As a graduate student in the Bay Area in the early 2000s, Ruha Benjamin witnessed the Silicon Valley boom first-hand, watching as innovators worked to create a new world, one often inspired by “some kind of sci-fi film, show, book they had read when they were younger that sparked their imagination of what was possible.”
Now a professor at Princeton, Benjamin thinks it’s important to see the whole picture. “Being a sociologist in that time and space was seeing the ascendancy of this techno-utopian imagination that technology will save us – and at the same time the growth of homelessness in the Bay Area,” says Benjamin. “Innovation and inequity often go hand in hand; so many people get trampled over in the process.”
In her new book, “Imagination: A Manifesto,” Benjamin argues that imagination itself isn’t neutral or objective. In our hierarchical society, she says, “we have competing forms of imagination, some of which are getting encoded into our digital structures, and some of which are cast as too outlandish and far-fetched” — all too often, the discarded visions are those that imagine a better world for all of humanity.
“I want us to question the imagination that says we can go to space, we can colonize Mars — and at the same time say, ‘Housing for all? Healthcare for all? That’s outlandish, that will never happen,’” she says. “It’s that sort of lopsided, deadly imagination that I want us to grow our critical antennae to hear when it’s coming.”
She hopes the book will make readers think. “I’m motivated to get more people empowered to ask these kinds of questions, and to make them feel they have a say, rather than leave things to the experts,” she says. “What visions of the future do we want to cultivate? It’s about questioning the stories that we’re told about progress.”
Even those who occupy high status in our unequal society ought to think about what future we dream about, she adds. “You don’t have to believe that our fates are linked, that we are interdependent. But you will be affected by it. Inequality makes everyone sick.”
Ruha Benjamin will be in conversation with Tracy K. Smith at 7 p.m. Thursday, February 8, at Harvard Book Store.
Kate Tuttle is a freelance writer and editor.