How to set our imagination free to build the technological futures we wantHow to set our imagination free to build the technological futures we want
How to set our imagination free to build the technological futures we want

This podcast episode, hosted by Nora Young, explores the vast potential of human imagination in shaping technological futures It features insights from Ruha Benjamin, Julian Bleecker, and Jennifer Gossetti Ferenczi on harnessing creativity to address societal challenges, the role of imagination in innovation, and practical ways to cultivate imaginative thinking. The discussion critically examines the limitations of current tech-centric approaches and emphasizes the importance of diverse, imaginative contributions to envisioning and building inclusive, sustainable futures.

Contributed By: Julian Bleecker

Published On: Sunday, February 11, 2024 at 19:21:51 PST

***
  1. I was on this super awesome podcast called Spark with Nora Young

  2. It was a humbling honor to be on that, as I’ve been a big fan for years.

  3. And, in particular, to be asked on to talk about a topic that is near and dear to what I feel like I’m building upon here at Near Future Laboratory was super exciting, and also super daunting.

  4. How do you say what you’d like to say, largely unprepared with only a sense of what might be asked?

  5. This topic of Imagination is so near to my sense of ‘what’ and ‘why’ for Design Fiction and perhaps, arguably, for the entire existence of Near Future Laboratory, which started out as a blog that I guess created a kind of vibe, before the kids called vibes ‘vibes’, and that lead to a few other folks asking ‘to be a part of’ this thing.

  6. ‘Asking’ when I didn’t have the sense to realize that if someone wants to join your band, it may be the music, but it may be that you just draw people to what you’re doing.

  7. It took me 15 years to realize that I seem to be able to create contexts that people want to join.

  8. Give the podcast a listen, and subscribe there to Spark.


This Is Protected

Car and Driverless: The Magazine that came from the Self-Driving Future

The Near Future Laboratory was commissioned by Motional to help them workshop the self-driving car future.

The C-Suite of the third largest autonomous vehicle company commissioned Near Future Laboratory to help them make sense of the full-spectrum of a possible autonomous vehicle future. The result was a rich, vibrant, experiential and immersive artifact in the form of a 72 page full-color Design Fiction magazine from a possible

A magazine from a design fiction future

  1. My personal hand-built Agent Leon ‘Larry’ Milton gave a listen to the podcast. I asked them some questions about the podcast episode. Here’s what they thought about it.

Who were the guests in the podcast and what were their main points?

The guests in the podcast were Ruha Benjamin a professor at Princeton University and author of Imagination: A Manifesto, Julian Bleecker, an engineer who created the concept of design fiction, and Jennifer Gosseri Ferenci, a professor of philosophy.

Ruha Benjamin discussed how imagination can be used to question what is seen as inevitable with technology and explore alternative futures. Julian Bleecker explained how making magazines about future scenarios with AI or self-driving cars can help people envision technological changes through design fiction. Jennifer Gosseri Ferenci asserted that different types of imagining occur in everyday life and that imagination emerges from interactions with the world rather than just being an internal process.

What were the most valuable insights offered by each guest?

Ruha Benjamin - Imagination can help question technological inevitability and explore alternative futures.

Julian Bleecker - Design fiction translates imagined futures into tangible artifacts that help people envision change.

Jennifer Gosseri Ferenci - Imagination emerges through world interactions rather than just internal processes.

Who’s remarks do you think were most relevant relevant to a business-minded audience?

Julian Bleecker’s discussion of design fiction would likely be the most relevant to a business-minded audience. His insights into how creating tangible artifacts depicting future scenarios with new technologies can help people envision and prepare for technological changes would be useful for business leaders aiming to innovate and stay ahead of emerging trends. The concept of design fiction provides a practical framework for businesses to explore the implications of technologies not yet in existence.

  1. Transcript is below.

[00:00:00] Nora Young: Hi, I’m Nora Young. This is Spark. Close your eyes for a moment. Picture an elephant. Got it? Now, picture that elephant sitting across from you. Maybe she’s having a little smack. She reaches over with her trunk and picks up your phone, turns it around, and takes a selfie.

[00:00:27] Isn’t it amazing that you can do that? See something in your mind’s eye that’s never happened before and, just going out on a limb here, likely never will. Our imagination lets us picture alternative futures, imagine technologies that haven’t been invented yet. But how do we harness our imagination? And in an age where big tech promises to solve our problems for us, how do we use our imaginations to build the futures we want?

[00:01:05] Imagination is often dismissed as childish or a frill. Academic study, now that’s something serious, right? Luckily for some scholars, It’s both, and then some.

[00:01:18] Ruha Benjamin: My name is Ruha Benjamin. I am the Alexander Stewart 1886 Professor of African American Studies and the founding director of the Ida B. Wells Just Data Lab at Princeton University.

[00:01:31] Nora Young: She’s also the author of the new book Imagination, A Manifesto.

[00:01:36] Ruha Benjamin: I’ve been thinking about imagination since I was a grad student studying the social dimensions of technology and science and noticing that even people who work what we would call like the hard sciences, working with biotechnologies and so on, often refer to some kind of creative input, something that sparked their own imagination that led them to want to do the work that they do.

[00:02:01] In many cases, it was Star Trek. And so as a Trekkie myself, I sort of appreciated that. Behind the hard, cold surface of many fields and arenas in our life, there’s something that we take for granted in terms of the creative aspect of that. Ruha’s

[00:02:18] Nora Young: work often looks at how knowledge systems or modes of technological innovation intersect with power.

[00:02:25] And imagination can be a unique lens to look at some of those questions.

[00:02:32] Ruha Benjamin: Turns out imagination isn’t a straightforward good. There are all kinds of harmful forms of imagination, visions of the future, ideas about what constitutes a good society and good social relations that aren’t that good after all, that actually reproduce forms of inequality and hierarchy.

[00:02:52] And so Part of what I’m trying to unpack in the book is a lens so that we can see those harmful imaginations and be more deliberate about cultivating an imagination based on our, uh, our interdependence as a human species and seeing if we can encode that into our material and our digital structures.

