2022 - The CONTACT Chronicles:
The founder's recollections of CONTACT's first quarter century.
The Evolution of COTI: A Personal Memoir
by Jim Funaro (© 1994) Introduction: What's a COTI?
Cultures Of The Imagination is an experiment in creation -- participants design an integrated world, alien and its way of life, and simulate contact with a future human society.
COTI (1) works like this. One team, the Aliens, constructs a solar system, a world and its ecology, an intelligent native 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, the Humans, designs a future human colony, planetary or space faring, "creating and evolving" its culture as an exercise in cultural structure, dynamics and adaptation. Finally, through a structured system of progressive, real-time revelation, the teams simulate -- and experience through unrehearsed roleplaying -- contact between the two cultures, in order to explore the problems and possibilities involved in inter-cultural encounters.
Anthropology For The Future
COTI has had dual origins. One source was a course I initiated at Cabrillo College, Aptos, California, in 1979, which was designed to use both science and science fiction to teach anthropology. I had earned a baccalaureate degree in English and creative writing before my degrees in anthropology, so I was quite comfortable combining science and art. As early as 1966, several science fiction novels were among the required texts in my anthropology courses, because they were specifically well-suited to illustrate principles and methods in my field.
Why science fiction literature? Because I had found that science fiction writers and anthropologists have a lot of common interests. Put briefly: Anthropologists study alien cultures, science fiction writers create them. Besides, science fiction is the only literary genre I know of that ever makes anthropologists the heroes.
COTI is, above all, a simulation, an instructional tool which includes many aspects of role-playing games. 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. In terms of practice, one of the best ways to understand how something works is to try to build it. In the class, Anthropology for the Future, students would create cultures, both to see how they work and to explore the dynamics of intercultural contact, which is a central concern in our discipline.
The simulation technique supplements the traditional lecture format by providing a sort of "hands-on" laboratory experiment. It allows the students to experience things from the inside -- i.e., as a role-playing game which encourages them to feel as well as see the results of their decisions through the new perspectives of the "others" they are identifying with. And in addition to their educational value, simulations are fun!
The other point of origin was CONTACT. COTI was the main event of the first CONTACT, a national academic conference I founded in 1983, which each year brings together some of the nation's foremost scientists, science fiction writers and artists to exchange ideas, explore possibilities and stimulate new perspectives about humanity's future. Our goal: To encourage serious and creative interdisciplinary speculation about what lies ahead as we enter the space age.
During the summer of 1979, I took a vacation to visit a friend in Port Townsend, Washington. After waiting until I had finished enthusing about the course I had so recently proposed, my friend smiled coyly: "Do you want to meet Frank Herbert?" Did I? Dune was a novel I had planned to use in class, being one of the best examples of a credible created culture, but I had no idea that I had come to His town. Shows you how little I knew about science fiction writers. One half hour later, I was sitting in Frank's living room. His wife, Bev, started feeding us short bread, and we must have finished off the entire supply in the house that afternoon, as we got more and more excited about the connections between anthropology and science fiction. This was more than a course. Hell, this was a conference!
I taught the course twice in 1980 (writer and Herbert-collaborator Bill Ransom came down to guest lecture) and, in the Fall of that year, I started riding the circuit of "fancons" in hopes of "collecting" science fiction writers. At Octocon, in Santa Rosa, I luckily met Carol Bowman-Porter, who first became enthused about the conference idea and eventually became a Board Member. She introduced me to the first NASA scientist I had ever met, who at the time was dressed in a mint green body suit. This gave me hope for the space program, too. Richard Johnson, Chief of Biosystems Research at Ames, agreed to join us.
Next, I tricked writer Michael Bishop. While visiting my mother in Florida, I tracked him down in Pine Mountain, Georgia (he's in the phone book). I had been using his novella, "Death and Designation among the Asadi" as an exemplary creative ethnography. I don't think he really wanted to talk, but when I invited him to come along on my visit to the Lawrenceville Primate Center to look at pygmy chimpanzees (anthropologists have some privileges), he agreed. By the New Year, I had a commitment from Mike.
