Project Hieroglyph

heiroglyph ballHieroglyph: Stories and Vision for a Better Future is a science-fiction anthology with a purpose.  A couple years ago, at the 2011 Future Tense conference, Neal Stephenson lamented the current inability of the US to “get Big Stuff done.” Michael Crow, the president of ASU, replied that some of that was on Stephenson and other science fiction authors. Science fiction has recently been overwhelmingly dystopian, and who wants to build that future?  Stephenson was like CHALLENGE ACCEPTED and Project Hieroglyph was born.

Why Hieroglyph?

It’s named that because, as Stephenson says in his 2011 essay, “Innovation Starvation,” there are two types of impacts that SF has on innovation:

1. The Inspiration Theory. SF inspires people to choose science and engineering as careers. This much is undoubtedly true, and somewhat obvious.

2. The Hieroglyph Theory. Good SF supplies a plausible, fully thought-out picture of an alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place. A good SF universe has a coherence and internal logic that makes sense to scientists and engineers. Examples include Isaac Asimov’s robots, Robert Heinlein’s rocket ships, and William Gibson’s cyberspace. As Jim Karkanias of Microsoft Research puts it, such icons serve as hieroglyphs—simple, recognizable symbols on whose significance everyone agrees.

The larger Project Hieroglyph includes more Future Tense conferences, a website, web fora, and other events. These combine SF authors, scientists, engineers, and interested people from all walks of life who are intrigued by the concepts suggested and want to work together to execute on the Big Stuff. The participants I’ve spoken with all agree that the project has offered a unique opportunity to brainstorm with others and generate ideas both creative and realistic.

It’s not a bad model for the Intelligence Community, for both ideation and R&D. The IC has a tendency to focus on the risks, the bad outcomes, the dangers…but as you know from Driver’s Ed, you tend to hit what you’re looking at. Science fiction stories aren’t recipes or predictions, but they can offer targets to focus on so that we steer away from failure and expect success.

Scientists in particular are intrigued because the key component of futurism is people: you can have the coolest invention ever, but if no one uses it who cares?  SF authors have been writing about the human element in all its ugliness and glory, and it’s in those interactions between the tech and the human factor where Hieroglyph really shines.

heiroglyph triplet

OK, but how’s the book?

The book itself was released in late September 2014 and offers a broad range of “thoughtfully optimistic” stories from both well-known and newer voices in the SF world.  Since hearing about it in 2011 I was guardedly hopeful about it, but only guardedly. Anthology author Lee Konstantinou speaks for me:

When I first heard about the project, my cynical heart responded skeptically. After all, much of the Golden Age science fiction Stephenson fondly remembers was written in an era when, for all its substantial problems, the U.S. enjoyed a greater degree of democratic consensus. Today, Congress can barely pass a budget, let alone agree on collective investments. Don’t our doomsayers therefore have good reason for pessimism? They have great reason for pessimism. But pessimism is not the same as cynicism. Dystopian movies like Snowpiercer risk doing more to inspire quietism than necessary action. Our science fiction can do better.

Elizabeth Bear, whose story “Covenant is in the anthology, reminded me that this lack of consensus is not all bad, however, and that our world is better than that of Asimov or Heinlein:

I think that the diversity of the voices being heard has exploded in the last twenty years, which can only be beneficial. This may make it seem like the conversation has splintered, or as if we lack a shared vision–but honestly I think that kaleidoscope of concerns is of benefit to our society.


A perfect world is probably not within our grasp–but a better, more humane, more comfortable, more aspirational world probably is. We’ve already made tremendous strides in that direction–just look at, to pick something more or less at random, the advances in emergency medicine and trauma care in the last forty to sixty years. In 1974, something as simple as a modern air ambulance would have seemed like science fiction–and in 1954, an ambulance was essentially a mode of transportation, not the advanced life support system it is now.

Hieroglyph represents this diversity of voices and multiplicity of conversations. I enjoyed the entire collection quite a bit. Most of the stories deal with topics I think and write about, from drones to 3D printing to neurology. While they all stick to the rules “thoughtfully optimistic,” several of the stories provide indicators and warnings of what could happen if we don’t address the consequences of the technology we are already developing.

Cory Doctorow could pretty much be the template for “thoughtful optimism.” In books like Pirate Cinema and Makers he sets his protagonists against dystopian societies (okay, yes, accurate representations of the here and now) and shows how their individuality, creativity, and refusal to be corporate chowder can triumph. His Hieroglyph story, “The Man Who Sold the Moon,” weaves together crowdfunding and 3D printing structures on the moon, a neat bit of actual science depicted in the excellent film Moon and being researched by NASA.

Gregory Benford‘s story, “The Man Who Sold the Stars,” highlights a trend and a concern for the IC (his story and Doctorow’s both nod to Heinlein’s “The Man Who Sold the Moon” in their titles). Planetary Resources is totally planning to mine asteroids, and some governments are looking at the possibility as well.  It’s not a new idea. It was legendary Russian rocketeer Konstantin Tsiokolvsky who first articulated the concept in 1903, and it makes some sense. But getting into space is hard and dangerous and fraught with legal issues, unless you’re an edgy startup with a clear business model, like Planet Labs. Benford’s story includes warnings of potentials as well, from how commercial companies will subvert international laws resulting in environmental damage, to how national laws themselves will change to exploit the long-lived.

