Thursday, January 31, 2008

Bad reviews of future news

Since the post at this blog in mid-January about a viral video set in the future of an inundated New York City, two more supposedly viral videos have joined it online to promote National Geographic Channel's upcoming program, Six Degrees Could Change the World.

The first clip suggests a dust storm in Dallas in 02034. Like the New York underwater clip, there are no people in sight -- it doesn't carry the visceral impact it was clearly after. (And, sorry to say, but again with the shoddy CG animation!)

The second clip is a bit more interesting, from my point of view. Eschewing the (aesthetically unsuccessful) imitation of big-budget establishing shots, it provides a far more subtle, and in a sense relatable (is that really a word?) scenario; a water crisis in Southern California. The footage shows water trickling from a tap, and guys moving around boxes of water-bottles -- exactly the type of mundane stuff a news report would use to represent a story of this kind. So this, as a way of communicating the water crisis scenario, is a metonymic strategy not unlike the present-day still shots I put online this week suggesting a world without oil.

It's unfortunate that they opted for plodding consistency in framing this set of viral videos, foregoing the chance to say anything interesting about how the world -- including news reportage -- might change over the period described (beyond the focal issue of climate). The news screens are shown as interlaced video, which is beginning to look old-fashioned even now, in early 02008, as HD-TV becomes standard. Worse, the hypothetical "CNC News", for some odd reason, uses exactly the same visual style and format (logos, bugs, the headline crawl) in 02026, 02034, and 02051. Was this important to their message? I don't see how, considering the teasers all conclude by sending the viewer, a little didactically, to the same non-diegetic website, which breaks the scenarios' universe right away.

Call me critical (or better yet, sceptical), but I'm disappointed by the wasted potential here.

Could this have anything to do with the slow response of cyberspace? The dust storm was uploaded on 18 January and is showing, as I write, only 83 views. The water shortage clip was posted 25 January and has been viewed 23 times.

(Thanks to John Maus for pointing me to the water clip.)

World without oil photo essay (part three)

I-55 and Route 61, near Holland, Missouri.
31 December 020XX.

(Thanks to Natron for doing the driving that day. Let the record show that you powered through that Memphis hangover like a champ.)

[Back to part one | part two]

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

World without oil photo essay (part two)

U.S. Route 71 near Arkansas state line, Louisiana.
30 December 020XX.

[Back to part one | on to part three]

World without oil photo essay

New Summerfield, Texas.
29 December 020XX.

During my road trip in The American South with Mr Matt Jensen -- pretty good driver, really good designer -- at the end of December 02007, we passed this defunct gas station in tiny New Summerfield, Texas (pop. 998). Which gave me an idea for a photo essay exploring the experience of a World Without Oil (a bit like the alternate reality game blogged here recently).

The five shots above are unretouched, and in that sense as close to documentary (vs photoshopped hypotheticals) as photos get. They're plain little snaps -- I took them on a 6.0MP camera set to capture at 3.0MP -- and in the hands of a better photographer there'd be more artistry to them -- but the point that's interesting to me here is the possibility of present-day photographs evoking future scenarios.

In the context of a discussion about a post-oil America, they take on an air of foreboding; begging the question, in tones perhaps more subtle than most future artifacts seen in this space, "Is this our future?"

As I write it occurs to me that these images (and perhaps future artifacts in general) might be considered visual metonyms. Metonymy is a term from linguistics denoting expressions where a part stands in for the whole. (For example, "Check out my new wheels". Here, the word "wheels" stands in for an electric car, wisely selected by its proud owner in anticipation of an imminent oil crisis.)

However far I may appear to stray from it, my point is that such photos, like other futures artifacts, perhaps, serves as a stand-in -- an icon, a tip-of-the-iceberg -- for a much larger, more far-reaching social scenario.

Also, they highlight the fact that images of possible futures, including of post-peak oil scenarios, need not be technologically "futuristic" in the usual way in order to serve as fuel (pardon the pun) for deepening the conversation.

I sense some promise here, in this less labour-intensive approach to futures imagery, which I'm looking forward to exploring as we go along.

More shots to follow...

