An Illustrated Exploration Of Hypothetical Futures
Futurist and Flash Forward host Rose Eveleth spends her time asking a lot of ‘what if’ questions, and then exploring the answers with experts. For example, what if human light sources forever drowned out our dark night sky? What if we relocated endangered species to save them from climate change? What if, as she asked in 2018, we saw a deadly pandemic consume the globe?
With a new book that illustrates even more hypothetical futures, she poses even more far-reaching questions: What if we could change our gender like our hair color? What if we could live on as robots after our death? What if we had to pirate the basic pharmaceuticals, like insulin, that keep so many alive?
Eveleth sits down with SciFri’s John Dankosky to explore the nuances of imagining possible futures, whose choices influence what may actually happen, and why this work matters, even when she gets it wrong. Plus, what was predictable—and what was not—about the COVID-19 pandemic.
Read an excerpt of the illustrated guide, about what justice might look like in space.
Rose Eveleth is host and producer of the podcast Flash Forward, and author of Flash Forward: An Illustrated Guide to Possible (And Not So Possible) Tomorrows (Abrams Comic Arts, 2021). She’s based in Berkeley, California.
JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky. Let me share some audio from the future. The year is 2033, and a familiar crisis is rocking the globe.
SPEAKER 1: Quarantine facilities around the country are struggling to keep pace with the infection rate of S-11, which has been spreading rapidly. Without enough space or resources, they’re turning away infected individuals who are contributing to the spread of S-11.
SPEAKER 2: S-11 coming your way.
SPEAKER 3: Negative. We have no beds.
SPEAKER 2: We don’t either. What do you want me to do?
SPEAKER 3: I don’t know, but we have nowhere to put them.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Now, I didn’t time travel with a tape recorder to capture that sound. Instead, a podcaster and futurist named Rose Eveleth imagined this pandemic future, overtaxed hospitals and all, three years ago, way back in 2018. And that’s what she does– she imagines futures. And then for her podcast, Flash Forward, she talks to real experts about what might actually happen if, say, a pandemic illness swept the planet, or if we never saw a dark night sky ever again, or if we found a way to build cities under the ocean.
She’s here with us today to talk about how and why she imagines the future, and about her new book Flash Forward– An Illustrated Guide to Possible and Not So Possible Tomorrows. Rose, welcome to Science Friday. Thanks for joining me.
ROSE EVELETH: Thank you for having me. I’m excited to talk about it.
JOHN DANKOSKY: So as a futurist, how did you think a potential pandemic might go down, and how’d it turn out?
ROSE EVELETH: You know, people ask what I get right on the show sometimes, and that’s the one I point to. But I don’t want to pat myself on the back too much, because every expert you’ve talked to for years and years will say it’s always a question of when and not if for the next pandemic. And that will be true once we’re out of this one as well.
You know, there are certain set of variables for a pandemic that you can predict, right? It’ll be a virus that we don’t know about. There will be questions of things like vaccine rollout. There will be questions of things like, what do hospitals do? All that stuff is predictable.
The things that are harder to predict are cultural, political, right? So in 2018, on the episode, we talked about all the various simulations that the then-government had done. And then when certain people were elected, a lot of people were let go from certain positions. And so a lot of the institutional knowledge was gone. And so it was a bit more chaotic, perhaps, than even the simulations predicted.
So you can only go so far with trying to guesstimate how something like a pandemic will go. But the big factors are kind of the same every time, in many ways, right? It’s a virus that usually we need to figure out. And how fast can we do that? And that’s what we saw, unfortunately, over the last year.
JOHN DANKOSKY: But as you say, some of the hardest stuff to predict is, how are people going to react? What are the interpersonal relationships that are going to come out of that? And that’s something that I’m sure you grapple with all the time. It might be easy in some way to imagine a political future or a scientific future, but humans– we’re weird, and the way that we act can really throw the future into a completely different direction.
ROSE EVELETH: Yes, humans are very strange creatures. In even our own minds, right? Like, I’m sure everyone has this experience of, you do something, and then you’re like, why did I do that? Like, even you can’t explain your own actions sometimes. And trying to explain vast cultural actions is hard, right?