At the following Westercon in Sacramento, Carol introduced me to award-winning authors Larry Niven, C. J. Cherryh and John Brunner, and I proposed the idea of CONTACT. It was around a table in that hotel bar in summer, 1981, that CONTACT first looked like it could become a reality. With the moral support of Herbert and Ursula LaGuin, and commitments from a core group of such prominent writers as Niven, Cherryh and Brunner, I now had a stellar roster to attract others. I was starting at the top. It was more than I could have hoped for.
The next auspicious event occurred on Halloween (how perfect): At the 1981 World Fantasy Conference in Berkeley, which I attended to join the crowd in honoring a friend, Peter Beagle, I ran into artist Joel Hagen. People had been telling each of us for a year, "You got to meet this guy." They were right. (By the way, Joel has a BA in anthropology.) When I described my culture building and contact simulations, Joel told me about the Thraxisp world-building and alien design project, which he and Niven, Paul Preuss and William K. Hartmann (2) had produced at Equicon in Los Angeles the previous Spring. Because we were working in such parallel, indeed convergent, tracks, I asked Joel to join me in putting on the conference, he agreed, and we became the founding directors of CONTACT. We decided to feature a full "combination" simulation, from world building to contact, as a way to showcase the creative process. I called it the Bateson Project. (3)
Over the next year, I was able to add others. Hoping to entice some wonderful demons, I began to send out letters announcing a conference on "exploring the possibilities in the science fiction/anthropology connection." Jerry Pournelle joined at the annual Pinckard's Science Fiction Writers' Salon. Joel enlisted Preuss' talents. Of my colleagues, first to respond to the call and spread the word was Northern Arizona University's Reed Riner, editor of the Cultural Futures Research journal, who eventually became our first Board member. Next came Bob Tyzzer, teacher at San Diego State and author of a leading textbook in Physical Anthropology, Mischa Adams, a brand-new "doctor" and former student of mine and Bateson's, and Chico State's Charlie Urbanowicz, longtime champion of science fiction in our field. Finally, Paul Bohannan, past president of the American Anthropological Association and dean of Social Sciences at USC, wrote to ask if there were, by any chance, room for him. Yes, there was! I was starting the conference with the cream of the crop from both fields.
First CONTACT occurred in Santa Cruz, California, in April, 1983. The mayor of the city proclaimed "Contact Day." Each of the writers and anthropologists presented professional papers with titles like: "Data and the Voodoo Sciences," "Materialists and Mentalists," "Stranger Than We Can Imagine," "Biological Factors in Species Contact," and "Fictional Mirrors of Contemporary Human Societies." C. J. Cherryh gave us the first of her three case studies in alien creation: the Regul, from her Faded Sun trilogy.
The Bateson Project was made up of two teams of writers, anthropologists and artists: The aliens, Cherryh, Riner, Pamela Lee, Hagen and myself; the humans, Bohannan, Mischa Adams, Tyzzer, Bishop, Preuss and Darrel Anderson. Since a primary rule of the game was no communication between the teams, Niven (who can do it all himself, anyway) was the spy and Pournelle was the troubleshooter; they acted as consultants to both groups.
The alien's world was hurriedly mapped out on a placemat in the hotel restaurant over breakfast by astronomer/artist Hartmann. (4) With a K1 star, the planet, at 1 AU, was cooler than Earth, with more extreme seasons and massive permanent ice caps, and its surface was mostly water.
The aliens were sea creatures, a new taxon combining many characteristics we find in the cetaceans, crustaceans and mollusks of Earth. They had several distinct life stages, each one increasing in size and decreasing in mobility: The young caretakers of the Nests, the warrior-singers, who did most of the work of the colonies, and the huge, ancient and philosophical dreamers, who became almost completely sessile as they aged. We named the species the Alchemists, because their bodies were chemical factories, producing complex nucleotide messages as well as wide spectrum sound. They filled the seas of their world with song and pheromones.