[On to part two | part three]

Friday, January 25, 2008

The go-to guys for post apocalyptic chaos and destruction

"Nuked York City: An act that seemed unthinkable during the Cold War is now more plausible than ever—and some say inevitable."
Image courtesy Kenn Brown, Mondolithic Studios

In an instant the ship, the container docks, Newark Airport, and everyone within a half-mile radius is vaporized. Seconds later the shock wave smashes into lower Manhattan, knocking the Statue of Liberty off her pedestal and blowing out skyscraper windows in the financial district. Shattering glass cuts down thousands, while a poisonous nuclear squall rises from the blast zone and rains over a 10-mile area. In a microsecond, 15,000 people in New Jersey and New York are killed or wounded, and 200,000 absorb enough gamma rays to keep their doctors counting for the rest of their lives.

The economic damage only begins with the hole blown through the $100 billion annual revenues of the Port of New York and New Jersey. Within half an hour every port in the United States is closed and every container in the global shipping lanes suddenly looks like it’s hiding a potential Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

How likely is this?

Some experts give this or a similar scenario a 51 percent probability over the next 10 years.

"Snatch and Grab: When one man represents millions, his head is priceless."
Image courtesy Kenn Brown, Mondolithic Studios

For an entire week the senator goes off the scope. Nada. Then come the videos. The first appears on an obscure Web site in Yemen. A hooded man with a sword in one hand and the scruff of the senator’s neck in the other peers into the camcorder and says, “We are holding a senator infidel.” Then the screen goes blank. Two days later a second tape surfaces on the Internet, this one in British Columbia. Holding the sword over the senator’s head, the hooded figure gives the president three days to release all Muslim prisoners in Guantánamo Bay.

The president offers prayers for the senator and his family and says, “We don’t negotiate with terror.” 60 Minutes does some tech work with the video: In the grainy image, the senator appears to be saying “fuck you” to his captor, a signal that he stands with the commander in chief. The deadline passes. The last video appears on a Web site at MIT that mirrors the home page of the Department of Homeland Security. Somehow the terrorists have hacked into MIT’s system to create the page, and before the rest of the world is entirely clear on whether it’s looking at the real thing or a mockery, the sword swings, the senator is beheaded, and the page gets five million hits. And, yes, Bush’s refusal to negotiate suited Al Qaeda to a terrorist T. What they really wanted was to step up the media frenzy so Americans would be scared to death in front of a TV audience from Casablanca to Jakarta.

Twenty-four hours later a hiker in the Potomac River Valley finds a headless body near the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. The next morning an Express Mail package postmarked Leesburg, Virginia arrives at the senator’s office. Inside is the senator’s head, wrapped in a printout taken off the official Web site of the U.S. State Department: Response to Terrorism. “The war on terror is a different kind of war, waged capture by capture, cell by cell, and victory by victory. Our security is assured by our perseverance and by our sure belief in the success of liberty.—President George W. Bush.”

How likely is this?

It’s a miracle it hasn’t happened already.

"Houston Has a Problem: From sea to shining sea, America’s ports remain wide open for the import of a catastrophic terrorist attack."
Image courtesy Kenn Brown, Mondolithic Studios

The Texas fires burn for a week. Under the pall of oily smoke, rescue workers retrieve the bodies of the 12,000 people killed by the flames and toxic gas. ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, and Shell all close their refineries to search for bombs. A quarter of the U.S. refining capacity is crippled. Oil prices skyrocket, destabilizing the market. Gas station lines grow even longer than they were during the energy crisis of the 1970s.

How likely is this?

No one knows the vulnerabilities of the American oil and gas industry better than the Middle East, and this scenario would be patently Al Qaeda: cheap, effective, and dirty.

"Man with a Missile: On 9/11 our planes were turned into weapons. Soon the weapons may be turned on our planes."
Image courtesy Kenn Brown, Mondolithic Studios

Inside the jet Deborah James, a 32-year-old mother on her way home after visiting family in Costa Mesa, feels a jolt, then looks out her window to see smoke pouring from the port engine.

“What the…” Don Martinez, the plane’s captain, says, but before he grasps the situation the engine explodes, taking much of the port wing with it. The plane rolls violently into a dive as screams fill the cabin.

Martinez and his copilot try to pull out, but with no wing it’s futile. He starts to radio an SOS, then realizes he’s looking at a street corner from an inverted angle at an altitude of about 400 feet. He can see the long morning shadows of a group of kids waiting at a bus stop.

