You’re Still Not Reading Enough Sci Fi, Pt. 1

I bet it’s true.

I’m not even talking about reading for pleasure; I’m not worried about whether you’re a geek or not. Geeks have inherited the earth; look at movies and TV screens and, oh, here’s the New Yorker with a Harry Potter reference in a headline about Trump’s budget.

I’m talking about reading these things – both science fiction and fantasy – for work.

These genres are incredibly useful ways of writing about our world from an odd angle, of positing changes and exploring their implications, or making manifest things which in our everyday lives go unnoticed or unspoken.

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I’ve always been pretty geeky, but I drifted away from this kind of reading for a while. I haven’t followed the genre trends or individual authors’ careers the way I might have as a teen.

Then I got working on projects which explore the borderland between fiction and reality: the time travellers, the island of librarians, the inevitable zombies. I got serious about finding ways to use games and roleplay to help communities and institutions think about the world to come.

That could be future-facing writers’ workshops in regional Australia, or games of The Thing from the Future, or toy robot case studies for health professionals – it could even be Escher-inspired 3D biographical comics – but in each case it brought me back to the delights of speculative fiction, the simultaneously wild and disciplined genre of stories asking: what if things were different?

Wild and disciplined at once? Well, yes; doesn’t the best of this writing posit a fantastic change and then carefully follow through the consequences and implications of that change?

An underrated example of this is Joss Whedon’s TV show Dollhouse, which imagined a technology for rewriting and overwriting people’s personalities and then worked its way, episode by episode, through all the possible uses, abuses, and inadvertent consequences of such a device.
 
TV sci-fi is great and the drama can be both compelling and relevant – there’s a reason we’re all watching Westworld just as anxieties surge about artificial intelligence and human identity – but I also enjoy the thoroughness of a good piece of prose sci-fi – and sometimes a writer from the past can prove more useful than you’d expect.

So this week on the blog, each day I’m going to point you towards some speculative fiction from the past or present which might be useful when we think about the shape of things to come. Get ready to get stuck in…

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Let’s Do Something Awesome

I’m off to the Australian capital Canberra tomorrow to work with Libraries ACT on their annual training day.

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We’ll be looking at creative approaches to community engagement, and sharing some neat little tools from my team, including the WELCOME Toolkit for programme design. Read more

Marvellous, Electrical returns

My newsletter Marvellous, Electrical is back, after a brief pause to get sorted with my next job.

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In this instalment, we’re joined by a quiet triathlete who was once the highest ranked openly gay civilian in Australia’s Defence Intelligence Organisation.

From beer-fuelled military ventures to haunted television shows and the strange world of endurance sport, check out Marvellous, Electrical: The Artists’ Rifles here.

What’s next

From May, I’ll be joining the University of Southern Queensland for six months supporting “proactive, strategic, and sustainable engagement with key stakeholders and communities internal and external to USQ.”

Working with Professor Helen Partridge and her fab team in USQ’s Scholarly Information and Learning Services division, I’ll be acting as a coach and catalyst to raise awareness, understanding, and capacity in maintaining a sustainable community engagement program.

I visited USQ last year to talk about community engagement, healthcare, storytelling, digital media, and what really listening to people and technology in Australia might entail.

This new adventure is going to be cracking good fun – but there’s still a few more exciting things to come out of my extended residency with the State Library of Queensland, so watch this space.

Curiosity vs The Post-Truth World

Among my weekend reads was Tim Harford’s Financial Times piece “The Problem with Facts“.

We’re big Harford fans around these parts, not just for his podcast More or Less but also his book Messy, which I’ve been inflicting on various colleagues and friends around Australia.

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In the FT piece, Harford takes us back from the fake news and false claims of political debate in the age of Trump and Brexit to the history of “doubt manufacture” in the 20th century, and the tobacco industry’s attempts to blur the links between smoking and cancer.

He examines the limits of fact-checking as a response or a rebuke to those who cloud public discourse with lies.

He tells us that scientific literacy is not necessarily the answer, that it “can actually widen the gap between different political tribes on issues such as climate change — that is, well-informed liberals and well-informed conservatives are further apart in their views than liberals and conservatives who know little about the science.”

Rather, he points to a paper “Scientific Curiosity and Political Information Processing” by Dan Kahan, Asheley Landrum, Katie Carpenter, Laura Helft and Kathleen Hall Jamieson.

Those authors argue that it is worth exploring further whether a person’s curiosity about science can counteract our tendency to view the world through the lens of political bias.

Their initial findings prompt them to explore whether

individuals who have an appetite to be surprised by scientific information—who find it pleasurable to discover that the world does not work as they expected—do not turn this feature of their personality off when they engage political information but rather indulge it in that setting as well, exposing themselves more readily to information that defies their expectations about facts on contested issues. The result is that these citizens, unlike their less curious counterparts, react more open mindedly and respond more uniformly across the political spectrum to the best available evidence.