The humans were refugees from a destroyed Earth. The colony had been traveling in space in search of a new home for many generations, during which time they had not only developed a unique, self-contained culture but had also evolved biologically. The techno-ecology of their star ship included many sub-environments ranging down to zero g; these conditions had selected for linear bodies, elongated limbs and digits, and prehensile tails (which our astronauts and cosmonauts might find useful).
They met in space. The Alchemist's technological development of spaceflight was long retarded by their marine environment -- especially in matters of pyro-based propulsion systems and internal "atmosphere" of a craft -- but they had strong religious motives for expansion. They finally arrived in orbit in their "water-filled tin cans" just at the time when the human ship entered their solar system A critical moment for contact, if ever there was one.
The encounter was dramatized by the two teams before the audience, utilizing a game-like scenario. A structured dialogue ensued, each team taking a turn or "move." Cherryh proved a masterful gamemaster. The climax occurred as three humans were allowed to enter the aliens' ship in their space suits and encountered a youngster, by chance, who turned down a corridor and fled directly toward the central Nest, to report the strangers. The humans followed. A bad move, in this case. They appeared suddenly and unannounced near the most vulnerable and precious spot in the colony, heavily guarded by large, agitated soldiers. The result: Aliens 3, Humans 0.
At the game level, the encounter seemed a failure, but, at the metalevel of the project as a whole, it was not. Any first contact situation involves risk, and it should be expected that some sacrifices due to wrong choices or miscommunication, however regrettable, may be required in such uncertain circumstances. It is to the credit of the human team that their reaction was not to annihilate the aliens in revenge (which they could easily have done), but to learn from the results and try again, with different tactics. Of course, this was a simulation; no one was really killed. But it constituted a positive move in the direction of one of our primary conference goals: To develop ethical approaches in cross-cultural contact, whenever and wherever it occurs.
The Bateson Project simulation had been an immediate success, indicated by the large number of guest returnees, new participants and the manifest interest of the audience. CONTACT II was memorable for the number of legends created there.
One example: This year's alien, the Squich (imagine a cross between a squid and an ostrich, if you can), was built by Hagen and previewed by the teams the night before the conference opened. Responding to some problems experienced the previous season, we had decided to see how it would work to let the planet-builders among us work backward from the alien, the culture builders work forward from it, and the life form builders work around it. After our introductory briefing, we all retired to the hotel bar for the serious discussion.
One hot topic was the Squich's nervous system. The bipedal alien had long, triple-jointed hind legs, which, when extended, scissored out to more than twice the length of the body pod. Pournelle argued that locating the brain in the body would place it too far away to allow effectively fast nervous transmission to the hooves, which were critical not only for locomotion but also for communication (they drummed their feet and danced messages). One of my students, no youngster, a gentle man who had been a computer programmer since the days of Univac, disagreed. After the decibel level of the voices rose to three figures, he brought his foot down on Pournelle's instep. As Jerry leaped up, the student said reasonably, "See. It doesn't take that long." Pournelle, never at a loss, grabbed a chair, held it out in front of him like a lion trainer, turned to me and yelled, "Funaro, call off your dog!"
We also had a remarkable demonstration of the value of role playing, though in this case it was rehearsed. Like last year, our master storyteller, Ruthmarie Argüello-Sheehan, had created a myth of the contact, to follow the final session and memorialize the story. The relationship that had developed between human and alien, though asymmetrical, was close and loyal, almost symbiotic. Her tale, with dancers, was exceptionally touching, depicting the parting of the two species after many years of companionship, and we were all quite moved. As an index of how powerfully affected they had been by the three-day experience, the audience, at the end of the performance, spontaneously stamped rather than clapped their applause.
By CONTACT's third year, we had had a chance to evaluate some of the problems which had emerged in the previous sessions. One was that there was just not enough time in three days to create two complete worlds from scratch; God took seven for only one. Another was that everyone wanted to play. In the original project, only about half of the twenty or so guests participated; by now, our guest list had grown and all of them (plus most of the audience) wanted to be part of the project, making group dynamics increasingly unmanageable. So we initiated some changes, which ultimately had far-reaching influence on the future development of COTI.
