Friday, November 16, 2007

It was the pest of times...

During the Bird Cage installation for FoundFutures:Chinatown, we ran into some difficulty finding a property owner willing to have our bird flu memorial plaque mounted on their building. After the controversial reception of McChinatown, one party who had agreed earlier changed her mind, citing concerns about the impact that being associated with even a hypothetical disease could have on business.

Shortly before our deadline, we were referred to Oren Schlieman, a local graphic designer and owner of the company Info Grafik. Not only was Oren highly encouraging, but he saved the day by allowing us to install the plaque on his Chinatown building (as seen here). He also noted that the "artifacts from the future" and hypothetical products design memes, though increasingly visible as the decade wears on, have been around a while. So saying, he referred to a public awareness campaign for Hawaii's CGAPS (Coordinating Group on Alien Pest Species) produced by Info Grafik a decade ago, employing a similar approach.

CGAPS was created in 01995 (as explained in this pdf), and its public awareness effort, Silent Invasion, launched two years later (love those old time websites!). The images below are scanned from the print version of that campaign.

Invasive species is an issue of particular concern to ecologists in the Hawaiian islands, and in recent years its importance has been increasingly recognised in political decision-making. Says the website of the state government's Hawaii Invasive Species Council:
The legislature finds that the silent invasion of Hawaii by insects, disease-bearing organisms, snakes, weeds, and other pests is the single greatest threat to Hawaii's economy and natural environment and to the health and lifestyle of Hawaii's people.

So what's the role of these quasi-futures artifacts in all this?

They aim to elevate concern for and visibility of the invasive species issue to an appropriate level, by embodying an undesirable, near-term future (note the 01999 use-by date on the malaria pills), implicitly seeking to arouse and galvanise the concerned reader around this risk. They serve to warn of the adverse impact of invasive species, by exemplfying them -- envisaging the aesthetic and ecological costs thereof. The postcard below employs a familiar strategy...

...very similar to the Sierra Nevada mountains campaign blogged here earlier.

Now, a few weeks ago the President of the Hawaii chapter of the Sierra Club, Jeff Mikulina, presented a seminar at the East-West Center (sponsors of my doctoral studies here at the University of Hawai'i). Jeff has been trained by Al Gore to give the Inconvenient Truth presentation on climate change, but one of the additions he made was to point out that risks which tend to receive attention are "soon, salient, and certain" (quoting Helen Ingram, a University of California-Irvine professor of planning, policy and design.) The point was that difficulty meeting these criteria (and hence motivating an appropriate response) is inherent in the nature of climate change -- a slow, distributed and ambiguous process, albeit one with massive risk implications.

We can surmise that the human brain developed risk management criteria along the lines Ingram suggests as a sort of prioritisation heuristic. Clearly, though, that filter might not serve us so well in facing less visible/immediate, and more distributed/long-term risks.

So it seems to me that one of the functions of monitory artifacts (and images of artifacts) from the future, such as the above, is to assert a claim on our attention that cuts the mustard on Ingram's scale. By manifesting a feared future now, tangibly or visually, we are forced to take account of a risk that might otherwise be dismissed as remote, irrelevant, or improbable.

Like invasive species. Or bird flu. Or earthquakes.

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