UPDATE--Thanks all, this has been tremendous! The book is out today, 9/9/2014, and I invite you to continue the conversation or ask more questions at the Hieroglyph Project site.

Hi, Redditors. I am Ed Finn, the founding director of the Center for Science and the Imagination and scholar of digital culture at Arizona State University. My job at the center is to reboot our relationship with the future and get us thinking big again. One way we do this is to harness the feedback loop between science and science fiction, asking artists, writers, scientists and engineers to work together on wild ideas that are technically feasible using the site http://hieroglyph.asu.edu.

Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future is a result of this collaborative process. My co-editor Kathryn Cramer and I have worked with leading thinkers, writers and visionaries, including Paul Davies, Lawrence Krauss and the people mentioned above, on a set of stories, moonshot ideas, and napkin proofs to open up our thinking about what we can do and what we should do.

Ask me anything about Hieroglyph, science fiction, or the room with whiteboards and swords in it….

You can learn more about the center and pre-order the book here: http://csi.asu.edu.

Proof: See this AMA link on my Twitter feed

Comments: 43 • Responses: 16  • Date: 

ciggboyslim4 karma

What do you consider to be the best futurist literature out there and why?

edfinn3 karma

Um, ours...

Just kidding.

It's been important for me during this project to avoid reinventing the wheel. There have been many great near-future, technically grounded science fiction writers before the arrival of Hieroglyph and I want to keep expanding the circle of collaborators as we move forward. Kim Stanley Robinson is one prominent example--we've been lucky enough to have him out to ASU a couple of times and he'll be back in October for our Phoenix launch event. We've got to find a way to rope him into our next project!

Why? Writers like Robinson bridge the technical and social dimensions of the future through fiction, imagining worlds that we can inhabit as readers. They use science fiction as a kind of mental laboratory for all sorts of thought-provoking hypotheticals about change--technological, but also social, political, even religious.

jcapple144 karma

What would success look like for this Hieroglyph project? How do you know you've succeeded in getting people to "think big" again?

edfinn5 karma

Great question. There are a few different metrics:

How many people are getting involved in the conversation? Are we recruiting new participants to the Hieroglyph site, which is free and open to anyone who'd like to register? And what are they doing once they sign up?

Are these ideas shaping research trajectories? We've got some anecdotal evidence for this but I'd like to continue tightening the feedback loop between science and science fiction by seeding research inspired by one or more of these stories. You can see a few examples already of cross-pollination on the Hieroglyph site. One of the guidelines for writers was to come up with a narrative that a young scientist or engineer could read and then achieve in her or his professional lifetime. I want to give some of those people the permission and resources try it out.

Are we changing the model? This is the hardest to measure, of course. But I think (anecdotally again) that there has already been an incremental shift away from lazy dystopianism. Can we encourage more big picture thinking in schools, in politics, and in countries around the world? For example, I love the Big History project I just read about in the New York Times. Can we work on this together, Mr. Gates?

Whorschach3 karma

What is the most frequently asked question you get about your job, and what is your defacto answer?

edfinn3 karma

"So you do science fiction?"

Answer: not really. Science fiction is a tool for us, but not the object of study or the primary output. Narratives are arguably the single most effective way to convince large groups of people to effect change in their lives. I like to borrow this line from Intel futurist Brian David Johnson: to change the future you need to change the story you tell about the future.

But of course there are lots of different kinds of narratives, from science fiction stories to live performances to academic research.

joeyesch3 karma

Why is the project called "Hieroglyph"?

edfinn4 karma

The name draws inspiration from the idea that certain concepts in science fictions are so powerful that they become iconic symbols: Heinlein's rocket ships, Asimov's robots, etc. These ideas are so sticky, so deeply etched in the cultural consciousness (like hieroglyphic symbols) that they inspire generations of research. For example, it's almost impossible to work on robotics without considering Asimov's three laws, or having your work evaluated in that context.

ChuckEye3 karma

Ch. 4: “The Man Who Sold the Moon”

Ch. 10: “The Man Who Sold the Stars”

Did you ever consider a compilation of “The Man Who Sold the ____” stories, and nothing else?

edfinn3 karma

We did spend a little time talking about this and it actually gets to the heart of one debate we had about Hieroglyph the book. These titles all refer back to the Golden Age Heinlein novella and they reflect a particular kind of science fiction: space exploration, rocket ships, the romance of the final frontier. We love this stuff and I'm delighted that we have two very different takes on that narrative from Gregory Benford and Cory Doctorow. But we also wanted Hieroglyph to tackle a broad range of challenges from other stars to life right here on Planet Earth.

