Monday, December 08, 2014

The technology of public imagination


A remarkable short called Wanderers has been going around online in the past week. It's a captivating vision of space exploration, channelling Carl Sagan's cosmic outlook (literally; it's his voiceover) with an aiglatson we seem to find it hard to muster these days.

This you-are-there take on spacefaring – in timely resonance with Christopher Nolan's recently released Interstellar – has rightly earned admirers in various quarters. But what's most exciting to me here is the fact that the piece seems to have been produced by a handful of individuals (one or two dozen at most, to judge from the credits), led by a very talented and determined CG artist, Erik Wernquist.  My point doesn't rest on precisely how many people were involved; it is simply to contrast the resource commitment required for this sort of thing now with what could be done less than a generation ago, say, when Terminator 2 came out (prompting my eleven year-old self to write a letter of appreciation to Industrial Light and Magic). Loosely speaking, the difference is one of orders of magnitude.

Wanderers is a fabulous calling card. It's also part of a significant trend. Let's think for a moment about what it means, this new situation where such things are possible –– photorealistic, far-flung futures, on a shoestring.

Short videos are constantly appearing online (e.g. last year YouTube reported 100 hours of video uploads every minute). These go variously viral, or not, and some proportion of these deal with possible futures, and of those, a few are sufficiently artful to be somehow genuinely curiosity-fuelling, or mind expanding, or alarming, or whatever. Like all successful media, they add their bit to the reservoir of what we can know or imagine together, to "the future as a commons" in Shiv Visvanathan's wonderful phrase. Also, and crucially, such vivid, 1:1-scale contributions to the shared imaginary no longer need to involve hundreds of crew and millions of dollars.

I have in mind for instance Neill Blomkamp's Tetra Vaal clip (02004) about robot peacekeepers, produced years before he was Hollywood-empowered to make District 9: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VTnxP7e7-YA I'm also thinking of Bruce Branit's almost entirely CG World Builder (02007): http://vimeo.com/3365942 And this sardonic glimpse of augmented reality gone mad, by Keiichi Matsuda (02010), which has launched a thousand conversations: http://vimeo.com/8569187 Or, in a more modest, geek-culture-tribute way, Mike Horn's (02008) video that puts the Death Star over San Francisco: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AfqDVP_0O0c (I'm sure there are dozens –– please feel free to add to the list.)

As I say, these specific images and artifacts are often striking and masterfully made.

Meanwhile, however, there's another story here; a layer up, in the spread of the means and modes of production. The tools are giving stunning new power to diegetic (in-world) storytelling idioms –– artifacts from the future, design fictions, and other experiential futures –– that help us visit these places. Wernquist's imagery is based on actual locations in our solar system. For many viewers, this is the first time we'll have been invited to regard and contemplate these locations as real places one might conceivably visit. This is a remarkable (because until recently, impossible) gift for a group of Swedish geeks to be able to give the online world.

Powerful technologies of public imagination are hitting the street. They are fast infiltrating society's main stream. And as they go, we find ourselves living out a dictum something like McLuhan meeting Polak: "We shape our images of the future, and meanwhile, they shape us."

Related:
> Death of a President
> The Futures of Everyday Life
> Neill Blomkamp, visual futurist
> Death Star Over San Francisco
> In praise of Children of Men
> A History of Experiential Futures

Saturday, April 26, 2014

A history of experiential futures

What could become of all this intriguing experimentation around turning ideas about the future into visceral experiences?

Fortunately, a research paper unearthed from the year 02034 offers some answers.
 

Apparently co-authored some twenty years from today with fellow Toronto-based design futurist Trevor Haldenby, the article provides a timeline documenting the rapid rise and remarkable reach of increasingly large-scale efforts over a generation or so (02006-02031) to bring futures to life through immersive scenarios and participatory simulation. What emerges is a portrait of a society that, via experiential futures and transmedia storytelling practices, has integrated and harnessed public imagination as a world-shaping cultural force.

