When Worlds Collide #68: Imagine That! Analyse This!

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday broadsheet newspaper on 26 May 2013

Sir Arthur Clarke - photo by Shahidul Alam, Drik Picture Library

Sir Arthur Clarke – photo by Shahidul Alam, Drik Picture Library

Imagine and innovate to honour Sir Arthur C Clarke!

That was the central message in an op-ed I wrote in March 2009 to mark the first death anniversary of the late author and visionary.

Having worked with him for over 20 years, I know for a fact that Clarke never sought grand edifices in his memory. When a visiting journalist once asked him about monuments, he replied: “Go to any well-stocked library and look around…”

He knew his place in history was well assured by his ideas and imagination expressed in over 100 books, 1,000 essays and short stories, as well as numerous radio and television appearances. He achieved iconic status not just in literature, science and technology, but also in popular culture –- the latter largely thanks to the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In December 2007, on the eve of his 90th birthday, I helped Clarke record a short video message on his life and times. In just nine minutes, he looked back at his “90 orbits around the Sun” and cast a wistful look at the future of his island home, planet Earth and the universe. (It turned out to be his public farewell, available online at: http://tiny.cc/ACC90).

Towards the end of the video, he briefly touched on posterity: “I’ve had a diverse career as a writer, underwater explorer, space promoter and science populariser. Of all these, I want to be remembered most as a writer — one who entertained readers, and, hopefully, stretched their imagination as well.”

Thus, monuments of brick and mortar — or even of steel or silicon – are superfluous for such a writer, I argued in my first anniversary tribute.

I added: “Instead of dabbling in these banalities, we should go for the ‘grand prize’: nurturing among our youth the intellectual, cultural and creative attributes that made Arthur C Clarke who he was. In other words, we must identify and groom the budding Arthur Clarkes of the 21st century!”

Nature or Nurture?

Easier said than done! The debate is still on whether such persons are born with innate genius, or promising young minds can be trained to think big and creatively.

What roles did family, education, peers, travel and social interactions play in producing the distinctively Clarkian combination of sharp wit, irreverence and playful humour? Above all, where did his vivid yet realistic imagination stem from?

There is now an Arthur C Clarke Centre for Human Imagination (ACCCHI) to study — and hopefully, understand — this wondrous yet quirky phenomenon in its many forms and dimensions.

The new venture is a collaboration between the University of California San Diego and the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation, a non-profit entity that promotes Clarke’s vision. I was part of its public launch in San Diego from May 20 to 22.

Arthur C Clarke Center for Human Imagination - logo

Arthur C Clarke Center for Human Imagination – logo

The centre plans to work across many disciplines such as technology, education, engineering, health, science, environment, entertainment and the arts. It hopes to bridge science and arts – separated for too long by the ‘Two Cultures’ divide — in trying to harness imagination for human progress.

A key plank in the new centre’s research will be to probe how our brains work in terms of creativity. What is the neurological basis for creativity? How does imagination occur in human societies? And in what ways does it vary from culture to culture?

The impetus for probing human imagination came from the field of cultural research, says Sheldon Brown, a professor of media arts at the university who heads the new centre.

As we heard, UC San Diego has produced more science fiction writers than any other university in the United States (speculations are rife on why). Taking advantage of this, it has been bringing such writers and other experts together to explore the interface between science, technology and society.

This suggests that the new centre would likely go beyond the traditional (and crusty) intellectualism common in academia.

Clarke would have approved. He supported evidence-based decision making and the free flow (and interplay) of ideas. Such rigours are essential for imagination and innovation to be rooted in the real world; if not, we can get carried away by fantasy.

Sheldon Brown, Director of Arthur C Clarke Centre for Human Imagination, speaks at opening on May 20 - photo by Nalaka Gunawardene

Sheldon Brown, Director of Arthur C Clarke Centre for Human Imagination, speaks at opening on May 20 – photo by Nalaka Gunawardene

Necessary, not sufficient

Imagination is certainly necessary – but not sufficient – for human advancement. It needs to be tempered by healthy scepticism, abundant optimism, ethical considerations and compassion.

Runaway imagination without scepticism can be dangerously distracting or outright delusional. This is what sustains the multi-billion dollar cottage industry of conspiracy theories ranging from alien abductions and Bermuda triangles to the globally pervasive myths about ‘end of the world’.

We South Asians are grandmasters in this dubious art, conjuring the most bizarre ‘explanations’ for everything that goes wrong in our societies. I often wonder which among the eight South Asian countries is the most paranoid. Current evidence points to Pakistan, but Sri Lanka isn’t far behind. (To take this to its next level, I’ve proposed South Asian Conspiracy Games; winners can receive ‘foreign hand’ trophies.)

Imagination sans optimism, on the other hand, can take us too far in the direction of hopeless dystopias where technology and tyranny collectively hold humanity hostage (or worse). Think of the Matrix trilogy.

Despite some misgivings about technological wrong turns, Clarke remained an optimist to the end, as he often said, “if only because it offers us the opportunity of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy”.

Imagination unrestrained by ethics and compassion can endanger our whole civilisation. Many modern technologies – such as artificial intelligence, robotics, genetic engineering and nanotechnology – present moral dilemmas and ethical challenges.

Classic science fiction – such as George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 – has long tried to caution against such scenarios. Bradbury once defined his genre’s societal role saying: “I don’t want to predict the future; I want to prevent it!”

Group Imagination?

We are now living in the future envisaged by science fiction writers of the past century. In some respects, reality has been more surprising than imagination.

When Clarke chronicled the wiring of our planet in How the World Was One in 1992, he talked mostly about telephones and communications satellites. The web was still in its infancy.

In just two decades, that has changed dramatically. With 2.5 billion people (a third of humanity) regularly going online, new communities and forms of collaboration are constantly emerging and evolving.

Today, social media enable disruption and co-creation where scattered individuals come together to develop cultural products. What impact is this networked reality having on human imagination?

A good example is Internet memes — cultural phenomena that spread like a virus when shared via Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms. Memes include jokes, urban legends, viral videos, funny pictures or contagious music.

Many memes are funny while some are outright cheeky and critical of authority. Political, religious and other social figures are mercilessly lampooned. As they spread, memes morph and mutate. Local variations or imitations pop up.

What roles do irreverence, defiance and dissent play in nurturing imagination? And how do different political and economic systems inspire or inhibit creativity?

I hope the new centre would address some of these big questions from a cross-cultural perspective.

Clarke used to caution how closed economies and restrictive cultures stifled innovation. He was more scathing about archaic education systems – both in the West and East — that stamp out the spirit of inquiry and sense of wonder that all humans are born with.

Studying imagination is hard enough, but fighting for its preservation will be a bigger struggle in the coming century.

Tedson Meyers, Chairman,and Monica Morgan, Executive Director of Arthur C Clarke Foundation - Photo by Nalaka Gunawardene

Tedson Meyers, Chairman,and Monica Morgan, Executive Director of Arthur C Clarke Foundation – Photo by Nalaka Gunawardene

Follow me on my blog: http://nalakagunawardene.com, and on Twitter: NalakaG

About Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 25+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing. There's NOTHING OFFICIAL about this blog. In fact, there's NOTHING OFFICIAL about me! I've always stayed well clear of ALL centres of power and authority.
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