A little while back I happened across my first published foresight paper, which I’d thought long lost.
Futures on film: Using movies to explore possible futures is exactly what it sounds like. It looks at using movies set in the future as a basis for futures-oriented dialogue, especially in the classroom.
The collection it appeared in, back in 02004, was paper-only and not in wide circulation, but the text turned up in a trove of files burned to CD-ROM over a decade ago, and recently consolidated on my current laptop.
My first futures conference was in 01997, and by this edition of the Budapest Futures Course I had some hunches about directions worth exploring in the field. I’d also finished as an undergrad the year before (in arts and law), and was living not too far from Budapest –– in the former Yugoslavia, supporting myself with savings from my first post-graduation job back in Australia. I was attempting to produce a feature documentary about Montenegro’s quixotic plan to become the world’s first "ecological state". It eventually dawned on me that this fascinating but ill-fated endeavour, the notion of an ecological state, was at heart a futures project, and that my also ill-fated (for different reasons) doco about it was a futures film project. But that's another story.
Perhaps it says something about the state of play in the field in 02003, its relationship to media other than text, that using movies as a basis for exploratory conversation seemed an experiment worth writing about. I'm sharing this modest article unearthed after so long because, despite its shortcomings, it gestures in a direction that would within just a few years lead on to some exciting new territory in futures.
The notion behind Szél's and my workshop, and this paper based on it –– that futures should engage with other media more fully –– is a precursor to the argument for developing what soon began to crystallise as a new frontier of practice, experiential futures.
The notion of a media-enriched mental ecology for higher-resolution futuring is here in seed form:
One rich set of materials which can be put to use in futures studies is found in the arts, where individual and collective fantasies, fears and hopes are explored. Such exploration arguably constitutes one of the crucial socio-cultural functions of art - and of course all fantasies, fears and hopes implicitly contain a future orientation. ...
Film stories, and film images, can be regarded as a sort of experience which all individual viewers can be seen to have in common, and to which all can therefore somehow relate. While this is true of any work of art available to the general public, there is an important distinction between the written word and the image. From reader to reader a book about or set in the future is sure to inspire very different mental images, but what we see in a film varies much less from viewer to viewer. The way we watch films in the cinema reinforces this point: stories on our screens 'transport' us to other places, offering the audience an experience to which it willingly yields. We pay to sit in a darkened room, to watch light and shadows on the wall, to block out superfluous sensory input, indeed to devote our full attention – one of the few contexts in which this is willingly given or even possible for individuals in developed societies – to a story which will not be interrupted, and in which we can therefore be immersed. We pay to be dwarfed by the larger-than-life figures and tales unfolding on a huge, elevated screen.
This 'shared experience' can then be used as a starting point for discussion, so the individual adventure of watching a film can be transformed into a team activity. ... The experience offered by a film is of course in a sense vicarious, but as an educational experience it becomes anything but vicarious: it can be thought-provoking, participative, and engaging.
A descendant of this line of exploration can be found in recent work like this piece co-written with Jake Dunagan.
And we’ve continued to use film, on and off, in the years since. We made no-budget videos as "artifacts from the future" in Hawaii back in 02007 to try out some ideas for helping audiences time travel (Neural Rights Management; Aloha Tonight). More recently, the start of the NaturePod project video (02016) starts out with a diegetic commercial. Last spring, I devised and led a course called Future Documentary at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where students were challenged to create their own future film fragments, then put them out into the world. But even the first and simplest of film-based approaches to futures, scaffolding conversation using screenings of existing movies, still comes in handy. A few years ago, I chose Gattaca, Her, and Samsara to show as part of my Duke University TIP summer course for high school students from across the US.
Our experiential futures experiments have included not only film, and not only tangible future "artifacts" (which in the intervening years have often come to be referred to as design fiction, and then more recently speculative design), but also art museum and gallery exhibits, interactive installation, guerrilla interventions, alternate reality games, immersive theatre and live action roleplaying, trade show product demos, mail art, and more.
Now over a decade old, experiential futures has come a long way. Its inspiration may in a sense have begun with film, but fortunately it did not end there.
There's something encouraging and apt about this trajectory, I like to think; this shift of focus from the consumption, appraisal and critique of Hollywood's images of the future, to the active, creative, and critical generation of our own, using every form we can think of to help bring futures more vividly to life.
> The technology of public imagination
> Brand runner / Colonising the future
> Death of a President
> The Experiential Turn
> Experiential futures turns ten
> Future documentary
> Gaming alternative futures