We always know that with any kind of thing like this, there will be a certain group of people who resist the medical establishment. There will be people who will not trust a vaccine. We know that that will be true, but who it will be and how the details of that shake out is always sort of a mystery box that you have to open when you get there.
JOHN DANKOSKY: So in your podcast, and now also in this book, you take on all these different types of possible futures like the pandemic, not necessarily all as dark as that. Some of the things you take on, like what if fake news wins, and what if you could live on as a robot after you die? How do you think about the futures that you want to write about, that you want to podcast about?
ROSE EVELETH: It’s hard to pick, because once you get started thinking about things that might happen– and on the show, everything ranges from stuff that’s very likely– facial recognition, pandemics– all the way out to things that– we sort of say, you know, the possible and not so possible. So what would happen if space pirates dragged a second moon to Earth, and the Earth suddenly had two moons? And how would you capture a moon-sized object? You know, what would that do to the tides? All those questions.
And once you get into that kind of like sort of fictional thinking, it’s actually harder to pick than it is to generate ideas. But I think for me, the perfect Flash Forward episode and the chapter would be the same. It’s something that people might be familiar with. Maybe you’ve seen headlines. Maybe you kind of like know that certain tech CEOs are fighting about AI singularity, like, what does that mean?
Something that they can do something about, they have agency in, and then something that has some sort of surprise element, where it’s like, yeah, you might have heard of this thing, but here’s that piece that you maybe didn’t think about, like your robot descendant. If you, say, make a robot copy of your loved one after they die, what’s the warranty on that? How do you charge the robot? Is there a closet for it? Like just sort of all these unsexy questions people don’t talk about all the time. We kind of like to mix that in there, too.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Now, when you’re picking researchers or experts, people that you want to help you imagine this future, how do you go about that? Because I can imagine that just by the process of picking someone to talk to, that’s really influencing what kind of a future you might imagine, because everyone brings such different backgrounds and ideas to this. So how do you do your research? How do you find your experts?
ROSE EVELETH: Yeah, I mean, sometimes it’s obvious, right? If it’s a topic that they’ve published a lot about. We also try to talk to folks who kind of understand the premise of the show. Not everyone is comfortable talking about the future, even though we try to make it very clear on the show that we’re not trying to predict anything. You know, if we get it right, that’s kind of fun and cool, but it’s really more about sort of thinking through possibilities than saying, this is how the future will go, because that is a fool’s errand, as we all know. No one’s going to get it right.
And so the other piece of it is wanting to feature folks who aren’t usually featured in things like science and tech reporting. So you know, when we do things about universal basic income, for example, talking to the community aid groups in Jackson, Mississippi, who are doing this but aren’t sort of featured in all the tech coverage of UBI. Or if we’re talking about something like CRISPR, or technology that is ostensibly for disabled folks, talking to disabled folks about what they think about that technology is super important to the ethos of the show.
JOHN DANKOSKY: The book is beautiful, and it’s so interestingly put together. The way your podcast works is you imagine these futures, and then you unpack it afterward. And the book is laid out very much like this, but you use a kind of a comic book, graphic artist style to tell the stories. Can you talk a bit about that collaboration and why you chose this method to tell some of these futuristic stories?
ROSE EVELETH: Yeah. You know, people had asked me about writing a Flash Forward book for years. And I just couldn’t imagine it. I didn’t want to just rewrite episodes in text. I just couldn’t– like, as a listener, I was like, what would I want to buy? And I couldn’t think of anything that I would want to buy, if I was a listener of the show, for a book.
And then, actually, Sophie Goldstein, who’s one of the artists in the book, emailed me. And she’s a comic artist. And she said, have you ever thought about doing a sort of comic adaptation? And that was when sort of the light bulb went off, and I was like, yes, this is perfect.
Because what the fictional vignettes do at the top is kind of help you imagine, as a listener, what you might do in that situation, kind of step into that world in a really immersive way where you’re sort of using the tools of fiction to help people imagine these worlds. And comics can do the same thing, right? You’re seeing a story. You’re seeing characters. You’re connecting with them.