The fully fueled 737 careens into densely populated Balboa Island, engulfing four square blocks in a 2,000-degree fireball. Flying wreckage rips Newport Bay into a froth and tears into bodies a half-mile away in downtown Newport Beach. The pilot, crew, and 162 passengers are lost. Another 40 die on the ground.
For 12 hours every flight in the United States is grounded while airports check their perimeter security. In the ensuing weeks, commercial air traffic sinks by over 20 percent, threatening every American carrier with bankruptcy and punching a multibillion-dollar hole in the country’s $552 billion travel industry just as it’s promising to regain pre-9/11 levels of revenue.

How likely is this?

You can take this one to the bank. Stray MANPAD attacks have already happened in places like Kenya, Rwanda, and Baghdad. An Al Qaeda sleeper wouldn’t need much training to pull the trigger.

Kenn Brown and Chris Wren are Mondolithic Studios, the design firm which produced the post-humanity images for Scientific American that I recently blogged here. Last week, I was in touch with Kenn about a remark at the Mondolithic blog -- "funny how we are slowly becoming the go-to guys for post apocalyptic chaos and destruction" -- referencing the fact that those World Without Us illustrations were not the first disaster-scenario images commissioned of the artists. Earlier came a set for an article in Maxim men's magazine, "The Second Wave", about possible terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. The article, several scenarios from which are quoted above together with the corresponding images, appeared in the June 02005 edition (you know the one, with Jennifer Love Hewitt on the cover? C'mon dude it was a classic!). The web-archived version, however, does not include these illustrations, which Kenn has kindly provided.

The scenarios they were called on to illustrate were based on the advice of Col. David H. Hackworth, "the U.S. Army’s legendary guerrilla fighter and best-selling author". Says Maxim: "Hack came back with five plausible scenarios for Al Qaeda’s next surprise attack. But he warns that these are just a few of the hundreds of equally horrible 9/11-type events that may hit the homeland sooner than we think..."

There was another one in the article, involving an attack on a mall (but no picture) ... no matter, you get the general idea from the other four, above. Now, I'm not criticising Mondolithic at all -- I like their artwork very much. But here's the thing that gets me about these terror scenarios: they're much more salacious than the mag's pinup girls! It's an intriguing form of entertainment, isn't it? Terror porn was the term that sprang to mind, an evocative -- if obvious -- coinage. Googling it yielded the following, from an article in the New York Observer (25 December 02005):

“Terror porn”: It’s a term that surfaced not long after 9/11 to characterize a newly emerging genre embracing both fiction—24’s purportedly anti-terror melodrama—and nonfiction (the Daniel Pearl snuff film, forerunner of later orange-jumpsuit beheading tapes.)
Terror porn has the same structure of melodramatic arousal: seductive excitement over the mounting threat, so to speak, the heated flush of the build-up, all the techno-foreplay with the super-sensitive buttons and the triggers that will set off the orgy of violence.

I do find it intriguing the way certain types of disaster scenario (frequently, and disingenuously, described as "unthinkable") are in point of fact, not only thinkable but thoroughly, morbidly fascinating, and indeed used to sell pop magazines. How we as a society interact with -- some might say dwell upon, obsessively -- certain fearful possibilities has for obvious reasons become a focal point for political critics in recent years (e.g., documentarian Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, and Adam Curtis's excellent three-part The Power of Nightmares). But the flirtation with disaster, with imagining futures that are not only suboptimal but which could fairly be called horrific, resonates with other diverse, curious and yet widespread risktaking behaviours, including playing with fire, riding rollercoasters, watching horror films, and voting.

The question that falls for our consideration: is there any way that preferred future scenarios can possibly match the visceral thrill, the can't-tear-your-eyes-away quality, of the nightmares which seem to have so little difficulty gaining traction? I know, I know. Happy doesn't sell. And until quite recently, even dystopian scenarios unfolding on a longer timeline (e.g., oil scarcity, sea level rise) didn't get too much attention -- probably because it's much harder for these problems to cut the requisite dramatic mustard than explosions and beheadings.

It is not a failure to engage the future or its uncertainties in toto that characterises American public discourse today. It's the (partly unwitting, yet) selective use of fearful images to galvanise public feeling, together with the lack of vividly expressed, preferred scenarios based on anything firmer than dogma or wishful thinking.

So who, really, are the go-to guys for post apocalyptic chaos and destruction?

