Thinking about transit through science fiction

April 21, 2022

Future Tense sponsors Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg at a live event for a conversation about infrastructure and imagination

Here’s what the current US Secretary of Transportation thinks the future of mass transit might look like in 50 years: flying cars. Parcel delivery by drone. Net energy dividends. Wide acceptance of electric vehicles. And more socially equitable infrastructure.

“We have to make decisions that are a bit of a bet on the future, and at the same time, we don’t want to bet the farm that the future will turn out one way or another,” he said. said Pete Buttigieg during an Arizona Wednesday, State University livestream event. “So what I spend a lot of time thinking about is how can we deploy our capital in an agile or nimble way so that some of these decisions make sense, even if we don’t quite know how the habits displacement will work in seven years, let alone 50.

Buttigieg joined ASU’s Future Tense for a conversation about infrastructure and imagination, which was followed by a discussion with three acclaimed science fiction authors – Linda Nagata, Annalee Newitz and Tochi Onyebuchi – about how they see their work inspiring visions of the future. Future Tense is a partnership between ASU, New America, and Slate that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society. The focus of Wednesday’s discussion was to ask Buttigieg what role imagination plays in running a federal department as sprawling and impactful as the Department of Transportation, which he has led since Feb. 3, 2021.

New America Chairman Paul Butler moderated the extensive 25-minute conversation with Buttigieg, which touched on transportation policies, priorities and what future mobility might look like half a century from now. Buttigieg said he grew up watching “Star Trek” and noted that transportation, technology, and imagination seem to be inextricably linked.

“It’s striking how much of our imagination about the future is centered around transportation, at least in terms of imagery, isn’t it?” Buttigieg said. “You look at how the setting shot of a sci-fi show or movie, for example, tells you that you’re in the future. There are cars or spaceships levitating or something like that. … This is what tells us that we are in the future.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and New America Director Paul Butler discuss the role imagination plays in running a federal department during an April 20 live event hosted by Arizona State’s Future Tense. University. Their conversation was followed by a discussion with three acclaimed science fiction authors – Linda Nagata, Annalee Newitz and Tochi Onyebuchi – about infrastructure and imagination.

Buttigieg said the most profound technologies currently affecting our lives aren’t necessarily vehicles or cars, but what’s on board those modes of transportation.

“One thing to consider is that over the last decade I would say the most important transportation technology was not a vehicle – it was the smartphone,” he said. “Probably what changed transportation the most for most of us was the rise of ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft. They used the same type of cars that taxis used and that we used to get around, but the way we called them changed. And through that, a different model of working emerged, a different way of getting around emerged, with good things and bad things coming out of it. …I think more in addition, you see automotive companies transforming into software companies.

Buttigieg concluded that America’s current infrastructure is about 150 years old, and President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure bill to meet those needs will be key to America’s future public transit system. And so will intelligent decision-making.

“We know we’re going to need resources and hubs where people can congregate to access modes of transport – things like train stations, plazas or transit hubs, airports and ports,” Buttigieg said. . “So what we need to do is invest in the things that we know we’re going to need no matter what, and then create space for other things to happen that might be very hard to imagine. And the best way to do that is to not think about the asset first, but think about the people it will affect first.

Buttigieg’s comments set the stage for a follow-up discussion with three Future Tense Fiction authors, led by Ed Finn, founding director of the Center for Science and the Imagination.

“Fiction has always been dear to my heart because I think it speaks to the heart of what we can do,” Finn said. “The future can inspire real change in the present and can invite people to imagine in detail these different possibilities.”

Transport is a useful mechanism for transporting – so to speak – readers to the future, the three authors agreed.

“It’s interesting that we center vehicles so much in our fiction,” said Annalee Newitz, who writes about science, culture and the future. “I think of my novels, and they all start with transit. … But I think it’s a good way to take readers around the world.

Newitz said when she started working on her 2021 book, “Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age,” an architect told her whenever she visited a new city, take transportation by common to the end of the line. She did this during her visit to Istanbul, Turkey.

“I had a crazy adventure on the train, which I found very valuable,” Newitz said. “It showed me all kinds of social connections. He showed me different neighborhoods. It showed me how well maintained public transport was, which at the time was not very good.

Writing about future transit is also nuanced and sometimes tricky, Onyebuchi noted.

“Sometimes the downside is that science fiction can be seen as a kind of predictive tool, right? ‘Oh, that’s what it’s going to be like in the future,’ Onyebuchi said, a Nigerian science fiction, fantasy author and former civil rights lawyer.” Or there will be an evil business in a science fiction novel, and the lesson will be, ‘OK, don’t name your business after that evil enterprise. Don’t be evil.'”

Science fiction should also be hopeful and upbeat wherever possible, Nagata believes.

“I’m now at an age where I’m really above dystopia,” said Nagata, a Hawaiian author of speculative, science fiction and fantasy novels, short stories and short stories. “I would still try to imagine that we have a chance of having a decent future.”

Top photo illustration courtesy of iStock/Getty Images

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