Cheese, Drugs, and Moonshots: A Science March special for @kylastephan

Kyla Stephan who writes the marvellous Library Ghost blog knitted me a hat for today’s Science March in Brisbane.

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There are rightly some questions to be asked about the march organisers’ approach to diversity and inclusion, but I also thought it was important to show up and be counted in the name of all people who are curious about the world and revise their beliefs in the face of evidence.

In return for my hat, I had to find Kyla an interesting science story.

So here are a few words about drug dosage and cheesy moonshots.

What are the physics of highly compressed cheese and why does it matter?

My favourite science show-off moment was at a conference on Science and Storytelling at the University of Cardiff some years ago.

I was interested in how medics and health workers used storytelling in science, and one of my favourite projects was by an information scientist called Harold Thimbleby (PDF download).

He pointed out that in Europe, about 120,000 hospital deaths per year are caused by drug calculation errors – that’s more people than die in car accidents.

Not all of those errors can be blamed on the staff, however. The automatic pumps which dispense drugs through IVs etc are often difficult to program, and although they look like calculators, they are not.

An example:

A “simple” drug calculation is: how many mL/hr should an infusion pump be set to in order to give a patient 5250mg of fluorouracil over 4 days at a concentration of 45.57 mg/mL?

The simplest correct calculation using a basic calculator is: [AC][MRC][MRC]4 × 24 [MPLUS][AC]5250 ÷ 45.57 ÷[MRC] =

After getting all those key presses right, you then have to go through another round of button presses on the pump, without making any mistakes. All as just one task in your busy day at the hospital.

Professor Thimbleby developed a prototype smartphone app which asked you what the drug calculation was, and the type of pump you were using, and then guided you through the key presses step by step.

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This reduced human error and created opportunities for the user to check and double check throughout the process.

What has all that got to do with a moon made of cheese?

Almost offhandedly, during his talk, Professor Thimbleby spoke of the certainty with which we know the moon isn’t made of cheese. He compared this scientific certainty to the world of storytelling, where we can still indulge that fantasy.

Even without visiting the moon, we can tell it isn’t made of cheese because of its albedo – the fraction of solar energy which it reflects back into space.

Different materials have different reflectivity: for example, ice and snow have a high albedo and cause most of the sunlight hitting them to reflect back into space.

We can work out the albedo of cheese and observe the brightness of the moon to confirm that it is, sadly, not made from dairy products.

But – but but but – what if the moon were made of cheese? How could we indulge that fantasy while maintaining the rigour of critical and scientific thinking?

Do we need to imagine a cheese-moon which is the same size or the same mass?

If the latter, the moon would have to be a lot larger. Nocturnal animals and the science of astronomy would be affected by the larger moon in our sky, with its much higher albedo.

What’s more, a moon sized piece of cheese would be denser and hotter at its centre owing to gravitational compression.

Would there be volcanos of molten cheese? At extreme high pressures, does cheese maintain its integrity, or break down into its component parts? Would the massive internal pressure cause it to explode?

I love that scientists can begin to explore these hypothetical situations without even having to leave the comfort of their armchair – or in our case, the post-march pub.

I love that there is a happy borderland where science and science fiction meet, and valuably so – because they are, ultimately, both spaces of wonder.

Professor Thimbleby made his cheesy digression and showed the value of thinking carefully and critically, reasoning from available evidence – but his work also demonstrates that you could save lives just by paying close attention to technology and human interaction.

He didn’t need to be in the ward to come up with a way to avoid deaths from drug miscalculation, and he didn’t need to land on the moon to work out what it was made of.

How cool is that? Read more

You’re Still Not Reading Enough Sci Fi, Supplemental

This is an addendum to my recent week exploring science fiction and fantasy that might help your community or organisation think about the future.

Sometimes these wayward dreams take the form of a caveat.

Blindsight, by Peter Watts, is a creepy and troubling space opera which follows a team of explorers dispatched to investigate an alien craft in the year 2082.

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Watts shows us a post-scarcity Earth which is suddenly threatened by vastly superior technology; he sends us out into space with a group of weird souls who have been granted talents which estrange them from humanity; and then, far from home, he forces them into a confrontation with creatures that are smarter and more adaptable than we.

Watts is known for dark explorations of the posthuman future, and for giving his stories endings which offer little reassurance, but Blindsight merits special mention for the way in which it leaves you doubting the value of all we hold dear in the human condition.