In a way this so-called "age of imagination" echoes in more concrete terms an argument I mounted in the last chapter of The Futures of Everyday Life (pp. 287 ff.) about the development of what Richard Slaughter dubbed "social foresight", a distributed and always-on capacity for thinking and (let's be sure not to omit) feeling ahead.

Due to some sort of wrinkle in the spacetime continuum, it seems this paper from 02034 by Trevor and me was actually prepared and accepted for the ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, which – lo and behold – starts in Toronto today. While neither of us could make it to the event in person, the program has some very alluring bits; particularly the workshop Alternate Endings: Using Fiction to Explore Design Futures. Here's a full list of accepted papers.

And here is the abstract (aka summary) for our paper, the full text of which is embedded above:

Imagination is a critical public resource. However, in Western culture, as late as the turn of the 21st century, it was primarily thought of as a fragmented and personal property of individual consciousness. This paper examines the recent flourishing of transdisciplinary practices for cultivating shared public imagination, focusing on the generation-long period circa 2005-2030, now known as the Age of Imagination. The historic emergence during this time of design fiction, together with other experiential futures practices consciously scaffolding collective imagination, proved to be a turning point for collective human capacity – not only, as many initially recognised, for practical design applications on a modest scale, but also for shaping history itself. Acknowledging a cultural debt to long-standing and diverse strands of imaginative activity including storytelling, theatre, simulation, prototyping, and the 20th century tradition of futures studies (aka strategic foresight), two practitioners who helped bring this new tradition into being pause to look back upon a quarter century of astonishing change. In the process, they acknowledge the growing significance of seventh generation ritual computing technologies to the Age of Imagination.

Related:
> The futures of everyday life
> A future of design
> Build your own time machine

Monday, April 14, 2014

A film from the future



One of the more interesting and humbling aspects of getting older is seeing things you have imagined come to pass, or not. No doubt this is true for everyone, but such moments perhaps carry an extra charge when you imagine possibilities for a living.

Sometimes it's a matter of provocative notions materialising sooner than expected. In 02006 Jake Dunagan and I featured corporate candidates running for public office as part of our continued growth scenario for 'Hawaii 2050'. We were taken aback when a public relations company called Murray Hill Inc announced its plans in early 02010 to run for Congress in Maryland. Apparently they were making a satirical point in the wake of a recent Supreme Court majority decision which seemed to pave the way for corporate voting in elections. Our scenario had played in the same satirical territory 3 1/2 years before – only set 44 years into the future. Too far, perhaps?

An even more striking example of the future arriving early came with a project called Coral Cross, a 'serious game' about a flu pandemic, which I was directing for the Hawaii Department of Health. (The CDC was funding it as an early experiment in using games to engage the public for serious health promoting purposes.) Just weeks before the game's scheduled launch date, the game's hypothetical near-future scenario was pre-empted by an actual pandemic – H1N1 swine flu. To this day it's still a little bit hard to believe that actually happened. The project went ahead, incidentally: we turned on a dime and redesigned it from the ground up to make what we dubbed an Emergent Reality Game as opposed to an Alternate Reality Game.

Sometimes, the opposite occurs. A thing you expected doesn't happen, or happens otherwise than anticipated. We could perhaps file the following story under that heading.

Back in April 02007 when I was in grad school, a number of us in the Dept of Political Science at UH-Manoa made a short film for a 48-hour film comp in Honolulu called 'Showdown in Chinatown'. The way these things work is that certain creative constraints are provided at the start of the period, which both helps to inspire projects and to verify that submissions are authentically tailor-made for the occasion. You then run around like headless chooks for two days trying to make a short film using those parameters.

Readers will be unsurprised to learn that I was interested in making a film from the future. (On which theme more in another post soon, but meanwhile anyone keen to understand where I'm coming from may begin here.)

The given constraints called for referencing the topic 'addiction', using the line 'that's it', and incorporating an apple and a pencil as props. During our Thursday afternoon beer-and-brainstorm session, Ashley Lukens (now Dr. Lukens) made the outlandish and frankly inspired suggestion that the addiction in question could be someone 'addicted to being a dog'. The film pretty much made itself from there.

