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We can get more imaginative about what we imagine

Ruha Benjamin questions why some hard problems are considered too far-fetched to solve while others turn into techie moonshots.

Ruha Benjamin is the author of "Imagination: A Manifesto."Cyndi Shattuck Photography

Given the relentless pace of innovation, you might think human imagination is running free. In everything from artificial intelligence to genetic engineering and space travel, our ability to imagine new things and new ways of doing things appears limitless. But what if the stunning advances in science and engineering have been accompanied by a disturbing narrowing of creative vision?

That’s Ruha Benjamin’s startling thesis in her forthcoming book “Imagination: A Manifesto.”

Benjamin is a professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and founding director of the Ida B. Wells Just Data Lab. She comes to her counterintuitive conclusion through extensive research into the relationship between innovation and inequality. Previously she wrote “Viral Justice: How We Grow the World We Want” (2022), “Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code” (2019), and “People’s Science: Bodies and Rights on the Stem Cell Frontier” (2013).

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Benjamin sees a crisis of imagination that is fueling oppression and even treating some people’s lives as disposable. But she finds hope in the work of educators, artists, activists, and communities who are crafting narratives of collective liberation and interdependence.

My interview with Benjamin has been edited and condensed.

Manifestos are bold visions and urgent calls for action. Why did you write one about the imagination?

I want us to take imagination seriously as a site of struggle — not just an ephemeral space of daydreaming. We need to understand that there are powerful, harmful visions of the future that we are being sold and living inside of. Part of the manifesto is a call to push back against them. Part of it is an invitation to ask ourselves what is the future that we want — what kind of world is more habitable, where everyone can thrive? This question requires taking the imagination seriously as a collective endeavor.

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How can imagining better futures promote justice?

It’s about understanding what we don’t want and asking ourselves what we do want in terms of a more just world. Take schooling. We know that tracking, ranking, and testing stifle our imagination and ability to thrive and realize our potential. That’s what we want to challenge. But we also need to ask what forms of flourishing would improve education.

What’s a better way to imagine education?

An alternative would focus on our interdependence instead of competition and disposability. It’s about saying my well-being is intimately bound up with yours. What if we imagined schooling as a public good that we should invest in not out of charity but from a sense that when the well-being of all students is prioritized, we’re all better off?

What are some harmful ways technology is being imagined?

One way is the vision expressed by Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk of traveling to outer space as a top priority and next frontier. Something that seems like science fiction is presented to us as totally doable. And yet, the same strata often cast the everyday things that could raise the quality of life for billions of people on the planet as unimaginable. I’m talking about things like health care and housing for all. These public goods get cast as outlandish and too far-fetched.

What are better ways to imagine technology?

We can look to examples where we center people whose voices are often ignored, those who are not considered “innovators.” Barcelona, for example, engaged in an experiment in participatory democracy by using an app called Decidem (meaning “we decide” in Catalan) to elicit a wide array of views about projects to spend public money on.

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Another example that also has the potential to broaden our imagination is “Breonna’s Garden.” It uses virtual reality to give people a space to express grief for Breonna Taylor, who the police killed, as well as their own deceased loved ones. It’s a way to use technology to foster collective healing, not promote hate, division, and bullying, which we often see on social media.

There’s an argument that art and artistic imaginations don’t actually translate to action. What’s your response to that?

There’s a fallacy that artists are just there to entertain us and offer escape. Part of what I want us to think about is how art isn’t just art as we typically conceive of it, like painting and poetry. It’s also about the creative work behind everything we experience. When I was a graduate student, I was spending a lot of time with life scientists who were creating biotechnologies. They would often talk about art, including films and TV shows like “Star Trek” that helped seed the ideas they worked on. I want us to see art as the impetus behind the scenes of so many things that don’t seem to have anything to do with the arts. And I want us to ask whose imagination gets to materialize, whether in the life sciences, law, or school.

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The final cover of Ruha Benjamin's new book.CreativeSoul Photography/W.W. Norton

These days, there’s a lot of discussion about AI and creativity. Did writing the book change how you think about these issues?

Yes! The original cover I was going to use was created by a phenomenal Black artist who uses AI in her process. She had been using digital tools for a long time before generative AI became popular. But in more recent years, she’s started using popular [AI] tools like Midjourney. When I announced the cover on Twitter, I focused on its beauty. But the backlash was swift. I had a steep learning curve to understand why many artists see the technology as stealing their labor — not just stifling creativity but stealing and selling it back. This education moved me to go back to the press and ask them to look more closely at the design process. And eventually they changed the cover.


Ruha Benjamin will be discussing her new book with Tracy K. Smith in a free event at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 8.

Evan Selinger is a professor of philosophy at the Rochester Institute of Technology and a frequent contributor to Globe Ideas.