. And the sheer size, the verticality is such a challenge there. If you want to capture the enormity of it, you lose the opportunity to flesh out the details.

Illustration for Neal Stephenson's "Atmosphaera Incognita," by Haylee Bolinger

Illustration for Neal Stephenson’s “Atmosphaera Incognita,” by Haylee Bolinger

HB: You can’t mix the size and the detail in the same image, for sure. And I tried to zoom in, but once you’re zoomed in enough, you’re looking at such a small segment of the overall building. And even when I tried to stress how huge it is, I often had these moments where I said, “You know what? It’s still a lot bigger than it looks here.” I tried to draw a farm scene inside the tower in one of my sketches. It’s so huge, there has to be a farm in there somewhere, right? And finally I gave up on zooming in, and said, okay, I’m just going to draw it from outer space and really get the full impact. I really did get hung up there going through lots of different ideas.

One surprise was how often my spontaneous sketches ended up working much better than more ambitious color paintings. Things that were much less rehearsed ended up sticking.

JE: One thing I’ve noticed about your illustrations is how organic they look. This is really evident with the Tower – there’s a danger of it being very sterile and monumental, but the sensibility you bring to it is rounder, softer, almost messier. When we think of technology we often think angular, tight, efficient, but there is a gooeyness to many of your illustrations. Were you conscious of using that aesthetic?

HB: I felt guilty about that! After I had completed most of the drawings, I said, “Maybe I should go back and try some science fiction drawings.” So I went back and looked at them and I felt a little guilty because I just kind of went for it with my own style and I do like those gooey edges.

But I guess if it works and it makes sort of a distinctive impact, then good. I do like illustrations from other people working in science fiction that are very concrete and precise, but that doesn’t come naturally to me.

JE: What was your favorite story to illustrate?

HB: I really enjoyed Gregory Benford’s “The Man Who Sold the Stars.” There were so many options for illustrating that one, and I did get hung up on all of the choices for a while. I didn’t want it to look like the Star Trek version of space exploration. But those images are part of my visual memory bank, and it’s hard to think around them.

I loved the human drama of the story: that the main character was this guy that rose to the top from humble beginnings and then became rich, and maybe a little corrupt, and had to leave Earth, and ended up finding his way to another distant planet when he was 120 or something.

My reaction was, “Yes! I want to do that.” But then again, when he arrives at the new planet, there are all of these horrifying things everywhere. But he describes it as very beautiful. My reaction was, “How do you know that giant butterfly isn’t going to suck your eyeballs out?”

JE: They land in this giant, gross swamp but they seem to love it.

HB: I would be terrified. But they just laid down on lawn chairs or something and just said, “Okay, let’s hang out.” Maybe when you’re 120 it doesn’t matter, but….

I also really liked the relationship between the protagonist and his wife – she is so powerful and self-assured.

JE: It strikes me that you’re drawn in your work to things you find funny, where there is a sort of intentional or unintentional silliness, whether it’s a person or an object. So in Benford’s story, you have this guy lounging on a lawn chair deep in space at the end of his life, but he’s also this intense, intimidating venture capitalist baron. There’s something kind of silly there.

HB: I agree. With Benford, I didn’t put much thought into it at the time, but I can see that aspect of it, looking back now.

JE: It’s a serious story but it has these absurdist touches. There’s a resolute realism to the way that Benford writes, but also a bombastic quality to the story that verges on the absurd, in a charming way.

So what was the most challenging story? Was there one besides the Tall Tower that gave you a lot of trouble?

HB: I did a lot of research for Brenda Cooper’s “Elephant Angels,” mostly visual research into elephants – for example, I don’t see the back of an elephant that often. It was tough because I tried to do the illustrations in color and I ended up Photoshopping it into black and white and then working on the image digitally. In your mind’s eye, an elephant is grey, right? But they’re not. They’re a million different colors and to do the coloring properly would have drawn too much attention away from the drones.

Another one that was tricky is the drone camouflaged as a fly for Lee Konstantinou’s “Johnny Appledrone vs. the FAA.” He doesn’t describe the drones in detail so I had to make something up. I hope he didn’t imagine them as little quadcopters!

 

  • Illustration for Lee Konstantinou's "Johnny Appledrone vs. the FAA"

 

JE: That’s one of my favorite images. I love the fusion of the technological and the organic.

Illustration for for Lee Konstantinou's "Johnny Appledrone vs. the FAA"

Illustration for for Lee Konstantinou’s “Johnny Appledrone vs. the FAA”

HB: I had a lot of fun with Lee’s story because of the Wyoming setting. The premise felt so true to me: rebels in Wyoming doing something weird and quietly subversive. The state has a whole rebel outsider history that most people don’t know about. And I was really familiar with the area where some scenes took place, so I tried to put some rock formations that I was familiar with in the background of the illustration with Appledrone’s RV.

JE: As you think about your own work and your aesthetic, what story or artwork has inspired you most?

HB: I recently read a biography of Andy Warhol and that was really fascinating and bizarre. Part of me was saying, “I want to be just like Andy Warhol,” and the other part saying, “I don’t want to be anything like Andy Warhol.”

While I was at the University of Wyoming, there was this amazing artist, Kaarina Kaikkonen, in residence at the university’s art museum, and she spent the whole summer making this massive sunrise out of coats [Editor’s note: The exhibition is titled “And It Was Empty,” and it was on display in 2007. You can learn a little more here.] She made it out of vintage coats that were going to be thrown away, and I don’t know why, but I was fascinated by it.

When she talked about a previous installation, “The Journey Home, 1995. Hanko Beach,” she told us a story about a boat accident that took place in her home country, Finland. The water was so cold that people were drowning others unintentionally, just to survive. And a few men did survive, but they were having trouble living with themselves because they had drowned people just to stay afloat in this icy water. A lot of her work deals with gender inequality and loss; I guess this piece stood out for me because she seemed conflicted about its meaning. Her work, and the way she talked about it, was a real insight into the layers of meaning that one artwork can embody.

And I think meeting her was part of it. Maybe if I just read about her work, I would have been less influenced by the magnitude of the installation, and the sincerity of her content. Since I met her and she shared an honest part of herself and her work, it’s become one of those things I won’t forget. I try to remember that when I’m somewhere showing my work and people want to talk with me and ask questions. If I talk to them, maybe the experience will mean more to them, and my work will become something that they will remember.

 

A few more images from Haylee Bolinger – you can see more of her work at her website.

  • "Missionary Possible," by Haylee Bolinger
Author
Joey Eschrich is the editor and program manager at the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University. He earned his bachelor's degree in Film and Media Studies in 2008 and his master's degree in Gender Studies in 2011, both from ASU.