Nominations are now open.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The compleat Wired future artifacts gallery 02007

An interesting by-product of blogging regularly is that you find out what you care about, by seeing what patterns emerge in what you decide to post. (As E.M. Forster put it, "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?") For instance, I have discovered that my top tag to date is "art" (22 posts), followed by "futures thinking" (21), "future-shock therapy" (14) and "politics" (13). The conception, visualisation and production of engaging futures objects and images, from standpoints psychological, philosophical and political, have emerged as major preoccupations. So, my doctoral dissertation-in-progress is heavily influenced by the fact that the manifestation of alternative futures experientially (including visually and tangibly) is where my energy seems to want to go.

A regular source of inspiration and amusement for us, and certainly the most widely known source of futures visualisations along these lines during the last few years, has been Wired magazine's back-page feature, "Found: Artifacts from the future". Sometimes arresting, and frequently clever, they're always worth a look. However, oddly enough, I don't know of anywhere that these have yet been assembled into an accessible online gallery. So I'll be putting them here at t.s.f., working backwards year by year. There's some great work here -- and of course, much thought is in the details -- click any image to enlarge.


[crayons] | Wired 15.01

[traffic fine] | Wired 15.02

[bathroom cabinet] | Wired 15.03

[nanobot spray] | Wired 15.04

[clone reunion] | Wired 15.05

[dog maker] | Wired 15.06

[comic book ads] | Wired 15.07

[GM fruit stand] | Wired 15.08

[birthday] | Wired 15.09

[halloween shopping] | Wired 15.10

[space waste] | Wired 15.11

[smart beer] | Wired 15.12

[Back to the 02006 collection | On to 02008...]

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Gaming the end of oil

What better way to breathe life into scenarios than to place life inside them? And what better way to explore and stretch our personal and collective capacity for coping with change than through games?
The freedom to engage in social experimentation and expression is surely the single most precious, fragile, and yet unrealised element of our democratic political mythos. Gaming the future, insofar as it implies the possibility of actually doing what we have for centuries only told ourselves we do, could be revolutionary.

~the sceptical futuryst, Gaming alternative futures (anything but text), June 02006

In our early 21st century stocktake of the global problematique, the ugly twin of climate change is peak oil. The former could be seen as the natural dimension of blowback from our foresight-free experiment in rapacious energy consumption from roughly the dawn of the industrial revolution onwards; the latter as its economic counterpart.

As readers of this blog are well aware, there are disturbing arguments in the wind about the potential for chaos arising from these tremendous forces (e.g. James Howard Kunstler's The Long Emergency), even if their plausibility is hotly disputed by some. Questions invariably arise in the course of this debate around the extent to which businesses, governments, and ordinary people are prepared for the magnitude of social disruption that could occur. I don't find it a difficult argument to swallow that our society is unprepared for any but the most sanguine, mild, and trivial of scenarios in this vein. To the extent the environmental doomsayers prove correct, in light of our individual psychological and collective political difficulties coping with risks of this type, social disruption would seem to follow with inexorable logic.

So to me it's interesting, and for obvious reasons encouraging, to see the emergence of popular simulations of the end of (cheap, readily available) oil.

One is the forthcoming video game, Frontlines: Fuel of War. Here's the trailer:

The narrative voiceover says (posted at Energy Bulletin, 27 August 02007):

Oil was running out.
It's what we grew up in.
Post middle east,
Post peak oil,
Post everything.
What they call the long emergency.
It started slow.
Little things at first.
Lines at the pump,
that hot summer of 2008 when the blackouts started lasting weeks.

They said it would get better.
Something would save us.

Biofuels, solar power, cleaner nuke plants, maybe.

The depression hit in 2012
Africa ran out of food, then we did too.

People stopped trying to do anything about the problem and just tried to survive.

We watched them starve for 40 years and it just didn't seem real. But pretty soon the scenes we used to watch on the news were happening just down the street.

It's been happening for years. Now we're at a tipping point.

I was 16 when the Chinese and the Russians figured out they'd rather fight us than each other. We didn't waste time forming the coalition.

Now, we're staring each other down over the last wells of the Caspian.

... This is where it's going to happen, in towns too small to have a name, built in two weeks by oil contractors.

It's 2024, the 21st century. People ask we how we let this happen. I tell them we always knew.

The storm is coming.

A pretty grim little poem.

