EMERGE 2013 Retrospective

The past weekend saw EMERGE 2013 at ASU.  The theme was “The Future of Truth”, and there was a level of carnival creativity rarely seen in the rather stolid world of academia; there were dancers, full body 3D scanners, philosophy in public, and similar insanity.

A full accounting of the speeches and events that went on at EMERGE is beyond me, but I’d like to note a few highlights. Brad Allenby remains eminently quotable and provocative, playing clips from 2001: A Space Odyssey and advising us not to make out with strange monoliths. Claire Evans of YACHT gave a dangerously smart talk on how rock and roll is a post-modern cult for the 21st century. In a panel on “The Myth of the Future”, Bruce Sterling declined to found a sci-fi cult (dammit! I’d bring the Kool-Aid), while Betty Sue Flowers discussed global myths and Brian David Johnson mediated between the two, advising us to take control of our own future stories.

My part of EMERGE was a workshop called “Truth and Atrocities: What is the Future of Investigating Human Rights Violation in the Age of Facebook?” which Dan Rothenberg, a legitimate human rights lawyer and expert on truth commissions, was kind enough to let me help out with. Truth commissions are part of what is called ‘transitional governance”, the process of taking a country from a period of dictatorship or civil war (and associated atrocities) and building civic society and robust democratic institutions. They aren’t war crimes tribunals, as people are rarely charged with a crime, but they are instead intended to lay a common factual truth of what happened, to give voice to victims, and allow forgiveness of perpetrators so that the culture can heal and move forward.

The first truth commission was established to deal with the fate of The Disappeared, victims of the Argentina military junta who were abducted, tortured, and finally murdered, with these actions comprehensively disavowed by the State. The Argentinian Commission on the Disappearance of Persons recorded the names of the victims, the location of secret prisons and graves, and generally made it impossible to ignore the crimes of the old regime.

Dan and I decided to focus our discussion on drones, since they’re a controversial issue which may require a truth commission in the future—as the next generation of policy-makers will have to reconcile the common knowledge of the Drone War, with official administration denials that any strikes are taking place, and in any case, only terrorists are harmed (a patent lie). Our group included the awesome Jasmina Tesanovic, along with a full spectrum of students, professors, and journalists willing to argue for and against drones. On the second day we took up the roles of a Truth Commission investigating a drone strike in 2019, establishing a detailed sequence of personal narratives that looked at this one event from many perspectives.

The participants did an amazing job making the events of that day come alive. For my own perspective, I began to question my technological conservatism on autonomous drones. While current policy requires that a human being pull the trigger, future drones which are designed to operate in more hostile environments may have more independence of motion and sensor fusion and analysis. Of course, a human will still have to give the kill order, but the drone might wait several minutes before firing to maximize a hit and minimize collateral damage. Once those capacities are in place, an ‘ethical governor’ that determines that the whole mission is wrong does not seem so unrealistic. A sudden call from our drone, an MQ-47 named “Sparky”, brought the house down.

Otherwise, I had several great conversations with the brilliant Caitlin Burns of Starlight Runner Entertainment. Her company is responsible for Forward Unto Dawn (best military scifi of the past decade), and I am firmly convinced that gaming, literature, film, art, advertising, and maybe even politics are blending into some new thing. Less sure if that’s a good thing, necessarily, but it’ll be interesting.

Of course, no conference on a topic as big as “The Future of Truth” could end with answers, and so I’d like to pose two big questions I’m left with.

Truth Commissions have traditionally been conducted through oral history (speaking has a healing value) and forensic examinations of field sites and archives. Drones and camera phones (even Third World Peasants have camera phones now) have introduced massive proliferation of video into post-2000 investigations. Does the number of cameras in contested zones make atrocities harder to commit and get away with? Conversely, does the potential for omnipresent video footage mean that old-fashioned oral testimony is less credible? Truth commissions operate from a place of empathic distance: how do these technologies make that perspective easier or harder to obtain? Dick Fink threw together a 6 panel video mashup of drone footage and Arab Spring clips (thanks bro!) to help illustrate the panel. Drone footage is mesmerizing in its abstraction—black and white IR dots, and then an explosion, and then some of them stop moving. Conversely, cellphone videos—grainy, jerky, poorly framed as they may be, have an undeniable presence. It is difficult to maintain distance just hearing about massacres. What if you had those atrocities caught on video? Could the past ever fade away?

Second was about the long term purpose of EMERGE. As Bruce Sterling said in his keynote discussing Vaclav Havel, there’s a big difference between having fun and being provocative, and dealing with the administrivia necessary to keep things running. As EMERGE becomes an institution, something that happens more than once or twice, how will it find its purpose beyond being an intellectual festival? How can bringing artists and scientists together for a few days help advance ASU towards the three moonshots of health-span extension, sustainability, and educational transformation? (as laid out by President Crow in the morning). I think that a sense of fun, of transdisciplinary public engagement, of an intellectual adventure, can be very beneficial for a scholarly community. I hope that future EMERGEs live up to the high standards of this one.

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