That said, I'm certainly interested in a future book project that would take space exploration as its main theme, especially if we can get more people from the commercial or federal space industry on board. There's clearly a bright future for commercial space and we need some new stories to help figure it out!

BruceMatsunaga3 karma

Your new book, Hieroglyph, features a fantastic list of collaborators. How much did you interact with these authors and is there are particular interaction that stands out in your memory?

edfinn4 karma

This was a big project and I realized early on that as much as I wanted to be part of every conversation, there was no way I could. So I've interacted with all of the authors over email, a many of them by phone and several of them for intensive visits and conversations. Some of them I'll meet for the first time during our book tour!

There are a lot of highlights for me...one I'll point to is the conversation I had with Neal Stephenson during our keynote for the Association of Science-Technology Centers last year, moderated by Alex Zwissler. That was a lot of fun.

two_off3 karma

Is there any story arc across the entire novel, or can I open up to any short and go from there?

edfinn4 karma

You can pretty much read the stories in any order. I do love the fact that the anthology is book-ended by two stories about the same big idea, a Tall Tower 20 km. high. Neal wrote his story about this first and then Bruce Sterling decided to imagine what that tower might look like 200 years in the future (ok, so he broke the guidelines a little...he's always been a pirate like that). Those are fun to read in sequence.

TheJackal83 karma

So what would you say you do?

edfinn3 karma

It usually depends on who's asking... The general answer is "get people thinking more creatively and ambitiously about the future." A more specific one would be I run a center dedicated to this at Arizona State University, where I am also a faculty member in two different programs (School of Arts, Media & Engineering and the Department of English).

ixaaxi3 karma

what, according to you, are the top 3 examples of science meeting imagination till date?

edfinn4 karma

Great question! I wish I had a rank-ordered list but I don't. Let me throw out a few examples that have been on my mind recently:

Einstein and the theory of general relativity (Let me preface this by pointing out my Ph.D. is in English...) Theoretical physics in general is something you can do with a pencil or a piece of chalk--it's pretty much all imagination. Einstein's quote "Imagination is more important than knowledge" is one of the things we tend to slap on coasters and t-shirts around here.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus This book, considered by many the first science fiction novel, melded political theory, social justice and the coolest science of the day (Galvanism, continental natural philosophy, etc) into a story so successful its metaphors and monsters are absolutely everywhere today.

So many more...the double helix, calculus, the telegraph, the Internet These are all examples of insights or inventions that, first of all, happened in multiple places or with different people at the same time, suggesting that some kind of cultural conversation or moment might have brought them into being (e.g. "it's calculus time!"). And second, they all involved profound shifts in perspective, either in the initial discovery or their transformative impact on society. They are all imagination machines or engines of one kind or another, grounded in scientific discovery but only really "real" through their cultural impact.

ixaaxi2 karma

"…its [Frankenstein's] metaphors and monsters are absolutely everywhere today."

What would be an example?

edfinn3 karma

Oh man...they are seriously everywhere when you start looking. Frankenfoods. Her. The annual competition where college and even high school students create artificial life (IGEM)!

Btw, happy cake day!

NorbitGorbit3 karma

what was the collaboration process / workflow like? did you end up using google docs or some other specialized software for collaboration?

edfinn3 karma

Funny story: when we first began planning this out, I asked Neal Stephenson how he and his collaborators had pulled off the Mongoliad, an amazing community-driven narrative. It emerged that he and the other team of primary authors had a big room with whiteboards and swords in it where they would hang and bash out the story together.

We knew this wouldn't work for us: requiring co-location would immediately limit the pool of potential collaborators and turn this into a very different project. So after some experimentation we settled on the Hieroglyph site as a primary means of collaboration. It's a Wordpress site running a customized install of Commons in a Box, providing forums, working groups, some social features and loads of other stuff that allow writers, researchers and others to play together.