1. We prepared a pre-conference package. Poul Anderson gave us a planet, Ophelia, with its primary and solar system. By the way, over the years we have been presented with several worlds by science fiction writers. For example, one day, out of the blue (or out of the black?), Larry Niven called me up and said, "I owe you a planet." We soon learned to accept such divine gifts graciously and eventually even with some aplomb.
We then sent the planetary specifications to C. J. Cherryh, who suggested the Mossback and provided us with its basic design. Next, Larry Niven elaborated on this alien, contributed other species for the ecology and explained the conditions that the human team would face on this world. Finally, Joel Hagen produced some sketches of the critters. This "homework" was then distributed to all the guests several weeks before the conference.
2. We dedicated the first two days to the aliens. We assigned the guests to specialized teams according to their interests and expertise, so all would take part successively in the development of the world, the alien and its culture. Then, in the final session on the third day, we reconstituted the entire group into the human expedition, to discuss how we might contact the Mossbacks.
3. We instituted a system of sequential workshops in world building, bioform design and culture construction, directed by the professionals, so that the audience could work throughout the conference on a parallel but separate experiment in creating their own cultures of the imagination, while still following the progress of the professional team.
Each of these innovations turned out to have significant effects on the evolution of the Bateson Project into COTI. The packages gave us a growing stable of worlds and aliens that could be used as models or resources for a wide range of educational contexts, where students would have limited experience in celestial mechanics, geology and evolutionary biology or where time constraints restricted the duration of the project. The actual contact simulation (as will be seen below) demonstrated that the key to the usefulness of the simulation was spontaneous role-playing, which allowed participants to experience the system from the inside. And the workshops provided the model for an instructor's guide to producing our simulations, which would become the basis for the development of an educational curriculum, Cultures of the Imagination.
Ophelia is not a happy planet for humans. Its F5 sun is larger and brighter than Sol, but, at 3.28 AU away, Ophelia receives only half the irradiation the Earth does from its sun. So, it's cold. That and heavy gravity (1.3), dense atmosphere (9.2 bars at sea level), thick fog and cloud cover, high winds and cyclonic storms, and powerful tectonics all mean that we could only find tolerable conditions for ourselves on a 12 mile high mountain. Luckily, there were quite of few. On one of them, the humans landed and set up their Base One to observe.
The Mossbacks, like most other complex life forms that can survive on this planet, are big and tough. Picture a warm blooded, hermaphroditic, tool-using horny toad as big as a grizzly bear, with colorful algal symbiotes imbedded in the thick tissue of its naked skin. It sports a beak that would look just right on a 500-pound eagle and eats about anything it can catch. And it's smart. That's a Mossback.
They live below the clouds, in mud villages. (C. J. Cherryh built a charming little model of one, which is a prized possession of mine.) Remote observation by probe had unobtrusively revealed many details of their socio-cultural behavior. For example, upon greeting, they expose their backs to one another. This seemed to simultaneously indicate their non-aggressive intentions and display their individual and family identities, via the patterns of algae they "cultivate" through mutual grooming into intricate and distinctive dorsal "gardens," like living, growing tattoos.
What seemed to be one of their most significant cultural events the humans had dubbed "the death quest." The eternal cloud layer above made the "sky" appear to the Mossbacks as a sort of mirror which covered their world. As each Mossback felt the end of its life approaching, it began a one-way migration up a high mountain, whose peak was never visible because it disappeared into the "other world." These were the only occasions that they were ever observed to climb the mountains, and they never returned to their homes afterwards. It was assumed that this behavior constituted what we would call a final religious experience, a sort of solitary "last rites." As a matter of fact, Mossback bones littered the mountain tops, including the one upon which we had landed, a native "burial grounds."
