The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

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Pardon the Disruption – We Just Love Each Other

As posted by me this morning on the Boston Teacher Residency blog:

If you were at a certain bar and grill on Boylston Street in Back Bay last Friday night, you may have noticed a large group of constantly-smiling people who had apparently transformed a significant fraction of the underground bar into their own eight-hour raucous dance party. You would have noticed that said party continued to exude warmth regardless of incredulous stares and even the slightly awkward attempts by others to join in. You would have heard vigorous debates on race as a social construct and multidimensional n-branes as a fundamental building block of spacetime. And you would have heard a lot of overpowering laughter, swelling repeatedly like a tidal wave trying to drown the room in our good times.

Um, yeah, so that was us. A bunch of urban public school teachers in training. Hi. Allow me to attempt to explain our exuberance in disrupting your regularly scheduled evening at the bar.

The context for our party was a desperate, pent-up need to have a great time after what I can only lightly characterize as “a rough week.” We explored (many of us for the first time) how ugly, pervasive, and seemingly inescapable some of the injustices in the world are. We all lived out multiple examples of how none of us, no matter how committed we are to social justice or how much we have suffered or studied, are immune from the very systemic biases we are trying to correct. All in all, it was a painful and emotionally raw week in many ways. By the time Friday afternoon rolled around, we were asking ourselves, “In spite of all this, what is it that gives us hope? What makes us think we can do this?”

I heard many good answers to that question in class, but I saw a great answer to that question in what happened after class: that in the face of the darkness of the moment, our unconscious response was love.

In retrospect, I think now about how we were easily the most diverse group in the room, on so many levels: race, class, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, educational background, family dynamics, where we grew up, how we talk, and so many others. We were such an obvious grab-bag of different kinds of people together. And we were positively radiating a lot of love for each other and having an amazing time, oblivious to how anyone else was looking at us. Say what you will about our sense of decorum, but no one could have been in that bar and not felt the love.

In Language, Power and Democracy class we talked about creating “Islands of Decency” and “Pockets of Hope.” Perhaps few of the people who observed us on Friday would consciously frame it in these terms. But as a group I think that we are a pretty awesome Island of Decency and Pocket of Hope ourselves—just in who we are and how we treat each other. Maybe someone who saw us will remember our faces laughing and dancing together—and internalize a small kernel of what humanity could be like if we tried. If that vague memory of us changes even one action by one person for the better, then we did some good for the world just by showing it how much we can love each other.

I am forced to an unavoidably cheesy but logically inescapable conclusion: that we can succeed in this endeavor by making a moral choice to believe in love and living our lives like we mean it. Maybe this is how we can make the impossible possible.

What We Could Be If We Tried

I got a lot of good feedback from friends/colleagues regarding my last post on defending the literary and humanistic elements of science fiction. The discussion led me to an important point which got left out of that post.  While using a speculative setting and premise to examine human element is certainly what I personally like best about the science fiction that I read and write, there is also another important role that the genre plays (or should play): to inspire and advocate for new ways of thinking, understanding, and living. As I wrote before, all art both reflects and influences the society in which it finds itself. For science fiction, examining the human condition is the reflection part; imagining the future is the influencing part. There seem to be a variety of opinions as to what the balance between the two should be however.

Neil Stephenson’s article in the World Policy Journal, Innovation Starvation has been creating quite the kerfuffle in the science fiction community for the past few months. In it, Stephenson argues that the genre has come to be dominated by inward-looking, dystopian, and cynical renderings of humanity and its near future. Perhaps this is not surprising considering the times… I certainly sense widespread disaffection with the world and its institutions at the moment, and just as certainly have little confidence myself that these institutions are capable of seriously addressing the grave problems facing our nation, world, and species. But I think Stephenson’s point is that especially in uncertain times, it is incumbent on a genre like science fiction to imagine a way out:

Believing we have all the technology we’ll ever need, we seek to draw attention to its destructive side effects. This seems foolish now that we find ourselves saddled with technologies like Japan’s ramshackle 1960’s-vintage reactors at Fukushima when we have the possibility of clean nuclear fusion on the horizon. The imperative to develop new technologies and implement them on a heroic scale no longer seems like the childish preoccupation of a few nerds with slide rules. It’s the only way for the human race to escape from its current predicaments. Too bad we’ve forgotten how to do it.

There is obviously a valid point to be made here. I don’t think anyone who has talked to a group of scientists and engineers can deny that science fiction has influenced many (though certainly not all) of our best and brightest on the front lines of innovation and discovery. I absolutely agree that the sheer amount of pessimism out there does get to be a drag sometimes when getting through the latest issues of the mags. And our society in general does seem to have lost the capacity to think long term, to dream about what could be, and to consider anything beyond what affects them immediately and directly.

However, I think what irks me about Stephenson’s rant is that it seems to imply at least two notions which I find disingenuous:

  1. The only “good” science fiction is that which is centered on speculation about the future.
  2. A cynical viewpoint about the future expressed in science fiction is “bad” because it doesn’t spur the imagination and innovation needed to get to a better future.

With respect to implication 1, I have to insist that science fiction as a genre does not necessarily have to include future at all. It certainly can, and often does. But to me, all that is required is a premise that rationally speculates on some aspect of science. Steampunk is the perfect example of this: its works imagine a world in which steam and mechanical technology evolved more rapidly than electronics. Most aren’t set in the future at all, but often go into the past. Yet the stories rely on rigorous speculation about how science would work under different circumstances. (For the record, I have other issues with Steampunk, but that’s a post for another day.)