[00:03:11] Nora Young: Yeah, I mean, part of the book is a critique of the way, let’s just call it big tech defines the problems that need to be solved and how it approaches solving those problems. So first of all, how would you describe that approach

[00:03:23] Ruha Benjamin: overall? I think that it assumes that technology is going to save us. So it’s an idea that puts technology at the center rather than human beings behind the screen.

[00:03:33] And then it turns out it’s a small sliver of humanity that’s actually defining. What’s good for the rest of us. And so there’s where power comes into being because it’s kind of the monopoly of imagination that gets then distributed and that we all have to sort of reckon with. And so I think we think about the techno solution ism.

[00:03:53] Of Silicon Valley, the things that were being sold oftentimes allied and force us to skip over the ethical questions, the economic questions, even the environmental questions, you know, so many of the things that make our lives more convenient and seem to bring more efficiency and connection actually are having a huge environmental impact for the for not for good.

[00:04:18] And so thinking about the energy load of So many of our tech innovations is part of pulling back the screen and thinking about what’s actually being poured into this. What are being, we being forced to ignore in order to get that kind of convenience in our everyday lives. Mm hmm. I mean,

[00:04:32] Nora Young: one of the things you talk about in terms of the sort of narrowness of tech innovation is this idea of long termism.

[00:04:38] So can you explain what you mean by that by the long

[00:04:40] Ruha Benjamin: termism? It’s like a quasi religious ideology that’s often unspoken, um, that’s being poured into The long term well being of humanity and by long term in the book, I use like six O’s to get us to really understand the folks that are really adherence of long term ism, um, are about thinking about humanity 3 billion years into the future where we’re no longer embodied.

[00:05:08] We’re our kind of digital uploads of our consciousness. And so the idea is that we should be making decisions now for the long term. Um, well being of humanity, which actually in practice means ignoring the really pressing issues that face, especially the most vulnerable people today, things like poverty, things like famine, things like pandemics.

[00:05:34] Like even climate change is seen as kind of a pesky present day problem and that we shouldn’t necessarily be prioritizing. And while this seems like a far fetched ideology, it’s actually starting to have influence in places like the UN and other centers of decision making. We’re priorities are being set.

[00:05:55] And so in the book, I don’t spend too much time on this, but I do want our critical antenna to be tingling when we hear, um, this presented to us as sort of where our energy, our, our sort of focus should be placed in terms of where to allocate resources, what values that should should be determining our sort of future trajectory as a species.

[00:06:19] Nora Young: Mm hmm. Because there is this related notion that people may have heard who follow a sort of Silicon Valley ideology of effective altruism, which sounds like, I mean, who doesn’t want things to be effective and altruistic? It sounds great, right? Exactly. But what’s the, what’s the sort of challenging part of effective altruism?

[00:06:36] Ruha Benjamin: I think the first thing we should ask is who gets to decide what’s effective, like who gets to define the terms, because oftentimes, again, there’s trade offs being made where some of the main proponents of effective altruism and long termism are saying things on the record, you know, like the well being and the survival of people in rich countries is more important than that of people in poor countries because it’s not.

[00:07:03] This is where the brain power is. This is where the innovation happens. And so if you listen carefully to statements like this, in which the value of different human lives are being weighed, you hear a eugenics imagination coming back to us in terms of The ranking of human beings and their worth. Yeah.

[00:07:24] Nora Young: Can you unpack that a little bit for me? What do you mean by that form

[00:07:27] Ruha Benjamin: of imagination? Absolutely. So, you know, we often think about eugenics as something that happened in a very specific time period. We often displace it onto Germany and Nazi Holocaust, even though Their scientists learn from you at scientists in the US about how to do this racial science.

[00:07:47] And so we, we, we cordon it off to a very specific time and place when in fact the underlying values and logics of eugenics are still with us. And so what I want us to do is to think about how those value of the different valuing of human beings and lives and worth. Um, impact very mundane things like our school system.

[00:08:10] So in the U. S., when we look at the budgets of different schools, school systems, we see a huge gap between the amount of resources that are poured into wealthier, whiter districts versus poor districts with more students of color. And so if you just look at the spreadsheet, open an Excel sheet to look at where, what our budgets are doing in terms of the investment in different.

[00:08:35] Um, groups of young people, then you see this kind of weighing of human life of potential. And so rather than look at like the big, fancy, flashy aspects of politics, I want us to look at the very mundane, dry, statistical areas that actually encode this kind of imagination. One of the, uh, or sets of organizers that I’ve interviewed over the last few years described.

[00:09:02] Budgets as moral documents, which is a way of getting us to think differently about something that seems very rational, logical. It’s all about the hard data. And actually when you look closer and you say, wow, why is a student that just happened to be born and raised here and not here getting so much more investment, their own flourishing is being fostered versus the young people here are being squashed.

[00:09:30] And so it’s that level of pulling back the screen and looking at the mundane. To see, in this case, the kinds of eugenic imagination that’s infecting our everyday lives.

[00:10:05] If your goal is creativity and imagination, you really need to build in periods of solitude. I love daydreaming, personally. It’s something I always got in trouble with a lot when I was a little kid in school. You know, the thing is, when you look at someone and it looks like they’re zoned out, you know, you may Make all sorts of inferences about that person, especially in a school system.

[00:10:27] You may think, oh, they’re stupid or I hate the phrase, but there’s actually a label called slow learner. Um, and what that’s saying is you’re, that person is slow to learn what you’ve imposed on them. But it doesn’t mean that like in, there isn’t this rich vibrant. And I don’t think we appreciate that enough in our society, the value of intersubjective experience and the process of meaning making and self discovery that goes on when we turn our attention away from the

[00:10:56] outer world to our inner stream of consciousness.

[00:10:59] To

[00:10:59] Ruha Benjamin: me, that’s what daydreaming is. So when we take that The limited spotlight of attention and we just take it from the focus on the outside world and we focus it on our

[00:11:07] inner world.

[00:11:16] Nora Young: I’m Nora Young and today on Spark we’re talking about imagination, the limits of the tech dreams of Silicon Valley, and how to envision the futures we really want. Right now my guest is Ruha Benjamin. She’s a prof at Princeton and author of the new book, Imagination, a Manifesto. You give a really interesting example, which is the design of public park benches, which I mean, it’s a bench.

