Cultures of the Imagination
COTI: Teaching us to look at Differences Differently
By James J. Funaro

Abstract: COTI is an educational experiment in creation -- students design an integrated world, alien life form and culture, and simulate contact with a future human society. One team constructs a solar system, a world and its ecology, an alien life form and its culture, basing each step on the previous one and utilizing the principles of science as a guide to imagination. The other team designs a future human colony, planetary or spacefaring, "creating and evolving" its culture as an exercise in cultural structure, dynamics and adaptation. Through a structured system of progressive revelation, the teams then simulate -- and experience -- contact between the two cultures in real time, exploring the problems and possibilities involved in inter-cultural encounters. This simulation, which began at the first CONTACT conference in 1983 as a thought experiment for professional scientists, writers and artists, has developed into an educational curriculum for college and K-12 levels, which has been funded by NASA and Smithsonian. Two examples are COTI HI and COTI JR. COTI has been featured in the media and books in a PBS documentary and has become the foundation of a long-term international design project.

Years ago, Ruth Benedict suggested that a goal of Anthropology should be to make the world safe for difference. I concur. And, as we begin to gain the ability to leave this planet Earth and build new homes for our species offworld, I think that, before we can attempt to expand this goal outward, we need to take a long inward look at this concept of Difference; otherwise, we will simply and unconsiously take our old problems with us when we go.

CONTACT's "Cultures of the Imagination" ("COTI") is a simulation experiment in culture construction and inter-cultural contact, and has been featured in professional journals, national media and a PBS video documentary. The kind of "imagining outward" to the simulated alien encounters of the COTI scenarios may help us develop a protocol for actual extraterrestrial contacts, should they occur. But it can also help us take that needed look inward.

What I call the "alien metaphor" provides us with a model that enables us to look at differences differently. It focuses our attention on the idea of the Other and hopefully brings us closer to that goal of making difference safe on Earth, before we leave. I have utilized this alien metaphor in the classroom as well as the conference, and it is one of the main things that "Cultures of the Imagination" is really all about. "Alien" in this sense represents "anything that isn't us." The metaphor can be applied at any range outward from the self (however defined), including parts of an one's own personality or body which might be viewed as "alien." Such usage could have therapeutic value, for example, by facilitating imaging of an organic or psychological disorder. Expanding outward to the individual, societal and ecological levels, it can enhance our understanding and appreciation of personal, cultural and biological differences by putting them in a less threatening and perhaps more interesting context of "alien contact." Such simulations could be seen as war games standing on their heads; i.e., they provide a cooperative synthesis to the us/them dialectic.

Since 1983, "Cultures of the Imagination" has developed concurrently 1) as a futures scenario for CONTACT, an interdisciplinary forum of scientists, writers and artists, which meets annually to exchange ideas, stimulate new perspectives and encourage responsible and creative speculation about humanity's future on Earth and in space, and 2) as a "hands-on" classroom technique for learning principles and methodologies in a college course, "Anthropology for the Future," which uses knowledge of our past and present to envision our future and addresses subjects ranging from the space program's planned missions and offworld colonies to the possibilities of interstellar migration and extraterrestrial contact. The primary goal of both conference and class is to use a multidisciplinary approach to seriously explore the problems and possibilities we will face as our species enters the space age.

One of these possibilities is an encounter with an extraterrestial civilization or its artefacts. To the Anthropologist, whose traditional study has been "alien" cultures on this planet, inter-cultural contact is a familiar context. A created extra-terrestrial "culture of the imagination" can be utilized (both for teaching and learning) as a simulation model for projected inter-cultural situations offworld or right here on this planet. I make use of this "alien metaphor" in class as an instructional tool which includes many aspects of role-playing simulations. The technique derives from my teaching experience that synthesis -- putting things together -- can be just as powerful a learning device as analysis -- taking things apart. One of the best ways to understand how something works is to try to build it.

The process is essentially similar in conference and classroom, though the curriculum has been tailored to various levels (professional to grade school) and various time frames (three days to a semester). Enthusiam, however, is always high. Assisted by the instructor, guest lecturers, readings, computer software and audio-visual programs, students are introduced, at the appropriate stages, to the elementary principles of celestial mechanics and geology, the space sciences, evolution, ecological and biological systems, socio-cultural configurations, and inter-cultural contact, giving them an opportunity to integrate the humanities, the social sciences and the natural sciences. Production of artwork illustrating aspects of the project is also an intrinsic part of student participation.

Though originally used for college teaching, the simulation is flexible enough to be adapted to any age or student level. For example, COTI JR., a middle school curriculum, modeled on our conference experience and developed by our staff, was funded by NASA and the Smithsonian Institution and piloted in the Washington, DC, area during 1990 and 1991. This curriculum, including detailed lesson plans, and also an instructor's guide ("A Primer for COTI"), are available. COTI HI was developed in 1998 by the principle and teachers at Oroville High School in California and is now in the process of classroom testing.

In a "generic" classroom version, one team constructs a solar system, a world and its ecology, an alien life form and its culture, basing each step on the previous one and utilizing the principles of science as a guide to imagination. This approach demonstrates the essentially systemic nature of the physical, biological and cultural worlds and their mutual integration, allowing students to experience this through a "hands-on" laboratory experiment in creation, and also gives them a chance to internalize a different perspective by practicing it through the "alien" personality and world view they've developed.

The other team designs a future human colony, planetary or spacefaring, "creating and evolving" its culture as an Anthropological exercise in cultural structure, dynamics and adaptation. The technique allows the student to experience problems in human interactions and needs from the inside -- i.e., as a role-playing game which allows them to feel as well as see the results of their decisions through the new perspectives of the "others" they are identifying with.

Through a structured system of progressive revelation, the teams simulate -- and experience -- contact between the two cultures, exploring the problems and possibilities involved in inter-cultural encounters. In the process, students broaden their own appreciation of diversity and tolerance of differences. And, for the professional scientists, writers and artists of CONTACT, this alien metaphor gives us a chance articulate one of our major stated goals: To develop ethical approaches in inter-cultural contact, whenever and wherever it occurs.

The COTI simulation appeared as an OMNI cover story (10/92), was featured in Analog (1/92), and has been the subject of a PBS video documentary, aired by KCET in Los Angeles in 1987. It has also been described in scientific publications: E.g., "Anthropologists as Culture Designers," by the author in Case For Mars III (1989), The SETI Factor by Frank White (1990), and We, The Alien, a textbook in Anthropology by Paul Bohannan (1992).

In 1993, a long-term, professionally-staffed version was organized as an international Bateson Project, "COTI Mundi," headed by Martyn Fogg, Wolf Read and Greg Barr. This team of scientists, writers and artists has produced "Epona," a meticulously researched and designed virtual world and its biota, illustrated with stunning visuals, which has been featured in several recent Discovery programs.

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