As Harford puts it, “Curiosity is the seed from which sensible democratic decisions can grow. It seems to be one of the only cures for politically motivated reasoning but it’s also, into the bargain, the cure for a society where most people just don’t pay attention to the news because they find it boring or confusing.”

All of this is great news for those of us working at the odd intersection of knowledge and culture, where communities meet institutions like galleries, museums, libraries, universities, and healthcare providers.

I’ve been worrying for a while now, even with events as warm and cuddly as the annual Fun Palace celebrations of art and science, about the times we choose to take scientific claims on faith.

I worry too about what part libraries have to play in the battle against fake news and egregiously false claims in the media. Is the library a trusted dispenser of facts and information? A repository of the truth? Or, rather, a safe place for you to indulge your curiosity, to wander as you see fit through all the contested claims and different visions of human knowledge and culture?

Harford’s take on that research paper returns us to the notion of each individual’s curiosity and exploration as the basis of scientific endeavour and the quest for truth. It returns us not to blind faith in science or reliance on fact checkers, but a sense that we must always actively challenge and revise our beliefs.

It reminds me why, in the last few years, we’ve allowed kids to sketch time-travelling creepy crawlies from a steampunk world to encourage scientific observation; why we spent last week in the Aussie town of Bundaberg to help rural writers speculate  about the future of society; why we’ve been training health professionals using far-fetched and fantastic case studies like the Immortal Sock Monkey. It’s because these activities each became a matter of curiosity and wonder, rather than a mere transfer of facts from a person in authority. Curiosity and wonder might just be the best antiseptic for the spread of fake news.

If the formal research into scientific curiosity proves fruitful, it could guide and nuance our attempts to encourage  a world where people are free to learn, explore, create, and play as they wish to, not just in accordance with curriculums and constraints.

It wouldn’t just be about science, either. For isn’t art, too, a matter of curiosity about materials, expression, and representation? And don’t those of us who find ourselves on colonised lands need, as Columbia anthropologist Beth Povinelli has been arguing, to become more curious, too, about Indigenous ways of knowing and understanding the world?

This is a difficult moment for those of us who value the truth in public life and wish to push back against those who maliciously sow doubt and deliberate misinformation. But Tim Harford’s article reminds us that there are ways forward for those of us unwilling to embrace a post-truth world  – and that, wonderfully, those ways might even be incredibly exciting, incredibly adventurous, and incredibly good fun.

Visions from Bundaberg

Last weekend I was the guest artist at “Dispatches from Bundy”, a writing workshop in the Queensland town of Bundaberg.

Working with staff from Creative Regions and Queensland University of Technology, our team took a group of local writers and storytellers through a two-day session aimed at engaging with stories from the past, exploring visions of the future, and nurturing regional literature.

One of our activities saw participants creating science fiction stories and postcards from future worlds. We stitched these stories into a timeline of future history stretching a thousand years hence.

Check out the result via YouTube, incorporating images by Peter Miller aka Scribbletronics and music from Disasteradio.

Lake Mac GLAM

I’ll be speaking at the inaugural Lake Mac GLAM Symposium for museum, gallery, library, arts, and culture professionals in Lake Macquarie, New South Wales next month.

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On 10th April, join me and other GLAMourpusses from across Victoria, Queensland, and New South Wales to look at trends, challenges, and opportunities for Australia’s cultural sector.

Find out more & get your tickets here.

Peace for the Immortal Sock Monkey

My friend Stevie made the sock monkey – a placid purple chap with chubby limbs and buttons for eyes. He seemed pretty satisfied with existence, but his deeper woes had gone unseen.

Two Student Occupational Therapists from Griffith University pose with their client, an immortal sock monkey

It turned out that the sock monkey was cursed to live forever, and as the centuries rolled by, he was succumbing to despair. Two students from the Occupational Therapy course at Australia’s Griffith University decided to help, using their professional skills to explore ways of reconciling him to a happier immortality.

Read more

Writing the Digital Future: Dispatches from Bundaberg

I’m joining the team from Queensland University of Technology’s Writing the Digital Futures project to deliver a two-day creative writing event in Bundaberg next month.

It’s part of the broader Digital Futures season at the State Library of Queensland this year.

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“Dispatches from Bundy: Visions from the Future, Stories From the Past” will blend digital media, oral storytelling, play, speculative fiction, and archival materials to help local people explore the past, present, and future of their town.

You can join in the fun on 4th-5th March, and check out the flyer here..

Social Media Training at the Queensland Country Women’s Association

It’s a busy old month here in Brisbane…

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Hot on the heels of a robot-training, cocktail-mixing event for librarians in Moreton Bay, I’ll be joining forces with my colleague Lyn Thompson to deliver three hours of training for the Queensland Country Women’s Assosciation (QCWA), the largest women’s group in Queensland.

Since 1922, the QCWA has helped women from across the state to celebrate their friendship and interests while supporting opportunities to make a difference in the fields of health, education, and the broader community.

Lyn and I will be teaming up on Saturday to deliver social media training for QCWA members across the regions, helping them make the most of the digital age.