Interview: Sherryl Vint on Science Fiction and Biopolitics

November 12, 2014 in Hieroglyph

Earlier this fall I sat down with Sherryl Vint, a professor in the Department of English and the Science Fiction and Technoculture Studies program at the University of California, Riverside. Sherryl is an editor for the journals Science Fiction Studies and Science Fiction Film and Television and is the author of several books, including Bodies of Tomorrow (2007) and Animal Alterity (2010). This interview is the fourth in our series of deep dives with creative thinkers from a variety of different backgrounds. You can read the other entries here.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Joey Eschrich, Project Hieroglyph: Can you start by telling me a little about what you’ve been working on recently?

Sherryl Vint: My newest book examines the ways that science fiction and actual contemporary science are merging, with a particular focus on biopolitics. Industrial agriculture conglomerates are actively and pervasively modifying species, and advances in genomics, personalized medicine, and synthetic biology are bringing complex science fictional ideas about life, nature, and the body to life. We’re really seeing science fiction and contemporary scientific practice overlapping in unexpected and complicated ways.

JE: Can you talk a little more about the relationship you see between science fiction, on one hand, and actual scientific discovery, on the other?

SV: My interest in connections between science and science fiction dates back to the early stages of my scholarly life. I didn’t actually grow up reading science fiction; I wasn’t a fan who then translated that passion into my scholarly career when I stepped into an English department, which is how the story goes for a lot of people who study and teach about science fiction for a living. I ended up being pointed towards science fiction in graduate school, and discovered in the genre a really very sophisticated treatment of exactly the same questions about biopolitics that thinkers like Michel Foucault were raising in their theoretical treatises.

I’ve written a few essays on this relationship between science and science fiction, and I edited this big anthology called The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction. This is one of the reasons I’ve championed scholars who link science fiction and issues of science, technology and society (STS): a lot of the legal and ethical conundrums related to emerging technologies and their social implications are things that science fiction has thought of long before the technologies were actually feasible.

And I don’t mean to say, “Oh, science fiction predicted these things,” like an oracle or seer. I mean that science fiction authors have asked those questions about the influence that various technologies would have on how we think about and structure important things like families or personhood or identity. There’s an amazing lineage of thinking in sophisticated ways about those social implications in science fiction, even if the authors didn’t actually get the technical bits right, which often they did not.

I think one of the really exciting things is that some science fiction now is really up-to-date on both scientific research and its social, ethical, and legal implications. I recently worked on a paper about the television series Orphan Black, which replays typical anxieties and cloning and human identity, but is also really deeply engaged with sophisticated questions about patent law and corporate control of one’s biology and personalized stem cell lines and the privatization of medicine.

JE: One of the things that I’ve been doing during these interviews with people from different fields is asking them about the terminology that they use. When you use the term biopolitics, what do you mean by that?

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault

SV: When I use the term, I’m really influenced by the French critical theorist Michel Foucault and his writing. Biopolitics describes the ways that biological life becomes an object of governance, of political importance and interest. Recently I’ve been using more of Foucault’s later work, when he starts to also think about how governmental and political power begins, in the late 18th and 19th centuries, to begin to operate at what he calls the “level of the population.” He sees a shift from thinking about the individual as the basic unit of governance to the population as a whole becoming an entity that governmental power can measure and have various impacts on. This means thinking about ways that governance has to do with calibrating and influencing certain kinds of statistical norms around birth rates, death rates, unemployment and economic growth, standards of living, and so forth. Instead of thinking of government as a multitude of interactions between the government on one hand, and an individual or a family on the other, people in power begin to think of a single relationship between the government and a large population that can be utilized, manipulated, tweaked, and harnessed.

The way this falls out—and this is the focus of a lot of the recent work I’ve done—is around which kinds of lives are fostered by societies, and which kind of lives are neglected. Who is enabled and supported in having a healthy and fulfilling life? Who is allowed to struggle and suffer? What sorts of illnesses could frequently be prevented if resources had been channeled in one way rather than another?

To provide a couple more concrete examples: Where does potentially dangerous industrial or nuclear waste get stored? Which communities is it near? Which communities is it far, far away from? Or how are medicines and drugs distributed? And how does this reflect the needs of patients, versus the needs of pharmaceutical companies and their profitability? How are those decisions made? How are those different interests calibrated?

The example I’ve been using in my classes right now is World War Z, the recent zombie apocalypse movie starring Brad Pitt. One of the reasons I find it such a useful example is because it has this really blunt bio-political framing, “if you’re human you count and if you’re a zombie you don’t.” In the film, once someone crosses that boundary from human to zombie, they become a member of an undifferentiated horde; we no longer care about what happens to them. The film also distinguishes among humans, though. Some human lives count more than others: Brad Pitt’s character is airlifted out of an urban zombie massacre because he has the skills the government wants. But if he doesn’t meet expectations and play his role, there is always the threat that he and his family will be kicked back off of the boat with the beleaguered masses. This is a situation where the governments of the world aren’t actually killing people, but they are fostering certain lives, and not fostering others.

Then I bring the conversation towards the notion that in our reality, certain homo sapiens aren’t counted and treated equally as humans (think about our treatment of people in poverty or, in recent history, people with HIV/AIDS), which is one of the things that zombie fiction allows us to work through and think about critically. That’s biopolitics.

JE: The other term that I’m interested in hearing about how you use or how you define is speculative imagination.

SV: I use that term to refer to one of the origins of the kind of thinking, writing, and creative expression that we sometimes call science fiction, but also as a broader umbrella that doesn’t get too bound up into whether or not the science is accurate. Scholarship on science fiction can easily get bogged down in these really unproductive exchanges like, “Well, is this really science fiction or is it science truth? How much of the science is real, and what if the science used in this fiction was considered ‘real’ or reputable at the time and now it’s not?” Questions about the validity of the science in science fiction as a way to rule things “in” or “out” of the genre—and those conversations aren’t usually very helpful.

On another note, I’m also interested in ways that speculation and speculative imagination play such a significant role in the economy right now. There are obvious kinds of science fictional modes going on in the way you seek and obtain venture capital funding, for example. Business plans can be as science fictional as novels, depending on the product: think of social media companies like Snapchat and WhatsApp whose future profitability is almost entirely conceptual. As a person seeking venture capital, you write a speculative narrative about all of the value your company is going to produce based on the glorious IP it has, but nothing concrete exists yet. But then the company and the IP does become materialized as money, as economic activity in the stock market and other markets based on how compelling your narratives are. Monetary value may be based more on the quality of the story than on the quality of the product. I’m interested in these amorphous boundaries between material value and what I’m thinking of as speculative value.

JE: So both this idea of speculative imagination and this biopolitical framework are important parts of this new project that you’re working on. How do those apply to these real world areas of practice like medicine and pharmaceuticals and agribusiness?

SV: One of the ways that I apply this framework is precisely the same way that Neal Stephenson sketched out when he wrote his essay “Innovation Starvation.” Fictional visions of the future actually do apply to “real life” simply because imagining transformed realities is a part of how research happens, right? It’s imagining places where we might go. There’s a strong body of scholarship on this in terms of how we can imagine social transformation, looking at utopian writing—both fictional and non-fictional—and actual utopian communities. But I think it’s equally true in terms of imagining technological transformation.