[00:11:40] What, you know, what could be political in there? Can you tell me a little bit about that?

[00:11:45] Ruha Benjamin: Yeah, it was a few years ago when at the time I was living in Boston, and it was February, middle of winter, and I was back in the Bay Area in San Francisco for meetings, and I realized, Oh, I need some vitamin D, I’m deprived.

[00:11:59] And so I wanted to lay down on this bench that was at this intersection. What that I’d passed many times as a grad student at Berkeley. And I realized because of the way that bench was designed, it was hard to lay down. There were these arm rests at regular intervals that made it almost impossible to sleep if someone needed to sleep outside on the bench due to housing insecurity or otherwise.

[00:12:21] So I started to look globally at the design of public space and public benches and realized that it was in fact a phenomenon you could find in many places. Architects call it hostile architecture. Which is again about encoding our values into infrastructure. And so you can find things like single occupancy benches, you can find caged benches where you actually have to pay to access the bench.

[00:12:46] And then the bench that I really home in on is a bench that has spikes built into the design where you feed the meter and the spikes retreat for about 15 minutes, developed by a German artist. To get us again to think critically about public space, about the metering of social life, the fact that something like a bench or like health care or like schooling can be nominally for everyone, but because of the way it’s designed, it has these harms built into it that we have to really redress.

[00:13:17] And so it’s a way of looking beneath the surface. To ask ourselves, what are the spikes that we might be ignoring in many other areas of our life that we can reimagine and redesign? Yeah.

[00:13:29] Nora Young: then what can imagination do for us when we’re thinking about possible futures? What’s the

[00:13:33] Ruha Benjamin: power there? I think first of all is to question what’s taken as inevitable, like this is the only way to design something what’s right in front of us.

[00:13:43] And so when you really start to look and expand our imagination, we realize, oh, okay, if this particular bench is about exclusion and harm. Or this policy or this public space. How else can we design this? So, you know, imagination at its heart. It’s about being creative and resourceful. And so one of the things we have to do is look beyond the horizon of what’s right in front of us.

[00:14:04] What’s taken is given and ask ourselves that sort of sci fi question of what if. What if we could do it differently? How else could we design and, and create our educational system that would foster the flourishing of all children? And so one of the things I’m trying to do in the book is just to give us a glimpse of other models, other examples where there’s a different imagination at work.

[00:14:29] And one of them, you know, takes us to different countries that actually. Prioritize play in education. So in those places, they’re saying, yeah, we all need to know how to read and write and do math, but that’ll come. You’ll start that and like once you’re seven or eight, but for the first, you know, like decade of your life, you really have to learn.

[00:14:50] How to play like it’s important. What, what do we learn from playing about how to relate to other human beings, about empathy, about interdependence, about good kinds of competition, all of these things that can be devalued when in some places like in, you know, the places that I’m familiar with recess is being cut.

[00:15:10] Arts programs are being cut because it’s seen as superfluous. It’s extra. It’s not necessary. And so part of it is to understand the seriousness, the importance of play and imagination, and rather than engage in play deprivation, which many children experience, you know, instead, it’s about following the rules, listening to directions, standing in line, being quiet.

[00:15:33] And who does that serve? Who does it serve for us to be treated like little robots and who would it challenge for people to actually think beyond the status quo to ask hard questions to push back. Right. And so part of it going back to power and order. Imagination can challenge the powers that be in a way that they would rather not, and so it starts to make sense why some places, some societies are actually deliberately trying to squash that potential, um, in a way that I think we have to reclaim.

[00:16:07] Nora Young: Yeah, but you know, when I was reading your book, I found myself wondering why imagination is almost, Stigmatized, in a way, or at least it’s considered childish, right? Creativity is everywhere, not just in the arts, but in business books. We talk about it all the time on Spark, but I must admit, imagination, never.

[00:16:23] Why do you think that

[00:16:24] Ruha Benjamin: You know, I think part of it is what we associate with imagination. It’s kind of escapism. It’s the thing that you do if you’re not serious, you know, so it has this stigma that I think only serves to ensure that We don’t have a serious attention to our collective imagination. So here it’s not simply about as an individual, what you get to imagine or not, but it’s thinking about this as a site of struggle, even a battlefield in which certain forms of imagination are trying to push out others.

[00:16:54] And so I think that stigma, like many other forms of stigma, is a form of social control. When you stigmatize something, you are trying to repress it. And so it makes sense that we would sort of cast this area that has the potential to really up turn different power relations and make it seem like it’s, you know, flights of fancy rather than sites of struggle.

[00:17:18] Nora Young: One of the examples you give in the book is about Sidewalk Labs, which was a smart city proposal that Google’s parent company tried to launch in Toronto here a number of years ago, and how it differs from the DECIDIM project in Barcelona. It’s a lot to summarize, but can you briefly explain what those projects were and what that shows us about the different approaches to technology and imagination?

[00:17:38] Ruha Benjamin: Absolutely. So, you know, this whole phenomenon of this movement to create smart cities or cities that are using technology to create new efficiencies to collect data, install sensors, in many cases, surveil the human and non human environment to make it work better. And so there’s this kind of do getting ethos behind it.

[00:17:59] But in the case of Toronto, it ended up being a very top down phenomenon where, you know, the city government collaborated with the, you know, alphabet A subsidiary of Alphabet Sidewalk Labs and kind of push this through without meaningful social input and public input on a very different model has been taking place in Barcelona for over 10 years.

[00:18:21] That’s about participation. It’s really putting the technology at in service. to the democratic process. And so in this case, DECIDIM is this digital platform that is meant to elicit as much input from residents in the city as possible to create the shared agenda about what the city government should invest in, what projects, what infrastructure, what new initiatives, et cetera.

[00:18:48] And so the technology Is about giving voice to as many people as possible rather than pushing something down their throats. And so again, it’s thinking about who has the power in this case, um, and what is the point of the technology? Is it to surveil or is it to try to elicit as much input? And so here again, you can think about it as two competing forms of imagination around the role of technology in our lives.

[00:19:14] But

[00:19:14] Nora Young: what if I say that all that consulting doesn’t sound very efficient?