Interestingly, Benford and Doctorow wrote almost the same story, but from different political/ecnomic stances. That’s optimism right there!

Charlie Jane Anders‘ story, “The Day It All Ended” is basically wish-fulfillment for me.  It’s a smart and cynical poke at our culture that is nonetheless hopeful. I don’t know if it contains any lessons for the Intelligence Community beyond “THIS is how you run a covert operation.”

Vandana Singh‘s “Entanglement” uses a similar covert tech op MacGuffin to connect five gemlike vignettes which each highlight a technologically-plausible way to slow climate change and repair or replace some of the damage.  This was one of my favorite of the collection as I’m a sucker for non-linear narrative, and because it played to the true strength of science fiction in showing how humans, with all our irrationalities and baggage, might actually use emerging and future technology.

My other favorite story does the same, and also mixes warnings with optimism. Elizabeth Bear look at benefits of practical neurology (like what IARPA and DARPA are working on).  Covenant is, like the history of innovation, a story about unintended consequences.  I asked Bear about this:

Raq: Are there unintended consequences that occurred to you in thinking about this technology that you didn’t include in the story?  What keeps you up at night when you think about neurology and neuroplasticity?

Bear: What keeps me up at night is the idea of how it could be used for social controls–in some cases, already is. The supposed domestic idyll of the 1950s, after all, was enforced by sedating the hell out of millions of American women who found their extremely constrained roles unendurable.


Another thing that keeps me up at night, honestly, is the potential of these technologies for use as weapons of war or terrorism–or simply for more garden-variety criminal activity. Imagine violent manic outbursts triggered in a large portion of the population by slipping them a neurologically active compound. We’ve all seen the spaghetti western with the jimson weed in the water hole driving the horses and cattle crazy.


Brain-washing and mind control were major tropes of the literature and film/television of the 1960s; we’re actually closer to that potential than we ever were then. So if I really wanted to be alarmist, I’d probably go with that.
I’ve been fascinated with the gains being made in understanding how the human brain works and how to mess with it.  I personally want the “wetware” that cyberpunk stories promised me, and I wouldn’t mind being able to record videos of some of my thoughts. SOME.  But I think everyone can come up with terrifying ways that governments could apply this technology.  Here’s Bear again:
Raq: Your story, Covenant, deals with “practical neurology.” To those of us following the trends in practical neurology, it looks like a double-edged sword at best and a social cleansing tool at worst.  How and why did you choose that topic for a story destined for a “thoughtful optimism” collection?
 Bear: The fact of the matter is that practical neurology–or neurohacking, or “rightminding” as my characters tend to slangily call it–is one of the technologies we’re coming to grips with in the real world right now, in an amazing fashion. The sheer level of knowledge about human brain function and what we can do to change it that has accrued just in my lifetime is stunning.


That said, it’s definitely a double-edged sword, as is pretty much every technology out there. This one is particularly creepy, admittedly, because our entire personhood is invested in the idea of an identity that, it turns out, it extremely fragile and subject to change through trauma, physical illness, or intentional intervention. The idea that this knowledge could become a precise art and technology is both enticing and terrifying, of course.


And the thing is, it’s absolutely a potential that it could be used for social control. Heck, it’s a reality. Look at the number of feminists, homosexuals, artists, members of minority groups, and activists who have been incarcerated or placed in mental health facilities, drugged, tortured with “therapies” such as electro-convulsive therapy and cold packing… in attempts to pressure them to recant their progressive ideologies or personal identities and subvert themselves to the status quo.


Imagine a world in which Alan Turing had not been persecuted as a homosexual. Now imagine a world where he could have just been–gentled.


It’s chilling.
What I took away from the anthology
Many of the stories deal with network effects, and I think that’s the real strength and optimism of the anthology.  From Singh’s “Entanglement” which features self-organizing networks of robots slowing climate change, to Doctorow’s crowd-funded moonbases, to Anders’ nifty take on the Internet of Things.


Bear sums it up nicely: “I feel like science fiction often focuses on the big flashy structures–giant blocks of engineering–when what contributes strongly to social change is often the nodes and modular structures that quickly become nearly invisible to those that use them. Telephones, electricity, automobiles, effective family planning, advanced medical care, modern communications technology. I honestly feel that, in many ways, the telephone is a much bigger idea than the Empire State Building.”


Ideas and conversations are the most powerful modular structures, and Hierogylph provides an excellent catalyst for them, and a hopeful turning point for a better future. If you want to be inspired about what we could be doing, it’s for you. And if you want to go beyond reading about these ideas and challenges, join the conversation at Project Hieroglyph.

 (images courtesy of Project Hieroglyph)

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