ReGenesisThese exchanges between fiction and reality in the world of biopolitics are also prevalent in the media. There is an interesting Canadian television series called ReGenesis, which is about a fictional tri-border security agency that coordinates among the U.S. and Canada and Mexico. This agency is supposed to manage epidemics and contagions, so it’s kind of a love child of the Department of Homeland Security and the CDC, but acting across all of North America. Part of my interest in studying the show was how it represented biological security threats as becoming conflated with national security issues. But it was also funded by the Ontario Genomics Institute, which is part of the Canadian government. And they always had these little educational pieces that ran for five minutes or so at the end of each episode, as well as a website with fact sheets and resources you could download.

There was a public-engagement-with-science element to this, teaching people about real and fictional dangers and debunking unfounded fears. But it also had a dimension of paving the way for the public to accept certain kinds of technological and security agendas that the government wanted to put into place, using these factual materials that of course tacitly supported the government’s point of view on these critical issues.

Whether I’m thinking about biopolitics or the relationship between science fiction and science, I’ve always, in all my work, been interested in borders: how they get constructed and what interesting things are happening at the boundaries of a supposedly really clear distinction, like between male and female, between gay and straight, between natural and unnatural, human and non-human. But when you actually get to the border, it’s all muddled.

Animal Alterity Cover

Animal Alterity book cover

JE: I want to ask you just really briefly about another one of your books, Animal Alterity. Why is thinking critically about the future in terms of the relationship between people and animals important?

SV: Well, that book came out of research and writing on posthumanism that I was doing at the end of Bodies of Tomorrow, my dissertation-turned-book, thinking about alternative human embodiment and whether subjectivity persists across boundaries. For example, are you the same “self” after your consciousness is uploaded into a robot body?

Why I think it’s critical for the future has a lot to do with questions around environmentalism and species extinction and practices of intensified agriculture: so things like CAFOs (Confined Agricultural Feeding Operations) as opposed to cattle actually grazing on grass. I do think there’s something worth paying attention to regarding this capitalist, agribusiness tendency to turn animals and plants into machines for profit. But even if you don’t personally care about the well-being of those animals and plants in and of themselves, the environmental and social consequences of those practices are also putting human survival in jeopardy.

JE: How do you get your students to get their heads around why you’re looking at this nexus of the human and animal?

SV: Actually, they respond surprisingly well to that—it’s not a hard sell for them. Getting them to acknowledge that racism still persists, for example, can often be a harder sell.

A great story for teaching this is Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The People of Sand and Slag,” which is about body-modified post-humans living in a future where climate change and environmental pollution got so bad that instead of trying to repair the planet, it proved easier to change our biology to be able to thrive in that radically damaged environment. In this future all other species are extinct, and the story is about an encounter these post-human people have with a dog they find who has somehow survived. For a while, they are really charmed by this anachronistic thing, and they try to take care of it, but they don’t know how to. Eventually they get bored of how fragile the dog is, and they eat it. The story plays on the reader’s sympathies for the dog, and counterposes them with the post-human characters’ chilling lack of sympathy. [Editor’s note: You can read the story for free at Paolo Bacigalupi’s website.]

It’s a useful story for getting my students to see how distancing ourselves from other species and refusing to face the fact that we are another kind of animal produces certain kinds of attitudes: and that in itself can be frightening, especially when it’s laid bare, like it is in the story.

Most of students know they don’t want to be like the radical post-humans in the story (even though it would be cool to be able to breathe sulfur and surf on an oil-slicked ocean), but they discover that they actually find most frightening about this rendition of posthumanism is its lack of affect, its idealization of detachment and disembodiment. So I get students to think through how our relationship to other species also defines who we are as humans, and reflects our values and priorities.

JE: What are you hoping that students get out of the Science Fiction and Technoculture Studies program [at the University of California, Riverside]? What are you hoping that students coming out of it will be able to do?

SV: It’s precisely the sort of things we’ve been talking about throughout this conversation. Our students gain literacy in critical frameworks for thinking about the impact that science and technology have on daily life. They gain a wider sense of the history of some of these conversations both in science fiction and in the history of science, because it is an interdisciplinary program.

So we have people in the program teaching science fiction, alongside courses on the history of science. We have people doing ethnographies of scientific cultures, focusing on specific disciplines and sub-fields. We have anthropologists, people doing various kinds of projects focused on the history of science, technology, and innovation in their social, cultural, and political contexts.

Science has become a hugely hegemonic influence on daily life, and the practice of science and the public understanding of it are always developing in dialogue with speculative and creative thinking about science. Our program gives students tools for understanding that ecosystem and making their own contributions and interventions into it.

JE: You’re one of the editors for Science Fiction Studies, one of the leading academic journals in the field. How did you get involved with the journal?

SV: I was lucky—they invited me! I had previously been an editor for an older journal on science fiction, fantasy, and speculative culture, Extrapolation, which dates back to 1959 and was the first academic journal to address those topics. The other journal I co-edit, Science Fiction Film and Television, decided that what the field really needed was a journal on media science fiction, particularly film and television. We’ve even published about digital games. We do this because a lot of the “important” and most visible texts and conversations in science fiction were happening not in print, but in visual media, and the existing journals of the field tended to publish only scholarship on literature. Of course, there are a number of great film studies journals out there, but they often look down on science fiction, and consider it less serious than other genres of film and television.

JE: What story has been most inspiring to you in your thinking about science, fiction, and society?

Donna Haraway

Donna Haraway

SV: If I think about the thing that I come back to the most often in terms of framing questions and influence on my work, it’s not actually fiction at all. It’s Donna Haraway’s essay “A Cyborg Manifesto.” I first read it when I was in grad school, and it was this model for me for how you think about boundaries and border cases: zombies, trans-humanists, all these liminal spaces we’ve been talking about.

It’s not as though cyborgs themselves are the thing that I’m obsessed with studying. It’s Haraway’s intellectual mode, her attention to the intersections between organic bodies, technology, fiction and research, public response, and an ethical commitment. All of those things remain important to the work that I do. So that essay continues to be a model for the kind of scholar I’ve tried to be.

Haraway says that cyborgs are creatures of social reality and science fiction. For her, the cyborg is neither male nor female, neither human nor machine: it’s both mixed together, crossing and confusing the boundaries that separate the two in our thinking and language and fiction. She writes that “the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an illusion”—the domains are interwoven, and indissociable. That blending and blurring has been central to my thinking since I started working in this field.

 

Special thanks to Elizabeth Garbee for editorial assistance and expert co-editing!

Author
Joey Eschrich is the editor and program manager at the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University. He earned his bachelor's degree in Film and Media Studies in 2008 and his master's degree in Gender Studies in 2011, both from ASU.

Interview: Jathan Sadowski on the Future of Cities

October 14, 2014 in Hieroglyph

Earlier this fall I sat down with Arizona State University’s Jathan Sadowski, a writer on technology and society and a researcher on the future of cities. This interview is the third in our series of deep dives with creative thinkers from a variety of different backgrounds. You can read the other entries here.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Joey Eschrich, Project Hieroglyph: Can you start by telling us a little bit about yourself?

