EMERGE Impressions Day 3

The curse of grad school is that there’s always something else to do. I was finally able to grab a moment from the endless treadmill of readings to write up the rest of the EMERGE conference. Day 3 was a combination of keynote addresses and report-outs from the working groups. By and large, the keynotes were more interesting, so I’m going to focus on the keynotes and my responses. As it turns out, creating interesting design fictions in 24 hours is hard.

I arrive at Neeb Hall at the blessedly late hour of 9:30, coffee in hand. Neeb is the singlest biggest auditorium on campus, and it is nearly full. Fortunately, I manage to grab a seat in the front by my friend John Carter McKnight. M83’s Midnight City is playing, and fades out as Joel Garreau introduces the conference. The perfect song to start the day; if Midnight City doesn’t get you pumped up, you may in fact be clinically dead.

M83 | Midnight City from DIVISION on Vimeo.

First up is ASU President Michael Crow. He opens with a simple question, “Are you happy with the trajectory of our country?” *Crickets*. Out of 500+ scientists, artists, designers, futurists, and civilians, not a single person is happy or optimistic. Crow explains his philosophy: we are trapped by ossified bureaucracies, and particularly our institutions of knowledge production have become routinized and solidified around disciplinary silos. The Generic State University is full of uninterested students not learning from boring professors.
ASU aims to fix that, finding emergent ways of organizing genius. Since Crow’s arrival, he’s shattered departments and reorganized them around knowledge enterprises (the Biodesign Institute, the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes, Games for Learning) and big questions like the Origins of Everything or Sustainability. The idea is to dump ‘valueless engagement’ and re-center Exploration as the core value of the university. “The only way to discover where we want to go is to intensely imagine.”
Michael Crow is a polarizing figure, and from my position as somebody who’s at ASU very much because of what he is trying to do, I think that you have to give his reforms mixed reviews. There are lots of corpses of interdisciplinary collaborations littered across the campus, and there are still plenty of uninterested students and boring professors. On the other hand, he has attracted a solid core of really amazing scholars, and at least he’s trying to engage with the future of higher education, rather than just aiming to maintain his stats. I am continually astounded that somebody gave Michael Crow a major university, but I would also follow him to the gates of hell.

Next, Neal Stephenson. Neal is chairing the first panel, but he offers his thoughts on visioning the future, although not before first noting that “I hope I’m not old, ossified, etc. I don’t want Crow to dynamite me and terraform the rubble,” a line which gets major laughs. Being dynamited by Crow will be theme throughout the day. For Neal, visioning implies an internally coherent picture, not just a random grab-bag of ideas. He writes fiction because it’s really cheap. The big problem that Neal is grappling with (and one that he, ASU, and myself are working on) are how to effectively transform imagination into innovation. “Somebody from 1900 would not understand 1968. Somebody from 1968 would get 2012. Somewhere along the line, we lost the ability to effectively imagine and envision the future.” Of course, Neal is not a big fan of futurism as a practice, “Future is my new F-word.” But the man who brought us Snow Crash and Diamond Age is looking for the next big scientific breakthough.
I do have some doubts about Neal’s conception here. Isn’t the big change between 1900 and 1968 the rate of technological change, rather than any new technology (cars, airplanes, computers, rockets, nuclear power) in and of itself? Alvin Toffler talked about the problems surrounding rate of change in the classic Future Shock, but at this point, I think that the group of neotenic (change-seeking) individuals is large enough, organized enough, and influential enough that future shock isn’t what it once was. For some people, even The Singularity wouldn’t be a surprise.

Follow Neal is Stewart Brand, gnomic member of the original Merry Pranksters and the environmental movement, and the inspiration behind the Whole Earth Catalog, the Blue Marble photo, and the Long Now Foundation. Brand uses his perspective of over 40 years as an environmentalist to speak out against “Earth National Park” and the idea that any interference by man in nature is a violation. For him, a survival future involves a gardening mentality, and science helps with that. Demographically, the future is new cities full of young people in the Global South, and they won’t much care what old white people in Brussels and Washington DC have to say to them. Brand might be living proof of SMBC’s Law of Futurology (his current project is bringing back the passenger pigeon), but he is as always an engaging and controversial speaker.

