Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Colonising the future... on film

/Continued from previous post.../

"The central subject matter of futures studies is images of the future; ideas about the future, that are, more or less clearly, in the minds of each of us. Images of the future are the heart and soul of futures studies; they are the place to begin the more extensive (theoretical and methodological) study of the future."
~Jim Dator, Director of the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies

"The human condition can almost be summed up in the observation that, whereas all experiences are of the past, all decisions are about the future. It is the great task of human knowledge to bridge this gap and to find those patterns in the past which can be projected into the future as realistic images. The image of the future, therefore, is the key to all choice-oriented behavior. The general character and quality of the images of the future which prevail in a society is therefore the most important due to its overall dynamics. The individual's image of the future is likewise the most significant determinant of his personal behavior."
~Kenneth Boulding, Foreword to The Image of the Future, by Fred Polak, translated and abridged by Elise Boulding, Elsevier, 01973, p. v (available here as a pdf, with frequent minor misspellings due to the OCR process).

The "images of the future" described above range beyond the reservoir of visual representations of possible futures. Yet such visuals do indeed comprise an important element of how and what how our culture thinks about the future. In the last post here we saw that, in films set in the future, product placement can be viewed as a "smuggling more deeply into our culture, at the behest of a rather narrow but (of necessity) financially powerful interest group, certain beliefs and expectations about the future".

Now let's revisit the notion of "mental real estate", borrowed from Hollywood script-man Terry Rossio's 02000 column for aspiring screenwriters:

Here's the idea: I name something, and you either recognize it, or you don't. Could be a person, place, or thing, like the classic twenty questions game. If you recognize the thing I tell you, that means it's taking up space in your head -- tangling up a few billion neurons -- residing on a chunk of mental real estate.

That makes it valuable, because if the thing is taking up space in your head, chances are, it's taking up space in a good percentage of other heads across the country. And Hollywood can use that. It's the main commodity of the town --

Hollywood buys, sells, and trades in mental real estate.

If the "mental real estate" trade concerns competing for brand awareness to position a commercial enterprise for doing bigger business in the future -- and we've seen how it does, in the example of product placement -- then we can contemplate an interesting elaboration of the territorial metaphor. What might we call the occupation and exploitation of valuable mental space when it comes to images of the future?

How about colonisation?

Political scientist and academic futurist Jim Dator appears to have been the first to describe the role of futures inquiry this way, paving the way for dissenting alternatives to dominant images: "We discover that we are being colonized in what truly seemed to be 'the last frontier: the future'. That belief motivated me to offer this call for de-colonizing activities." ("De-Colonizing the Future", Journal of Futures Studies, 9(3), 93-104, February 02005, p. 102; republished from Andrew Spekke, ed., The Next 25 Years, Washington: World Future Society, 01975.)

Others, speaking from a more explicit postcolonial theoretical standpoint, have since used this same language to frame the problem. For example, in the eyes of Sohail Inayatullah, "decolonizing the future" entails "examining how we buy other's used futures; how we disempower ourselves by accepting the futures of others as ours". Elsewhere he writes: "Unfortunately, our futures are often colonized – they are filled with the thoughts of others, the dogmas of history. [...] But the problem is not just out there. The future is colonized as well by our own internal images – these are often unconscious - ensuring that the futures we create are not ours." Another postcolonial scholar from the subcontinent, Ashis Nandy, refers to "the theft of distinctive futures". And Futures journal editor Zia Sardar has warned of certain colonial tendencies in futures studies itself, in his 01993 article "Colonizing the Future" (see the responses to that piece in the same issue, as well as Sardar's 01999 book Rescuing All Our Futures).

Although others can surely articulate better than I how the (de)colonial metaphor may be used as part of a program of political and intellectual emancipation, the point I wish to make here is simply that it is available to us, in thinking about the way the economy of images of the future strategically favours some interests, while marginalising others -- not unlike the way that ownership and control of real property does. It is also worth noting that, although not every futures scholar uses the term, "decolonising the future" is not necessarily a specialist activity within that domain; instead it may be better thought of a general description for the first half of what the study of futureS is all about. The thinkers mentioned above might agree that the work carried on by many of the best futurists is quintessentially about "decolonising the future", by questioning, disrupting and displacing the assumed and ostensibly "necessary", "natural", or "inevitable" images of the future we might otherwise take for granted. The other "half" of the work concerns envisioning, inventing and pursuing preferred alternatives.

