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Slow Catastrophes, Uncertain Revivals: Stories Inspired by Project Hieroglyph

April 7, 2016 in Hieroglyph

Slow Catastrophes, Uncertain RevivalsSlow Catastrophes, Uncertain Revivals Cover is a collection of research-based stories about the future, proudly published by Project Hieroglyph. The book features stories created by students in “Slow Catastrophes, Speculative Futures, Science & Imagination: Rewriting and Rethinking Sustainability,” a course designed and taught by Dr. Michele Speitz at Furman University in South Carolina.

The course and the stories in this volume were inspired by Project Hieroglyph, particularly by our first anthology, Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future (2014), which the students read and discussed throughout the course – along with a wealth of scholarly readings on sustainability, ecocriticism, international development, narrative, and ecology.

The book is edited by Michele Speitz and Joey Eschrich, and designed by Ariel Shamas. It features stories from Graham Browning, Anna Peterson, Elisa Edmonson, Elly Gay, and Hagan Capnerhurst.  It’s free for anyone to read and share, under a Creative Commons license. Download and read it today!

We also hope that this volume serves as an invitation to educators everywhere: bring us your big ideas! If you’re using Hieroglyph as part of an educational experience, or if you use Slow Catastrophes, Uncertain Revivals, or if you’d like to collaborate with us on a project, please contact us at hieroglyph@asu.edu.



Interview with Hieroglyph Editor Ed Finn

October 17, 2014 in Hieroglyph

By Marshall Terrill

This interview was originally published at ASU News

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

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

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

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

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

Headshot of Ed Finn, co-editor of Hieroglyph

Ed Finn, co-editor of the Hieroglyph anthology and director of the Center for Science and the Imagination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: How do you think the Hieroglyph anthology worked out?

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

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



Project Hieroglyph in Washington, DC: Event Recap

October 6, 2014 in Hieroglyph

By Torie Bosch

This article originally appeared on Slate’s Future Tense channel on October 3, 2014.

Are robot babysitters ethical? Will the future of the Internet look like You’ve Got Mail? How can we use science fiction to inspire scientists?

Neal Stephenson, Patric M. Verrone, and Ellen Stofan Panel

Futurama writer Patric M. Verrone, sci-fi author Neal Stephenson, and NASA Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan. Photo by Liana Simonds/New America Foundation.

On Oct. 2, Future Tense and Issues in Science and Technology hosted “Can We Imagine Our Way to a Better Future?” at the National Academies in Washington, D.C., to discuss how science fiction can help us create a 21st century—and 22nd, and 23rd—that we and our descendants can be proud of. The event was inspired by Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future, a new sci-fi anthology intended to bring scientists and writers together to imagine big, bold technologies. Edited by Ed Finn, the director of Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination, and Kathryn Cramer, Hieroglyph is a sort of antidote to the dystopian fiction that rules the current sci-fi scene. It was inspired by a conversation sci-fi great Neal Stephenson and ASU President Michael Crow had at a Future Tense event long ago, in 2011. (Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and ASU.)

The event was delightfully nerdy, optimistic and creative yet pragmatic, featuring speakers from universities, NASA, DARPA, the SyFy Channel, the Washington Post, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and even Futurama, plus sci-fi writers Cramer, Stephenson, Ted Chiang, Elizabeth Bear, Karl Schroeder, Kathleen Ann Goonan, Madeline Ashby, Lee Konstantinou, and Vandana Singh. The discussion ranged from the ethics of robot babysitters and space travel to the difference between “democratic science via grassroots” and “government-directed global cooperation.” The ideas debated largely fell into four categories: the role money plays in innovation, the policy challenges of new technologies, the ways people are affected by and can affect advances, and the challenges and triumphs of imagination.

The money

Real innovation doesn’t come from “small, ragtag groups” or even from solitary geniuses. It comes from corporations, argued Stephenson in his opening remarks. In other words, innovation requires money and investment—whether it’s public or private.

Companies’ influence over technologies can come at a cost. For one thing, the entrepreneurial world’s recent embrace of “fail quickly” may be shortsighted. Give up on big ideas too soon, and they’ll never come to fruition, Stephenson warned.