I came across Watts’ book after reading Steven Shaviro’s Discognition, a book which aims to conduct philosophy through the exploration of science fiction. At one point, Shaviro writes:

…the nonhuman entities with which we share the world – including, but not limited to, our tools – are active in their own right. They have their own powers, interests, and points of view. And if we engineer them, in various ways, they “engineer” us as well, nudging us to adapt to their demands. Automobiles, computers, and kidney dialysis machines were made to serve particular human needs; but in turn, they also induce human habits and behaviours to change. Nonhuman things must therefore be seen as…active agents with their own intentions and goals, and which affect one another, as well as affecting us…

Shaviro’s argument that we must begin to understand our behaviours and attitudes through the viewpoint of nonhuman actors – not just everyday tools but the robot, the alien, the artificial intelligence, the monster – is something I’ve also seen explored in the art education practice of Sean Justice and even the way farmers relate to their self-driving machines in the 21st century. We tried to capture some of these relationships in the State Library of Queensland’s Ozofarm Initiative, which invited local communities to devise their own sci-fi farming scenarios using small robots.

That’s a worthy goal with clear benefits for our digital future, but I don’t want to stray too far from Watts’ bleak vision. His book isn’t a Luddite take on our future, it’s a cool-headed refusal to bet on humanity’s own heroism.

Not only does Watts neatly sketch the potential for human conflict even in a world where our material and energy needs have been met, but Blindsight does a great job of challenging our faith in precisely the capacities for imagination and awareness which allow him to write such a compelling novel.

So anytime you need your hope for the future tempered with a healthy dose of scepticism, this thoughtful reality check is the book for you.

You’re Still Not Reading Enough Sci Fi, Pt. 6

We’re at the final instalment of this week-long exploration of how science fiction and fantasy can help your community, company, or institution think about the world to come.

Get Curious, Get Weird
 
A lot of well-meaning institutions, programmes, and forces trying to prepare us for social and technological change are currently trying to push a “coding and robotics” agenda.

That’s great, and indeed, familiarity with digital technology will be vital in the future – but I wonder if skills and strict curricula are all we need right now. Maybe this isn’t a skills gap to be solved by education, but a community engagement issue: we should be helping our citizens to gird themselves for weird social change.

It already looks like scientific curiosity could be more valuable than scientific knowledge in making decisions which respect evidence. Maybe reading sci-fi to provoke our curiosity is as useful to our understanding of the changing world as any specific technical or organisational know-how.

You can see how this might be applied in practical terms through the work of Sean Justice which treats digital technology as an art material to be explored like paint or clay; or in the work of Mal Booth at University of Technology Sydney, supporting artists and designers to usefully augment serendipity in the digital library experience.

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Sean Justice showed me how to play with code as if it were clay,
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Getting curious might involve the simple pen-and-paper futurism of the workshops we ran in Bundaberg on behalf of Queensland University of Technology. There, we helped regional writers – all women, as it happened, and not all sci-fi fans – to express their anxieties, hopes, and visions of the future on a thousand-year timeline.

So there’s a patchy old reading list for you – but maybe being patchy and messy is good, when you’re striking out in open water, looking for new fantasies, new visions, new speculations.

Dip your toe in the waters of this genre – then wade in, swim in whatever direction takes your fancy…and bring back some new stories for us to consider.

You’ll have a grand old time, but don’t forget – future dreaming is serious business.

You’re Still Not Reading Enough Sci Fi, Pt. 5

Each day this week I’m looking at works of science fiction and fantasy which I think might be useful for organisations, institutions, companies and communities who are trying to get ready for the shape of things to come.

Yesterday we looked at stories of spies and mongrels; today we turn our attention to insolent, emotional things.

Reading speculative fiction for inspiration in your work means picking up not just new science fiction but the old stuff too. The kind of Sixties paperbacks which line the second-hand bookstores and which smell of smoke and history, their pages a deep tan, as if the pulp was slowly returning to its origins as a tree.

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In one of these stores, I found Robert Sheckley’s picaresque Options, about an interstellar deliveryman whose attempts to repair a broken down spaceship lead to increasingly surreal situations.

The hero’s interactions with a series of emotive and unreliable artificial intelligences – who are at once constrained by programming and yet just as flaky as any human you’d meet – made me think of the Internet of Things, of the notion that we might not code our next generation of machines but train them like pets, and of the way that offhand genre fiction jokes from fifty years ago might become real social issues in time to come.

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Sheckley’s robots remind me of the technology in novels by his contemporary Philip K. Dick, who is most famed for the work which was adapted into the movie Blade Runner.

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Something you lose in that fabulous noirish movie is the petty and ridiculous side to Dick’s vision. The source novel for Blade Runner includes a pet shop for android animals; the doors of hotel rooms in Dick’s book The Ganymede Takeover badger you to give them a tip, and robot taxis hassle you when the meter is running.