Why do I blog this now? It's not that it was an especially serious bit of forecasting or rigorous future-date-selecting, but when I edited the short together, the excerpt from our fictitious news magazine show Aloha Tonight happened to be post-dated seven years: April 14, 02014.

Which is – holy crap – today. Time flies when you're meddling with it.

Related:
On Death of a President, and other films from the future
Hawaii 2050 kicks off
This is not a game
Coral Cross concludes
Hawaiian shorts

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Strategic foresight meets tactical media

It has been just over six months since I moved to Toronto, and some irons placed in the fire early on are getting ready to be hammered out. Particularly exciting to me is the Guerrilla Futures studio/seminar class to be run together with my Situation Lab co-director Jeff Watson, also a new prof at OCAD University, during the Northern Hemisphere summer now approaching.

Our description for this course (affectionately dubbed SFIN 5B01 by university admin):

'In order to work, fantasy needs to be rooted ten feet deep in reality.' - Maurice Sendak

Many artists, designers and entrepreneurs aim to bring the future to life: the Guerrilla Futures studio offers a unique approach to doing just that. Co-taught by a professional futurist and a game designer, you will systematically picture how alternative worlds could unfold; manifest your own visions playfully and compellingly in a range of media; and make these narratives available in the real world, via live urban interventions for unsuspecting audiences to encounter. Prepare to imagine rigorously, explore genuine change, and learn first-hand the joys – and hazards – of unsolicited transmedia storytelling.

Intended Learning Outcomes for the class:

- Analyse environments and systems in order to identify opportunities for transformative action;
- Formulate action plans to effect change in lived environments through the use of tactical media interventions;
- Produce and document urban media interventions using both digital and analog technologies and practices;
- Develop a designerly, impact-oriented approach to communication, honouring mastery of convention as well as appropriate experimentation; and
- Acquire experience and confidence in foresight methods and skills, kindling a lifelong interest in developing these further. 

Course registration is just about to open.

For anyone wondering just what guerrilla futures means, my short answer is 'strategic foresight meets tactical media'. A fuller answer's in this presentation given last year at FESTA, the Festival of Transitional Architecture.


More can be found in 'Guerrillas in the Wild', Chapter 5 of The Futures of Everyday Life.

Related:
> FoundFutures: Postcards from the future
> Fast-forwarding gentrification
> What becomes of Chinatowns in a world where China is the global superpower?
> Street art simulates bird flu epidemic
> New York Times Special Edition
> Future jamming 101
> The Futures of Everyday Life

Politicians discussing global warming


This is a small-scale sculpture in Berlin created by artist Isaac Cordal that has gone viral in the past few days, under the caption 'Politicians discussing global warming'.

A bit of research reveals that this installation actually took place in 02011 and that the work is part of a series called Follow the Leaders, which has been exhibited in various forms and locations including Milan (below), Brussels, and London (below, lower).




Blogger Jon Worth has commented today on 'the power of a title to make a picture go viral': it seems the original title of the Berlin piece was 'electoral campaign', so there was no apparent intention on Cordal's part to reference climate change or rising seas in particular. Intriguing how one audience member recontextualising the artist's work with an alternative title (whether accidentally or deliberately doesn't really matter) gives that work startling potency and a new lease of life.

Although Cordal seems to have had no part in these developments, they fit neatly with his interests. Looking into his work brought me to a couple of installations themed and framed explicitly along similar lines; Waiting for climate change, from the Triennial of Contemporary Art by the Sea in De Panne, Belgium (02012).



And this more recent piece of the same name at the Château des Ducs de Bretagne in Nantes, France (02013).



[Top image via Sierra Club and William Kramer, HRCFS; others from the artist's website.]

Related:
> Participatory Cli-Fi
It's a small world, after all
> Mapping c-change
Ignore global warming
> Not drowning, thriving
> A climate of regret
> Footwear for a warmer world
> Climate change for fun and profit