When the final session was convened at noon on Sunday, all the folks who had been working for two days on the Mossbacks were suddenly transmogrified into the human expedition sent to study those same aliens. Packed at one long table on a raised platform stretching across the front of the meeting room was the entire stellar cast of almost twenty scientists, writers and artists, all very bright and mostly very opinionated. (5) As you might imagine, there emerged interminable discussion about what to do and how to do it, with arguments usually polarizing between the "scientists," operating via consensus and usually and informally represented by Greg Bear, C. J. Cherryh, Mary Mason and Barbara Joans, and the "military," commanded by Jerry Pournelle. How many people should go? What should be the composition of the initial team? Should we initiate contact? If so, where? On and on. After forty-five minutes, all we had agreed upon was that our ship/base had landed on a mountain peak and our perimeter was guarded by an electric fence, with enough power to knock out a rhino. Within the barrier, our debate continued in safety.
At this point, exasperated by the lack of action, Paula Butler, geologist and present Board member of CONTACT, leaped up out of her chair, roared, and then announced, "I'm a Mossback! I've just encountered your electrified perimeter on my death quest and have been rendered unconscious. Now what are you gonna do?" Bless her heart. Role-playing had just been spontaneously introduced into the simulation, out of frustration.
In all previous simulations until this moment, I had always felt a bit useless in the discussions, daunted by the prodigious intellects which surrounded me. But suddenly, an actual situation had arisen in which I could play the practical role I had been trained for, without any rehearsal. As an anthropologist confronting a "real" intercultural encounter, I found I could define interaction contexts, apply field techniques learned in primatology and cultural anthropology and develop an emergency protocol on the spot.
I approached the stunned alien, stopping short of what I calculated (on the basis of probe information) to be outside its "flight distance." When it awoke, I did not want to be discovered suddenly within threatening proximity. (Remember, the Mossbacks are big and beaked, and had never met an alien before!) To be on the safe side, I asked Jerry to keep his troops on alert, but to stand clear and not interfere unless the situation got obviously out of control. I crouched into a posture which reduced the size of my body outline, another common way of showing non-aggressive intentions among earth animals, and waited.
When the Mossback regained consciousness and saw me, I utilized its known greeting behavior, slowly turning my back and displaying a particolored sweater I had just borrowed from a fellow crew member. Such an act might seem rude in some human cultures, though primates commonly use it in submission or to elicit friendly grooming. But here, I'm using familiar and non-aggressive actions learned from the Mossbacks themselves. Luckily, the alien responded appropriately, and "read" my back. Still mimicking its own cultural behavior, I reciprocated. No doubt, neither of us understood the patterns, but we were polite; I found myself relieved that the sweater lent to me did not seem to have, by ill chance, shown to my quarter-ton companion the markings of a sexual rival or an enemy clan.
In general, I did not initiate action, especially close up, but confined myself to reacting, so as to remain as much as possible within the Mossback's world of expectations. That is, by observing its behavior, I tried to let it tell me what to do.
One amusing incident. Primates are touchy-feely critters, but I purposely harnessed my heritage here, not because Mossbacks are not (they are), but because we had learned that physical contact between them using their primary manipulators, which are also their tongues, initiates mating behavior. At one point, the Mossback did touch me, whereupon I asked rhetorically, "Does that mean I have to mate with this thing?" Pournelle immediately quipped, "You're already pregnant."
Another fairly universal activity seen in human greeting or friendly "allying" contexts is mutual gift-giving, though results can be uncertain unless the local value of the offered items is known. I tried it, anyway, placing an object on the ground between us and stepping back. It was accepted, and the Mossback offered its own gift in return (a bone whistle to be used in its death ceremony, I believe).
The scenario itself may have given me an unexpected but credible advantage in first contact: Such ready accepance of my behavior may have been due to the fact that, since Mossbacks only make one death quest journey and never return to tell about it, our alien was more mystified by the encounter than we humans were. Maybe this was what always happened beyond the sky!
A new technique seemed to emerge naturally out of the created situation: I simulated an interaction, modeling appropriate human behavior for the alien. Taking advantage of the Mossback's "following" response, I led it to another human, Mischa Adams, a medical specialist who wanted to examine the alien for injuries. I shook hands with her, demonstrating our greeting behavior, then carefully attempted to shake "paws" with the Mossback. It allowed this. Then I instigated its hand-shake with Mischa, and contact was achieved.