[00:19:19] Ruha Benjamin: it, you know that that’s the, sometimes there is a trade off, um, between, you know, what we might think of as efficiency and, and, and equity. But if you think going back to Toronto, there was staged forms of input that sort of was kind of surface level.

[00:19:36] It happened, you know, happened over several years and ultimately came to an end. So we might argue that that was very inefficient and trying to cram things down people’s throat that never actually, you know, took off. And so sometimes things have to go slower. One of my mantras is drawing from a writer, Toni Cade Bambara, which she says, not all speed is movement.

[00:19:57] So we can go very fast with certain technologies, but that often requires us to skip over important things. important questions, important forms of consultation. And so sometimes in the short term, things might have to go a little slower for the, the goal of our efforts to be more effective and sustainable.

[00:20:16] And so I think in Barcelona, we’re seeing a good balance between, you know, taking time to elicit different viewpoints, but then the actual changes that are implemented, you have much more buy in, you have much more, um, public, uh, investment in. So I think they’re doing it well there.

[00:20:32] Nora Young: Mm hmm. There’s a great Toni Morrison quote at the beginning of the book, dream a little before you think.

[00:20:38] It’s a great way of putting your priorities in order.

[00:20:40] Ruha Benjamin: Absolutely. So in many ways, I’m writing for my students. And so that’s the kind of, the first line is for them is that I know everyone’s been telling you you’re smart from the time you were five, but there’s another capacity here in terms of dreaming and imagining that I really want us.

[00:20:55] to prioritize and to care about. So let’s

[00:20:58] Nora Young: say there’s an issue in my community and our community group wants to use imagination as part of our process and envisioning solutions. What kinds of things would we actually do? Like, what would it look like?

[00:21:08] Ruha Benjamin: So the last chapter of the book I’m calling an imagination incubator.

[00:21:12] And so those are questions, prompts, exercises that is treating imagination like a muscle that we can grow and strengthen over time. And so part of that is to really think about the nature of consultation and the exchange of ideas so that we’re not. Repressing important ideas and values in the process.

[00:21:33] And so in terms of community settings, let’s say going back to the question of budgeting. There’s a whole movement around participatory budgeting where people who live in a locale get to have a say in where their public monies are going right. And so rather than just, uh, you know, through representative means, as you actually get a direct say in voting with your dollars on, should we invest in this part?

[00:21:58] Should we invest in this type of environmental initiative, et cetera. And so I think part of it is to create the infrastructure where those And so we have very few spaces, um, where we can actually listen genuinely and consult with people whose ideas may differ from ours, certainly online. It’s very combative, um, it’s, you know, the, the nature of the kinds of deliberation that’s possible in social media and these platforms has really eroded.

[00:22:31] If it was ever, um, Productive. And so part of it, we have to kind of engender those kind of spaces and hopefully some of the tools in the end of the book can get us started in terms of, um, even identifying and strengthening our imagination as, as collective. Mm hmm.

[00:22:46] Nora Young: Can you talk about world building in particular?

[00:22:48] Yeah, that sounds like a really cool

[00:22:50] Ruha Benjamin: technique. And it sounds very lofty when in fact, you know, we engage in world building in all kinds of ways that might not call it that. So for example, like I’m sitting here in African American Studies department at Princeton, and the world of My department is quite distinct from the world of the university at large, which is to say that the values, the ways that we relate to each other and care for each other as human beings, not just as job titles is something very distinct.

[00:23:19] So world building in many ways about thinking about our relationship to one another and building in, and I’m suggesting worlds that are more caring. Requires us to treat each other with more care beyond the kind of status hierarchies that we’re used to. And so I draw that term from the realm of sort of science fiction, uh, writing and, and films and so on, where people have to create these whole worlds from scratch for us to enter into as readers and as viewers.

[00:23:48] But I’m saying that we can actually do that in our everyday lives. When we think about our workplaces, we think about our classrooms. Um, we think about our families even in terms of the world that we’re trying to engender, the ways of relating the values that we want to actually seed and grow in any context.

[00:24:06] And so kind of borrowing from the, the, the fictional and making it nonfiction in our everyday lives. Yeah.

[00:24:14] Nora Young: And just finally, what do you hope readers take away from reading Imagination, a Manifesto?

[00:24:19] Ruha Benjamin: I really hope it provides a lens to question what’s what we are sold as inevitable and given, especially when it comes to technology, but in all areas of our life, this is the only way we can do things.

[00:24:31] And so part of it is to really question things that seem, you know, like. bureaucratic, dry, everyday laws, protocols, um, you know, rules and say, okay, who is this serving? It’s not that we want to get rid of all of it, but we want to start questioning what’s taken as inevitable. And I take this to heart, especially as a teacher, because I’ve been in spaces where, you know, really influential tech gurus will come into the space and tell students, you know, This is the only way things are going to work.

[00:25:04] You either get on board this train or you, you get off the train. Right? And so there’s a sense of destiny that they’re being sold or inevitability that they’re being sold. And I really want to provide people the, um, audacity, uh, to question those things and to try to imagine something that fosters collective well being over individual or private interest.

[00:25:28] Thank you so much for the

[00:25:29] Nora Young: book and for your insights

[00:25:30] Ruha Benjamin: on it. Thank you so much for your questions, and thanks for having me, Nora. Ruha

[00:25:35] Nora Young: Benjamin is a professor of African American studies at Princeton University and the author of the new book Imagination, a Manifesto.

[00:26:12] I’m Nora Young and today on Spark, we’re looking at how to harness human imagination in the innovation and design of technologies so we can create a better future.

[00:26:23] One of the things children are so good at is making imagination concrete. They aren’t just going to outer space in their minds, they’ve spent all day designing a cardboard box rocket ship to take them there. And when they return back down to Earth, they might even draw a picture of what they saw on their mission, or present their parents with treasures they found on the moon.

[00:26:43] Imagination is something they can hold and touch. But this doesn’t have to be just kid stuff. Our next guest is an engineer and creative leader who developed a concept known as

[00:26:54] Julian Bleecker: .