Also with respect to implication 1, I have to also insist that imagining what could be in terms of our own society and humanity is at best only half of the function of any art form; examining who we are now is perfectly legitimate, and moreover just as vital. This is the proverbial “holding up the mirror” to society that has been a mainstay role of the arts since ancient times.

Science fiction writer Charles Stross put it well:

We’re living in the frickin’ 21st century. Killer robot drones are assassinating people in the hills of Afghanistan. Our civilisation has been invaded and conquered by the hive intelligences of multinational corporations, directed by the new aristocracy of the 0.1%. There are space probes in orbit around Saturn and en route to Pluto. Surgeons are carrying out face transplants. I have more computing power and data storage in my office than probably the entire world had in 1980. (Definitely than in 1970.) We’re carrying out this Mind Meld via the internet, and if that isn’t a 1980s cyberpunk vision that’s imploded into the present, warts and all, I don’t know what is. Seriously: to the extent that mainstream literary fiction is about the perfect microscopic anatomization of everyday mundane life, a true and accurate mainstream literary novel today ought to read like a masterpiece of cyberpunk dystopian SF.

This brings me to implication 2. So here we are, in some respects living the dystopia that the science fiction of yesteryear feared and loathed. Yes, putting more optimistic work out there is one great way to counter all the negativity and nihilism in the world right now. But it’s not the only way. Dystopia can inspire positive progress as well. As futurism blogger Mike Labossiere writes on io9:

On one hand, such works could provide ideas which would inspire later innovation. For example, a dystopian work could still include descriptions of interesting technologies or innovations that latter engineers of scientists might duplicate. There is also the possibility that such works could provide an inspiration in a negative way. That is, by portraying a horrific future a writer could inspire people to try to avoid that possible future. […] That is, the bad can be inspirational — provided that there is a strong element of the possibility of the good.

So where does that leave us? I’m not sure. For me, the debate has definitely made me look at my own writing. Sure enough, the two short stories I have in submission circulation right now are fairly pessimistic about our near-term future (though both feature protagonists who struggle to create positive meaning and identity in those dark futures… I’m a Hemingway fan). Maybe I should take a look at what else I could bring to the table.

It’s not that I don’t have optimistic ideas about the future; indeed, I’m often labeled a stubborn idealist. I guess I discard these ideas as subjects of my writing often because it’s a lot harder to bring in good character conflict when everything is fine. I, for one, CAN’T STAND the science fiction that goes on for pages about describing some technology or system or society, but nothing much happens to the PEOPLE. I want a story dammit, not an engineering manual… I read enough of the latter at work. I also don’t want a psychology textbook or a cultural anthropologist’s field report. To be sure, those can be the seeds of good worldbuilding, but the output of your worldbuilding is not a story in and of itself.

I will amend my argument, and hopefully arrive at a compromise, with the following: I know there are fundamental human conflicts, mostly of the inner variety, that aren’t going to go away, no matter what our future holds. Love. Identity. Belonging. Isolation. Mortality. Hope. Perhaps the challenge I need to set for myself as a still-forming science fiction writer is to blend these with a positive vision of what we could be if we tried… Sounds lovely actually, if hard. Maybe I’ll give it a shot.

Educated Populace –> More Relevant NASA

Excerpt from a debate on Yammer about the relevance of NASA. Credit: engineer K. Sanner.

Honestly, what you are asking for requires embracing a liberal education in America at an early age. America embraces a liberal education at the university level, but is perfectly comfortable with half the population being educated just well enough to be employed at a skilled trade. To then expect that half of the population to suddenly abondon their dogmatic approach to life and values, which ensure social stability, harmony and easy consensus is expecting too much of them. One brilliant lecture by Neil Tyson is not going to bring enlightenment to millions of Americans and make us realize we need to strive for understanding the universe around us. “Of course” we should be greater than we are, and we should constantly strive to learn more about who we are and the world around us. “Of course” the value in this is enormous, as it would make our civlization greater, and increase the level of humanity we could achieve and leave to all of humanity in the future. But, I say “Of course” because this is an obvious value system to me. To many millions of our voting public, the people we work for, their value system has an abrupt eclipse at the end of a traditional dogmatic doctrine they have accepted as a complete and final value system that needs no refinement, adjustment, updating, or change. How can we possibly convince that population in America that humanity needs to rise to a higher level and that there is value in exploration and discovery worth spending money on to do this versus more natinal security? I think it is a change that will require a generation of commitment to teaching a liberal education to children, and that is not the direction our political leaders want our public education system to take. This is beyond the scope of NASA. We can always preach to the choir, but I don’t expect any sudden enlightenment in the public to occur because of our publications and presentations that are so great they change our national priorities. The first great American accomplishments of the space age occurred because we appealed on a political level to beat the communist Russians. The next great level of accomplishments in human space flight will probably occur because we will appeal on on a political level to beat the communist Chinese. I wish it were otherwise. But, there is a minority of opinion in our country that learning for its own sake, understanding the world around us, accomplishing great engineering feats, developing new technologies and making scientific discoveries without obvious commercial application has great and significant value to us individually, culturally, nationally, and to all of our humanity that should be a gift to the whole world. Join your school board if you have time and fight for a liberal education in your school. Bring it up to your state legislators. Maybe, in a generation, there will be a significant shift in our value system as a country, and we will achieve these great things for their own sake, and for the sake of humanity in the future.