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The Untapped Potential in Science Fiction

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If we can assign more texts to students that ask them to let go of the everyday shorthand for finding themselves in a story, they often open themselves up to deeper and more surprising ways to relate to each other

If we can end the elitism and teach more science fiction to teenagers and young adults, we can change the world. This assertion, while bold, may not be hyperbolic. When asked why she starting writing science fiction, the late legendary writer and MacArthur Grant winner Octavia Butler once told Charlie Rose, “Because there are no closed doors, no walls.”

Sci-fi has a reputation for being a clubhouse for white-boy nerds, but for Butler, an African American woman from Southern California who endured a series of degrading low-wage jobs while developing her voice as a writer, reading and writing science fiction actually enabled her to transcend racism and sexism. Science fiction—by letting her imagine and create new worlds on the page—was a conduit to feelings of citizenship. You can’t be an outsider hero without the hero. From Lauren Olamina, Butler’s hyper-empathic heroine in Parable of the Sower, to George Orwell’s Winston Smith, sci-fi’s outsider heroes interrogate systems of power. Their means may differ, but the end is rarely just the nihilistic destruction of those with power. They almost always aim to bring themselves and others into a better system, often of their own making. They are outlaws with a purpose, rebels with a cause.

For an outsider genre, science fiction is pretty mainstream in the classroom these days. Common Core standards acknowledge it, along with its cousins speculative fiction and fantasy literature, as acceptable content in Language Arts curricula. Many of the current generation of professors in English Departments grew up watching Star Trek and The X-Files, including University of Maryland English professor Lee Konstantinou, who feels that science fiction novels and films help students to process big-picture questions, especially “risk, political conflict, and social and technological systems.” Konstantinou is a contributor to Hieroglyph: Stories & Visions for a Better Future, a recent anthology co-edited by Ed Finn, founding director of the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University, that goes to the heart of why I think teaching science fiction to more students can change the world: because science fiction productively embodies difference and illustrates emerging technologies, giving students enough of each so that they may interrogate these elements in both the fictional and the real worlds. Finn teaches sci-fi texts as disparate as E.M. Forster’s 1909 short story “The Machine Stops”—which anticipates much of the networked 21st century in its formulation of mechanical interconnectedness—and Neal Stephenson’s 1995 novel The Diamond Age—which projects Forster’s Victorian moment forward into the age of nanotechnology. The refrain he hears from students in courses ranging from seminars in digital culture to composition: “I didn’t know I was allowed to do this, to be creative in this way.”

No matter how popular it gets, science fiction has maintained its ability to stir debate. Over the last few years, a consensus has been building around the idea that what happens between the covers of science fiction books and what happens in real life may be more connected than we think. Scientists, writers, and policymakers are coming together to grapple productively with this possibility. Cultural critics like Judith Shulevitz see in science fiction a possible solution to the much-discussed crisis in the humanities (or at least as a good reason not to charge English majors higher tuition than engineering students). As much potential as science fiction has to connect the humanities with STEM fields, its unique blend of fantasy and research offers an even more radical opening for inclusion, best articulated by Butler: “You get to write yourself in, whether you were part of the mainstream society or not.” Stories often function as a space where author and reader find self-actualization. While creating a different world through writing or inhabiting one through reading is a powerfully visceral form of belonging for anyone, and science fiction has a unique ability to provide outsiders and outcasts with a language to talk about their lives and to one another. Whether or not anyone looks or talks like you at school, on TV, or in the movies doesn’t matter when you’re dealing with time travel, extra-terrestrials, or alternative universes. If we can assign more texts to students that ask them to let go of the everyday shorthand for finding themselves in a story, they often open themselves up to deeper and more surprising ways to relate to each other.

This approach resonates with Alondra Nelson, Dean of Social Science at Columbia University and author of the forthcoming book The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation after the Genome. For Nelson, asking students to read themselves into the stories of science fiction creates the opportunity for dialogue that “allows for generative re-imaginations of what students are doing outside the classroom.” As an example, she points to Butler’s 1979 novel Kindred, in which the protagonist—who many say is a stand-in for Butler herself—is pulled backward in time against her will from 1976 California to the 19th century slave plantation of her ancestors. “Part of the time travel in Kindred is that she got to be better at telling when it was coming,” says Nelson, who sees in this plot point a ready metaphor for racial politics in the 21st century. Progress gets disrupted by what she calls “moments of capture,” when “we are snatched back into the reality of…these moments of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown that are reminders that take us back to Emmett Till.” Nelson observes that science fiction, regardless of what department the class is in, fosters among students a compelling kind of intellectual re-mixing—what she calls for her own work “South Central LA meets genetics”—that empowers them to connect their studies in in English, sociology, engineering, law, and elsewhere with activism.