But there's actually a more important answer here, which is that we didn't require anyone to do anything. Writers and researchers were encouraged to use the site, but people communicated in many ways, from phone calls and email to a few ad hoc in-person meetings. By setting up guidelines and a kind of community ethos, we nudged people towards a particular style of interaction and communication that is generally generous and thoughtful. We work on the Hieroglyph process constantly in conjunction with various other collaborative projects, so it's an ongoing experiment for us.

ixaaxi3 karma

Correct me if I'm wrong, but most popular futuristic fiction and films represent a dystopian, apocalyptic image of what's coming. Why is it difficult to move away from that image and line of thinking? Is it because it may be somewhat close to a future reality?

edfinn6 karma

Basically I think it's because dystopianism is much easier than coming up with a plausible optimistic scenario. It's cheap to criticize other peoples' ideas and expensive to come up with something new. This is not to say that dystopianism doesn't perform a very valuable service, warning us about stuff we might not want to do... But if that's all we ever see, dire warnings and apocalyptic hellscapes, who is going to believe in or work towards a world we might actually want?

That's the challenge Hieroglyph is intended to meet. Neal Stephenson laid it out beautifully in his initial essay Innovation Starvation (which got this whole thing started).

ninkyphx2 karma

What is your definition of imagination?

edfinn2 karma

That is a tough one--in fact, I'd say this is my next big research project.

I think the operating definition is: the open space, the unclaimed territory between disciplines and knowledge structures. Because the way you come up with something genuinely new is to shift perspective, step outside the lines and see the world in a new way. Artists, physicists and poets will all tell you this. Imagination is the word we give to creative freedom, risk-taking and experimentation in its purest form.

SexyLoverBoy2 karma

How much of a twat is Cory Doctorow in real life? How many times has he asked you to read his book Little Brother?

edfinn2 karma

Sorry to disappoint you but in my experience he's quite nice. Last year he agreed to hew time out of a busy tour schedule to visit ASU, unpaid as I recall, and do an event on hacktivism that was in part a sort of memorial for his friend Aaron Swartz.

My favorite thing about Doctorow is that at least once he just turned his email off for several weeks while he was at Burning Man, bouncing all messages into the void. I aspire to close the spigot myself one day.

frozen_in_reddit1 karma

Ed, have you noticed the lack of future visions regarding psychological/spiritual development of people and society ? Why is that ?

For example :

Where is the technology story about the technology that makes everybody into an amazing parent? Where is the technology story about the tech that make everyone spiritually enlightened ? Where are the stories about technology eradicating loneliness ? etc..

edfinn1 karma

I have noticed this and I'm pleased that a couple of Hieroglyph stories take on fundamental issues like these.

None of the stories address exactly what you mean, but they explore fundamental psychological questions. For example: what would true universal literacy look like if we had a pill to create the brain plasticity you would need for that kind of learning? The technology of the pill itself is a small part of the psychological and social transformation that would ensue. Imagine unlocking full potential of ~750 million people who currently can't read (almost 2/3 of them women). This is Kathy Goonan's story for the anthology.

On a broader level I think we collectively invest much less effort in exploring psychological and social spaces as things we can constructively change than we do in physical spaces (like the subatomic space or outer space). Partially that's because we can't see those imaginary geographies as well, and partially (I suspect) it's because we're afraid of what we might learn about ourselves if we looked too closely. But this needs to change--if Reddit works, if Wikipedia works (and they work pretty well), we should be able to motivate large groups of people to engage in other kinds of collaborative projects.

RedErin1 karma

Hi, hope you come back to see this.

I really like what you're doing, I'm a techno-optimist myself. I plan to get your book. I want to give it to my dad because he's becoming quite jaded about the future.

I imagine it's difficult creating stories that are optimistic, as it's easier and more popular to do distopias and lots of conflict. Did you request that the authors be more positive?

edfinn1 karma

We gave the writers guidelines, not rules. So they interpreted the central call of Hieroglyph in their own ways...but I don't think they would have signed up in the first place if they didn't buy into the larger goal of the project on some level.

It was important to me that Hieroglyph never fall into thoughtless optimism, which is just as useless as lazy dystopianism. All of the stories in the book have their share of conflict and challenges--the future will be full of that, and you can't have a good narrative without it. But they also present a vision of the world that is generally optimistic, suggesting that the problems are soluble if we plan ahead and work together.