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Ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a group of futurists and visionaries gathered in a Santa Monica beachside hotel to conjure the future 50 years hence for director Steven Spielberg’s feature “Minority Report.”
Spielberg had no plot and no script, but he did have a short story by Philip K. Dick. He wanted a future based in reality, not “Jetsons” fancy or “Fury Road” ruin.
His specialists — who included a researcher from MIT, a cultural anthropologist, a computer scientist and a program director from DARPA, the military’s future tech developers — imagined a future where advertising followed you everywhere, robot insect drones explored hazardous areas and people were convicted of crimes they would commit in the future.
Look at now. Shop online for cuckoo clocks, and you will find yourself haunted by cuckoo clock ads for weeks. An Arizona State University scientist has created mind control for drones. Another ASU scientist works on algorithms that predict which criminals are most likely to strike next.
That same group — plus a few new folks — is going to give it another shot in a two-day event Thursday and Friday dubbed “Inventing the Future All Over Again.” The event is sponsored by Hollywood Invades Tempe, a 6-year-old student organization that brings film professionals to ASU to speak about their work through special screenings and open forum events.
“We created this world on the fly in two days, and that’s what we’re going to do at ASU,” said professor Joel Garreau, who was at the original event in Santa Monica.
“People barely remember the plot,” he said. “What they remember is the world. … The reason they were so uncannily accurate was that they weren’t predictions. These were the guys who were inventing these futures.”
To invent a future requires a story, said Ruth Wylie, assistant director of the Center for Science and the Imagination.
“In order to create the future, we need to have visions or stories about that future,” Wylie said. “That’s something futurists can do. We need to imagine something before we can build it.”
Imagining something in order to avoid it is equally important.
“If part of that visioning is about futures we don’t want, we can start thinking intentionally about avoiding that fate,” she said.
Making all this easier is the fact that telling stories and seeking patterns is part of the human condition. Sit down by a fire with a middle-age man who has had a few drinks and you’ll find that’s true.
“Human beings are pattern-seeking storytellers,” Garreau said. “Humans cannot just abide by the idea of randomness. We will look into the night sky and rather than deal with the fact that this a random distribution, we will make up stories about bears and dippers and warriors. Storytelling is at the heart of everything. It was at the heart of this election, it’s at the heart of what (President Michael) Crow is doing with the university. If you have a compelling story, it goes viral.”
In the scenario that will coalesce at Friday’s roundtable discussion (see schedule below), it’s the year 2066. Everyone has unlimited access to as much education as they want, for free, without restrictions of any kind. What will the world look like? How will people eat, socialize, shop and read?
“We’re going to be building a very particular world,” Garreau said. “We’re going to be building 2066, and 2016 will seem as antique to us then as 1911 does to us now.”
People tend to date and marry people who are at the same educational level, Wylie pointed out. “What are the impacts of education as a differentiator when that goes away?” she said.
The profession of futurism is formally called scenario planning. It’s a means of rehearsing the future, much like training in a flight simulator. That’s what will happen at the event, Garreau explained.
“I don’t have a crystal ball, and I don’t know anyone who does,” he said. “Predictions are always wrong. I’m still waiting for my hotel room on Mars and my flying car. What I do cop to is being a scenario planner: a systematic rational logical way of thinking about the future that might be coming at us in a way we can act on.
“There’s no ooga-booga involved in scenario planning. It’s widely accepted by the Fortune 500, the American military; it’s a regular tool. It’s the opposite of predictions. Predictions try to figure out with some kind of certainty what’s going to happen. Scenario planning is just the opposite; it collects uncertainties. The virtue of that is when you try to do predictions, you end up with one or two options.”
Adam Collis, a professor in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts who teaches film directing, runs the industry relations program, ASU Film Spark, that brought seven campus organizations together for this event. He said he is excited about the overlap between art and science in the project.
“This is a true cross-disciplinary activity,” Collis said. “I think the movie represents that nexus, and I think our effort here is trying to embody that nexus and the opportunities that come out of those two different disciplines colliding.”
We can look to science fiction for inspiration, Wylie said.
“Science fiction has the liberty to take science but then go one step farther,” she said. “It’s not bounded in what we know, but instead in possibility. It provides that motivation to keep exploring and think about the 'what if' part, which I think is fun.”
Garreau promised fun for the audience, who will be engaged directly with the panel during the event.
“It’s going to be like a really smart talk show,” he said. “We have a game that lets everyone in the audience help create this world.”
Hollywood Invades Tempe presents "Inventing the Future All Over Again," a special two-day event about imagining the world 50 years from now.
RSVP at www.hollywoodinvadestempe.com.
Top image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox. Tom Cruise starred in 2002's "Minority Report," which ASU professor Joel Garreau says is remembered more for its world than its plot.