At the same time that Nelson and other professors report that science fiction has outgrown the English Department, policymakers in the arts and beyond are noticing its potential for networked thought across institutions. Bill O’Brien, Senior Advisor for Program Innovation for the National Endowment for the Arts, finds in science fiction (and other fantasy genres, like animation) an echo of American playwright Eugene O’Neill, one of his favorite writers, in the ways both “pull back the veil on the mysteries that drive the human condition.” Science fiction, he points out, “adds another layer of imagining where those mysteries and drives are taking us.” What O’Brien is getting at is that investing resources—including imagination—into the intersections of art, science, technology, and health will help us understand creativity as a resource that can be “exercised and optimized in fresh ways.” The right to imagine a new world is perhaps the boldest act of citizenship.

Rather than a one-way bridge from literature to STEM that will save the humanities, O’Brien’s comments suggest that critics, policymakers, and educators should see in science fiction the prospect of a highway between them with multiple lanes of dialogue and inspiration that could save much more than that. The key here isn’t just that science fiction allows marginalized people to write themselves into the story, it’s that science fiction novels, stories, films, and series increasingly invite marginalized people to read themselves into the story, to imagine themselves as participants and agents in changing the systems of culture, technology, and politics that govern their lives. To change the world, students have to believe that change is possible in the first place. Science fiction gives them a tangible vision of that change, for better and for worse, and invites them to use their imaginations to read themselves into the story.

Jane Greenway Carr is an ACLS Public Fellow and Contributing Editor at New America. She holds a PhD from NYU, where she has been a lecturer and done research at the intersections between U.S. literary and cultural history and social and political activism. This piece was originally published in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox each Thursday here, and follow @New America on Twitter.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

Artist Uses Glass Instead of Yarn to Create Amazing Knitting Sculptures

Carol Milne manipulates glass to look like rows of intertwined yarn

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This article originally appeared on Lost at E Minor.

It boggles the mind how artist Carol Milne was able to manipulate glass to look like row upon row of intertwined yarn. You see, the melting point of glass is between 1,400 – 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit, so how was she able to knit the fragile – not to mention very hot – material into intricate artworks?

Milne invented the process herself in 2006. She first makes a wax model of the sculpture, which is then encased by a refractory mold material (that can withstand hot temperatures.) The second step involves melting out the wax with steam and replacing it with pieces of glass. She then heats the mold to 1,400 – 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit, which melts the glass, allowing it to occupy the mold’s empty cavities. The piece is left to cool for several weeks before Milne starts chipping away at the shell to reveal the details of the sculpture.

The result is nothing short of amazing and worthy of this time-consuming process. You can see more of her works over on her Facebook page.

(via This Is Colossal)

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: November 14

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Superfast quantum computers could drastically change the future, and Microsoft might build the first one.

By Tom Simonite in MIT Technology Review

2. Water-smart urban design can reimagine life in Western cities suffering the worst drought in decades.

By Reed Karaim in JSTOR Daily

3. The new censorship: How intimidation, mass surveillance, and shrinking resources are making the press less free.

By George Packer in the New Yorker

4. A new approach to housing for families at risk that includes intensive, wrap-around services is showing early success.

By Mary Cunningham, Maeve Gearing, Michael Pergamit, Simone Zhang, Marla McDaniel, Brent Howell at the Urban Institute

5. Our best bet in the fight against Boko Haram might be sharing lessons on intelligence gathering.

By Jesse Sloman at Africa in Transition

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Transportation

Lyft Gets Into the Commuting Business

Lyft ride share car
A woman is driving a car for the rideshare company Lyft with a fake jumbo pink mustache that attaches to the grille of the car, in June 2014. Frank Duenzl/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Will give Uber for Business some competition

Clarification appended, Nov. 14, 7:40 p.m.

Ride-sharing company Lyft announced the launch of a commuting service Thursday, bringing some new competition to Uber in the employee-travel market.