Dingy, with scaling enamel, once bright green but now the color of mold, the tattered ionocraft taxi settled into the locking frame at the window of Joan Hiashi’s elderly hotel room. “Make it snappy,” it said officiously, as if it had urgent business in this collapsing environment, this meager plantation of a state once a portion of a great national union. “My meter,” it added, “is already on.” The thing, in its inadequate way, was making a routine attempt to intimidate her. And she did not precisely enjoy that.
“Help me load my gear,” Joan answered it.

Swiftly—astonishingly so—the ionocraft shot a manual extensor through the open window, grappled the recording gear, transferred the units to its storage compartment. Joan Hiashi then boarded it.

I remember reading these books as a teen and thinking, “Those Sixties writers are fun, but they got it so wrong!”

Now we have Google voice assistants for your home which will also throw in a quick commercial to help you start your day, we see IBM’s Watson picking up profanity a couple of years back, and the prospect of domestic intelligences which are trying to put the soft sell on you – and might even have code to mimic human personality traits – seems eerily close.

Even the simple robots at the State Library of Queensland are pretty emotive. Our NAO robot Sandy lost a leg recently, and rather than stating “error” or refusing to function, she says ouch and expresses pain.

More than that, NAO roboticist Angelica Lim was specifically thinking about emotional gesture while working on the device and has written on the possibility of using emotionally aware robots in settings such as care homes. The glorified toys which we currently showcase in our communities are forerunners to a potential future which may look more like those 60s novels than we expect.

That doesn’t just mean we should worry about how robots will treat us; it also matters that we think about how we treat machines. As Michael Schrage writes in Harvard Business Review

…because humans don’t (yet) attach agency or intelligence to their devices, they’re remarkably uninhibited about abusing them.

[…] If adaptive bots learn from every meaningful human interaction they have, then mistreatment and abuse become technological toxins.

[…] Just as one wouldn’t kick the office cat or ridicule a subordinate, the very idea of mistreating ever-more-intelligent devices becomes unacceptable. While not (biologically) alive, these inanimate objects are explicitly trained to anticipate and respond to workplace needs. Verbally or textually abusing them in the course of one’s job seems gratuitously unprofessional and counterproductive.

How do you think the crabby taxis and neurotic robots in those 60s novels got to be that way? Maybe through the kind of interactions Schrage describes.

When we start imagining life in such a world, it turns out those sci-fi paperbacks from fifty years ago might be more useful than we thought.

Stay tuned for Friday’s edition of You’re Still Not Reading Enough Sci Fi.

You’re Still Not Reading Enough Sci Fi, Pt. 4

Each day this week I’m looking at works of science fiction and fantasy which I think might be useful for organisations, institutions, companies and communities who are trying to get ready for the shape of things to come.

Yesterday we looked at stories about colonialism, labour, and the international order. Today? Spies and mongrels, gender, work, and poverty.


Could the love child of Len Deighton and H.P. Lovecraft write biting commentary on the kind of dull office jobs so many of us work in now? It looks that way from Charles Stross’ Laundry series, which offers a droll vision of a British secret service department dedicated to dealing with the occult.

The series is about to reach its seventh instalment: what began as a light-hearted genre mash-up, with individual books deliberately tipping the hat to the likes of James Bond and Modesty Blaise, has gradually become a dry account of the pain and compromise involved in climbing the management ladder of any public service.

Yes, there are zombies and space Nazis, brain-eating ancient horrors and killer violins, but these are really only there to add tension and spice to Stross’ depiction of the deep frustrations we all feel when office politics and bureaucracy stop us from getting a job done.

Stross, a former pharmacist and IT professional, is a compelling adventure writer, but his real genius lies in refusing to let the stories exhaust themselves in cathartic wish fulfilment. Whatever victories our heroes win against the forces of darkness, we never feel that they have escaped a world as murky and mundane as cold forgotten tea.

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Something similar happens with a very different kind of intelligence agency in Una McCormack’s The Baba Yaga, a space opera set in an interplanetary society which has just experienced a devastating terror attack.

McCormack offers unflashy genre adventure which simply takes it for granted that women are powerful, complicated, active characters, that they are heroes and more than capable of driving their own narrative. Where mainstream action heroes usually struggle with daddy issues (think of Luke and Darth!), McCormack puts motherhood front and centre, with a notion of heroes-as-family which is less patriarchal.

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The wonder of The Baba Yaga is that it feels as if the novel has drifted across from a parallel world which takes it for granted that action-adventure is the business of women.

If space opera is too far out for you, bring things back down to Earth with Stephen Graham Jones’ superlative Mongrels. Its narrator is a young boy being raised by his uncle and aunt in relative poverty, wandering the states of the American South.

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Born to a family of werewolves, the unnamed narrator takes us from childhood into his teens, as he and his kin move from town to town, taking odd jobs, scrabbling to survive. A bloody coming-of-age fantasy which eschews lore and mysticism for an unsentimental look at family life, Mongrels is really a way of talking about poverty and being an outsider in the rural US.