So where does this leave us?

The argument I've made here so far suggests that advertisers seek to colonise the future by buying up our mental real estate via product placement in stories with a future setting. However, this rather banal observation won't be news to many of us. What else, then, does this postcolonial approach to futures offer? The paradox is that, although these "images of the future" on film are readily seen, their political effects are not. So are there perhaps other, less obvious ways in which our futures have been or are being colonised, right under our noses? Let's go back to Blade Runner for a moment -- focusing this time not upon the film per se, or the particular images in it... what else could we be missing? Could it be, as it were, the thing we always fail to see when we look at a movie; the frame itself? I'm wondering if the language and packaging around this movie, and others like it -- the genre of science fiction -- isn't an example of colonisation of the future.

All too often, people assume that because I study "the future" I must have some infantile obsession with flying cars, or underwater houses... or at least the contents of Wired. This assumption (that specialising in thinking about the future connotes a fascination with high technology) is the very trap that we advocates of plural futureS are attempting to undermine and escape. But this miscommunication is actually embedded in the limited comprehension of the word "future". (If you want to understand who you're dealing with, pay attention to how they misunderstand you...) Sometimes I think pluralising futureS may be too subtle an exercise in culture-jamming or meme-repair, because the people who seem to "get it" right away tend already to share the intuition that a singular conception of the future (I call it "monofuturism") is both inadequate and misleading. Those who don't get it seem too blinkered by the straight lines of monofuturism for the humble "s" to affect their epistemological plumbing.

In any case, there may be a parallel between my encounters with high-tech monofuturism, and the fact that apparently every cinematic narrative depiction of a future seems fated to be classified as science-fiction (Or fantasy, if it's set far enough into the past or future, or in a parallel universe... movies set on other planets could go either way.) If virtually all future stories, by default, are science-fiction, and popular discourse around future scenarios winds up being coterminous with that designation, then in effect the future has been colonised -- by an instrumentalist, technology-heavy "science" fiction. To put it another way, the narrowness of our culture's thinking about futures is reflected in the paucity of our vocabulary for stories that happen there. It looks like we have science fiction on the one hand, and the venerable literary tradition of utopias (etymologically: "no place") on the other. Which, analytically and practically, pretty much boils down to a choice between technologised nightmare, or nothing at all.

In 02002 Jaron Lanier wrote a great article in 21C about being part of director Steven Spielberg's futurist brains trust, offering creative advice during the development of Minority Report:

A more important disappointment for me was that I think there's an essential kind of optimism that ought to be portrayed in science fiction, but it seems to be beyond our imagination at present. Instead of making existential points by pitting people against technology, why not portray people using technology beautifully and creatively?

I presented all sorts of ideas for what information technology might look like in fifty years, but the least noble of these were the only ones that stuck.

Of course, the requirements of dramatic tension make some things far more likely than others to survive the arduous journey from concept to screen. I have pointed out in a comment to a previous post that:

...massive asteroids hitting earth, killer-virus pandemics, and mutant science experiments wreaking havoc on shrieking New Yorkers are scenarios more readily imagined for many of us than ending poverty, peacefully dismantling the world's militaries, or holding a corporation-free summer Olympics in West Africa. The former stories have been imagined for us dozens of times; while these other tales don't typically make it to the multiplexes.

But Lanier's experience seems to echo the problem of "science fiction" being the catch-all term for movies about possible futures. There are constraints and tendencies at the next level down, dictating the kinds of images of the future we get within "science fiction" -- the limitations of the sci-fi imaginary -- which we ignore at our peril.