Lyft for Work allows employers to purchase and issue credits to employees each month, which they can dip into for commuting to the office or traveling to and from certain company events. In July, Uber launched Uber for Business, which allows multiple employees to use a company credit card for billing their work-related car rides, rather than each using individual company cards (or their own and then seeking reimbursement).

The two companies are positioning their employee-centric programs as different types of solutions. Lyft touts Lyft for Work as a social good more than a way to streamline tedious expense accounting. “Across the country, nearly 80% of workers drive to work alone. Imagine if that 80% filled the seats in their empty cars through Lyft,” the company said in their press release announcing the service. “We could eliminate rush hour congestion, drastically reduce travel time and make the commute more enjoyable.”

Uber, on the other hand, bills their service up front as “uncomplicating [sic] business travel for your entire company.” In October, the company claimed that businesses opting for employees to use the lower-priced UberX (rather than cabs or limos) may be saving around $1,000 per employee.

When asked how the new service differs from Uber’s offering, Lyft spokesperson Paige Thelen says it’s more customizable. Employers can set up their workers’ accounts so that funds can be used only to and from preapproved addresses. If a worker takes a Lyft to the office, for example, the app can detect the drop-off point and automatically apply the commuting credits rather than the user’s personal credit card.

Employees can also be left to manually apply the credits, just as Uber for Business users simply toggle to the company credit card as their billing option. Uber emphasizes that using “U4B” gives administrators oversight by cataloging trips and is integrated with an expense management tool, taking another step out of the expensing process for companies who use it.

The two companies—which at their heart share the mission of making local transportation easier—already have several competing services, including a pair rolled out within a day of each other. Lyft Plus is a fancier, more expensive option than a standard ride, which competes with Uber’s signature black car service. UberX is a lower-cost, less formal option that is more on par with the average Lyft, a ride in a non-professional’s personal car. This August, Uber and Lyft both announced new carpooling options, Lyft Line and Uber Pool, cheaper rides available to passengers who are willing to share their vehicle with other travelers going in the same direction.

Uber for Business and Lyft for Work may share a grammatical construction but, as pundits have noted, it’s not necessarily easy to say who really had an idea first. Perhaps with allegations of mimicry in mind, Lyft pointed out in their press release that this type of service has been in line with the company’s mission since it was called Zimride, a precursor to Lyft that was founded before Uber. “From the earliest days, Zimride’s platform was powered through partnerships with companies and college campuses where individuals shared common starting points or destinations,” the company wrote in their release.

“It’s going back to our initial vision,” Lyft spokesperson Paige Thelen says of the new service, “to fill the empty seats in our cars and on our roads.”

Lyft also announced partnerships with 29 companies in place before the launch, including headliners like Yelp. In October, Uber announced that “thousands” of small to mid-sized businesses signed up within the first three months.

Clarification: Lyft announced Adobe as a partner, but that company participated in a pilot program that is now completed and contacted TIME to clarify that Lyft for Work is not currently a transportation option provided to their employees.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: November 13

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. As separatists and Russian troops chip away at its sovereignty, Ukraine struggles with corruption while hunting heat for the coming winter.

By Leonid Bershidsky in Bloomberg View

2. Leading by example: One Silicon Valley superstar has put tech’s pernicious racism in his crosshairs.

By J.J. McCorvey in Fast Company

3. The most important element of the U.S.-China climate deal might be that China has stepped away from its go-it-alone approach on climate.

By Michael Levi at the Council on Foreign Relations

4. Is the next frontier of mesh networks — like the one that linked protestors in Hong Kong — serving news?

By Susan E. McGregor at NiemanLab

5. Lessons from the Bulungula Incubator: Zeroing in on poverty at the most basic level can catalyze community change — and transforms lives.

By Réjane Woodroffe in the Aspen Idea

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Companies

Sony Wants to Change the Way You Watch TV

First Edition Of Madrid Games Week
A man plays on a Playstation 4 at Madrid Games Week in IFEMA on November 9, 2013 in Madrid, Spain. Pablo Blazquez Dominguez—Getty Images

PlayStation Vue is a combination of cable TV, Netflix and Hulu Plus

Sony on Thursday unveiled the PlayStation Vue, a new cloud-based TV service that combines live shows and on-demand content for delivery over Sony’s PlayStation gaming consoles.

