Emerge: Artists + Scientists Redesign the Future

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During the first three days of March, ASU is hosting “Emerge,” an event that brings artists and scientists together to explore questions of human existence and the future we hope to create. The event’s three principal organizers explain what “Emerge” is all about.

Ted Simons: During the first three days of March, Arizona State University is hosting an event called emerge. It will bring together artists, scientist, futurist and engineers to explore questions of human existence and the future we hope to create. Tonight we hear from the three principal organizers of emerge. Cynthia Suhleen, assistant professor at the ASU School of Sustainability and the Center for Nanotechnology and Society. Thunawsus Rikakis, director of the ASU school of arts, media, and engineering in the Herberger Institute For Design and the Arts. And Joel Guhrow, Lincoln professor of law, culture, and values at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law. Good to have you all here. Thanks for joining us. There's so much to talk about. What is -- give us a capsule summary, what is emerge?

Cynthia Selin: Emerge is an event that we're hosting at ASU this Saturday, open to the public, where we really want to trigger the imagination of Arizonans to think about viable, sustainable, exciting futures that we want to live in.

Ted Simons: I notice one of the ideas was to rethink the future of the human species. That's a big bite.

Thanassis Rikakis: Well, it's a big bite, that's why we think if we're going to do that, we want to bring together as many disciplines as possible, as many perspectives as possible, that's why the subtitle of the event is "artist and scientists." So this is not a -- this is a future that balances the humanist perspectives with the technological incentives.

Ted Simons: With the idea, the bottom line is that what it means to be a human is changing with all this technology. Correct?

Joel Garreau: That's right. We've got all these emerging technologies, they're chaining our minds, our memories, our metabolisms, our kids, so the big question is, if that's all true, what kind of human does we want to be, and that's what we're going to have people doing, reinventing on saturday with everybody who wants to come.

Ted Simons: When you have such a big idea and a big topic and so people involved, how do you get focused? How do you keep from flying off -- unless you want it to fly off in 40 different places-- [LAUGHTER]

Cynthia Selin: It will be this explosion of ideas, and it will fly off the handle. We've really invited some top foresight thinkers and scholars, artists, story tellers, and asked them how far can you take your future in thinking? How far can we envision a world that we want to live in? A world where we're not just surviving, but we're thriving.

Ted Simons: The idea, you mentioned artist and story tellers, how important is it to get -- a lot of people think science, technology, we've got to get a bunch of engineers and start looking at schematics. Artist, story tellers and designers. Why is that important?

Thanassis Rikakis: Let me give you an example. All of us can relate to, we all know teenagers with all these portable devices are everywhere with their music, on their phone. We want the new guitar of the future, digital media allows teenagers to get together, make together. The idea is when we're thinking about the future, we're thinking about technology, the humanist perspective, the artist perspective, the designer perspective needs to be much in there so you actually go from a consumer future to a participant and maker and shaper.

Ted Simons: Interesting. So people are buying into the system, whatever the system might be.

Joel Garreau: Oh, no. Not a chance. [laughter] That is the last thing in the world we want to do. The kind of people we're having on Saturday are really non linear thinkers we have people like Stewart Bran, who did the whole earth catalog, and Neil Stevenson the science fiction writer who did Snow Crash and Reamde, we've got Bruce mile, massive change network, Bruce sterling who wrote "the difference engine," and ASU's president Michael crow, these are all people who are not inside the box thinkers.

Ted Simons: But I guess what I'm trying to say, want to get people at least on that track to see what you're talking about, and see whether or not it's viable.

Joel Garreau: Well, you certainly want this to be -- want this to be within people's perspective. The whole idea of bringing artist and technologists together to invent this together is to try to bring to it a place where ordinary people can understand and take control of their own futures, and not having it dumped on them. To do that you have to engage people with relationships with their kids, with the human portions of their lives that they understand as they're making dinner, watching the television. So you do have to bring it into a human frame, but this is not about the gear. This is about the humans.

Ted Simons: Indeed, and it also has to be within a frame people are going to be comfortable with in terms of governance, democracy, which most folks I think would be encouraged to pursue, and there's got to be some accountability as well, correct?