Jathan Sadowski: Currently I’m a Ph.D. student in the Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology program at Arizona State University (ASU), which is part of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes. I’m also affiliated with the Center for Nanotechnology in Society and the Frankenstein Bicentennial Project at ASU. I have a master’s degree in applied ethics, also from ASU, and my undergraduate degree is from the Rochester Institute of Technology, where I started off as a polymer chemistry major but after a couple years I shifted focus to political philosophy, sustainability, ethics, and the philosophy of technology.

My primary research interest is cities and urban systems, and my interest in that grew out of working with researchers from the Center for Nanotechnology in Society on a project called Futurescape City Tours, which is a participatory public engagement project about urban technology and the future of cities. That project revolved around taking participants on an urban walking tour of their city—it took place in a handful of cities around the country—as a way of deliberating about the role of sociotechnical systems in urban life, especially the “invisible” infrastructural technologies that are often taken for granted.

I’m currently working on my dissertation, which is about “Smart Cities” and how information and communication technologies are influencing and shaping new forms of urbanism.

JE: You also do a lot of writing for popular publications, right? Can you tell us more about that, and maybe about a couple of recent articles you’ve written?

JS: I do write for a number of different popular outlets, including Slate, Wired, The New Inquiry, and others. I do that because it’s a way to reach a broader and wider audience with ideas about politics, social justice, and technology—and I think there is always more room for people to be thinking in a serious way about those issues and trying to influence the public discourse. So over time I’ve started thinking of myself as less of a technology writer, and more of a political writer who cares about technology.

U.S. Army, used under a Creative Commons license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/.

U.S. Army, Creative Commons: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

In July I had a piece in Al Jazeera America about the emerging political economy around biometrics. We’ve seen a rapid expansion and implementation of technologies like facial recognition and iris or fingerprint scanning—ways of identifying or verifying people’s identities through some sort of biological characteristic. This allows for the creation, storage, and sale of somatic, bodily data. All of a sudden people are able to be broken apart into hyper-specific streams of data, which can be valuable commodities to marketers and to governments. We’ve all heard about Big Data and the data economy, but maybe we need to start thinking about the face economy or the iris economy or the gait economy.

Also in July The Baffler published a piece I wrote about the myth of the “digital native.” I looked at the history and use of that term and the vast set of faulty or unfounded assumptions that are baked into it, as well as who is propagating it and profiting from it. It turns out that the main proponents of the concept of these “digital natives” are education technology consultants and gurus and proprietors. Their narrative is that all of a sudden you have this whole new generation of students who are much more comfortable and productive when they’re plugged in online than when they’re sitting in a classroom, and how are these un-savvy “digital immigrant” teachers ever going to educate the next generation if they’re stuck in the old analog world? The problem, though, is that the moral panic these profiteers stoke mostly benefits them, and not the students and teachers.

JE: In addition to all of this great work for the popular press, you’re writing a dissertation on “Smart Cities.” What is a Smart City?

JS: It’s funny—every time someone finds out that I’m working on Smart Cities, inevitably their first question is “What is a Smart City?” And I don’t really have a neat, pat answer, because a major thrust of my research is looking at the narratives and discourses around Smart Cities. There isn’t a dictionary definition, and this is a very contested field right now with a lot of actors, from government agencies and policy analysts to technology reporters and corporations. Just like with the “digital native,” there is a lot of power behind the definition of a buzzword like “Smart City,” and the definition that wins out will do a lot to shape the future of actual cities.

An important underlying commonality in the definitions floating around now is that Smart Cities merge information and communication technologies—things like sensors, mobile computing, surveillance and data gathering apparatuses—with urban environments. Of course, how these technologies will be used, and to what end, is another question entirely, and a hotly contested one.

JE: What kinds of Smart Cities exist today? Is there a shining example?

Anti-Smart City graffiti in Rio de Janeiro. Photo by Paul Keller/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Anti-Smart City graffiti in Rio de Janeiro, by Paul Keller, Creative Commons: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

JS: Existing Smart Cities today take a number of forms. The first is the retrofitted Smart City, where initiatives are implemented in existing cities, layered on top of existing infrastructure, to make the cities “smarter” in one way or another. In Rio de Janeiro, in Brazil, they’ve built this big central control center that is constantly monitoring the city through surveillance arrays and sensors tracking things like traffic patterns, crime, energy use, and so forth. This is a very security-oriented version of the Smart City, but the endpoint is that the city is networked and connected in such a way that it can be monitored as one big industrial system. Importantly, a lot of the hardware and software is built by U.S. technology corporations. In the case of Rio, IBM was the main actor who developed most of the underlying technology.

A second type of retrofitted Smart City is oriented primarily towards efficiency—cutting costs, being more sustainable, cutting down on things like utility costs and transit times. New York City has implemented a number of initiatives that, rather than securitizing the city, are aimed at making all of the different flows of the city run more smoothly: traffic, infrastructure, water, utilities. This involves using data analytics, collecting and analyzing massive amounts of data about the city. Just like with Rio, the narrative is that the city is an urban system, a technical or industrial gestalt. The goal is to quantify the chaos of urban life in order to make tweaks that reduce and control it, to create a cleaner and more efficient system.

Then you have top-down Smart Cities that are built from nothing. The most well known example of this is Songdo in

Songdo, South Korea, by Dongho Kim, Creative Commons: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

Songdo, South Korea, by Dongho Kim, Creative Commons: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

South Korea, although it is yet to be “brought online.” The idea here is that instead of layering information and communication technologies on top of existing urban infrastructure, the technology is built in as a fundamental feature of all aspects of the city’s design and development. I would argue that Songdo is as much Cisco Systems’ city as it is South Korea’s, because they have most of the contracts for the hardware and software that power it.

In this built-from-nothing model, you’re looking at an urban environment where every single aspect is monitored and controlled in very specific and granular ways.

The key thing to think about in terms of implications is where to draw boundaries about how information is collected, how it is used, and who has access to it. Of course it’s helpful to have a sensor on the side of a building that is able to detect how weather is affecting that building’s durability and structural integrity. But if that sensor is then connected to a massive, seamless web of other sensors and all of that is being closely and actively monitored and tweaked and scrutinized, that’s a different story entirely. There’s a gestalt in that the whole of all of the sensors in a city is much greater than the sum of its parts.

JE: No one sensor by itself is “the problem,” or presents a particular threat, but if you take the whole system as a unit, it becomes more eerie.

JS: Right.

JE: So it’s easy to see why this idea of the Smart City is attractive to citizens and governments: more efficiency, more security. What are we not thinking about or talking about enough? Where are the blind spots in our image of the Smart City?

JS: I don’t think enough people are thinking seriously about how the boundaries between these urban technologies and the people and bodies within them are starting to blur. Part of what I’m working on in my own research is trying to think about this connection among the city, the human body, and technology in a different way, specifically using Donna Haraway’s ideas about the cyborg as a lens.

