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Thinking about transit through science fiction

Sci-fi authors Linda Nagata, Annalee Newitz, Tochi Onyebuchi speak at ASU event.
April 21, 2022

Future Tense sponsors Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg in livestream event for a conversation on infrastructure and imagination

This is what the current U.S. secretary of transportation thinks transit future might look like in 50 years: Flying cars. Drone delivery of packages. Net dividends on energy. Widespread acceptance of electric vehicles. And infrastructure that is more socially equitable.

“We have to make decisions that are a bit of a bet on the future, and at the same time, we don’t want to bet the farm on the future turning out one way or the other,” Pete Buttigieg said during an Arizona State University livestream event on Wednesday. “So what I spend a lot of time thinking about is how can we deploy our capital in an agile or nimble way so that some of these decisions will make sense, even if we don’t quite know how commuting patterns are going to work in seven years, let alone 50.”

Buttigieg joined ASU’s Future Tense for a conversation about infrastructure and imagination, which was followed by a discussion with three acclaimed science fiction authors — Linda Nagata, Annalee Newitz and Tochi Onyebuchi — about how they see their work inspiring visions of the future. Future Tense is a partnership of ASU, New America and Slate that examines emerging technologies, public policy and society. The goal of Wednesday’s discussion was to ask Buttigieg what role imagination plays in managing a federal department as sprawling and as impactful as the Department of Transportation, which he has headed since Feb. 3, 2021.

New America President Paul Butler moderated the wide-ranging 25-minute conversation with Buttigieg, who touched on transportation policies, priorities and how future mobility might look in a half-century. Buttigieg said he grew up watching “Star Trek” and noted that transportation, technology and imagination appear to be inextricably linked.

“It’s striking how much of our imagination about the future is centered on transportation, at least in terms of the imagery of it, right?” Buttigieg said. “You look at how the establishing shot of a sci-fi show or film, for example, tells you you’re in the future. There’s levitating cars or starships or something like that. … That’s what tells us we’re in the future.”

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Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and New America Director Paul Butler discuss what role imagination plays in managing a federal department in an April 20 livestream event hosted by Arizona State University's Future Tense. Their conversation was followed by a discussion with three acclaimed science fiction authors — Linda Nagata, Annalee Newitz and Tochi Onyebuchi — about infrastructure and imagination.

Buttigieg said the most profound technologies that currently affect our lives are not necessarily vehicles or cars, but what what’s onboard these modes of transportation.

“One thing to consider is that in the last decade, I would argue the most important piece of transportation technology was not a vehicle — it was the smartphone,” he said. “The thing that changed transportation for most of us most tangibly was probably the rise of rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft. They were using the same kind of cars that taxis used and that we used to get ourselves around, but the way in which we would summon them changed. And through that, a different labor model emerged, a different means of getting around emerged, with good things and bad things that came out of it. … I think increasingly, you’re seeing automotive companies turning into software companies.”

Buttigieg concluded that America’s current infrastructure is about 150 years old and that President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure bill to address those needs will be key to America’s future transit system. And so will smart decision-making.

“We know that we’re going to need resources and hubs where people can come together to access modes of transportation – things like train stations, town squares or transit hubs, airports and ports,” Buttigieg said. “So what we’ve got to do is invest in the things we know we’re going to need no matter what, and then create room for other things to happen that might be very difficult to picture. And the best way to do that is to not think about the asset first, but to think about the people that it’ll affect first.”

Buttigieg’s comments paved the way for a follow-up discussion with three Future Tense Fiction authors, led by Ed Finn, founding director of the Center for Science and the Imagination.

“Fiction has always been dear to my heart because I think it speaks to the heart of what we can do,” Finn said. “The future can inspire real change in the present and can invite people to imagine in detail these different possibilities.”

Transportation is a useful mechanism to transport — so to speak — readers to the future, all three authors agreed.

“It is interesting that we center vehicles so much in our fiction,” said Annalee Newitz, who writes about science, culture and the future. “I’m thinking about my novels, and all of them do start with transit. … But I find that a good way to take readers through the world.”

Newitz, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, said that when they started working on their 2021 book, “Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age,” an architect told them whenever Newitz visited a new city, take transit to the end of the line. They did that when visiting Istanbul, Turkey.

“I had an insane adventure on the train, which I found very valuable,” Newitz said. “It showed me all sorts of social relations. It showed me different neighborhoods. It showed me how well mass transit was maintained, which at that time was not super well.”

Writing about future transit is also nuanced and sometimes tricky, noted Onyebuchi.

“Sometimes the downside is that science fiction can be looked upon as some sort of predictive tool, right? ‘Oh, this is what it’s going to be like in the future,’” said Onyebuchi, a Nigerian American science fiction, fantasy writer and former civil rights lawyer. “Or there will be an evil company in a science fiction novel, and the lesson will be, ‘OK, don’t name your company after this evil company. Don’t be evil.'"

Science fiction should also be hopeful and optimistic whenever possible, Nagata belives.

“I’m at an age now where I’m really over the dystopia,” said Nagata, a Hawaiian-based author of speculative fiction, science fiction and fantasy novels, novellas and short stories. “I would like to still try to imagine that we do have a shot at a decent future.” 