Another warning came from sci-fi writer Lee Konstantinou, whose short story in Hieroglyph discussed drones and the Internet, offered a terrifying vision: The future Internet could look a lot like the America Online of yesteryear, with high walls erected by corporations to keep customers in place. Even more disturbingly, Vandana Singh, who in addition to being a sci-fi writer is a theoretical physicist, noted that the pursuit of profit has helped create today’s environmental mess. We aren’t living in the Anthropocene—the age in which humankind shapes the climate; rather, she said, “it’s the Capitalocene.” Money and investment are changing the Earth. But maybe technology offers some hope here, too: While discussing neurological technologies, which her Hieroglyph short story “Covenant” explores, Elizabeth Bear noted one possibility of “a process that can remove sociopathic tendencies. Well, there goes Wall Street.”

The policy

Money isn’t the only factor that can gunk up technological revolutions.

“Where I’ve seen law and policy go horribly wrong is because they get frustrated talking to technologists … then you get tremendously bad laws,” Dan Kaufman of DARPA said. Ryan Calo of the University of Washington also noted that it can be difficult to have “the right stakeholders at the table” to write a law. These policy challenges have real-world ramifications that could, say, delay Amazon’s grand plan to unleash delivery drones.

Science fiction offers one way to help bridge that gap. But as Daniel Sarewitz of Arizona State’s Consortium for Science Policy and Outcomes said, “We haven’t yet gotten very good at using narrative to affect how we make policy.”

The people

But we are better at using narrative to help explain technology to individuals.

“The most powerful tool we’ve had for surveillance policy is 1984,” argued Kevin Bankston of New America’s Open Technology Institute. “It helps everyone understand what’s at stake.” When you say “Big Brother,” even somebody who isn’t comfortable with technology knows what you’re talking about.

This is important because, as Kaufman put it, “Technology is not a thing that should be happening to you. Technology should be participatory.” That holds true whether or not you know what PGP is, for instance. A healthy, population-wide debate about the introduction of new technologies is particularly important when it comes to personal autonomy. Bear asked, for example, whether a person suffering from depression could be forced to undergo a neurological treatment that might make them feel better, or whether the “neuroatypical” could be required to bring their brains in line with the norm: “Our concept of personal autonomy is not actually based on ‘Well, you’ll thank me for it later,’ unless you’re parenting. ”

Gender plays an enormous role in many of these discussions. As Bear and bioethicist Jonathan Moreno discussed, mental health was used in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as an excuse to hospitalize women for vague problems like “hysteria.” But technology could also offer a shortcut around some current gender problems: Cramer noted that today, mothers are often criticized, even arrested, for letting a child play outside alone. Perhaps a babysitting robot could help. Of course, she said, we could also “just say actually, the kid’s not going to die, why do we need a robot?” But making a robot that can hold a child’s hand while crossing the street might be easier than fighting society’s gender roles.

The imagination

“You can’t invent something that someone didn’t imagine,” said Stofan, distilling the major takeaway of the day: Great sci-fi has the power to inspire scientists and technologists to create a world we’re excited by.

The dystopian (think 1984) can be powerful in helping us avoid a future that makes us wince. Konstantinou said that he “couldn’t help but include … a dystopian vision of the Internet” in his story.

But some sci-fi today has its shortcomings. Patric Verrone, who wrote for Futurama, among other shows, said, “Science fiction is now about discussing internal things, rather than sending skyscrapers into space” or otherwise dreaming big and bold.

One possible constraint to this kind of big thinking could be technology itself. Chiang said at one point, “Our thinking is partially being done by algorithms now. How much of our cognition do we want to cede to software?” A corollary to that is: How much of our imagination do we want to cede to software? Algorithms even create fiction and help companies like Netflix decide what content to invest in. Furthermore, Karl Schroeder noted, “Sci-fi never imagines that we can improve the way we make decisions.”

Just as we may want to consider the subtle ways software could be stymieing creativity, we should also be wary of constraining ourselves by today’s version of the future. “I don’t think technology is ever used the way we think” it will be, said Kaufman. For instance, DARPA created Siri for the military, “to do scheduling, but it turns out we like to talk to our computer and have it tell us wrong things a lot. So, you’re welcome.”

Perhaps the most wonderful thing about science fiction, though, is how it allows for ambiguity in discussing new technologies and the conundrums they can create. “I see my job as having ethical arguments with myself in public,” Bear said. Singh echoed that thought: “Don’t judge my morals by my stories. That is the beauty of fiction.”

To watch the event in its entirety, visit the New America website.

More on Project Hieroglyph and the role of science fiction on Slate:

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University.


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