We have to think about interfaces—points of connection between people and our cities. You don’t really live in a city; it’s not a passive relationship. You live with the city and you live through the city. Being in a specific city fundamentally changes who you are, the way you think, and how you can live your life. Cities have very fundamental effects on us, when we interact with them and they simultaneously interact with us.

The boundaries are not as discrete as we think. We tend to think, “well, there’s technology over there, there’s the city all around me, and then there’s me, complete in myself.” But in reality those boundaries are blurred—and these sensors and surveillance technologies just make those connections, those interpenetrations more obvious.

So the term I’m using to think through this is “cyborg urbanization”—a term that comes from some of the newer literature in urban studies and political ecology—which pays careful attention to these boundaries, these frontiers or points of contact, and tries to incorporate an understanding of relationships and interfaces into the way we design cities and the technologies that we build into them. The key outcome is to design cities that amplify and emanate the values we have as people: human agency and autonomy, the right to move through the city freely, the ability to flourish.

JE: How can we think hopefully about the future of cities, using these ideas you’ve been developing? What is an image of the future of cities that are designed with attention to the values you just talked about?

JS: It’s not enough just to think about these interfaces and boundaries critically; we also need normative and ethical principles. I think that a hopeful vision of a future city would have to attend to what urban studies scholars call “the right to the city,” which is a normative principle, or even a tagline or slogan that says that city dwellers should have a right to make choices and control the cities they live in. This sounds straightforward but it’s quite radical when you apply it to every aspect of a city. The right to the city concept means that people would have a say in every aspect of what is called the “urban metabolism”—all of the things that flow in and out of a city, including commerce, capital, labor, energy, water, people, knowledge, institutions.

The geographer David Harvey, in a punchy way, gets at the essence of “the right to the city,” what it entails, and why it’s important:

The question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from that of what kind of social ties, relationship to nature, lifestyles, technologies and aesthetic values we desire. The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city.

I believe that information and communication technologies have a big part to play in this future. When I write about Smart Cities I’m often suspicious of the way that the technology is used to control and monetize people and communities, but it’s not that these technologies are inherently good or bad. It’s a question of politics: who has authority and power over the technology, how is it used and interpreted, and why. Are sensors being used to create a city where the residents are easier to monitor and control, or where their information is being turned into a revenue stream for corporations or other entities? Or are they being used in a more democratic way where people are able to access the data on their own and use it to enrich their lives?

JE: Is the recent movement for governments to make more data public and open a promising development for you?

JS: Simply making data open and available doesn’t go far enough. You can have open access data or open source technologies at the city level, but that will have little or no effect if people aren’t able to understand it and use it. Data needs to be designed in a way that makes it easy for citizens to actually use it and then in a meaningful way influence how the data is used and policy is derived from it. It’s not enough just to have open access as a principle; it needs to have actionable results for the people that governments are supposed to be there to serve.

JE: Right. Information literacy and accessibility need to be factored in, or else you just have massive reams of data that is inscrutable to most people.

JS: That’s right, but it’s not just a question of literacy, because that puts the onus on the individual city dweller to increase their literacy and seek out additional education and training. We used to have this idea of governance and government where the public sector was there to, first and foremost, actually help and aid the public as a whole—rather than to create and maintain markets and profitable business environments for the private sector. Governments should have the obligation to not just throw open the vault to data, but actually design it and make it available in ways that are actually helpful to people. The onus is on the people in power to make that data accessible, not for us to adjust to the way they have it formatted and packaged.

Too often the people benefiting from open government data are big technology corporations, which now have access to huge free troves of data that can be used and manipulated in any number of ways. But that’s the thing—it often takes the infrastructure and abilities of a large corporation to actually make use of this information.

JE: What story has inspired you most in thinking through these issues about Smart Cities and the future of cities?

Ghost in the Shell posterJS: Ghost in the Shell is a mid-1990s anime science fiction movie that really engages with questions of the cyborg, and also depicts the future of the city in really interesting ways. The film features a cyborg city where people not only have a technological body but are actually able to interface with and reconfigure the urban environment.

I’ve read some quotes from one of the lead designers and animators, and he talks about the exact ideas we’ve been discussing—the boundaries and interfaces among people, technologies, and cities. He uses the metaphor of a spider and its web: we create this huge system that is interconnected and networked and encompasses everything, but the human isn’t the spider that constructs and controls and oversees the web. Instead, each of us is just a thread in the web: we can become engulfed by the systems we create.

Ghost in the Shell’s city is very much along the lines of what I’ve started calling “Frankenstein’s Metropolis”: a situation where the things we create rise up and start to control us, fight back against us, and encompass us within their complexity. And so the master doesn’t always remain the master. The creator doesn’t remain the creator.

Editor’s Note: The Hieroglyph anthology features two visions of the future of cities: Madeline Ashby’s “By the Time We Get To Arizona” and Annalee Newitz’s “Two Scenarios for the Future of Solar Energy.”

Author
Joey Eschrich is the editor and program manager at the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University. He earned his bachelor's degree in Film and Media Studies in 2008 and his master's degree in Gender Studies in 2011, both from ASU.

Interview: Sean Lally, Architect

October 7, 2014 in Hieroglyph

Earlier this fall, I sat down with architect Sean Lally to discuss his Big Idea: how architecture can take advantage of energy, and not just matter, as a building material. This interview is the second in our series of deep dives with creative thinkers from a variety of different backgrounds. You can read the first entry with complex systems scientist Sam Arbesman here. To see more samples of Sean’s work and learn more about his book, The Air from Other Planets, check out this Hieroglyph blog post from September 2014. 

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Joey Eschrich, Project Hieroglyph: Can you start by telling us about yourself?

Sean Lally: I have a design office called WEATHERS in Chicago. I’m educated as an architect and landscape architect, and that has played a role in how I think about the materials available that make space. The focus of my work and research is to explore the creation of new spaces and how those spaces enable and shape the interactions of the people that use them.

JE: Tell me a little bit about the last major project you worked on.

"Wanderings," Sean Lally, WEATHERS LLC

“Wanderings,” Sean Lally, WEATHERS LLC

SL: Right now I’m working on two seemingly very different approaches to the same project. I’m building a series of large models and stage sets that I’m photographing to produce detailed high-res images that depict a particular spatial and social scene. These scenes demonstrate both the new shapes architecture can have with energy as a primary building material, as well as the social interactions and repercussions for people using them. Simultaneously, I’m building working prototypes of the technologies embedded in the photos that would make them feasible. Fictions with footnotes, you could say!

JE: How did you decide to become an architect?

SL: I really have no idea. I went into landscape architecture because I liked plants and biology coupled with design. After working in that for a few years, I realized more opportunities might exist in architecture to really push the design side of the discussion. But now, my work is now as rooted in landscapes and our outdoor environments as it is in architecture. I think the greatest opportunity today is in addressing space and architecture through the lens of the landscape and crises affecting our environment as a result of climate change.