And then I brought in Matt Lubchanksy, who is an incredible artist as well, who actually does all the art for the Flash Forward show, for the website and everything. And the three of us worked together on it. So Sophie and Matt were incredibly patient with me, who’d never done comics before in my life. And that was a really fun experience. So they were great.
And then we brought in 12 amazing artists– it’s actually 14 total, because two of the chapters are collaborations between two artists. And they each were presented with the full list of over 100 Flash Forward episodes that they got to kind of look through. And from there, it was a collaborative process the whole way through. We worked on the storylines, what we wanted to say. And the artists– I tried to give them a lot of freedom, which I think you can tell in the book. They kind of really can embody their style, which was really important to me, to have it really feel like a collaboration and not me telling them what to draw at every stage.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Yeah, and I would say one of the only problems with the book is a few of the comics that start each of the chapters– I want them to keep going. They stop short, and I want the next episode, which is always something that I assume you want to leave people with. So if I wanted to be a better futurist and think more about possible futures, I mean, who should I be listening to? Is there something that I should be reading, specifically, to put myself in the mindset of this?
ROSE EVELETH: Yeah, I think for me the key to thinking about the future is seeking out the folks who are kind of living it now and who are kind of on the ground making it work. And expanding the idea of who gets to be called a futurist and who is doing futurism, I think is really important. There are some amazing projects that are out there to use technology, subvert technology, use science.
You know, I’m thinking of things like some of the folks who are hacking insulin because it’s too expensive for people to buy. Liz Jackson, who’s an incredible disabled writer, has a great piece in the New York Times where I think the headline is “Disabled People are the Original Life Hackers,” because the world is not built for them, and they have to figure out how to make it work. And all of those innovations, you then eventually maybe see someone monetize later, and that money doesn’t come back to that community. But all those people are doing that work.
And so I think rather than thinking about futurism as a very specific set of, like, technology CEOs, thinking about who is building a future that I personally want to live in and finding those people to listen to and talk to and learn from. Futurism isn’t just, like, who’s building the cool flying car, right? It’s also about who is building a literal world that you would want to live in, as opposed to one that maybe is Jetsons-like but doesn’t care for people.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Well, I’m so glad you brought up The Jetsons. I mean, it’s funny you say that, because I grew up at a time when one view of the world, of science fiction, was kind of The Jetsons, which was, wow, this is really cool, all these new things that technology in the future could bring me. And then the other side, it was this kind of dystopia, this idea that everything in the future is going to be horrible. And I’m wondering how you balance those two things in your mind, because for some people the future is just this bright, sunny, optimistic thing, but for others, everything looks like Blade Runner.
ROSE EVELETH: It’s always both, right? Like, the future is so much weirder and more complicated than even any of us can predict, right? Utopias exist for some people now. If you are in the wealthiest set of the population, you’re living in a pretty sweet setup, right? For everyone else, maybe not so much. Madeline Ashby has a joke that she likes to tell– another amazing futurist– where she talks about how the reason why so many very, very wealthy people are obsessed with living forever is because they make compound interest, which I think is very funny.
And so I think thinking through the reality of the situation, right? Like, there will always be people who are creating. There will always be people who are subverting technology and using it and kind of doing cool things and making it work.
And there will always be dystopian pieces to technology. Humans are, again, weird and messy, and often make mistakes. And we can learn from them. We can learn from our past mistakes, but there’s no perfect version of the future. It’s all baby steps.
JOHN DANKOSKY: A lot of the stories that you tell in this book do have quite a bit of darkness to them. And one of them asks the question, what if we had to turn to pirates to get our medications? And you referenced this a little bit earlier in our conversation, but I think it’s a really important time to be thinking about this. Our health care system seems to be completely broken. There’s questions about whether or not we can get the COVID vaccine to people in less affluent countries. This is one of those futures that seems very palpably real right now.
ROSE EVELETH: Yeah, absolutely. Every day I see the news around patents and the COVID vaccine and who is going to get it and who isn’t going to get it. And it just sort of feels like one of those things where, like, the solution feels so obvious from a humanitarian perspective, and yet we’re still having this conversation about whether that’s going to happen.