Finally, it behooves me to add that, like all metaphors, "colonisation" (and indeed "images of the future" -- another metaphor) reveals certain things while obscuring others. Unlike physical colonisation, which involves the occupation of actual space and can involve prodigious effort up to and including violence to be overcome, the overturning of virtual occupation of mental real estate can be challenged simply by thinking differently. With the word "simply" I don't intend to downplay the very intense sociopolitical and educational challenge this can entail -- but happily, it remains the case that colonised futures are in principle more readily recovered than colonised lands. The catch is, of course, that such colonisation may be far more difficult to recognise (and to doing so is one of the central implicit aims of postcolonial theory).

With this in mind, we can now go back to the question which concluded the first part of this article: to what extent do these commercial images of the future in film simply project and reinscribe the assumptions of the present, and to what extent do they enable us to scrutinise and critique them? The answer lies entirely in how we respond to those images, and where on the spectrum our response as viewers falls -- whether we regard them unthinkingly, or with our critical faculties fully engaged.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Brand runner

Still from Blade Runner (01982) via Paleofuture.

I have written here before about the centrality of "images of the future" to the study of alternative futures, most recently in relation to the intriguing "future documentary" genre. Last week in one of my classes, we watched extracts from a much more mainstream source -- the Hollywood dream factory -- in the form of Blade Runner. I'll resist providing a recap of the story here -- an exercise unnecessary for those who have seen it and inadvisable for those who have not; suffice it to say that anyone who reads this weblog is encouraged to see Ridley Scott's marvellously realised 01982 dystopian sci-fi film noir.

This movie is notable, from a futurist's point of view, for at least two reasons. First, it is exceptionally well thought out, as reflected in, for instance, its ranking as the best "futurist movie" of all time according to Josh Calder's Futurist at the Movies website. On a list of 118 films, it comes out no. 1 overall across ratings for futurism, entertainment, and plausibility. With a 9/10 score, it is also the highest rated on the first of those three metrics, which addresses the quality of the scenario presented: "Is the movie a thoughtful, coherent view of the future? Does it present something innovative? Does it depict an elaborate scenario, an event, or a single variable?" (The strength of the scenario is certainly due, in part, to its provenance as a story by the brilliantly twisted Philip K. Dick, whose work has also inspired Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, Minority Report, and -- you can't win 'em all -- Paycheck, featuring the lamentable Ben Affleck.) Second, it actually names in the credits a "Visual Futurist", Syd Mead. Few "science-fiction" films bear the marks of such careful visual craftsmanship, and the reward here is that even 25 years later, the look of the film (which is set in 02019) though dated, does not come off as silly as you might expect. Granted, the heyday of the flying-car future may have passed some time back, but the atmosphere and gritty realism of the genre convention lends the story, and especially the setting, Scott's Los Angeles of twelve years hence a sort of counterfictional coherence all its own.

But in particular, it was a memorable shot of a huge advertising billboard for Coca-Cola on the side of an enormous skyscraper in this future megalopolis (see image above), one of the more obvious of many brand-brandishing moments in the film, which led me to wonder about the state of play around the advertising strategy of product placement in the movies (what it is; how it works).

What people consume visually does seem to have significant potential to affect their buying habits; for instance, last week it was reported that white American teenagers exposed to R-rated movies are far more likely to smoke than their non movie-watching counterparts. And broadly, the trend towards integration of advertising with storytelling has been well established. In the era of "most repeatable programming" (Steven Johnson) when every frame of a successful movie -- later, DVD -- release may be watched tens or hundreds of times over, guaranteeing brand exposure to an attentive viewership over many years, from the advertiser's perspective this may prove a better investment than TV commercial broadcasts during prime-time. (Of course, such a payoff is contingent on the success of the film, making product placement, like other aspects of film production, a giant gamble on the fickle tastes of the crowd.) Even so, it's no surprise that one Hollywood producer quoted in a Slate article suggests that "Product placement gigs will become a major source of production financing in the future". But as interesting as that trend may be, it is not the future of product placement that interests me here: rather, it's product placement in "the future".