JE: What is the main argument of your book The Air From Other Planets?

SL: World environments are changing, and simultaneously, the human body is continually being engineered, from immunization to the enhancement of our eyesight and other senses. These might seem like two separate events, but as an architect, what it means is that the materials that make up our surroundings and how the human body interacts and senses them are both in play.

In the past, architects manipulated matter to make steel, glass, and concrete, which gave us new novel spaces, but the human body always remained the same. We were learned more about it: how the eye works, what low frequencies do to the ear, and so forth, but we weren’t tuning our bodies to the spaces we inhabit. Today, both the built environment and the human sensorium can be designed simultaneously; one doesn’t necessarily predetermine the other.

This is an important conversation to have because the climates and environments of our world are changing, and so are our bodies. For life on Earth to continue forward, it’s unreasonable to believe we can simply preserve what we currently have now. For humanity to live sustainably and responsibly, both Earth’s environments and the human body will have to artificially evolve together. And I’m interested in exploring what the technological and aesthetic implications could be.

I’m interested in making energy…a building material like steel or concrete and making new and novel spaces and shapes with it.

JE: How do you define “material energies,” a term you use several times in the book?

SL: Architects work with materials that build spaces and define boundaries: things like steel, concrete, and glass. Each has its own proclivities, which effect what that space looks like, and the shapes it can take: a tall tower, an enormous stadium, a transparent, modernist house. Energy in architecture is generally seen as a fuel for simply heating, cooling, or lighting up an existing building design.

I’m interested in making energy—electromagnetic, thermal, acoustic, chemical—a building material like steel or concrete and making new and novel spaces and shapes with it. This definition of energy also includes the social and political interactions that emerge, both intentionally and unintentionally, from those shapes and spaces. We’re not starting from scratch here. Energy is already something that kind of courses through our lives. We just need to build on it.

JE: How can we conceptualize architecture as working with the energy around it, instead of confining it or keeping it out?

SL: The best way to do this is to give energy shape. This is why I’m doing the photographs and design speculations while simultaneously developing the underlying technology. If something doesn’t have a shape or aesthetic you can describe or articulate, it’s difficult to give it value. Energy is essentially invisible at the moment, except in extreme conditions. As a fuel, it’s something that resides in our mechanical systems. When we think of energy in architecture now, we usually think of solar panels or the mechanical ducts that run through a building. If it’s not seen as a fuel that cools or heats our buildings, then it’s seen as a technology that sits on top of it—but not as an integral part of it.

But if you take street lighting as an example, you have a shape—a cone of light coming down from the light bulb—produced by a spectrum of light that creates a physical boundary. At night, if you’re in the light cone, you have safety, recreation, commerce. When you’re outside that boundary edge, you don’t.

Courtesy of AshtonPal (https://flic.kr/p/oNdLpr), used under a Creative Commons license.

Courtesy of AshtonPal (https://flic.kr/p/oNdLpr), used under a Creative Commons license.

Street lighting is an amazing piece of architecture, and it’s one that can go away when it’s not needed. Simply flip a switch. It also changes its shape and aesthetics day to day: from a full moon to a new moon, its boundaries and edges look different as it interacts with the local environment.

When energy can be given its own shape, new quirks and proclivities emerge that differ from what you can do with steel or glass. It can also get people excited about what we can do with energy when we have more of it available, when we can find other clean and responsible ways of generating it. Maybe architecture should start with the streetlight and go forward from there as a new model for how we build our spaces. Start with street lighting and layer new energy systems and technologies, one on top of the other, until you have a built environment that is robust enough to flexibly accommodate diverse ways of using space. Something that is nimble, flexible and embedded with the same energy fields as the environment that it sits within. It would be a space that is suited to people’s changing needs and requirements, instead of static limiting factors that tell us what we can and can’t do inside them.

It’s time to give energy shape, get people exited about what life and social interactions might be like and have them demand the political and technological changes that have to happen to make them possible. It might sound counterintuitive at first, but we need to double down on our energy use, at least in the visions we speculate on, and not get stuck in the mindset of conserving the energy we’re currently getting from fossil fuels.

JE: You’re arguing that architects shouldn’t think of energy only in terms of conservation, in terms of cutting back and maximizing efficiency. How else should energy be conceptualized and deployed by architects?

SL: There are some very talented and smart people working to find better ways to harness, store, and move renewable energy around. At the same time, I don’t think we can escape the fact that, at least here in the U.S., all of our discussions of energy or the environment are increasingly tied nearly exclusively to an ethical and moral responsibility. Either cut back and conserve or you’re wasting energy, contributing to a crisis, even being selfish.

I think it might be beneficial to take a different approach, one that markets and demonstrates new activities, aesthetics, and lifestyles, while simultaneously smuggling into the discussion the idea of a responsibly evolving environment that requires the need for additional funding and political backing to make possible. The environments we live in, either locally or globally, have never been static, yet nearly all discussions of the environment are tied to a notion of conservation. We’re using the wrong language, the wrong metaphors.

Maybe what we need instead right now are visions of a future environment that might not look like what we have around us today, but are more supportive of the well-being of as many species as possible going forward. I think it’s necessary to decouple the word “sustainable” from the framework of energy conservation as we move forward.

JE: With all this in mind, do you think we should be training architects differently? Is there a different set of skills or perspectives that young architects should master?

SL: I do think there’s a distinction between the discipline and the profession. And so within the profession of “architect,” there are education and training criteria that need to be met. But the architect is the great generalist. We’re not usually specialists in anything—we’re generalists whose work draws in knowledge and insights from everywhere. In terms of the education and training, it’s about being able to piece together an awareness of all these subsets of variables that are at play, and being able to build the design scenarios and the collaborations to get a project done.

I think it’s necessary to decouple the word “sustainable” from the framework of energy conservation.

JE: In the book, you argue that architects have a unique relationship with time. How do you relate to time and its passage in your own work?

SL: When you think about a building, you usually think about the walls that stand strong against the natural elements. Those walls are made of stored and ossified energy—wood, steel, etc.—that mediate and defend against the local weather. The success of that architecture is rooted in its permanence, but we know in the back of our minds that it all starts to decay as soon as it’s finished, if it’s not continually maintained.

But if we go back to street lighting as an example of an architecture made from these material energies, you get a different relationship with its surroundings and time. Unlike an architecture made of walls that mediate against those energies that make up the local environment, the shape and aesthetic qualities of the streetlight are directly informed by the dialogue between the spectrum of light coming out of the streetlight and the light levels of the site it is on. And it goes away for half the day when the sun is out.

Buildings tend to be depicted with images that represent permanence. How else would you get a 30 year mortgage on your house if the bank wasn’t convinced it wasn’t going to be there that long? But when you start to think of architecture as intense micro-climates or energy fields that can take on those same architectural responsibilities, you realize the images we create of built spaces can’t have the same static form. It’s not to say they can’t last as long; it’s just that over time they’ll look different, from hour to hour or season to season, as those climatic forces push on the energies that make up the spaces.