This story serves as backdrop (or, if you prefer, pretext) for a military game of the shoot-em-up genre -- check out the game's website, complete with bombastic soundtrack that sounds just like a Hans Zimmer effort -- in short, it seems to be a thrilling Hollywood-style slice of apocalypse as entertainment.

Which begs the question, "what's the message players walk away with?", duly asked in a CNN article published yesterday about the new game:

While Frontlines: Fuel of War is one of the first video games to capitalize on the doom-and-gloom scenario of what might happen when the world runs out of oil, it's not the only video game focusing on energy as oil prices rise, developing nations use more and more crude, and the world grapples with global warming fears.
Most oil industry analysts say peak oil production is many decades, if not hundreds of years away, and a transition to other sources will likely be more orderly than the scenario depicted in Frontline.

But a small and growing number of experts -- some well-respected -- say peak oil production is close or has happened and the transition will be much more painful than mainstream analysts predict.

Either way, [Frank DeLise, general manager of Kaos Studios, the company behind the game] said he hopes people will get more out of the game than just an adrenaline rush.

"If they play this game they will walk away thinking 'wow, energy is a problem," he said.

Experts say video games can be fun as well as educational, although the outcome largely depends on the content.

"They could in fact lead to changes in attitudes, beliefs, and ultimately, changes in behavior," said Craig Anderson, a professor of psychology at Iowa State University who studies the effects of video games on people.
But Anderson, the psychologist, is concerned about the message that violent games like Fuel of War may send to players.

"It may well change attitudes towards the use of these tactics as a political tool," he said. Players may think "of course we have to use military tactics to go take oil."

~"The end of oil is just a game",, 19 January 02008

I'm interested to know what others think about this kind of game: does it seem more likely to teach people to expect (and submit to) the worst case, or, as the general manager of Kaos claims, to recognise -- and, presumably, take actions to mitigate -- such a nightmare scenario?

There is an interesting comparison to be made here with the alternate reality game, "World Without Oil" (WWO), which ran in mid-02007 and sought to engage a broad audience in a collective simulation or scenario exercise:

It's a "what if?" game.
What if there was an oil crisis?
Because an oil crisis has deep and subtle effects, we asked everyone to help us imagine what an oil crisis would really be like. That's how people played the game - first they read the official news and what other players were saying. Then they told the story of how a shortfall of oil was affecting their own lives, and what they were doing to cope.
Over 1900 people signed up as players of World Without Oil, and submitted over 1500 stories from inside the "global oil crisis of 2007." Their work comprises a rich, complex, and eerily plausible collective imagining of such an event, complete with practical courses of action to help prevent such an event from actually happening.

For example, HRCFS's own Jake Dunagan posted this contribution to help flesh out the story for the Hawaii region.

A very effective approach, according to the organisers of WWO:
For [participants] and over 50,000 active observers, the process of collectively imagining and collaboratively chronicling the oil shock brought strong insight about oil dependency and energy policy. More than mere "raising awareness," WWO made the issues real, and this in turn led to real engagement and real change in people's lives.

I wonder in which ways the two approaches are most effective in activating political concern, and beyond that, behaviour change: on the one hand, sophisticated imagery that, although interactive, is basically constrained to a pre-defined narrative; and on the other hand, a less richly pre-imagined, but more reality-integrated simulation?

Of course I don't presume that these types are pure, let alone necessarily or intrinsically separate. Indeed, it seems to me that elements of both types of game -- immersive narratives with an escapist, entertainment objective, and collective scenario-building with a broader social goal in mind -- will shortly be integrated in pursuit of greater effectiveness in bringing scenarios to life, and life to scenarios.

Assuming, of course, that peak oil doesn't get us first.

(Thanks to Ira Rohter for the CNN link. See an introductory QuickTime video about the WWO game here.)

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Good news for people who love bad news

This video, a short news clip ostensibly from an inundated New York City in 02051, has just appeared online, and is now taking off as a viral tidbit (posted just yesterday, and 5430 views already).

The clip appears at video hosting site (and YouTube competitor) Dailymotion, marked as "official content", and (in an effort by the makers, it seems, to stay in-scenario a fraction longer) was posted in the name of the supposed news company behind the future artifact, CNC News. The video blurb reads:

A helicopter crew from CNC News captured this shocking view of Manhattan under 25 feet of water. Is this our future?