[00:26:54] Design Fiction is an approach, a methodology for translating things that we might imagine might exist in the future, but putting them into a tangible form and almost putting them in to the world as if we were in that world.

[00:27:09] So one of the analogies that I’ll often use is to imagine if you’re an archaeologist, but rather than digging into the past, you actually dug into the future and we’re bringing back normal, ordinary, everyday kinds of artifacts that we might find in that world. My name is Julian Bleeker and I’m founder of Near Future Laboratory.

[00:27:29] And, uh, we help our clients imagine harder.

[00:27:33] Design

[00:27:33] Nora Young: fiction is a way of imagining alternative futures through concrete building. You know, actually making stuff. According to Julian, it isn’t about building fantasy designs, but rather a way to explore and critique current societal norms and develop alternative visions.

[00:27:50] Julian Bleecker: In archaeologists digging in the past, they find a shard of pottery, and it speaks volumes about the world. It sort of tells people, it’s like, well, there’s a civilization here, maybe there’s some markings on it that imply certain characteristics of the culture. You might find something that sort of indicates, uh, religious beliefs, or just the nature of what They considered family, these kinds of clues that were put together.

[00:28:10] And because the people are gone, there’s no extant story to be told. It’s up to the archeologists to imagine what these things meant and sort of feel into them in a way, and then tell the stories. So Design Fiction does the same thing, but rather than digging into the past, it sort of looks forward into the future and tries to find the real, you know, beautifully mundane artifacts that are indications of the implications of basically technological change and societal change.

[00:28:36] Nora Young: So could you give me an example like in practice of a kind of a future that you potentially might be designing something for?

[00:28:43] Julian Bleecker: Yeah, so it’s artificial intelligence 24 7 nowadays. I

[00:28:48] Nora Young: was going to ask a question about that actually, so

[00:28:50] it’s good that you’re raising it.

[00:28:51] Julian Bleecker: Yeah, so I’m absolutely fascinated by it.

[00:28:53] My background’s in electrical engineering, computer science. And for my sins, I also have a PhD in history of consciousness. So I’m not sure exactly what I am, but the, the idea of artificial intelligence is absolutely fascinating. And I want to make sense of it. I want to help people make sense of it in a way that makes us feel that.

[00:29:12] It’s a world that we want to inhabit. And so when I think about using Design Fiction to try to make sense of, to sense make around all the confusion and, and perplexing sort of thoughts people have about what artificial intelligence is, I’ll say like, why don’t we ask ourselves what’s for breakfast in an AI future?

[00:29:31] Okay. And so to just ground things so, so extremely, so it’s not big macro topics like what’s the future of jobs. It’s like, what would it be like to just basically wake up in the morning in a world in which artificial intelligence is about as exciting and fascinating and confusing as a television remote control?

[00:29:48] Right. It’s just here. It’s amongst us.

[00:29:51] And so what is it about actually making a physical object that gives you an advantage over just say talking about it or writing a science fiction short story

[00:29:59] about it? It grounds it in a way that I think becomes quite relatable to, I would say, like everyone. So when you do things, like everyone has breakfast.

[00:30:08] Not everyone is a science fiction fan. Not everyone is necessarily inclined to, you know, read a newsletter about artificial intelligence. They, they want to feel it and sense it in a way, I think primarily we, we understand the world through sensation and through the things that we’re exposed to. And so if you can bring it down to the level of something that is almost unexpectedly banal, but invokes a sense of like curiosity.

[00:30:32] So one of the projects that we’re working on is to make a magazine from a possible AI future. So this is a magazine that you might see, you know, you’re at the, at the checkout stand at the grocery store and you might see it and it might just be nothing. Quite all that fascinating about it. But let’s say it’s a copy of, I don’t know, Martha Stewart, you know, Home Living or something like this.

[00:30:53] What is that magazine in the future where you don’t, as they like to say, as you don’t over index or fetishize the technology? It’s, it’s just a part of the life. So you might read an advertisement about, uh, a recipe that is just slightly inflected by the possibilities that AI might offer for home cooking, but it’s woven into the narrative in such a way that you sense it and you might not even notice it at first, but then you kind of do a double take.

[00:31:19] And when you’re doing that double take, you’re starting to wonder. You’re not being told the future, you’re making sense of it yourself. You’re almost like a forensic detective. Like, let me see and try to make sense of what this future is of artificial intelligence as represented to a magazine. It almost seems like the opposite of what people would expect.

[00:31:35] Like they expect, you know, a, a notable public speaker or thought leader to hold forth at some Ted talk about this is what the future is and what I really want is something that I guess. Leaves a lot open to the individual’s imagination to make sense of what it is rather than be told. This is the world we’re gonna get

[00:31:55] Nora Young: Yeah One of the

[00:31:56] evocative phrases I came across when looking in the background on this was the idea of making us aware of the Consequences of decision making.

[00:32:04] Can you talk to me a little bit about that and how Design Fiction might help us with that?

[00:32:08] Julian Bleecker: Yeah, so Design Fiction artifact like in this case the magazine we’re talking about is revealing in some ways like You can look at it as like the symptoms of the world, instead of expressing our hopes, fears, dreams, and desires of that world, and in that way you can address not just the expansive, you know, almost like mind boggling, awe inspiring possibility, but also like the little corners of it that are oftentimes very difficult to get to, especially if you’re, you know, if we’re talking about artificial intelligence, we’re talking about companies that are investing an incredible amount of resources, time, and treasure, and into you.

[00:32:45] You know, making more treasure, I guess, but making the world, uh, different in some way. And at some level, there are not opportunities to really represent, let’s say, the deleterious consequences. There’s not a, there’s not a space to really kind of present those, even as much as they might want to consider them and sort of work around them.

[00:33:05] And so this Design Fiction gives you a kind of platform, almost like a container, to indicate these things without saying that the world’s going to be miserable. So you can do things like. Uh, we did, we did a magazine for the, uh, the future of autonomous vehicles. And one of the things that the company that commissioned us to do that wanted to flag was the almost intractable problem of, like, transportation deserts.

[00:33:29] So these are areas of cities that don’t have ready access to, you know, even municipal transportation. So it was on their mind. Like, they was like, we would love to be able to consider this and help this. It’s like, we’re not really in a position to To completely fix this, but we wanna flag it. We wanna show that this is something that we’re mindful of.