Jodorowsky's Dune posterJE: Okay, last question: What story has inspired you most?

SL: Most recently, I would say Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel 2312, Robert Charles Wilson’s short story “Utriusque Cosmi,” and also the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune.

But if you consider the re-launch of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos as a type of story of the universe, I think that was pretty amazing. There were so many instances when seemingly fundamental issues were discussed and I couldn’t help think “How did I not know this?” I really like those moments.

I couldn’t help but feel inspired. We all have a role to play. It might not be the one we initially intended or hoped for, but that shouldn’t prevent us from continuing to push forward. Architects need to find new ways to do things and act boldly, not scale back and retrench in the face of our the energy crisis and our other challenges. We need to invent new relationships with energy and space, not just a diminished version of our current understanding.

 

Thanks to Elizabeth Garbee for editorial assistance and expert co-editing!

Author
Joey Eschrich is the editor and program manager at the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University. He earned his bachelor's degree in Film and Media Studies in 2008 and his master's degree in Gender Studies in 2011, both from ASU.

Interview: Sam Arbesman, Complex Systems Scientist

September 8, 2014 in Hieroglyph

The Half-Life of FactsSam Arbesman is a complex systems scientist and writer with a PhD in computational biology from Cornell University and a BA in computer science and biology from Brandeis University. Sam’s most recent book, The Half-Life of Facts (Current/Penguin, 2012), explores how different fields of knowledge—medicine, physics, technology—change over time. Sam argues that knowledge in most fields evolves systematically and predictably, and that any given field’s change in knowledge can be measured like the half-life of a radioactive element. We can measure when facts will be rendered obsolete, the rate at which new facts are created, and even how facts spread. This measurable evolution of truth, fact, and reality can have a powerful impact on our lives.

You can learn more about Sam at his website, http://www.arbesman.net, follow him on Twitter at @arbesman, or read his blog, Social Dimension, at Wired.com.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Joey Eschrich, Project Hieroglyph: Could you tell us a little about yourself and what you’re working on right now?

Sam Arbesman: I’m currently Senior Scholar at the Kauffman Foundation based in Kansas City, as well as an Associate of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University. I’m currently thinking about the models we build in science, as well as the systems we build in technology. Specifically, I’m considering the central role that the tension between elegance and complexity has played in our thinking about science, technology, and the world around us.

So on one hand, especially in science, we want single equations to explain the world. We want elegant solutions: the Pythagorean theorem, or E=mc2. We frequently want the same thing in our technology—think about the attractive simplicity of the original iPod. But often, I think, the world doesn’t adhere to our desires, so we need to create fairly complicated models or systems that are glitchy and that kind of work and kind of get the job done, but are not particularly clean or simple.

In some cases, not only are these systems more complicated than we might have wanted; they’re so complicated that even the experts don’t fully understand how they work anymore. A question I’ve been asking about this is: Should we be concerned about this seeming escalation of complexity? Should we say, “This is how it’s always been and this is not a problem?” Or should we be trying some sort of middle path between simplicity and complexity?

When we think about all the things that we won’t understand, or computers making discoveries that make no sense to us, or creating systems that we don’t understand anymore, we think that maybe these things are very far at the margins of experience, or maybe not even going to be happening for decades or even centuries. But it turns out they’re already happening and they’re happening more often than we might have realized. Especially within science, with the advent of Big Data, we have very powerful means of deriving meaning from data or saying, “All right, we can create a model that has predictive value.” But whether or not we fully understand how that model works is a completely separate question.

JE: Can you give us an example of a situation where even experts were confused about an important development in their own field?

SA: In the years leading up to Y2K there were some experts in information technology and computing who were saying that we were heading towards disaster, and others were people saying, “Oh, don’t worry about it.” And it turned out (and I think actually partly because of lot people actively worked to fix it) it wasn’t actually a big problem. But it was interesting to see leading up to that point, there were many people, even experts, who genuinely weren’t sure what was going to happen.

TCAS cockpit display

TCAS cockpit display

Another example of this is a system called TCAS (traffic collision avoidance system). It’s what airplanes use to make sure they don’t crash into each other in the middle of the air. It turns out that there are only a handful of people who really understand how this system works. And it’s not because it’s legacy code or some antiquated system, it’s because it’s so enormously complicated and there are a lot of conditional statements—Under this condition, this thing has to happen, unless this has already happened—and it’s such a weird system that often the experts who work with it on a daily basis are surprised by its behavior when they’re simulating it.

And so we’re beginning to see that we find elegance where we want to, but behind that there is a massive amount of complication and complexity that we don’t fully understand.

JE: That reminds me a little bit of this article I recently read about Netflix, about their recommendation algorithms. Their engineers are often surprised about the types of recommendations that come up and we, as consumers, are frequently surprised as well. But they don’t really know exactly how the algorithm works sometimes—it can act in ways that seem kind of capricious.

SA: Absolutely. I think we’re seeing this more and more and I’m trying to figure out how we should respond to that. And this has actually led me in some fun directions. I’ve been talking to philosophers of science and also historians as well, because a lot of things we’re thinking about aren’t particularly new questions—they’re just heightened because of the increasing power of our computers and our machines.

Maimonides, author of The Guide for the Perplexed

Maimonides, author of The Guide for the Perplexed

While I’m oversimplifying a great deal, with the advent of the Scientific Revolution, there was this idea that if we put our minds to it, everything was amenable to our querying of nature. That we could completely understand the universe. In the Middle Ages, with more of a focus on the infinite, there was a sense that there were only so many things that you could ask questions about and actually get answers. So in the 12th century the philosopher and physician Maimonides, in his book The Guide for the Perplexed, gives a nice little list of things we could know for sure, including the number of stars in the sky and whether that number is even or odd. Or the number of planets or the number of types of animals, things like that. And in fact if you look within science and we actually now know the number of stars visible to the naked eye, although not necessarily the total number of stars. We know that number and it’s around 9,000 and the number is, of course, even.

And in a way, we’ve had this kind of triumphalist attitude when it comes to science. But now we’re beginning to say, “Well, maybe there are actually some limits to the systems we can understand.” We should recognize that sometimes when we hit our limits that’s okay. It doesn’t have to make us worried.

JE: Do you think some of this growing complexity has to do with the massively collaborative nature of some of these enterprises and the ways that they’re institutionalized—instead of this historical model of a unitary great thinker who comprehends everything?

SA: I definitely think so, and it varies from system to system. But I think one of the reasons we see increasing complexity is because it’s a lot easier to add to something and to modify something than to take the entire thing and then re-examine it. You can actually see in the nature of law and regulation, which is one of these systems I think about as a technological system, although we don’t traditionally think of it that way. And it is a system that we ourselves have built. But it’s a lot easier to add new laws or new regulations rather than to scrap everything entirely. Now it’s even easier—we have these widely distributed digital systems through which you can collaborate very easily.