Top photo illustration courtesy iStock/Getty Images

New study improves understanding of malaria-prevention effectiveness

April 21, 2022

World Malaria Day is April 25. According to the World Health Organization, nearly half of the world’s population was at risk of malaria in 2020 — with an estimated 241 million cases and 627,000 deaths worldwide. 

While this life-threatening disease is preventable and treatable, and effective measures continue to make a significant impact, emerging resistance to insecticides among mosquitos threatens progress in global malaria control, and increasing our understanding of factors affecting treatment efficacy is essential.   Malaria mosquito resting on a wall. Malaria is spread to people through the bites of infected female Anopheles mosquitoes. Photo courtesy of Krijn Paaijmans

In a new study published this week in PLOS Global Public Health, corresponding author Krijn Paaijmans and his colleagues reveal an all-too-often overlooked factor impacting indoor residual spraying — the likelihood that treated walls are modified by household residents after treatment. 

Paaijmans is an assistant professor in the Center for Evolution and Medicine in Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences, as well as an associate faculty in the Biodesign Center for Immunotherapy, Vaccines and Virotherapy. He joined researchers from around the world to conduct a mechanistic study of malaria vector-control interventions in households in Mozambique. 

The study shows that day-to-day household practices and additional construction after in-home insecticide treatments can reduce their effectiveness over time. This new understanding could help regions adjust their vector-control strategies to improve their success rates in the essential, ongoing fight against malaria transmission. 

Strategy and challenges 

Malaria is a life-threatening disease caused by Plasmodium parasites, which are spread to people through the bites of infected female Anopheles mosquitoes. 

An acute febrile illness, the first symptoms of fever, headache and chills usually appear between 10 and 15 days after infection. While they can seem mild at first, untreated infections by the deadliest of the parasites can escalate to severe illness and death within just 24 hours. 

Six countries account for more than half of all malaria cases worldwide: Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Ivory Coast, Niger and Mozambique. 

To effectively battle, control and eliminate malaria transmission, countries such as Mozambique use strategies called vector control. This approach primarily involves the wide-scale implementation of two key complementary interventions — indoor residual spraying of pesticides (IRS) and long-lasting insecticide-treated nets (LLINs).

These methods, especially when combined with improved health care and increased tracking techniques, are highly effective, and although significant reductions have been observed over the past two decades, progress has stalled in recent years.

Experts consider very carefully where, when and how to deploy IRS treatments, to help mitigate the increasing challenge of insecticide resistance and best serve the ongoing goal of decreasing malaria transmission. 

However, of the many factors related to indoor residual spraying, one aspect that has not been thoroughly examined is arguably the hardest to predict — simple human behavior. 

People living in households frequently take actions that modify the interiors and walls of their homes — washing, painting, re-plastering, adding wall hangings and decorations, and even expanding their households by building entirely new rooms. 

"We often overlook an important factor: the acceptability of vector-control interventions by individuals, families or communities,” said Paaijmans. “We currently do not know how common wall modifications are after the implementation of IRS, but if we do not study this behavior in more detail, we will never be able to estimate the true protection that is provided by IRS."

To help gain a better understanding of the impact of these inevitable day-to-day activities and changes, Paaijmans joined researchers from around the world to carefully monitor households in two different Mozambique districts after an IRS treatment was deployed. 

Assessment and understanding 

Some 590 households in eight sub-villages in Matutuine and Boane districts in Maputo Province, in southern Mozambique, were surveyed for six months after IRS treatment to measure how human activities could change the assumed protection efficacy of IRS across a community over time. 

Homeowners and household members answered questions about activities and projects conducted in the homes, modifications to walls and rooms, newly constructed rooms, the use of long-lasting insecticide-treated nets, and their opinions about vector-control tools. 

Researchers found that most of the households, about 94%, reported activities that modified their walls. In the modified rooms, at least 25% of the wall surfaces were affected. 

Additionally, a total of 99 new rooms were built — 84 in Matutuine and 15 in Boane. New rooms introduce untreated surface areas, posing a clear threat to prevention techniques. 

Researchers used the data they collected along with known frameworks and parameters to estimate mosquito activity and intervention strategies to quantify how all of these factors came together in an updated assessment of the protection success rates of IRS treatments. 

Based on their findings, Paaijmans and his colleagues estimate that the coverage efficiency of the IRS treatments in Matutuine was significantly reduced — from 97% to only 39%. The Boane district saw a less drastic reduction, from 96% to 91%. 

Respectively, these results translate to a 43% and 5.8% increase in daily mosquito bites per person. 

The results of this study certainly reflect the wide differences that can be present between communities and countries — each with its own distinctive factors and needs — and as such, these numbers cannot be globally generalized. However, the study results also clearly show the benefit to be gained from considering a wider window surrounding IRS applications. 

Current practice when implementing IRS includes monitoring household modifications and activity directly before and after treatments are applied. By applying the new data collected in this study to widen time windows and continue to study human factors in high-risk areas, we can help improve the efficacy of IRS interventions and our ongoing assessment of the results.

Dominique Perkins

Manager of marketing and communications, School of Life Sciences