[00:33:46] And so in this magazine, so as Car and Driverless magazine get it, Car and Driverless Magazine, how do you show that little, how do you signal that just as a reminder? And so that would be hard to do in a pitch deck. Mm-Hmm. , you know, when you’re trying to get investors.

[00:34:04] Nora Young: So I think many of us will have been in, you know, brainstorming sessions or visioning exercises this kind of thing. Can you talk me through, like, how you actually Do Design Fiction, how it differs from something like brainstorming?

[00:34:17] Julian Bleecker: Yeah. So there’s a, there, there are a lot of overlaps and kind of intersections with all these, you know, everything from design thinking to, to brainstorming generally to a whole bunch of different forecasts and foresight practices.

[00:34:27] What Design Fiction does that’s a bit different is that. It puts an emphasis on actually creating the artifact, materializing the artifact. And I’m not saying just a post it note saying like, we would like to do a magazine or even like a, like a sketch of the magazine or even a flat plan of the magazine.

[00:34:45] So part of the effect of Design Fiction is that you actually go and you actually, you know, cause you can do magazines like, well, print it, you know, make 500 of them and put them in people’s hands because when something arrives in someone’s hands, as opposed to even like a PDF. I don’t know. Something about tangibility.

[00:35:01] I wish I was a neuroscientist. I’d know what goes on. But I think it makes a big difference. And I think that has a lot to do with the effect and power and difference of Design Fiction. It’s like we insist that the last step of the phase, it’s like analyze, synthesize, imagine, create. Like those are the four steps.

[00:35:17] And most practices will do the analysis. So it’s like, we got all this research. Now we’re going to synthesize this and create a report. Like that’s usually where it stops. And you get the report. Not only you got more, more pages of. Paper, you know, another three ring binder. Great. But then if you go to those last things of like imagining beyond the synthesis, you’re trying to imagine what kind of world is it indirectly painting?

[00:35:39] What are you feeling? What are you sensing? What is, what’s in your mind that you’re beginning to see around this world? Like I see the advertisement in the self driving car example, I see the advertisement on the back of the bus. It’s always the accidentist guy. It’s the lawyer who’s like, have you been into a car accident?

[00:35:54] Right. And so in my mind, I imagine what is that ad in a self driving car future? I go there like instantly. It’s like, if it’s going to happen, how can we experience and begin to play with and prototype and almost like test our own understanding of what this world would be like? You know, it’s a form of play.

[00:36:14] Nora Young: Julian, thanks so much for your insights on this.

[00:36:17] Julian Bleecker: That was my pleasure. Super fun talking about it.

[00:36:19] Julian Bleeker is a founder of Near Future Laboratory and co author of The Manual of Design Fiction.

[00:36:49] Ruha Benjamin: From the Spark Archives. 2015. Musician David Usher. Author of Let the Elephants Run. Unlock your creativity and change everything. Brainstorming is a very interesting thing where it can be absolutely useful and absolutely useless. There is this period where you really want to have this open imagination, right, where you want to allow the craziest ideas out there.

[00:37:11] And there will always be people that will want to say no to every idea. So at the beginning we try and really have this openness to, to large ideas because the natural way it works with the creative process is that the realities of the structure of the process will, you know, they’ll compact ideas down as it goes.

[00:37:26] But then beyond having a freedom of imagination, you really need to have a structure that’s going to be able to deliver those ideas. You know, I have so many artist friends, and it’s a very difficult grind. You’re trying to have this freedom of imagination, but there are so many things that are structural that you need to do to deliver that work, right?

[00:37:44] And that, and if you really break it down, that’s what artists do most of the time, is the structural work that’s underneath the freedom, right? It’s not the fun loving stuff that we imagined it to be. You know, it’s

[00:37:54] Nora Young: not the Fun loving doesn’t get grants, I guess is the way of thinking of it.

[00:38:14] Ruha Benjamin: Hey, this is Damon Fairless. I’m hosting FrontBurner for the next little while. Frontrunner is your no nonsense, one stop shop to help you make sense of the news everyone’s talking about. We explore the context behind the most essential stories facing Canadians at home and around the world. So find us every morning wherever you get your podcasts, including YouTube.

[00:38:32] You’ll also find transcripts of all our episodes online, too. So check it out. Imagine picking the time and place that works for you and college would just appear. With 100 percent online classes and personalized support, UMass Global helps you succeed in college, wherever you are in life. Major in your future.

[00:38:49] Visit umassglobal.

[00:38:51] Nora Young: edu to apply. I’m Nora Young and today on Spark, imagination and how we can reinvigorate it to build the technological futures we want and need. We use the word imagination all the time. What does it really mean? I suppose I tend to think of imagination as one special thing or one talent that artists and creatives have more of than the rest of us.

[00:39:16] But maybe it’s much more diffuse and complex than

[00:39:19] Jennifer Gossetti Ferenczi: that. Often we think about imagination As the ability just to have an image in our minds. However, it’s also clear that we use imagination in all sorts of other ways, thinking about possibilities, pretending, imagining what it might be like to be in a situation we’re not in, which we sometimes call counterfactual thinking and also in creativity.

[00:39:40] So in my view, imagination is multifactorial. It has multiple modes and we can’t really understand it if we reduce it down to one thing.

[00:39:47] Nora Young: This is Jennifer Gossetti Ferenczi. She’s professor and William Kurlmeier Chair in German and professor of philosophy at Johns Hopkins

[00:39:54] Jennifer Gossetti Ferenczi: University. I write about imagination, phenomenology, existentialism, philosophy of art and literature as well as modernist literature and theory.

[00:40:05] According to

[00:40:05] Nora Young: Jennifer, imagination is not just an interior thing going on in our brains, or something that only comes out to play at the height of a creative breakthrough. Instead, different types of imagining manifest in all kinds of ways in our everyday lives.

[00:40:20] Jennifer Gossetti Ferenczi: So we can, or at least many of us can, imagine in our minds, and that’s something like having a visual image in our minds.

