Professor Evan Mandery Wins Peabody Futures of Media Award for Web Series Artificial

Professor Evan Mandery Wins Peabody Futures of Media Award for Web Series Artificial

Professor Evan Mandery Wins Peabody Futures of Media Award for Web Series Artificial

It may not seem like there is an intrinsic connection between artificial intelligence and justice issues, but for Professor Evan Mandery the connection has opened up a world of creativity, interactions, and thoughts. His 19 years of teaching criminal justice at John Jay helped inform the creation of his hit web series Artificial, which recently won the Peabody Futures of Media Award. The series follows Sophie, an artificial intelligence being, on her quest to become human. Airing on Twitch, Artificial explores issues of ethics and morality, justice, and humanity. We sat down with Mandery to learn more about his award-winning show Artificial, and his passion for John Jay and the CUNY system.

Let’s start by talking about Artificial. Can you tell us a little bit about the series?

“What makes Artificial so unique, is that the audience participates in the character’s decision-making process.” —Evan Mandery

The show is about Sophie, an artificial intelligence being who is trying to become human. The backstory is that Sophie’s creator, Dr. Matt Lin, lost his child to a mass school shooting. At some level, Sophie is a replacement for his lost child, but he hasn’t acknowledged that. When I was pitching the idea to producers, I met Bernie Su, my co-creator. He’s won two Emmy awards for his adaptations of Jane Austen novels [The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and Emma Approved]. He talked about how we could make the show interactive. What makes Artificial so unique, is that the audience participates in the character’s decision-making process. It airs live on Twitch, a gaming platform that’s almost as big as YouTube. The audience interacts with the characters by completing polls and asking questions in the chatroom area. Through this, the audience gets a say in certain plot points.

Artificial is available to watch on Twitch
Artificial is available to watch on Twitch 

Who came up with the idea to put the series on Twitch and to allow the viewers to engage with the characters and alter the narrative?

It was definitely Bernie’s idea. Bernie is very in tune to how media and audience engagement has changed. And, he’s really motivated to produce innovative quality content. If you’re 15 years old, chances are you’re engaging with alternative media like Facebook Live and YouTube more than you are with network TV. With Twitch, we’re engaging with a younger audience. That’s fun for me because I’ve spent my life interacting with young people—as a professor and a father of three. And, the audience has been really positive about Artificial. We’ve had a total of over nine million views and are now in season two of the series.

You’re a professor in the Criminal Justice Department here at John Jay. How do the topics in Artificial relate to issues of justice?

The things I’ve taught in the classroom over the course of my career at John Jay have informed what’s covered in Artificial. It relates to issues of justice in that we’re all faced with ethical questions and our stance on hot button issues, like gun control, every day. How we deal with these issues shape our moral sense. The fundamental dynamic of the show is that Sophie, through her interactions with the audience, is developing her own ethical sense. In one of the early episodes, Sophie is presented with the Trolley Problem, and is asked whether she would sacrifice a child in order to save a group of five people. Moments like this allow her to explore her judgement of humanity. And, when she confronts evil, whether that changes her view of humanity and what she then does with that information. So, for example, one of Sophie’s friends is the sister of the mass shooter that killed Dr. Lin’s daughter. Sophie has to think about the judgement of the shooter, who is facing the death penalty. Should she feel mercy for him? She’s starting to develop her own point of view.

“The things I’ve taught in the classroom over the course of my career at John Jay have informed what’s covered in Artificial.” —Evan Mandery

What has been the most challenging and the most rewarding aspect of creating and executing Artificial?

The pace of it is incredibly challenging, especially for the writers. We’re basically producing a new script every week, and because it’s interactive, you have to anticipate certain things when it comes to audience response. So, we have to consider multiple scenarios when writing. For the actors, the most terrifying part is that they have to respond to the audience in the moment, without veering away from canon. Then of course, there’s always the fear of someone sneezing on set during the livestream. As for rewarding, I’ve always found writing to be intrinsically rewarding. Anytime I get to write, and people pay even the modest amount of attention to it, I’m very happy about it.

The artificial intelligence being Sophie and her creator Dr. Matt Lin
The artificial intelligence being Sophie and her creator Dr. Matt Lin

Artificial has won the Peabody Futures of Media Award for Outstanding Digital Storytelling in the Webisode category. How does that make you feel?

I’m glad the show is being recognized, we have a great team and brilliant actors. But, you know, when you’re a writer you deal with so much rejection, so for better or worse, I’ve programmed myself to not internalize the rejections or the praise and external affirmation. I think I’m a good writer. I write about the things I care about and what I believe in. What I am most proud of is that my kids saw me win the award, especially my little girl. She’s always liked the show.

“My life is better because I teach young adults who are diverse in every way imaginable and have a deep desire to make a difference in the world.” —Evan Mandery

Tell us a bit about your background and your journey to John Jay.

Before coming to John Jay, I was a lawyer, a corporate litigator, and I had worked in politics. I was the Research Director for Ruth Messinger who ran for New York City mayor against Rudy Giuliani in 1997. My parents are both CUNY graduates, they both went to Brooklyn College, so when I decided I wanted to work in the academic world, I knew I wanted to teach at a CUNY college. I’ve been teaching at John Jay for 19 years and I have loved every minute of it. My life is better because I teach young adults who are diverse in every way imaginable and have a deep desire to make a difference in the world. I consider myself so lucky to have the chance to work here.

You mentioned specifically wanting to work for CUNY, can you tell us more about that?

I see myself as an advocate for CUNY and public education. I see the value in the CUNY system and its willingness to help underrepresented communities receive an education and promote social mobility. It’s so necessary. CUNY colleges welcome all who wish to learn. Ivy League schools don’t do that—and I’m someone who graduated from Harvard University telling you this. I’ve seen miracles happen here at John Jay. I’ve witnessed students come into my classroom with little knowledge of the English language, they put in the work, and they go on to graduate and have successful careers. Where else would I have had an experience like that?

“CUNY colleges welcome all who wish to learn. Ivy League schools don’t do that—and I’m someone who graduated from Harvard University telling you this.” —Evan Mandery

Are there any teaching strategies or classes you’re excited about for this coming school year?

My job as a teacher is to help people make, think, and reason critically and cogently. This fall I’m going to teach a life course. I think the capacity to learn and be open-minded matters a great deal. I’ll lead discussions on what correlates with success, happiness, perseverance and how not to internalize failure. I’ll also teach them basic financial skills, meditation, and exercise.  

Finish this sentence for me: If it wasn’t for John Jay…

If it wasn’t for John Jay, I wouldn’t have an understanding of how many barriers there are for people who don’t come from privilege backgrounds. My appreciation of what it takes to succeed has really evolved here.