Corner Convenience from hellofosta on Vimeo.

Corner Convenience is probably the stand-out product of the workshops, as an attempt to imagine the everyday materiality of new foods, forms of entertainment, and ways of paying for things in the very humdrum location of the convenience store. Two words: Panda Jerky.

Sherry Turkle is next. She’s the author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, and an MIT professor, but for all her standing in the digital humanities, she holds a strong conviction that virtuality damages something important about our humanity, and that we are replacing complexity with technological oversimplification. She’s an elegant speaker, but not a very good presenter, and my final thought was that Turkle is a digital bioconservative, the equivalent of Leon Kass who is disgusted by social change, cannot explain why, and so elevates disgust to a moral principle.

At this moment, it turns out that not only am I sitting next to John Carter, but @buildcyberworld (she of the Brad Allenby==Cave Johnson quote) is right behind me. Live tweeting events is weird.

Bruce Mau, the next presenter, knocked it out of the park. Bruce is a true design guru. He’s the force behind ASU’s web design, which is ahead of 90% of most university web design (think I’m kidding? Check out the rest and report back), a 1000-year plan for Mecca, and fixing the future in general. It’s hard to pin down Bruce Mau, but he is highly quotable.

And closing the day is Bruce Sterling. Bruce remarks that “The telepathic monkey is weirdly melancholic. Science-fiction has been doing telepathic monkeys for so long that to see one in the flesh is a little dull. Nobody’s everyday life is weird and wonderous.

But technology is provisional, and wonder is a beautiful frame of mind that should probably be reserved for the eternal and universal.

Bruce finishes by saying, “Summing up what’s happened here is impossible, but I can demo it.” And launches into a truly weird piece of performance art where he puts on his telepathic brain-reading gloves (bought at the Corner Convenience store) and summons up an augmented reality interface to 3D print up some improvements to his house, and finally help him learn Spanish through old Mexican comedies.

“I connected to a human moment, I understood the joke. Learning in context is the victory condition.” I cannot disagree with Bruce here.

I took a short break for dinner, and to tour some of the art exhibits with Marci, including RC helicopter minigolf and an Intel exhibit on steampunk superheroes, followed by the Immerge Light/Music/Art festival.

Immerge was a truly weird event, a collection of digital art installations set on a highly abstracted concrete plaza by the ASU art museum. Waiting for it to start, I amused myself playing with an interactive video/music display hacked together out of a Kinect sensor and an iMac. Playing this instrument with no keys or strings or tactical feedback was really strange. You danced like a maniac in an attempt to elicit music. It was like the humans were entertaining the robots.

At a few minutes past 7:00, thunder rolled, and a projected waterfall rolled down the side of the music hall. Fractal trees grew on pink stucco walls, and the edges of the ASU art museum were picked out in lights. Dancers costumed in electro-luminescent body-suits, and armed with Fresnel lenses and half-globes that displayed strange images (iPads in a handheld casing) moved through the crowd, scanning trees and onlookers. It was like a visitation from some post-human Phoenix, a lush jungle city of beautiful glowing scientists collecting strange aesthetic data on the past.

With the conference a week gone, can I answer the question “what was EMERGE?” It was tons of fun, it was provocative, it was the kind of thing that could only happen at ASU. Did we make the future? Probably not, but hopefully a few more minds were engaged with the future, and a few durable ideas will come out of it. EMERGE was an oasis of optimism and creativity in a desert of bleak short-sightedness.

As Joel Garreau said at the start of the day, “The difference is that at ASU, scientists and arm wavers drink with each other.”

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