Of course, this simulation is artificial and limited. The Mossback was human and the situation occurred on earth. But, like the real intercultural contacts that anthropologists have been participating in for more than a century here on our home planet, the interaction was unrehearsed, proceeded carefully from known behavioral and ethnographic methodologies towards consistent and ethical choices of action, and provided at least a possible model for developing a protocol for an extraterrestrial encounter. And the value of spontaneous role-playing in enhancing the effectiveness of the simulation was convincingly (however unexpectedly) demonstrated. It has been an essential part of COTI forever after.
In May, 1987, we instituted certain modifications in order to increase manageability of the programming modules and to bring formal organization into more precise conformity with actual practice. "The Bateson Project" was broadened in subject but limited in participation, becoming a professional seminar wherein invited scientists, writers and artists address selected topics of academic and public interest relating to humanity's future. (6)
The original simulation, as refined by practice, was re-christened "Cultures of the Imagination," and was opened to the CONTACT audience and eventually to the general public, becoming an educational curriculum for conference and classroom and even a design project for an offworld human colony illustrating some anthropological applications to space research. (7) We have learned a lot more in the intervening years and have introduced innovations as they emerged from our growing experience. But it was unquestionably this CONTACT III/85 Bateson Project that has remained the guiding model for the "new" COTI.
(1) I have tried resisting the acronym because of the associations for me with the plastic bug-eyed monsters of a game of my youth, but COTI seems irresistible, nonetheless, to the rest of the public.
(2) Others in the Thraxisp project were Art Costa, Don Dixon, Pat Ortega and Rick Sternbach, later a participant in CONTACT. The Thraxisp progress report, written by Hartmann and illustrated by Hagen, was featured in Smithsonian magazine (3/82).
(3) Even during my earliest stages of planning for the first CONTACT, it seemed clear to me that the guest of honor could be no one else but University of California Regent, teacher and anthropologist Gregory Bateson. Though he died before the conference, his tradition of exploring possibilities and stimulating ideas is still our guiding light. He was my friend and one of the only genuine geniuses I have ever met.
(4) Hartmann's work, along with that of others of the International Association of Astronomical Artists, was on display in the lobby. It shared the spotlight with some moon rocks, courtesy of NASA/Ames' Chief of of Biosystems Research, Richard Johnson, another participant.
(5) As nearly as I can reconstruct it from memory and records, that group consisted of: Mischa Adams, Poul Anderson, Greg Bear, Paula Butler, C. J. Cherryh, Ctein, myself, Joel Hagen, Barbara Joans, Mary Mason, Larry Niven, Jonathan Post, Jerry Pournelle, Reed Riner, Devayani Smith and Bob Tyzzer.
(6) The model for the Bateson Project became the Society for Applied Anthropology seminar I organized in Reno, Nevada on 3/26-30,1986, "The Bateson Project: Designing A Human Habitat In Space," with physicist Eric Jones, psychologist Al Harrison, NASA's Richard Johnson, artist Joel Hagen, and anthropologists Ben Finney, Mort Klass, Barbara Joans and myself.
(7) COTI can be tailored to any educational level. It has, since 1980, been utilized in the college classroom by the author as an instructional tool to emphasize the integration of the physical, natural, and social sciences. Coti Jr., a middle school curriculum developed by Greg Barr, Barbara Sprungman, and Darlene Thomas in 1990, was funded by NASA and Smithsonian and piloted in the Washington, DC, area. A secondary school two-year curriculum, Coti Hi, was begun in 1998 by the principal and teachers at Oroville High School in California, in collaboration with CONTACT and NASA/Ames. COTI has also been demonstrated at the elementary school level. The 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.
(8) Since 1989, COTI has been coordinated successively by Barbara Joans, Dirk van der Elst and Israel Zuckerman. Recently, a long-term, professionally-staffed version has been organized as an international Bateson Project under the name " COTI Mundi," headed by Martyn Fogg, Wolf Read and Greg Barr.