Plurality University

Let me tell you about Plurality University Network (https://www.plurality-university.org). One year ago, I was invited to Paris for an inaugural Founders’ conference of Plurality University. I had no idea what this was, and in the midst of a hectic semester, I almost didn’t go. But a free trip to Paris (a city I’d never visited) was not to be scoffed at! And when I started looking at their materials, I was intrigued. I went, and am so glad I did. We all walk around this world with blinders on, and sometimes you don’t know what’s missing until someone shoves it right in your face.

The Plurality University was conceived as something of a response to Singularity University (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singularity_University). They raised the question of whether ambitious visions of the future should be coming primarily from Silicon Valley tech bros, or whether we wanted, needed, a more diverse representation of viewpoints and worldview. (Obviously, YES!)

Here’s the current mission statement: “The Plurality University Network (U+) is a global, open organization that connects artists, designers, utopians and activists who use the power of imagination to enable alternative futures.”

They brought together (and funded travel for) writers and artists and designers and tech folks and futurists from around the world. (In France and elsewhere, futurists are referred to as perspectivists, and more than one I met started as a historian.) I met the woman who serves as futurist for the International Red Cross, a design student building VR cities, and writers, of course. Many writers. They asked us to imagine together what a Plurality University might look like.

The conversation was held primarily in English, which was obviously a relief for monolingual me (I understand Tamil but cannot speak it, I’ve forgotten almost all of my four years of Polish, and my high school Spanish is barely enough to get through a brief, functional conversation — hablo como un pequeño niño. Lo siento. Those who had more English would sometimes translate quickly the more complex concepts we discussed, and somehow, we muddled through.

There were times when it seemed like we’d never come to agreement. We had so many DIFFERENT ideas of what was needed, of what could be done. And many of us were running our own projects at home, and didn’t really see how we would fit into this larger effort. Many of us were strapped for funding, and our most urgent question was always — where will the money come from?

There were class differences and globalization issues too — even the cost of a cab and simple dinner in Paris was magnified tenfold or more for someone who came from a country with a relatively poor exchange rate. We stumbled, sometimes, over such things. Mistakes were made, as is perhaps inevitable when you draw together dozens of strangers.

But there was so much goodwill in the room, for those three packed days. So many fascinating people. And over whiteboards and screens and delicious dinners, somehow, we figured quite a lot out, and took our first steps together. We weren’t strangers to each other by the end of the weekend; we’d started to find our common interests and define our common goals.

The Speculative Literature Foundation’s Deep Dish reading today (Chicago folks — see you at Volumes Book Cafe at 7 p.m.) was already co-sponsored by SFWA, who gave us a grant that let us fly in acclaimed and award-winning Canadian writer Silvia Moreno-Garcia as one of our featured readers. She’s staying with me, and when she got in from Vancouver last night, we stayed up for an hour talking about academia and teaching writing and SF friends in common (hello, Nick Mamatas!) and the state of the Mexican and Canadian SF/F scenes. It’s so different from the U.S., with micro-presses or no presses at all in many places, without a cultural history of SF/F conventions, and it left me even more committed to finding ways for the SLF to help emerging writers around the globe.

Plurality University Network is also sponsoring tonight’s reading, as part of its Many Tomorrows Festival, a distributed event where members of last year’s Paris conference will hold events on a related theme (tonight’s is ‘trans-‘), and send questions and answers back and forth along the chain, connecting one event to the next. They’re paying for photography and videography, which will help us extend the reach of tonight’s event far beyond Chicago — potentially to the whole world, in fact, or at least as much of it is on the internet. Together, these three organizations are stretching the boundary of what’s possible.

Note that your event can still potentially be part of the Many Tomorrows Festival — details here: https://manytomorrows.plurality-university.org. You can also be part of the Interview Project, which I’m participating in: https://www.plurality-university.org/chain-futures/

AND, you can actually join us as a member. (Membership is free.) Details here: https://www.plurality-university.org/become-a-member/

I met incredible, talented people, and learned so much those three days in Paris — my head was spinning by the end of it, packed full of new ideas, new ways of looking at the world. Under the able guidance of Daniel Kaplan and
Chloé Luchs Tassé, amazing projects are on the horizon.

I can’t wait to see what else we’ll be able to do together!

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