Catchy! But somehow the change of tense here, situating us one moment as witnesses to a future in progress, and the very next -- all too soon! -- plonking us back in a freshly minted 02008 talking about "our future", jars with me. A missed opportunity to extend the suspension of disbelief, I suppose. A URL comes up at the end of the clip, but that's as far as the "future news" conceit extends, because redirects to an ordinary page of the National Geographic Channel website, promoting an upcoming documentary. Six Degrees Could Change the World, screening this February, will examine the potential consequences of global warming, degree by degree. The (conventional) trailer currently showing at that page (complete with a voiceover that must be Alec Baldwin, in his most dramatic role in years) promises many more alarming visualisations of the potential devastation wrought by global warming, in a high production-value narrated documentary format.

Further evidence, then, that every conceivable variation of the destruction of New York is aesthetically irresistible and bound to crop up sooner or later. But this time, in the form of a disappointingly shallow (and -- so long as I'm complaining -- unconvincingly animated) future artifact. It's not bad; but it's not really groundbreaking either.

I don't want to jump the gun here -- maybe there's a more complex puzzle from NatGeo whose other scattered pieces I just haven't come across yet -- but I'm now officially on the lookout for a diegetically multi-layered evocation of the possible future consequences, and experiences, of global warming that can't be ignored by dint of either hyperbole or dullness. I fear that, with this show, we may be looking at a trumped up documentary-by-numbers, to shelve alongside such other favourite global-warming visual genres as mindless entertainment, self-satire, and clinical data.

Meanwhile, however, this clip is sure to succeed in getting many more people to tune in. And if nothing else, that's good marketing.


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Climate change for fun and profit

In recent months, amid the general clamour about global warming, there have been reports (New York Times; Wall Street Journal) linking shifts in fashion and clothes manufacture to climate change. I should confess that few topics interest me less than fashion -- perhaps only the overlapping subject of celebrity lifestyles outrates it on the triviality index -- but that example illustrates how, sometimes, developments at this outer layer are interwoven with threads of change I'm motivated to follow more closely.

The above images are another example. They come from an early 02007 print advertising campaign for Italian fashion label Diesel, called "Global Warming Ready". The tensions surrounding it provide an opportunity to consider the politics of commercial futures imagery.

It isn't difficult to see why the campaign was controversial. From a Washington Post article:

These ads are tongue in cheek, but that may not be apparent to anyone but Diesel customers, who've come to expect this sort of thing. In the past, Diesel has run ads advocating the smoking of 145 cigarettes a day (for that "sexy cough") and the drinking of urine to stay young. The company has also attempted to "sponsor" happiness. The irony is of the dark, European sort, best consumed in the company of Gauloises and knowing laughter.

It's true -- not everyone enjoys this species of irony. I first came across this series via the waterlogged Rio shot (third from the top), which was noted disapprovingly in the groundbreaking "journal of the mental environment", Adbusters magazine (edition #72). Duncan's Print, a blog on print advertising, also reported some other unabashedly negative reponses:

Mel Young, at New Consumer, calls for a boycott of Diesel’s clothing line. “Diesel is appealing the worst aspect of human nature – one of greed and selfishness. Perhaps the people who own Diesel might like to watch films of children dying in floods in Bangladesh, where existing floods are being exacerbated by climate change. It might just get them to understand that making ‘funny’ little advertising campaigns out of misery really is beneath contempt.”

Paul Harrison at The Varsity Online is similarly scathing. “It is clear that Diesel is far less concerned with fomenting political activism and lifestyle change than they are with selling their brand. As far as corporate social campaigns go, this attitude is hardly surprising, but Diesel’s campaign is particularly inept, blatantly self-interested, and woefully uninformed.”

Now, I'm no Diesel customer, and following this encounter, I'm no more interested in buying overpriced clothing than I was before. Also, I'm a subscriber to Adbusters, whose anti-authoritarian sensibility and culture-jamming aesthetic I greatly appreciate.


I have to say, part of me welcomes this humorous -- even cavalier, I suppose -- treatment of global warming, an issue frequently treated with an earnestness and gravity amounting to pretension (the feature which, ironically, most turns me off about fashion). Subversive play on a weighty matter of public concern was, not surprisingly, precisely the intention. The Post again:

People have become used to learning about global warming in a serious and science-heavy fashion, says [the company's creative director]. Spoofing the issue provides a "bigger shock," he says, possibly provoking consumers to think more.