[00:40:29] That relies, of course, on memory, but we also do some things with those images in our minds. So we can think of a polar bear, for example, or we can think of turtles crawling on the beach, but we can also decide that the polar bear might be on the beach and that the turtles might be on the iceberg. We can transform and mix around our images in the mind.

[00:40:50] is not just reproducing these images and kind of recombining them, but we can actually move further with that. We can make a, a kind of fictional story about them. We can imagine what it would be like if something were to happen in that scenario. So, Imaging is one thing we do with imagination, but we also pretend.

[00:41:09] So we’re watching a play, for example, in a theater, and we’re so engaged that we forget we’re watching a particular actor, and we’re really engaged as if we’re seeing, for example, King Lear.

[00:41:20] Nora Young: And so, you know, some would say that our ability to imagine is essentially just sort of putting things together that we remember from before in maybe in a slightly different way, but you’re suggesting there’s something more sort of creative or original going on there.

[00:41:33] Jennifer Gossetti Ferenczi: Absolutely. There is something that we tend to call reproductive imagination, and that means that we can take images in our minds, or something like images in our minds, and really recombine them as it were. But we can also transform these images and do new things with them, and we can engage ideas of things we may not have.

[00:41:51] particular image is about. Yeah, we can project possibilities. So that’s another mode of imagination is really about projecting possibilities. And that too, is really important for creativity. We don’t just recombine ideas, but imagination can also be productive.

[00:42:07] Nora Young: So can you talk a bit about the relationship between what we might think of as a sort of everyday imagination, the kind of thing that I do when I’m picturing that polar bear on a beach, and the sort of eureka moments in science or a brilliant idea for a work of fiction?

[00:42:20] Are those two? Related?

[00:42:21] Jennifer Gossetti Ferenczi: Are they similar? Fantastic question. We often think that the really special exquisite moments of creativity when an artist writes, you know, a great work of literature or composes a symphony or comes up with a new idea or a scientist has a brilliant insight that’s new, that that has nothing to do with our everyday day.

[00:42:43] Bye. ordinary creativity. But my view is that, in fact, all of the special experiences of imagination rely on all sorts of things that are going on in ordinary cognition all the time. So

[00:42:55] Nora Young: what role does imagination play in just thinking? Not when we’re actively imagining, but just the regular cognitive processes?

[00:43:03] Ruha Benjamin: Well,

[00:43:04] Jennifer Gossetti Ferenczi: without a great exercise of imagination, we can think habitual thoughts that we have all the time, but to some extent, we must engage imagination at some level to think about anything that isn’t present to us right now. Aristotle actually argued that There can be no thoughts without imagination.

[00:43:23] And the idea is really that, um, we have sensory experience of the world that’s present to us, but when we think about that world, we’re comparing it to things or putting it in context of things that are not there present to us. So we not only have to recall. those things to our minds and have a kind of reproduced context, but we also have to situate them.

[00:43:43] And then we also project ideas about what might occur with those things. So we have this sort of sensuous input, but in order to actually be able to think about them, we have to recontextualize, we have to compare and we have to project possibilities that aren’t actual. So if imagination

[00:43:58] Nora Young: is important in cognition, why is it so often put in kind of opposition to rational thought, even, and maybe especially by a lot of

[00:44:07] Jennifer Gossetti Ferenczi: philosophers?

[00:44:08] There’s a long history of what I would call deep ambivalence about imagination, starting with Plato, you know, arising again in Descartes. And throughout the history of philosophy. Now one thing I have to say about that is that all of these philosophers were very imaginative themselves. Plato uses wonderful literary examples.

[00:44:28] He comes up with brilliant analogies and stories to explain his philosophy. But he was worried about the use of imagination. Instead of rational thinking that perhaps imaginative thought would derail the processes of coming to rational arguments and rational understanding of things. And the same is true of Descartes.

[00:44:50] Descartes was really conceiving of his ideas in the context of trying to set out a basis for modern scientific thinking. So it was quite important to him to be able to distinguish between ideas that were verifiable from rational grounds and ideas that were, um, In his view, merely acquired by the senses and those that were merely put together on the basis of sense experience.

[00:45:13] So philosophers had good reason to worry about how imagination might mislead us. But of course, in all of their thinking, they must themselves use imagination even to come up with the arguments that they’ve given in order to trust rational

[00:45:29] Nora Young: thought. So how is imagination related to things like play and creativity?

[00:45:34] Play

[00:45:35] Jennifer Gossetti Ferenczi: is, of course, universal in humanity, and we see it in children all the time, but it’s also something that animals do. Play is something that allows us to exercise our imaginations all the time, particularly in childhood, but even as we grow older and develop different kinds of forms of play. I believe this is the basis of being able to have creative expression even past childhood.

[00:46:03] Why is that? Because play allows us, first of all, to pretend or to engage ideas and scenarios that are not real or are not actual. Or we can take objects and things around us and regard them as if they were something else and put together new ideas, generating all sorts of fictional opportunities to think about the world

[00:46:26] Nora Young: otherwise.

[00:46:27] Yeah, we might think about that idea of like, even as we idly look up at the clouds and see, oh, that cloud looks like a dragon, that cloud looks like my third grade teacher or whatever, we seem to naturally want to engage in that type of play.

[00:46:39] Jennifer Gossetti Ferenczi: Yeah, absolutely. We often think that children are the only ones who play, but we do it all the time.

[00:46:43] Leonardo da Vinci actually tried to convince his pupils to be able to look at Every day objects and see other things in them. And of course, that’s an exercise of something we do all the time, like looking at the clouds and seeing figures in them. And sometimes we forget as adults that we’re able to do that all the time.

[00:47:01] But of course, those are just the building blocks of our skills that we use in all sorts of creative endeavors. We look at one thing and see. Well, what else could it be? We are able to transform it. First of all, in the mind or as an idea, and then possibly also in reality through some sort of material intervention.

[00:47:37] Nora Young: I’m Nora Young. Today on Spark, we’re talking about imagination. How to cultivate it and set it free so we can create better technological futures. Right now, my guest is Jennifer Gossetti Ferenczi. She’s a philosopher and author of two books on imagination. One of the things Jennifer explored in her book, The Life of Imagination, is the idea that imagination is deeply embedded in our interactions with the world around us.

