Future Tense 'leaps gap' between technology, society

Slate journalist and advice columnist Emily Yoffe (left) interviews ASU Professor Brad Allenby at a Future Tense event in September 2011. (Photo Courtesy of Joseph Eschrich and the New America Foundation) Slate journalist and advice columnist Emily Yoffe (left) interviews ASU Professor Brad Allenby at a Future Tense event in September 2011. (Photo Courtesy of Joseph Eschrich and the New America Foundation)

Despite being called the Citizen’s Guide to the Future, a collaboration between ASU, the New America Foundation and Slate Magazine, Future Tense doesn’t make predictions but offers something more engaging.

Instead of creating an uproar about the latest gadgets and making loud statements about what the future will look like, Future Tense offers a specific view on technology by focusing on how it will impact people’s lives.

Future Tense was born in 2010 thanks to the efforts of Joel Garreau, ASU Lincoln professor of law, culture and values. Known by his books and work for the Washington Post, he was invited to ASU, where he connected the New America Foundation with the University. Later, the partnership incorporated Slate online magazine, which Garreau described as a “media megaphone partner.”

“Our interest is in the impact of technology on society and trying to intelligently handle the amount of change that’s coming at us,” he said.

Sometimes called a futurist, Garreau is allergic to predictions, he said. Future Tense tries to get people thinking, aware and interested in the impact of technology on cultural values of society and how it changes what it means to be a human.

“As we can do just about anything now, then the core question becomes not what we can do, but what we should do,” he said.

One of the goals of the collaboration is to bring technology-related discussions to light by connecting science and tech leaders with the public through interesting events and accessible language.

“We put a lot of effort into communication, into bridging the leap,” he said.

ASU plays an important role in the partnership by having about 50 faculty members and students contribute to Slate magazine's Future Tense channel, which has its own daily content and an editor.

Collecting millions of hits monthly, the Future Tense channel received an unexpectedly amazing amount of response, Garreau said.

Torie Bosch, editor of the Future Tense channel at Slate, said the reason for the success is a very diverse mix of voices from ASU professors and students, policymakers and analysts from the New America Foundation and technology journalists.

“We have a really great mix of experts and journalists focusing on making their areas of expertise accessible for the general interest public,” she said.

Slate focuses on stories with a lot of voice, a very strong opinion and a well-made argument. One of the most important components that sets Slate apart from the rest of the Internet is a surprising argument, Bosch said.

“It’s about finding the different way of looking at a topic that people think they know well,” she said.

While Slate is a great mediator between Future Tense and the public, the collaboration is not limited to publishing technology-related articles.

Aimed at changing national policy, the partnership organizes major events in Washington and New York for “heavy hitters” — people who make a difference in Congress, the White House, national agencies, the military, embassies and the national press.

Such events tell those people what’s coming just slightly ahead of what they need to know, Garreau said.

“This is to help have them think about how we’re going to shape our future rather than have our future shape us,” he said.

Looking nothing like academic conferences, the events resemble smart talk shows and are aimed at being accessible and interesting, he said.

“We put a premium on keeping people awake,” he said.

Other informal formats of events include “Happy Hour,” a presentation and a discussion juiced up with drinks, and “My Favorite Movie,” a show of a future-related film picked by a particular person. One of the recent shows featured ASU President Michael Crow’s favorite movie, "Brazil."

A lot of the events from Washington are live-streamed, but because of the difference in time, watching them might present a problem for ASU students. However, all of these events might soon appear at ASU as a part of an outreach project involving students and faculty members.

Joseph Eschrich, research and operations coordinator for the Center for Science and the Imagination and Future Tense coordinator, said the goal for the future of the partnership is to build more pathways for the students, who have not assimilated to a particular field yet and have new creative ideas.

“It’s a popular and successful thing, but we haven’t really reflected that back in the Arizona context yet,” he said. “So a great next step would be to get the student population involved.”

By getting involved in the events or writing, students will have a chance to see their ideas impact thousands of people, he said. It’s not necessary to have a technology-related major to become a part of Future Tense, as long as technology is seen in a broader sense.

“This is more about being a citizen and ... where technology is important to the way that we function,” he said. “So, we all have kind of a voice in determining the way the technology should be used.”

Jathan Sadowski, graduate student of human and social dimensions of science and technology, wrote more than 20 technology-related stories during his eight-week Future Tense internship at Slate magazine in Washington.

This opportunity helped build good relationships, Sadowski said, though it was not easy to keep the pace up at the beginning.

“It was a little challenging at first to get into that groove, but after a week or two, you pick it up,” he said. “And now if I have an idea, I can email, call, talk about the idea (to) see if it’s something worth writing about.”

Refusing to make predictions, Garreau said the only certain thing is that the future won’t be a straight-line projection from the present. Because of a lack of imagination, people tend to come up with dystopian scenarios for the future of technology.

“It’s playing with the surprises that interests me the most about thinking about the future, rather than just imagining how the things can fall apart,” he said.

Students interested in participating in Future Tense events or writing for Slate can contact Joseph Eschrich at futuretense@asu.edu.

Reach the reporter at kmaryaso@asu.edu or follow her on Twitter @KseniaMaryasova

Get the best of State Press delivered straight to your inbox.