“Flash Forward” Makes Improbable Futures a Reality

Illustration by Matt Lubchansky

This article was published in Travel Issue #79 | Summer 2018

A condensed version of this interview appears in our 2018 Summer issue, Travel.

On Flash Forward, host Rose Eveleth takes listeners on a journey through possible—and not-so-possible—futures. Each episode probes topics such as the reproductive rights implications of uterine replicators, what would really happen if all the bees died, and space pirates, followed by deep analysis of what might occur if those futures come to pass. We caught up with Eveleth about Flash Forward as it enters its fourth season.

Flash Forward has an unusual format! How did it come to be?

In 2015, Serial happened, and everyone was like “we need a podcast.” Annalee Newitz was running io9 and Gizmodo at the time and she came to me [and said]: “We need a podcast, would you be interested?” I pitched her a couple of ideas, and we both agreed that this one, a mixture of science fiction and journalism, was the one. It was a nice meld of those two places. Talking about the future from all sorts of angles and then incorporating a science fiction element. I started doing it for Gizmodo, and then it turned into its own thing.

What’s it been like transitioning away from Gizmodo to Patreon?

When I first joined, I was really stressed out about it. I’d done Kickstarters before, and it’s really fun and exciting, and then you have to provide the rewards. It can be hard doing all the things you promised. You have to balance what you’re getting and what you’re spending. When I first joined Patreon, I was worried. How do I make sure that I’m offering things people want that won’t take as much time as the episode to make?

I’m an over-researcher, so I did a lot of thinking and researching before I [moved to Patreon]. I [created] a spreadsheet with all the podcasts I could find. How much were they making per episode or per month? I also made this spreadsheet to try and figure out what rewards people would want. Finally, I just sort of asked. Ask your patrons what they want! (Laughs.) A lot of people said: “We don’t really care that much.” A lot of people just want to support things they like.

Also, Patreon is a for-profit company, so their interests may not align with mine. I’m trying not to put all my eggs in one basket on that one. You may remember the big flareup about fees recently. When you’re podcasting, there aren’t easy direct channels for people to respond, whereas if you write an article, tweet, or Facebook, there’s an immediate response button. When you’re listing to a podcast, you’re listening on a platform that isn’t immediately connected. You have to do a little more work to respond. One of the things I want to do is make the patrons feel like they have a community of fellow listeners. I haven’t quite tackled it yet because community management stresses me out a little. It takes time to build a good, healthy, and safe community for everyone.

Flash Forward provides transcripts, which is still pretty unusual in the podcasting world. What brought about that decision? 

It’s something that I didn’t think about much for the first season. I do a lot of reporting on disability and tech outside of Flash Forward, and it came up in a conversation. Someone told me: “I love podcasts,” and [explained how that works for Deaf podcast fans]. You can read transcripts, or sometimes it helps to have a transcript to listen along with. There are a variety of ways that people engage with podcasts that aren’t just in an app. It hadn’t occurred to me that some people just prefer to read things! The more people engage with the show in whatever format they find it in, the better.

I don’t see an argument against transcripts, other than that they’re a lot of work. It probably takes about twice the amount of time as the episode length. It can feel a little bit daunting. But it’s an easy enough commitment to make your show accessible. I see it as an audience-development tool. It opens your show up to so many people. Beyond accessibility, it’s just good internet-business practice. I do believe that all podcasts should offer transcripts if they can. It does take time, but a lot of things take time. Tweeting your show also takes time. If the whole point of your business model is to be as big as you can be, you need to actively engage.

Flash Forward is also remarkably diverse, in both content and who you select as experts. Can you talk a little more about that?

I try to put disability, racial, and gender issues into as many episodes as I can. I think there’s space for a disability-focused episode, and I have one planned for next season, but I don’t necessarily want to have The Race Episode or The Disability Episode. There’s a lot of room to include experts. For example, a lot of people kept asking me to do an episode about immortality, but I just wasn’t interested. Then, I thought: “Now this is a challenge. How do I make something I want to listen to about living forever?” The angle I wound up with was: What does that look like for people in the justice system? How does this intersect with biases? It’s much more explicitly political. There’s a set of people, and a group of listeners, who don’t like that. They want a fun science and tech show. They don’t want to confront their biases.

One of the show’s goals is getting listeners to think about these things before they actually have to think about them in their real lives. If you have to think through it in the fictional world of Flash Forward, you might be better prepared. The future is inherently political. All of these things intersect with politics and culture. Every time I do something that touches on these things, or explicitly goes there, I get notes from people about how I should stay out of politics and stick to science. Any time, particularly when you start doing a science show, it’s political, though I don’t define Flash Forward as a science show. It’s a show about the future.

I think the future should be voiced by people who often don’t get to voice it. The goal of the show is to find those people and have them talk about the future that they imagine.

Illustration by Matt Lubchanksy

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I have a particular interest in the relationship between disability and futurism. On a recent episode, for example, a man with cerebral palsy talked about using assisted and augmentative communication (AAC) in the context of a conversation about telepathy. How do you integrate disability into the series?

I try to include disabled voices in every episoden. So often, the future erases disabled people, or uses them as a caricature of all of the things we’re going to solve. “Solving” disability is the way in which so many futures are framed. In so much science fiction, especially popular science fiction, you don’t see disabled people. They just don’t exist.

In Flash Forward, I try to pull back from some of those tropes. It’s more interesting to talk about a future that includes lots of people. Who are the “edge cases?” Who are the people who aren’t included in the conversation about technology? Disabled folks are at the forefront of technology and hacking all of their stuff to work, and it’s incredible what they’re up to, and they just get ignored. If you looking at the future, but not looking at disabled people, you’re just doing it wrong.

One thing that always strikes me about Flash Forward is the fine balance between fun, whimsiness, and seriousness. How does the tone of the show reflect your vision as a creator and your vision of the future?

There are two poles to reporting about the future. There’s Black Mirror or we’re all going to become soulless husks of people. It’s going to be horrible, like the darkest of dark Twilight Zone episodes. And then there’s: “Oh, technology is going to solve everything and cure disabled people and we’ll live forever and it will be great.” There’s so much bad reporting about the future, so much that takes tech companies at face value, but also so much of this is going to be the end doom and gloom. We’re all just going to become these horrible people because we’re enabled by technology.

Some of both of those things are true. But I don’t see a lot of nuanced reporting that rides the middle ground. I think of myself as an optimist, but I’m also highly skeptical. On both sides, the thing that so many of the future things miss out on is that humans are totally ingenious, extremely weird creatures. There’s a lot of stuff that could be used for horrible things, but when you go down that road, you miss out on all the amazing stuff people are doing. I think is the middle where we live.

Flash Forward talks about revenge porn, racism, the access gap, and a lot of other serious topics. At the same time, it’s not my nature to go full-on dark side every episode. There’s gotta be room for some joy, and weirdness, even when we’re acknowledging things are fucked up. If the show was only about how terrible everything was, or how technology will save us, I don’t think I would really enjoy it.

Cake or pie?

Pie. I like fruit with a good crumble on top, like an apple crumble.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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by s.e. smith
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s.e. smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California.