Cynthia Selin: That's right. One of the themes that will be shot through a lot of the conversation has to do with sustainability, equity, democracy, these values that we really do hold dear. So we're accustomed to a lot of the sustainability problems, whether it's abrupt climate change, or resource depletion, and what we're saying is that we can't leave this to the scientists alone, we can't wait for the next technological fix, but we really want to harness the collective imagination and bring it to bear to think about what kind of future we want. What kind of future will be sustainable?

Ted Simons: Does it feel like we don't have necessarily the best of handles on science and technology right now?

Cynthia Selin: I think that we often get blindsided by emerging toes. Certainly there's a lot in the works from nanotechnology and cognitive science, that are just -- that isn't on the tip of people's tongues. So on the one hand we're really inundated with so many images of the future, whether it's in the next disaster flick, or whether it's the excitement around the new apple product. But really thinking about how technology in society interact, and our range of freedom and choice in technological decision making is quite important, and I think we really create a space that emerges, where there's conversations can happen.

Ted Simons: Have those conversations not necessarily been happening, or at least not obviously to this level, but have we taken baby steps toward those conversations?

Thanassis Rikakis: It's a great question. It's a great -- we can look at it in two parts. Part number one is we want people to wake up and not worry about catching up with technology. We want people to wake up and state the future they want for their kids. For the families. And technology serves that. So the first step we need to take we need to flip the dialer around this cannot be the agony of people catching up with technology. It's people steering the dreams and having technology serve that. That is a major step, we're trying to achieve through emerge. We want priorities to be right as technology development is happening, and the second thing is exactly what you're saying. How do we get this conversation happening? How do we make technology and scientists aware of the human dream and have them serve the human dream rather than -- so we keep thinking of things that are very important for Arizona, at ASU and in Arizona overall because it's a new space, a lot of the conversations are taking place, and that's why we're doing this in Arizona, because we believe it's a prime space for this conversation.

Ted Simons: We've talked a lot on this program about Arizona being tabula rasa. You can basically do a lot of things here with the history getting in the way. Does that help a conference like this?

Joel Garreau: I don't that emerge could occur anywhere else but here. I think Arizonians have built an amazing place because they've created a place like Arizona State University. This is arguably the foremost silo busting institution in America. You have lots of makers of the future here, like we have people who are creating creatures of biodesign that eat CO2 and poop gasoline, thereby solving climate change in the Middle East, hopefully in the next five years. We also have people like us who are the arm wavers about what this means. But the difference is, at ASU these two groups of people drink with each other. And I've never seen anything like that at Harvard or Berkeley or Stanford.

Ted Simons: Why don't those two groups of people drink with each other? Why is it those who make the future and those who think about the future, what's going on there?

Cynthia Selin: I think in a traditional University you have these disciplinary walls, but at ASU it's this really fertile ground where there is a lot of interdisciplinary collaboration. So the center for nanotechnology and society where I conduct my research, we're humanists, we're social scientists and we're work can alongside with scientists in the laboratory to try to appreciate the futures that we're creating and how we can bring forth science and technology that benefits humanity.

Ted Simons: It sounds like were you bringing that forth by way of hands-on workshops and things. Tell us about this festival, the digital culture festival and where is all this happening and when is all this happening?

Thanassis Rikakis: I think it's a great example, it also gives a summary of what we're talking about. From 5:00 to 8:00 in the evening, on Saturday, throughout the buildings of the design arts institute at ASU, we have a festival. But this is an unusual festival. This is not where people show up and consume high end content. This is a place where they show up and interact with each other. And as they have these human relationships, the technology is following them and allowing them to shape content. So we're trying to have a cultural part of them that goes from the consumer to the maker and five to eight throughout the spaces people can show up and interact with the new human driven paradigms.

Ted Simons: About 30 seconds left. Where can we get more information for this?

Joel Garreau: Emerge.asu.edu. It's open to the public and it's free. It's all day Saturday, into Saturday evening. And as Thanassis said Saturday evening is when we have the dancers and the improv actors and the moving sculpture the whole nine yards. It's going to really rock.

Ted Simons: It sounds like it's really something. Thank you for joining us. Wednesday on "Arizona Horizon," we'll look at how Arizona compares to the rest of the country when it comes to poverty and a local theater company is staking a rock and roll musical to teach kids about America's presidents. That's Wednesday on "Arizona Horizon," 5:30 and 10:00 right here on eight HD. That is it for now. I'm Ted Simons. Thank you so much for joining us. You have a great evening.

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