And I think that that’s a place where– one of the things, the points I make in that chapter is that it would be better if no one had to pirate drugs, right? It would be better if everyone could just afford the drugs that they need. You know, like, my uncle doesn’t want to have to learn how to make his own insulin. He doesn’t want to have to do that, like in his garage or whatever it is. This is not a long-term solution. But it is a reaction to what’s happening now.
And I think we’re going to see that with the COVID vaccine. We’re going to see– we know it works, and if you can’t get it sort of the, quote, unquote, legal, official ways, people are going to try to get it. And there’s a solution to this problem that is right there for us, and we could just take it.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Just a reminder that I’m John Dankosky, and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. I’m talking to podcaster, futurist, and author Rose Eveleth about her new book Flash Forward– An Illustrated Guide to Possible and Not So Possible Tomorrows. I think it gets to one of the things I was thinking a lot about while I was reading your book, is this idea of imagining the future and predicting the future.
If I was to imagine a future, I’d imagine a future in which we didn’t need to pirate drugs and everyone just got what they needed, and also that everyone got along. That’s imagining a future. But were I to, Rose, put money down on a bet to say what kind of future will there be, I would bet, probably, that large companies will continue to control the cost of drugs and health care, and it’s going to be really hard for all people, but most importantly a lot of people who are struggling, to get the sort of health and health care they need. Those are two very different ways of imagining a future. And I’m wondering how often you feel like you come down on one side or the other?
ROSE EVELETH: It’s a great question. I’m a firm believer that the most hopeful way of thinking about the future is to be realistic about everything you just said, about all the darkness and all the ways that this could get worse and all of the dark roads we could go down. You have to do the work of imagining those things and thinking through, OK, if we make this choice, then this happens, and if we make this choice, then this happens.
And then I think that the key next step– as opposed to stopping there and saying, like, well, oh well, you know, that is the future that’s the most likely– is saying, well, what if we make this other choice, show what that could be, and then talk about what that choice would require. And I think that’s sort of the most hopeful way of thinking about the future. It’s not about being utopian or sort of putting your blinders on and just kind of being like, ah, technology will solve everything in some sort of magical way.
It’s about sort of walking through these scenarios and thinking about, OK, well, if that’s the future I want to get to, if that’s the version of the future that I want to be in, reverse engineering that. Like, what would be required to get there? And being just very strategic about exactly how you would even almost write that science fiction story. And then find those places where you can try and make that happen.
JOHN DANKOSKY: I want to leave you with this, because it’s not all dystopia, this future. And actually, your book points toward this. The book itself is colorful and lively, and it’s an art book. And one of the things I know that you talk about in the book and that you think about a lot is the future of art. And that’s, I think, a very hopeful thing for us to think about.
ROSE EVELETH: Yes, I love thinking about the ways in which artists see the world, and just, I mean, this book is very much, in many ways, a love letter to all the artists that are in it. They are incredible, and they did amazing work. Julia Gfrorer is the artist who did a specific chapter about AI art, and could AI ever make art, and sort of this big discussion.
But I think– and even beyond that, embodying the way that artists see the world can really open up certain futures, because there is this kind of interesting prism way of looking at all the different options, and taking a scene and breaking it into its component parts, and thinking about how you represent something. All of that is also a type of futurism that we can incorporate into our toolbox. And I think artists can be futurists just as much as inventors can.
JOHN DANKOSKY: That’s all the time we have. I want to thank you so much for coming on the program and for talking about this great book. Rose Eveleth is the author of Flash Forward– An Illustrated Guide to Possible and Not So Possible Futures. She hosts and produces the podcast Flash Forward. Thanks so much for joining me. I really appreciate it.
ROSE EVELETH: Thanks for having me. This was fun.
JOHN DANKOSKY: And by the way, if you’re hankering to see some of these great illustrated stories that we talked about, good news– an excerpt from one is on our website. It’s all about space crime. Take a look. It’s sciencefriday.com/future.
John Dankosky works with the radio team to create our weekly show, and is helping to build our State of Science Reporting Network. He’s also been a long-time guest host on Science Friday. He and his wife have four cats, thousands of bees, and a yoga studio in the sleepy Northwest hills of Connecticut.