When people add things they often interact with the things that are already there in ways that we might not have anticipated: and in the old situations, laws have unintended consequences, or these really massive technological systems are buggy in ways that we don’t fully understand.

As science grows and grows, no single person can read all those scientific papers, or even the new papers within their own specialty. So you have a situation where there’s probably a lot of discoveries that can be made simply by connecting one paper to another. This dates back in the 1980s, when computer searching was in its infancy, when the information scientist Don Swanson said, “Imagine there’s a paper connecting concept A with concept B, and another paper that connects concept B with concept C. If you connect them all together, maybe concept A implies concept C.” But the literature is so large that no one would actually be able to connect these two things on their own. And we now actually have computer programs that can kind of step in and help build those links.

As we specialize, people still have expertise in certain areas, but it becomes more and more difficult to see the connections among a variety of fields.

JE: So you’re working, talking, and collaborating with these philosophers and historians and trying to see what perspectives they can add to your work on elegance and complexity in science. That’s very much what Project Hieroglyph is all about: finding the unexpected connections between different fields and figuring out how they might come together in a bigger picture, a bigger story.

How did those people—who don’t consider themselves “scientists” in a literal way—help you think more rigorously about science?

A: I learned that the topics that I’m thinking about and the questions I’m asking have been taken up by many people in many different ways. I’ve also been given lots and lots of interesting examples to think about.

As an example, there’s this Yiddish term naches, which is used when you have a certain vicarious pride and joy in the accomplishments of your kids. So you have naches or shep naches, when your kid gets married or they have their bar mitzvah or graduation. So even if we can’t understand the discoveries computers are making, that’s okay, because they’re our creations and so we can actually maybe have naches for our machines. And I think I wrote something about this and then someone on Twitter said, “Oh, actually there’s this great science fiction short story that discusses the same kind of thing.” They don’t use that Yiddish term, but it was just great to see that oftentimes when you interact more broadly with people from all different areas, you get to see how other people have approached these same ideas.

Having talked with a number of historians and philosophers, I have a much better sense of how these trends have ebbed and flowed over time. And it’s been remarkable.

JE: Do we need to tell better stories about complexity? Do we need narratives that make messiness and complexity seem as beautiful and enriching as simplicity and elegance?

SA: Some of this is just about expectations and mindset. If we constantly yearn for elegance, don’t find it and are disappointed, that’s bad, because we’re often not going to find it. But if we say, “the world can be simple and elegant and that’s really cool—but the world can also be really complicated and that’s great too,” then I think that’s even better.

Storytelling can be a powerful vehicle for inspiring people about both elegance and complexity. You can have a story that unifies everything and helps us think about the world as an elegant gestalt. But some of the best-loved stories revel in the exception or the weird situation—they’re not always tied up in a neat bow.

JE: One of Project Hieroglyph’s fundamental precepts is that we had a more optimistic, maybe even utopian discourse about science, technology and the future in the 1950s and 60s, and now we’re not telling those optimistic stories anymore. Does this ring true for you?

SA: Well, I think it’s more a question of what gets the publicity. It’s a lot easier to be successful when you’re pessimistic because that’s what gets the headlines. And it’s the same reason when you watch the evening news, it’s not going to be feel-good story after feel-good story. It’s going to be that something has gone bad because people’s attention is naturally drawn to disruption and danger. In fiction, and in television, people have to some extent moved toward these grittier stories that depict the seedy underbelly of the world.

But at the same time, we still see a lot of very optimistic stories. People are still publishing space operas. It isn’t only dystopian near futures in our fiction, although the darker stuff is perhaps more popular.

People have become a bit more embarrassed about enjoying optimistic stories, and maybe that’s the thing we need push back against. We might need a more unabashed willingness to say, “Yeah, the world is an awesome place, and it can get better.”

JE: What story has inspired you most? Or most profoundly shaped the way you think about the world?

SA: I’ll say the entire world building exercise of Star Trek, rather than just one of the series. When Next Generation came out, I was at a very tender age, kindergarten or first grade, so I watched those with my family. I’m certain I didn’t get out nearly as much as I could have at that age. But they inspired me to think about the world in a completely different way.

I remember watching one episode that focused on something about DNA and genetics. When I first saw the episode, I didn’t know anything about genetics. And I remember having a very long conversation with my father afterwards about how DNA works and RNA and proteins and enzymes. It was incredibly eye-opening and then I think that inspired me to get more involved in biology. And my PhD is in computational biology, so that was obviously a critical moment for me.

U.S.S. Enterprise Patch

By Devlin Thompson, used under a Creative Commons license.

And so, at the risk of coming across as a hopeless fanboy, I think the Star Trek franchise ultimately provides a venue for discussing really interesting ideas about technology, but also a lot of important social and cultural ideas as well. And from a firmly optimistic perspective.

I think that’s really what good science fiction can do. Science fiction isn’t just an excuse to talk about transporters or spaceships. I mean, sometimes it is, because those things are cool. But it’s ultimately a great genre of ideas and I think many episodes of Star Trek embody that potential in its purest form.

JE: I love that answer because when I go and visit classes of high school kids and middle school kids to talk about Project Hieroglyph and our work with science fiction, I always talk about it as an ideal meeting place for ideas, because everybody feels like an expert about it, in one way or another. Everyone feels like they know enough to take part in the conversation. Whether you’re a person who loves to read, or an encyclopedic Star Trek fan, or whether you’re a rocket scientist, or an industrial designer, everybody has a claim to some sort of expertise, and Star Trek is a great example of that, because it’s an incredibly inclusive cultural touchstone.

One last question for you: one of our challenges with Project Hieroglyph is to try to tell optimistic and inspiring stories about the future. As someone who is deeply engaged with science and technology, how do you think we can tell optimistic and inspiring stories about the future that are still thoughtful and critical?

A: Well I’m very optimistic by nature—some people have told me that I’m too optimistic. I’m willing to wear that as a badge of pride. I feel that in general, you can look at every trend with an optimistic lens or a pessimistic lens. We’re constantly at the frontier of the unknown and there are always many things we don’t know. But science is always in a draft form, and the potential to be able to revise our understanding and incorporate new discoveries is really powerful and amazing.

For me, to be optimistic we don’t need to always strive for elegance and closure. We can revel in a universe of wonderful details that don’t necessarily add up to anything perfectly coherent, but are interesting in and of themselves.

In the face of this massively increasing technological and social complexity of our world, in the face of people’s fear of information overload, we need to realize that these are not bad things. Irreducible complexity isn’t bad. We can find an incredible diversity of cool phenomena in our world and respond by saying, “Wow, the world is overwhelmingly beautiful.” It can be overwhelming, but that complexity is also amazing, and we have the opportunity to constantly explore further and deeper and learn more about it.

Author
Joey Eschrich is the editor and program manager at the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University. He earned his bachelor's degree in Film and Media Studies in 2008 and his master's degree in Gender Studies in 2011, both from ASU.