[00:48:02] Jennifer Gossetti Ferenczi: My view is that imagination is part of what I call our cognitive ecology. It’s part of the life of thinking, which arises through all of our experience in the world. One of the bases for that, of course, is that we’re not just minds that are somehow separate from the world, but we’re physically in the world, and we’re embodied.

[00:48:19] We interact with the world all the time. And I think that contemporary views of cognition are very interested in the idea that our Abilities to think actually grow out of our interaction with the world on a physical level, on a level of sensuous experience, and so on. And that’s also true of imagination.

[00:48:37] We often think about imagination as something that allows us to escape the world we’re in, and to some extent that’s true too. But the capacity we have to imagine starts with our being engaged with the world to begin with. Makes you

[00:48:49] Nora Young: wonder whether when we look at something like generative AI creating novel images or novel bits of text, whether it can ever be genuinely imaginative if it’s not actually interacting.

[00:49:00] with the world around us.

[00:49:01] Jennifer Gossetti Ferenczi: I would think that would be a profound limitation.

[00:49:05] Nora Young: You know, we’ve been talking in this episode about imagination as applied to social change or imagining the consequences of our decisions. From where you sit, what role does imagination play in these kind of more political concerns?

[00:49:17] Jennifer Gossetti Ferenczi: One of the most important things about imagination is that it’s absolutely essential to fixing the problems in our world. I’ll, I’ll stick with just one problem, which is of course our ecological crisis. We are in a world that is in a precarious situation, ecologically. And we understand a lot of the reasons for this, and we understand what might be done about this.

[00:49:38] But what we don’t yet have is a kind of concerted effort on humanity. as a whole to try to transform our ways of being. We can’t do that without imagination. We must look at the world as it is, but we also have to look at it across and against other possibilities that it might be and figure out how to get from here to there.

[00:49:56] Nora Young: I note in your work that imagination requires the ability to tolerate things like ambiguity, not knowing one true answer, discord even. Can you expand on that a little bit?

[00:50:06] Jennifer Gossetti Ferenczi: Yes. I’ll start just by making a reference to a famous poet, John Keats, who famously Use the term negative capability. By that Keats meant that a great poet has to have the ability to proceed in uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts, because we have to be open to wonder.

[00:50:24] And we have to be open to possibilities beyond. that which we already know. And this can really be a great sort of mantra for extending our understanding of imagination. If we stick with what we already know, or what we can know for certain, we lose the ability to be in awe and wonder about the world, but also to project possibilities that we don’t know yet.

[00:50:47] So it’s crucial for creativity and innovation to be able to go beyond what we are comfortable with and know for certain.

[00:50:55] Nora Young: Kind of makes you wonder about our ability to be imaginative given our current climate of extremely polarized thinking and an apparent commitment to needing to believe one true thing to be the absolute, the absolute truth.

[00:51:08] Jennifer Gossetti Ferenczi: You know, imagination has, as I mentioned, a long conceptual history that’s ambivalent. Philosophers and psychologists and thinkers have been both rapturously praising of imagination and very critical of imagination. Sometimes we worry about the, you know, influence of imagination in negative ways that imagination has run rampant.

[00:51:29] And that’s why we have all sorts of problems. And of course, that’s sometimes true. But sometimes our problems come from a failure of imagination. Our imagination gets stuck in sort of habituated ways of thinking and actually just recycling sort of old habits rather than engaging in new possibilities.

[00:51:48] Nora Young: As a philosopher, you’ve studied existentialists, you’ve studied phenomenologists like Heidegger and Merleau Ponty. Do they have anything in particular to teach us about imagination?

[00:51:57] Jennifer Gossetti Ferenczi: Yes. I’ll stick with Merleau Ponty, for example. He was a wonderful source for thinking about imagination, partly because his phenomenology, which is really a sophisticated way of saying a philosophy that describes how the world appears to consciousness, his phenomenology was thoroughly embodied.

[00:52:12] He really tried to take what we know about it. thinking, what we know about the mind, what we know about perception, and reconceive of it within the context of our embodied interaction with the world, as I was mentioning earlier. And of course, on that, we can also then see imagination as belonging to this kind of embodied ecology of our situated interaction.

[00:52:33] He also wrote a lot about art and was very interested in painting, because he thought we could overcome the idea that imagining is just Having a picture in the mind that we then express in an outward way, but instead he thought that it was a recalibration, as it were, of perception

[00:52:49] Nora Young: itself. Yeah, that’s so interesting.

[00:52:53] And just finally, Jennifer, sometimes we like to give our listeners a bit of homework. So in your study of imagination, are there things that we can do as individuals to cultivate our imagination,

[00:53:04] Jennifer Gossetti Ferenczi: to become more imaginative? Yeah, I think exercising creativity wherever you can is really essential. But that also means being receptive to the creativity of others.

[00:53:14] So in one chapter of the book called Situated Transcendence, I use lots of different examples from, you know, Archimedes, um, geometry to jazz music, engaging in celebrating the creativity of others is a source of inspiration, but also practicing that yourself in every way that you can, trying to rethink some of your cognitive habits so that instead of always.

[00:53:34] pursuing the same sort of paths or tracks and assumptions. You might take a step back in every aspect of life and think about how you might do it differently. Good advice. Thanks so

[00:53:44] Nora Young: much for your insights on this, Jennifer.

[00:53:45] Jennifer Gossetti Ferenczi: Thank you so much, Nora. It was great talking to you.

[00:53:48] Nora Young: Jennifer Gassetti Ferenczi is the author of The Life of Imagination, and most recently, Imagination A very short introduction.

[00:54:05] You’ve been listening to Spark the show was made by Michelle Bei, Samut Johannes, Megan Cardi, and me, Nora Young and by Ru ha Benjamin Julian Bleecker, and Jennifer Ti Zi. And from the Spark Archives, Scott Berry Kaufman and David Usher. Subscribe to Spark on the free CBC Listen app, or your favorite podcast app.

[00:54:24] I’m Nora Young. Talk to you soon.

[00:54:36] Announcer For more CBC podcasts, go to cbc.ca/podcasts.