The PlayStation Vue will also make popular new episodes available three days past their original air date so users don’t have to schedule recording, Sony said. A user interface additionally offers “unprecedented personalization and simplicity,” while keeping viewers connected to what’s popular or trending, Sony wrote in a press release announcing the new service.

“Everyday TV is about to become extraordinary with our new cloud-based TV service, PlayStation Vue,” said Andrew House, President and Group CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment, in that release.

Sony also aims to disrupt traditional subscription TV payment models by offering PlayStation Vue on a month-to-month plan with no cancellation fee. There are no equipment or installation fees if users already have broadband Internet and a PlayStation 3 or PlayStation 4 console.

The PlayStation Vue will be available for invite-only beta preview during November for select PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 owners in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, Sony said. The beta preview will then roll-out on other Sony and non-Sony devices, including Apple’s iPad tablets.

PlayStation Vue’s commercial launch is scheduled for the first quarter of 2015. Pricing has not yet been announced.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: November 12

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. “Seven years after returning from Iraq, I’m finally home.” One veteran reflects on how service after his time at war changed his life.

By Chris Miller in Medium

2. Humanity’s gift for imitation and iteration is the secret to our innovation and survival.

By Kat McGowan in Aeon

3. Amid news of a groundbreaking climate agreement, it’s clear the China-U.S. relationship will shape the global future.

By Natalie Nougayrède in the Guardian

4. Lessons a year after Typhoon Haiyan: The pilot social safety net in place before Haiyan struck the Philippines helped the country better protect families after the disaster.

By Mohamad Al-Arief at the World Bank Group Social Protection and Labor Global Practice

5. A handful of simple policy reforms — not requiring new funding — can set the table for breaking the cycle of multigenerational poverty.

By Anne Mosle in the Huffington Post

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

These Carpets Map Out Different Countries’ Aerial Landscapes

USA, Bahamas and Netherlands—as seen from the sky

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This article originally appeared on Lost at E Minor.

Have you ever marveled at how flat, two-dimensional and generally neat landscapes look when you’re peering out the window of a plane at 30,000 feet? Florian Pulcher certainly has. Ever since he was little, he has been drawn to the segmentation of land and how neat and pleasing it is to view from above.

Based in Beijing, the Austrian architect always tries to secure himself a window seat on planes and even avoids flying at night so as to gaze down at as many landscapes as possible.

Motivated by this passion he has now created Landcarpet, a collection of rugs inspired by aerial shots of distant fields, hills, waterways and cities. Pulcher uses online mapping services to source his images, and has developed quite an eye for distinguishing aerial details.

“Some countries are very easily recognizable through their methods of farming and that has always intrigued me. Furthermore, as an architect and master planner, I constantly get to see and look through site surveys, aerial images and city plans which have further sharpened my eye for distinguishable patterns and different layers.”

The limited-edition handmade carpets are available for purchase here.

(via Colossal)

TIME Innovation

Check Out This Creative Doorbell

Guitdoorbell plays a single chord

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This article originally appeared on Lost at E Minor.

Instead of settling for a doorbell with that irritating chime sound, you should definitely switch it up and order a Guitdoorbell! It’s just what it sounds like—a guitar mounted over the doorway with a plectrum striker attached to the swinging door.

When the door is opened or closed, the plectrum passes across the strings and plays a single chord. You won’t get a guitar solo out of it but it’s definitely a unique alternative to the regular tune we’ve been hearing for years.

(via Toxel)

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: November 10

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Food touches everything in our lives. Yet we have no national food policy. That must change.

By Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, Ricardo Salvador and Olivier De Schutter in the Washington Post

2. Electronic Medical Records should focus more on patient care and less on meeting the needs of insurance companies and billing departments.

By Scott Hensley at National Public Radio

3. Anonymous social media often hosts vicious harassment targeting women and minorities. A new plan to monitor threats online is working for a solution.

By Barbara Herman in International Business Times

4. “You can’t wear a Band-Aid for long, particularly when the wound keeps bleeding.” Two years after Hurricane Sandy, New York is far from stormproof.

By Lilah Raptopoulos in the Guardian

5. China and the U.S. should take aim at a new “grand bargain” to head off tensions and mistrust in their relationship.

By Wei Zongyou in the Diplomat

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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