It's a wrap: Narrative Futures and Michaelmas Term
A friend asked if I would write about the hows and whys of the Narrative Futures podcast, and being low on initiative and ideas of my own at this point in the academic term, I see no reason why this should not be the topic of this week's blog. Thanks, Hannah! This week also sees the release of the last episode of the podcast and the end of Michaelmas Term, so the timing is *auspicious*.
A bit about Futures Thinking:
I founded the Futures Thinking network which is housed by The Oxford Research Centre In The Humanities (TORCH) in January 2019 because I kept describing my research on speculative fictions to posh types at Oxford and they'd look at me like I was/am mad. I was/am mad, so fair play to them.
Nevertheless, I wanted a way to gather the other sci fi nerds and ethical futurists to my insubstantial bosom. Instead of just emailing people and suggesting coffee like I should have done, I networked a lot, won a fair bit of funding for a two-year project and together our small team hosted over a dozen seminar events, planned and executed a 3-day international conference, conducted some awesome Public Engagement with Research tomfoolery with the Science and Ideas Festival, and initiated three multi-media projects:
Speculation and Percolation (7 episodes)
Will Machines Make Us Laugh? (5 episodes)
Narrative Futures (8 episodes)
[What you don't see behind the success of the network is that it's a huge amount of work, for no pay, with benefits that are quantifiable only by those involved. Also, I cried a few times, and my mental health deteriorated from 'sad usually only in winter' to 'miserable even in summer'. That is to say, I've developed full-blown depression in the last two years at Oxford, and while I'm not saying it's the fault of a system that celebrates and rewards an excessive work culture, I'm not not saying that.]
Futures Thinking matters to me because it has taught me everything my thesis hasn't, and couldn't have. More importantly, it's brought some fantastic people into my life. I have been conspiring with the fabulous activist-poet Dan Holloway on this project for two years now, the pair of us muttering irritably about access and disability rights and chattering excitedly about how best to imagine the future. It would have been impossible without him.
Back to Narrative Futures:
Narrative Futures is a podcast that I recorded and produced over the lockdown summer of 2020 (UK-summer for southern-hemisphere readers), intending it to be the capstone project of Futures Thinking. I knew the funding for the network would run out at the end of 2020 and I wanted to make something that included a bunch of the themes and ideas that had been shared during the course of the network's existence (Gender and AI, Green Utopias, Near-Future Fiction, being 'Blessed by the Algorithm' etc).
Yes, I even made a trailer. You can hear it here.
The lockdown from March 2020 to -insert end date here- meant that the planned workshops and the possibility of another in-person conference had to be scrapped. Instead, we pivoted the network's projects to produce online content that would be consistently available for the long-term. This pivot was mostly so that 1) we could do some cool stuff with tech, and 2) so that people didn't have to attend even more Zoom events. I'm so f**king done with Zoom events.
The first part of the pivot was commissioning the groovy guys at Jericho Comedy to facilitate a philosophically-inflected video series on AI and Comedy, answering the question Will Machines Make Us Laugh? I also pitched the Narrative Futures podcast to the good people at TORCH, who handle the money and say yes or no to our ideas. Wisely, they said no to the 'plot your own disaster novel' interactive web-page idea. Usually, though, they say yes. Narrative Futures got the green light and I began recording in May 2020.
Making a podcast when all you know is a little about radio:
I have a degree in journalism and won Best Script for my 2nd year radio production so I wasn't going into the podcast totally unequipped. I was just a bit rusty, particularly on the golden rule of audio production:
IT TAKES MUCH LONGER THAN YOU COULD EVER HAVE IMAGINED.
I used Cleanfeed.net to record and Mac's Garageband programme to edit. Again, I've had great training in audio production and interviewing, so getting up to speed to record and produce was a matter of dusting some cobwebs away. If you're at/in Oxford and want to make a podcast, there's a great Researcher Training one-day session on Podcasting for Public Engagement. I did the session back in 2018, and working on Narrative Futures this year jogged some of those memories. That, together with my journo background, I was able to cobble together several passable pieces of audio. Who knows how much it would have cost if I didn't have the skills to do it all for free. Lol.
Designing the podcast:
I knew that I wanted to interview writers and editors who work in the speculative field, and luckily I mostly knew the writers I was interested in, or knew someone who knew them. The 'diversity' (see what Mahvesh has to say about that dirty word in Episode 4) of the subjects interviewed on the podcast is a side-product of my reading habits and critical framework, for which I have Sam Naidu and Minesh Dass to thank.
I also knew I wanted to offer listeners something more, something to do at home. Making an interactive podcast felt like the right thing to do, but how to interact with something you're hearing was a problem we needed to solve. Writing and imagining a better future in response to heard-conversations seemed like an interesting solution. I connected with the excellent Louis Greenberg, a future-oriented author and creative writing tutor, and the structure came together nicely over a series of conversations. Futures Thinking commissioned Louis to create and deliver the writing prompts and I think his dulcet tones make a nice change from my speedy patter at the end of each episode.
Chatting to Dan Holloway nearing the end of the recording process, I realised that we had to make the podcast as accessible as possible. We hustled to use the last drops of Futures Thinking's funding to pay Academic Audio Transcription to do the transcriptions of six of the episodes so that hearing-disabled people could also access the interviews and writing prompts. The transcribed interviews are all available on the Futures Thinking blog and include links to books and ideas where relevant. The brilliant and patiently kind Nikki and Sarah at TORCH put all of the transcriptions up as blog posts each week of this Michaelmas term, and I can never thank them enough for all of their help over the last two months (and Nikki for the last two years).
What I learnt:
Putting a podcast into the world during a pandemic was not something I thought I would do during my PhD, but it's been really useful for thinking about other ways of doing Public Engagement with Research, and how generative it can be to make research on futures studies relevant to the public literally as they experience a global disaster.
I learnt that podcasts take planning, and time, and the provision of extra time even if you don't think you'll need it. It was also reinforced to me that a PhD is really about more than the thesis, because who knows when next I might need all of these refreshed skills.
Here are almost all of the episodes, Tade's transcription being published on Thursday 3 Dec.
It takes a village:
I'm deeply grateful to Lauren Beukes, Mohale Mashigo, Sami Shah, Mahvesh Murad, Jared Shurin, EJ Swift, Ken Liu and Tade Thompson for contributing their beautiful voices and ideas to the project. I'm grateful also for their time and patience as we negotiated and overcame the challenges of time zones, on-and-off lockdowns, thunder storms, dodgy internet signal, and screaming children. Louis Greenberg's enthusiasm, kind support, brilliant writing prompts and camaraderie were and are so appreciated. Dan Holloway's faith in my plans and his guidance when I don't know what next with FT has been invaluable. There are always other people to thank, people that dried tears or read drafts of proposals (not the same person) and they know who they are.
I'm so lucky and grateful to be able to do this strange and (I think) wonderful work. This project concludes Futures Thinking. For now. Maybe one day someone will give me lots of money to run a bigger version of it, and I can fund other DPhils and PostDocs, and do cool stuff and host fancy people and offer event attendees little canapés and cheap wine. The dream.