Products may appear in filmed futures for a spectrum of reasons, from the artistically defensible to the purely commercial. From a filmmaker's point of view, brands onscreen may legitimately enable greater verisimilitude with, or even critique of, a commercialised future (for example, Robert Zemeckis' Back to the Future Part II, made in 01989 but set in 02015, jokes about the then-seemingly endless Jaws franchise). On the other hand, it can also come across as crass commercialisation -- selling out the future. One business writer, marvelling at a recent "science fiction" movie that somehow seemed to resist the product placement rush, observed: "It may very well be that product placements continue to work in contempory movie situations but blatantly extending brands hundreds of years into the future risks a backlash from consumers." The criminally underrated Mike Judge satire Idiocracy (02006) subversively hopes to generate exactly that, by depicting the cultural vacuity of a future America after 500 years of unabated commercialisation and dumbing-down. The brands referenced therein -- some disguised more artfully than others -- appear more in the vein of grim social commentary than cinematic salesmanship, the latter being better exemplified by the likes of I, Robot (seen as success; seen as sellout; on striking the balance).

So it's a complex matter to determine how and to what extent such appearances work alternately to promote or condemn a product. But the fact remains that stories set in the future are used by commercial vendors to sell their wares. Blade Runner alone features not only the Coke billboard, but also, according to one eagle-eyed observer, some thirty other products and brands; the fortunes of several of which plummeted in the years following the film's release, which unofficially earned it an interesting reputation for being "cursed". (Whether there was any causal connection here, or if this even represented higher than the average attrition rate for companies falling on tough times, perhaps readers of this blog would know how to find out better than I do.) Filling in the futurescape with current brand-names proceeds apace -- take any big-ticket American movie with an explicitly future setting, and I wager you'll be able to find prominent signs of brand-name involvement in bringing that story to the screen... see for yourself.

So, a question that crossed my mind was this: Do advertisers pay a premium for the privilege of implanting their products in the futurescape of viewers? I found this article from The New York Times in 01993:
An auto maker with a glorious past is using a film of the present to reassure consumers that it has a future. When Warner Brothers opens "Demolition Man" today at more than 2,000 theaters nationwide, moviegoers watching Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes play cop and robber in the year 2032 can see the results of an unusual product placement promotion by the Oldsmobile division of General Motors.

Rather than simply helping to sell more cars, the promotion is intended to burnish the images of Oldsmobile and G.M. by linking them to the presumed technological wonders of tomorrow.

"We felt being involved in this movie, set in the future, would send a subtle message to the public that G.M. was alive and well in 2032," said Eric Dahlquist, president at the Vista Group, a product exposure management company in Van Nuys, Calif., that handles promotional activities like product placement and licensing.

It seems movie product placement represents a sort of speculative bidding on mental real estate (Terry Rossio), motivated by the investor's hope that the film in question will endure. At best, it could even become a classic, taking the product along for the ride into movie history, becoming a staple of our diet of visual culture -- an evergreen advertisement. But this strategy also stakes a deeper claim in the ideational landscape, sending a "subtle message" that not only the product or brand, and the sponsoring company, but indeed the matrix of political, economic and social practices that underpins it all, are all "alive and well" in the future shown. When a Lexus appears in Minority Report (released 02002, set in 02054) it's not just branding cars in that filmic universe, for is it not meanwhile claiming some sort of legitimacy or plausibility for a world in which individualistic and resource-intensive car culture -- more highly technologised, but still fully recognisable -- thrives for another half-century?

The broader issue of interest here becomes whether product placement in a future setting is always merely a superficial detail of how a story gets told; or whether, by contrast -- even in the best of cinematic "science-fiction" -- it's somehow integral to smuggling more deeply into our culture, at the behest of a rather narrow but (of necessity) financially powerful interest group, certain beliefs and expectations about the future. To what extent, then, does that huge Coke poster simply project and reinscribe the assumptions of the filmmaker's present, and to what extent does it enable us to scrutinise and critique them?

/To be continued.../

[* Updated 11 Sept 02016: replaced original broken image at top of post.]

Friday, March 09, 2007

Experiential scenarios on video

These four short video clips are from the experiential scenarios designed and staged by HRCFS staff for the Hawaii 2050 kickoff on 26 August 02006. Each one is about two minutes long.

