Saturday, March 3, 2012

Saturday Afternoon in Tempe: "Emerge: Artists + Scientists Redesign the Future" at Arizona State University

We went to Arizona State University this afternoon to attend some of the public events on the third and final day of Emerge: Artists + Scientists Redesign the Future, "an unparalleled campus–wide event uniting artists, engineers, bio scientists, social scientists, story–tellers and designers to build, draw, write and rethink the future of the human species and the environments that we share."

This was the only day it was open to the public, and we're grateful we got to see and hear a little bit of Emerge. Sadly, we missed this morning's keynote speeches by visionary ASU President Michael Crow and the legendary Stewart Brand, as well as the panels on Envisioning the Future, moderated by Neal Stephenson, and Designing the Future, moderated by Merlyna Lim.

But Hans de Zwart wrote a wonderfully valuable report on those presentations as well as the whole day's events that's worth reading -- more than what we could come up with if we had the rest of the future, certainly. For example, see his commentary on President Crow's speech:
He calls universities “knowledge enterprises”. He is trying to move away from bureaucratized and routinized science and technology and away from silo-ed thinking. By changing how they do things, they have managed to double their number of engineering students. Usually universities find smart people and then focus them as narrowly as possible. Universities shouldn’t be structured like that. At ASU they are very much focused on exploration (science as a means). They are also very interested in origins and have built another way of organizing “genius” around that. Many scientists and engineers are pursuing “valueless engagement”. Why don’t we have at least some of the knowledge enterprise have an objective purpose outside of science itself. At ASU this objective function is sustainability, a value to be pursued. . . I personally loved how provocative Crow was: I think he really managed to show how little clothes the emperor is wearing in the academic world (e.g. “The status of the university should not be achieved by who you exclude from the university”).

We arrived for Sherry Turkle's keynote at 1:45 PM, and it was exciting to see an author/scholar whose work we've followed since we bought her astonishing The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit at the Strand in 1984, when we were going into the field of computer education.

She talked about evocative "objects to think with," a term we discovered decades ago in Seymour Papert's Mindstorms in a graduate Logo programming course, and used as examples Susan Yee's digital archive and Donald Ingber's finding inspiration in Venus Paradise Pencils.

Colin Milburn then moderated the panel on Embodying the Future, featuring three fascinating workshop projects carried out in the earlier days of Emerge: “Starting with the Universe" and two using gaming, one of which used a "fabricator machine" game to show the limits, costs, and choices involved in manufacturing objects sustainably. We were sorry we missed the two earlier panels,

Corner Convenience from hellofosta on Vimeo.

and a lot of this was a little above our pay grade, but we enjoyed listening and watching. During the break, we looked at some of the projects and designs outside Neeb Hall.

We Alone on Earth has a brilliant rundown of the day's events by Michael Burnam-Fink with a fierce intelligence. Here's his take on the next keynote:

Bruce Mau, the next presenter, knocked it out of the park. Bruce is a true design guru. He’s the force behind ASU’s web design, which is ahead of 90% of most university web design (think I’m kidding? Check out the rest and report back), a 1000-year plan for Mecca, and fixing the future in general. It’s hard to pin down Bruce Mau, but he is highly quotable. ("When you turn off design, you design for failure." "We can't sacrifice our way back to a world we can accept. We have to progress to an AWESOME BEAUTIFUL FUTURE.")

The legendary Bruce Sterling, whose work we taught when we were teaching a class in science fiction at Borough of Manhattan Community College in the fall of 2010, gave the final keynote. Here's Michael Burnam Fink again:
Bruce remarks that “The telepathic monkey is weirdly melancholic. Science-fiction has been doing telepathic monkeys for so long that to see one in the flesh is a little dull. Nobody’s everyday life is weird and wondrous."

But technology is provisional, and wonder is a beautiful frame of mind that should probably be reserved for the eternal and universal.

Bruce finishes by saying, “Summing up what’s happened here is impossible, but I can demo it.” And launches into a truly weird piece of performance art where he puts on his telepathic brain-reading gloves (bought at the Corner Convenience store) and summons up an augmented reality interface to 3D print up some improvements to his house, and finally help him learn Spanish through old Mexican comedies.

It was a terrific performance. We had to get back to Apache Junction to celebrate our mom's 81st birthday in the nursing home (even if, in late-stage Alzheimer's, doesn't know what a birthday is or who we are), so we just had a little time to check out the visual arts gallery and couldn't stay for the later performances.

Still, we're grateful we got to see even a couple of hours of Emerge: Artists + Scientists Redesign the Future" and grateful for ASU for hosting such an incredible event.

(We'll be even more grateful when and if they post the videos of what we missed.)

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