They were digging in to Powers’ recent book “Bewilderment”. I listened, not intimately familiar with Powers although a dear old friend had sent me a used, thrift store copy (sending books to friends! super fun!) of his “The Overstory” and I was in the midst of some deep work with my company which was fully consuming and so the book sat on the bedside stand unread and then there was the move to the other side of town and now it’s packed somewhere in storage. Somewhere.
The Ezra Klein / Richard Powers conversation.
Man oh man, did that resonate.
Eh? What do you mean by “that”? What was “that” that resonated?
Well, firstly there was Powers describing reflections on his relationship to Silicon Valley through his time going to dinner parties in Silicon Valley where every party had two baseline topics: real estate and life extension technologies.
I mean..that’d be a great SNL bit mostly because it sounds about how I’d imagine a dinner party discussion up there to be anchored.
And secondly, the wonderful way Powers reminds us of the beautifully complex imagination and consciousness of a child.
I wonder if we are compelled at some point, maybe around the start of high school, to lose our ability to embrace a full-body sense of amazement and wonder. Maybe when we’re told things like “act your age” or “stop playing and act serious” or driven to consider a reasonable path towards becoming a serious professional in order to get on the rails to a life of a very particular kind of prosperity, against other kinds of prosperity, like a life of exploring unexpected possibilities.
One of the central characters in “Bewilderment” is an astrobiologist who studies minuscule signals from other possible worlds. He takes his son on trips to these planets and we join along. Short passages that feel like they come out of nowhere take us to somewhere else, where what it is to live and thrive is just on the edge of our own quite grounded sense of possibility.
“Bewilderment” sticks with me, which I suppose is what makes Powers such a noted author. What strikes me, now several weeks after reading the book, is how it reminds me of the power of the child’s expansive imagination and the importance of holding on to that — to be able to see irreducibly and without diminishment, possibilities for other kinds of worlds and ways of being, right here at home, on this planet. (Not Mars.)
If there’s anything to our climate future we need it is the expansive imagination not only to “see” possibilities but to represent those possibilities. Right now, as near as I can tell, we see the end — or escapes to unlikely off-world colonies. Our somewhat collective imaginary consciousness of the near future is roughly cyberpunk. We need a new basis — a new set of imagery (quite literally) that can weave its way in the imaginations of the still expansive imaginations of today’s youth.
When I had a bit more of the child in me than I do now, I was fully taken by the imaginary of that moments stories and images and Saturday morning “shows” and the Trenton flea market where you could find second hand Xerox 820 motherboards and 8” floppy drives salvaged from the areas labs — Bell Labs, RCA, Princeton University, etc. Building a launching Estes model rockets. Kitbashing Revell models of airplanes to make little plastic spaceships. Building a real flying saucer out of a hunk of metal and some cardboard with Larry Greenberg.
These kinds of experiences and some unexpectedly and profoundly encouraging mentors and friends shaped what I believed in and what I thought was possible.
Today, I mean — what do I know except what I know — my instinct says we need those sorts of ways of seeing and imagining and shaping a sense of what could be, of possibility, for the young’ns. Perhaps less about flying saucers and model rockets and a computational future, and a bit more about hopeful climate futures. I don’t want to say we shouldn’t fetishize space travel but maybe we shouldn’t fetishize space travel?
A few or four weeks ago, we (the Near Future Laboratory community), in a 36 hour sprint to create a proposal to LACMA — the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In a fit of realization, we emphasized the possibility of public engagement (really engagement with kids) on two things: “how to imagine the future”, and “how to imagine hopeful climate futures.” (The proposal is as peculiar and weird as you might expect. Maybe not. Maybe I’m just characterizing it as such because it feels childlike rather than a Microsoft Office document. You can see if here:LACMA Climate Futures For Kids
(Parenthetically, we are looking for support for this project to create richer youthful imaginations – so if you have any ideas or are part of an organization or institution or fund that has an interest in facilitating the creation of better climate futures please do not hesitate to contact me directly.)
What I had to give up on in order to believe that a program like this would do any good, was to avoid looking for a Silicon Valley / Industrial “solution” to our current climate future prospects. You know — only hoping for some miracle technology or some start-up banking on the bank to be had. I’m not saying that isn’t cool or useful, but we didn’t do things like get to the moon because some very clever engineers and program managers managed to build a gigantic rocket engine. We got there because a vision was created and young imaginations were filled decades before. (cf “Space Force: A Critical History of Life in Outer Space” — Fred Scharmen podcast episode coming soon!)
What I had to embrace in order to believe that a program like this would do any good was to remind myself that the human imagination, particularly that of the youthful consciousness, is the best existential survival guide we’ve got.
Also, the Near Future Laboratory Podcast Episode N°30 — a conversation with the eminent and remarkable Fiona Raby and Anthony Dunne is out now. We touch on topics quite directly related to these here — the imagination, how to work with adjacent possibilities, the practice within industry and academic contexts. Etcetera.
It’s all related. Finding ways to imagine futures better, teaching ways of imagining (or “futuring” as my pal Scott Smith describes it), and making the imagination something that we all recognize we have and we all exercise vigorously.