"Orange" Hawaii in 2050 is a result of continued economic growth.

The "Silver" alternative suggests possible conditions in 2050 some years after a socio-economic collapse.

The "Maroon" future exemplifies a disciplined or self-restrained society.

"Blue" depicts a society that has undergone a high-tech transformation.

Each of these clips is pared down from experiences lasting about 20 minutes, that ran concurrently in four rooms at the Dole Ballrooms in Honolulu. The 530-or-so attendees were split up and given no clues as to what kind of future they would be entering, but facilitated discussions were held afterwards to draw out people's views about the possible, probable and preferable elements of each scenario.

Some technical challenges delayed their release until now, but at HRCFS it's our hope that these clips can serve as conversation fodder in the futures community, encouraging further improvement in the emerging practice of experiential scenarios (and "immersive futures" more broadly). Feedback from participants at the August kickoff was overwhelmingly positive and has encouraged us to continue developing other ways to communicate and provoke the consideration of alternative futures... I'd be interested to hear from anyone who has undertaken, or knows about, comparable efforts.

(A longer version of this article has been posted at the Hawaii Futures blog.)

Update 4may2011: The link to the Hawaii Futures blog may be dead, but the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine comes to the rescue.
Update 12march2012: Video re-embedded with original aspect ratio.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Pearl Harbor redux

One Sunday last month, I took a trip to the USS Arizona visitor centre at Pearl Harbor. It was my third visit there in twenty years, and my second within 24 hours. The first time, I was about six years old, returning with my family to Australia after two years of living in Vancouver. Visiting the Arizona was one of only a handful of things I vaguely recall from this childhood stay on the island of O'ahu (along with taking hula lessons at a hotel on the north shore, and browsing an extensive selection of tapes -- yes, I'm talking audio cassettes, kids -- at a music shop). The second time, in February just passed, was to prepare for a volunteer session there the following day, working with the United States National Park Service. During that orientation visit to the site, I had an opportunity to take the audio tour of the facility (narrated by Ernest Borgnine), visit the memorial (which involves a short boat trip on a vessel run by Navy personnel) and view the introductory film which all memorial visitors must watch beforehand.

The Pearl Harbor visitors' center is located on shore, near where the USS Arizona lies in forty feet of water. As many readers would know, the Arizona was an American battleship sunk in a surprise attack by Japanese bombers on the morning of December 7, 01941, dubbed by President Franklin Roosevelt "a day that will live in infamy" -- a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy which accompanied the United States joining the second world war. Pearl Harbor is an iconic location, a stand-in for the seven military bases on the island which were all attacked on that "day of infamy", so the memorial stands in tribute not only the 2,000 lives lost on the boat itself. (Despite the largest marine salvage operation in history, many of the bodies remain entombed in the sunken vessel on top of which the memorial is built.) And, the painful cinematic efforts of Ben Affleck notwithstanding, it remains one of the most visited tourist attractions in Hawaii.

So why redesign it? In fact, the number of visitors has long exceeded the intended capacity, with the all the frustrations of long waits, oversubscribed bathrooms, and so on, which go along with that. Moreover, engineers have determined that, in a slow-motion recapitulation of the ship's fate, the visitors' building is sinking: it has an life expectancy of under ten years. Hence the National Parks Service, having run the site since 01980, has engaged a museum design firm, AldrichPears Associates (coincidentally, headquartered in Vancouver) to help re-envision this historic location.

What occasioned my involvement was stumbling across a presentation on museum and exhibit design one evening at the UH-Manoa art department, which included a call for assistance in gathering public input. A small number of graduate students were duly recruited on a voluntary basis to head out to Pearl Harbor and survey visitors about their reasons for coming, their background knowledge, and their responses to the proposed content and format of certain exhibits. There are some promising ideas on the drawing board -- interesting artifacts, multimedia presentations, and a historical walk-through beginning with pre-war life on O'ahu. Whatever eventuates, it is certainly being informed by an innovative, systematically thought-out design process. Indeed, the original reason for my curiosity related to the pedagogical challenge of designing an experience to communicate complicated information, which I saw as possibly helpful for our work on developing immersive scenarios. But I found there's rather more to it than that, as I'll explain.