I’ve long dreamed about a literature that blends grit, wit, and stardust – somewhere between Roddy Doyle and Clive Barker? – and for me, Mongrels is itIt’s the fever dream of wild outsiders, stuffed with rage, hope, frustration, and glory.

Stay tuned for more sci-fi and fantasy tomorrow. You’re probably still not reading enough of it. And if you’ve got more suggestions, do let us know!

You’re Still Not Reading Enough Sci Fi, Pt. 3

So each day this week I’m looking at works of science fiction and fantasy which I think might be useful for organisations, institutions, companies, and communities who are trying to anticipate the shape of things to come.

Yesterday we looked at Matthew de Abaitua’s If Then – today it’s colonies, sailors, and cake.
 
De Abaitua’s novelwith its interest in the ongoing impact of the First World War, sits alongside a few recent sci-fi and fantasy works which all in different ways explore the legacy of colonialism and the changes wrought to the international order in the 20th century.

If we’re serious about moving beyond a colonial, Eurocentric viewpoint and considering other ways of living and looking at the world, science fiction and fantasy needs to be part of that.

As Beth Nowviskie said at the Insuetude Symposium, questions of who gets to dream the digital future are vital, and speak back to historic creative movements like Afrofuturism.

I feel you can’t discuss Afrocentric sci-fi and fantasy without talking about the amazing Nigerian-American writer Nnedi Okorafor, whose Akata Witch I reviewed for the Brooklyn Rail a while back. Nnedi’s new novel Binti is also on my bedside table (or at least my Kindle), and her first adult novel Who Fears Death won massive acclaim, but for my money her masterpiece is still Zahrah the Windseeker, a wise and witty adventure set in a magical alternate world. You can read an interview with Nnedi Okorafor on my site here.

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Everfair by Nisi Shawl is a book I just downloaded to read on my phone. It’s set on an African continent which is not quite ours, where the Belgian Congo becomes a safe haven run by missionaries and Fabians. (Just next to it on my to-read list is another alternate history, China Mieville’s The Last Days of New Paris, in which Surrealist art come to life is being used by the French resistance against the Nazis).

B. Catling’s The Vorrh was recommended to me by Christchurch Libraries’ reliably stupendous blog and reviewed here in the Guardian. It’s a surreal voyage into an ancient magical forest located in an alternate Africa.

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Ranging a bit more widely, you’ll get another interesting take on labour and empire from Nate Crowley’s The Sea Hates A Coward, an oddly wistful tale set in a thoughtfully constructed fantasy world.

Crowley’s novella has zombie slaves hunting sea monsters as foodstuff for the besieged city in which they once lived. It is…surprisingly less lurid than it sounds.

Less lurid still, but also very concerned with how we feed ourselves in the post-industrial age, is The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, a Los Angeles-set piece of magic realism by Aimee Bender. Her novel is a powerful meditation on food and authenticity, and  a timely fantasy for an age when food production and consumption has come, for many in the developed world, to seem effortless.

Stay tuned for more sci-fi and fantasy tomorrow. You’re probably still not reading enough of it. And if you’ve got more suggestions, do let us know!

You’re Still Not Reading Enough Sci Fi, Pt. 2

So each day this week I’m looking at works of science fiction and fantasy which I think might be useful for organisations, institutions, companies and communities who are trying to get ready for the shape of things to come.

First up is Matthew de Abaitua’s If Then, a neat example of how sci-fi can speak to our present moment. It’s one you ought to read if you’re interested in the social implications of AI or the value of keeping our heritage alive in the digital age.

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De Abaitua convincingly imagines a world which has survived the crash of our current, digitally-accelerating world order without quite devolving into Mad Max territory.

In the wake of a global collapse, the historic English town of Lewes has been given over to the Process, an algorithmic technology which seeks to maximise wellbeing for the community, monitoring its members via an implant. Life is not pleasant and many of today’s modern conveniences have been lost to the future folk living in the ruins of our time, but society has adapted to make the best of the situation.

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This grim riff on the Smart Cities agenda is troubling enough, but things get weirder when the Process starts making automata resembling soldiers from the First World War. What is going on? What data has it obtained from the community to suggest that what they really need is a rerun of the War to End All Wars?

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De Abaitua deliciously smashes together today’s worst middle-class fears of economic catastrophe with the empire-fracturing legacy of the First World War.  He equates our surrender to a digitised society with the soldiers’ incorporation into the imperial war machine – and, through some clever attention to historical detail, he suggests that our past might yet hold the key to a weird and hopeful future.

Stay tuned for some more scifi and fantasy tomorrow.

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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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.”

Harford goes on to outline 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.

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..