In addition to the capacity issue, and the sinking problem, another motivation for rethinking the facility is that for an increasing number of people, it introduces events that took place in an earlier era. Whereas for an earlier generation of visitors it served as a reminder of historic events many of them had experienced more or less first-hand, with the passage of time, the details are bound to be only vaguely familiar, if not totally new, for more and more people. At bottom, then, there's a challenge in the rebuilding process that's less architectural or structural in nature than historical, cultural, and political. How are these stories to be told? How are events like this to be remembered? Who speaks for whom, and what do they say? An anthropology professor who specialises in the politics of representation is involved in this process, to help the designers grapple with such questions. And even though it is the visitors' center rather than the memorial itself which is to be redesigned, the significance of the exercise is further underscored by the fact that -- as I heard on several occasions, including from Ernest Borgnine -- many visitors regard the memorial as a sacred place.

But having now had a hand, however small, in this process, I am compelled to consider for myself a few of the questions it raises. What, after all, is or should be the purpose of this, or any, memorial?

I used to live just a few hundred feet from the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, and frankly I find my feelings are divided on this. On the one hand, the tragedies and triumphs, heroism and sacrifice that occur in wartime are crucial part of human experience, as well as individuals, families and communities. On the other hand, I don't think it in any way impugns the contributions of people at those levels to state that, in my view, no one should have to experience war, and the purpose of such memorials, if we are to keep building and maintaining them, ought principally be to show anyone who comes to look, exactly how insane the whole institution of warfare actually is. There's a fine line between the "never again" that renounces systematic bloodshed, and the "never again" that buttresses military spending and a defensive outlook which turns offensive when cornered.

In reflecting on this, I'm reminded of an insight shared by a colleague and alumna of the Manoa School of futures, who works as an archivist at the University of Hawaii's Hamilton Library. She has an interesting view of archiving in a whole-chronology context; and she looks both forward and back down the "time tunnel". Borrowing this idea, when I look down the time tunnel towards the past, as far as the eye can see stretches a litany of atrocities that establishes beyond any doubt that the problem goes beyond any particular culture or country -- the old devil violence seems deeply ingrained in humanity. But when we look down the tunnel towards the future we discern an opportunity to be relieved of history's more ignoble legacies, because what happens to last (or what is chosen for preservation) today is raw material for the historical record of the future. We can't avoid the need to decide, somehow, what of the past to preserve, to emphasise, to discard, to treasure -- in short, we set the stage for how the future will remember us. And at the risk of sounding like a refugee from the idealistic late-'60s (which in sensibility I probably am in many ways, despite having missed them by more than a decade) in my opinion war should go the way of slavery, and we should think seriously about how to treat war-related historic locations in that light. I am not advocating amnesia, but a wiser way of remembering; one that does not chain us unduly to repeating past tragedies out of respect for the people who enacted them.

Lest I should seem unappreciative of the sacrifices of generations before me, I fully understand that my own position (with others in my highly fortunate age group) is a great rarity in the historical perspective -- a male who reached adulthood without having to fight in a war, lose any close family members to one, or even seriously contemplate being drafted was, until recently, a very rare phenomenon. Even so, from a lifetime of films, literature, documentaries, the study of history, and a year spent in the former Yugoslavia a few years after the conflict of the 01990s came to an end, I have fully internalised that "war is hell". This however was not the principal message I received at Pearl Harbor. "The loss of American life in military situations is a tragedy" would be closer to the mark. And, while a message in the latter form may be part of a suitable tribute from the point of view of those who experienced the attack as a personal tragedy, as history goes on, the contestation of the broader meaning of the site comes into focus. And the appropriation of those stories of personal loss for the dangerously warlike purposes of national myth-making becomes a risk that ought not to pass unremarked.

Now, as I indicated, the representation issues that arise in selecting and telling the next round of war stories are being carefully considered by the designers and their advisors, so I am not criticising anyone concerned of lacking anything in the way of sensitivity or good intentions. One of the questions we volunteers asked of visitors related to their feelings about augmenting the Japanese perspective on the circumstances and events around 7 December 01941. Not surprisingly, responses were mixed. But in the bigger picture I'm addressing here, frankly, that question is a red herring. The Pearl Harbor visitors' facility is located on an active US Navy base, so how can it possibly represent anything other than a mourning of losses (as opposed to wins), in accordance with the unwritten rules of the war game which obtain on all sides in the nation-state era? In my eyes, the greatest tragedy lies not with this attack, or even with this war in particular, but with the human habit of war itself. And what of this burning question, found only at the next metalayer up from the tallies and tales of one side or another, about the ethics of the whole military enterprise? No, if it's literally built upon and surrounded by the same thinking and practices that made the second world war possible (and hundreds of basically similar conflicts, on a smaller scale), whatever explicit message is proclaimed, this facility inescapably serves a fundamentally past-oriented view of the world that is in varying degrees nationalistic, narrow, aggressive, and self-pitying -- and therefore irretrievably tragic.

So here's an idea to run up the proverbial flagpole (meanwhile, giving national flags a much-needed break): why not let the visitor center sink, after all? Let it slowly tilt and bubble and disappear into the mud. Let us not lose any sleep, or 34 million US dollars, rebuilding anything -- except perhaps, eventually, a boardwalk for future generations to stroll past its crumbling passages and peeling interpretive panels. The former Pearl Harbor visitor center could become a meta-monument; embodied historical testimony to the way we used to embrace militarism while turning our faces away... how we would shed a tear for each of "our" dead, while rounding "theirs" off to the nearest thousand, or ten thousand, or million. It could serve as a fallen landmark to the belated passage to maturity of humanity, when in the early 21st century, we finally acted on the knowledge that war was an institution which we had to bring to a complete end, or it would do so to us. We might go further. Instead of O'ahu remaining the enormous military outpost that it has so long been, we could lay down arms, close the military barracks, and aim sincerely to make the whole of Hawai'i a living monument to sustainability in human relations, as well as in ecology. So, like the Arizona, might we leave the visitor center undisturbed for time and the elements slowly to reclaim, and when finally it's no longer visible, maybe we will have learned the bigger lesson. If perchance we haven't by then, it probably won't matter anyway.

Because, forgive my naivete, but where in all this are the monuments to futures we want to create? Where, for instance, is the statue honouring the (perhaps as-yet unborn) person who cures AIDS? Our space consecrated for silent reflection on the so far undrafted treaty that will abolish war? The grand architectural gesture towards the future dismantling of the world's last nuclear weapon? The city square adorned with messages in a thousand languages prefiguring the erasure of the last international border? In my opinion there is a far stronger case for planting these seeds of joy, hope and aspiration in our public buildings and spaces than there is for eternal, solemn remembrance of yet another sad story from the bloodstained era of guns and bombs.

Folks, our civilisation has a problem. We could start by acknowledging that fact; and if we must build public monuments, and flank them with interpretive centres (which incidentally, at this point in the human story might be better conceived as virtual/electronic spaces anyway) let them be to celebrate peace, creativity, and the honest work of collectively imagining and constructing something far more inspiring, at the global level, than the tradition of "international" violence and domination that has been our inheritance.

Kurt Vonnegut, The Nation, 7 January 01984 (reproduced here):

If Western Civilization were a person, we would be directing it to the nearest meeting of War Preparers Anonymous. We would be telling it to stand up before the meeting and say, "My name is Western Civilization. I am a compulsive War-Preparer. I have lost everything I ever cared about. I should have come here long ago. I first hit bottom in World War I".

Western Civilization cannot be represented by a single person, of course, but a single explanation for the catastrophic course it has followed during this bloody century is possible. We the people, because of our ignorance of the disease, have again and again entrusted power to people we did not know were sickies.

And let us not mock them now, any more than we would mock someone with syphilis or smallpox or leprosy or yaws or typhoid fever or any of the other disease to which the flesh is heir. All we have to do is separate them from the levers of power, I think.

And then what?

Western Civilization's long, hard trip back to sobriety might begin.