Possibly. The funny thing about the "Global Warming Ready" campaign is that Diesel gets to have it both ways. Its arch attitude represents the triumph of cleverness over meaning, of sarcasm over what's sacred. It speaks to a culture of parody, in which the meta-news is invoked before the actual news is digested. [...] The photographic landscapes of Diesel's print campaign are surreal, but certain conventions of the fashion world are secure: The models are still svelte, and stylishness still triumphs over all. You can't be too well-dressed for the apocalypse.

The point is well taken: these photo-illustrations, despite ostensibly supporting a cause -- climate change awareness -- maintain an expensively-dressed arm's length from its more serious implications.

But how offended ought we to be? After all, the "culture of parody" is only part of our culture.

This usage of future imagery contains several dimensions, and might be evaluated differently in view of each. Here are some that spring to mind:

As playful comment on global warming, it's not vastly different from the scuba-like footwear we saw not too long ago.

As ingeniously conceived and smoothly executed "future" artwork, it's comparable to the (similarly themed, post-sea level rise) Mattingly images I enjoyed so much and blogged here recently.

As a piece of shameless future-colonising, it's comparable to product placement in feature films with future settings -- but more forthright, and to that extent less insidious.

And, as a ultimately profit-motivated contribution to the welter of images of the future out there, well, I side with the Adbusters set in wishing companies weren't so single-minded in turning everything to the pursuit of profit. (The fact that they are is a systemic problem we'd more wisely blame on corporate structures and capitalist economics than on this particular company.)

It's culture-jamming the culture-jammers... which is fine, to my mind, even if I happen to disagree -- because in the war of memes, there's always another move to be made. How would the images speak differently if, instead of being labelled with the brand that commissioned them, they were generically rebranded "The Fashion Industry" -- global-warming ready? (Really -- how ready is anyone?) Its naivete laid bare; the absurd shallowness of its engagement with a massive issue betrayed.

That's one response.

Another would be to recognise, and even abhor, the vacuity and moral bankruptcy of the motives, while cracking a smile at the execution. Can no one join me in chuckling at the additional irony of all this from a brand named after a fossil fuel?

Or perhaps the prospect of global warming should be considered taboo, a topic to be handled with circumspection and care, and not invoked in satirical -- or commercial -- contexts. In contrast to the hypersensitivity of responses along these lines (here's another case in point), it seems to me more useful to regard climate change (in whatever form, and with whatever causes) as a reality we'll have to learn to live with -- which includes understanding that it will be coopted, distorted and refracted through the full panoply of political agendas.

One last point: Dator recently (26/11/07) commented as follows, in an email exchange about the relatively sudden appearance of mainstream awareness of environmental issues that many futurists and ecologists have tirelessly pointed out for decades:

The chorus is indeed swelling -- from total denial of any problems to near hysteria. All the more reason for us to put the effort in to helping people surf the tsunamis, and not just cry in despair or denial -- or rage.

It may be that "surfing the tsunamis of change" -- the metaphor he has long used for describing the invention and pursuit of the best scenarios we can, given the forces of change to which we are subject (example) -- is too glib for some tastes. For my part, it's the most apposite of the many metaphors for living with change that I've heard: we do, I think, need to learn to surf, not rage against the waves (or in this case bemoan the narrowness of corporate priorities, or the entirely unsurprising superficiality of the fashion industry). We must find ways to turn the considerable momentum of the prevailing cultural tides to our own ends, and to enjoy ourselves in the process.

Because, as far as anyone can see, not only is the water rising -- the waves are getting bigger.

(Images via I Believe in Advertising blog. Also, for the very keen: this not particularly good video from the same campaign, which is rather less eloquent than the stills alone.)

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The future of driving, today. Not.

A conversation with a client this afternoon about driverless cars reminded me of a striking, full-page BMW advertisement I'd seen back in 02005, in a British broadsheet newspaper. I managed to track it down online (click for enlargement)...

Bear in mind that the Brits drive on the left side of the road, continental Europeans on the right. The text begins:

By the end of 2007 you will not be allowed to use a right-hand drive car on the roads of mainland Europe.

It's a ruling BMW has vigorously opposed but our lawyers were eventually routed and it was left to our engineers to fight a rearguard action.

Their riposte was one of startling élan: hands-free steering.

It uses a combination of sensors and VAT (Voice Activated Technology) and does away with the steering wheel altogether.

All the dials and controls are mounted in the centre of the dash on a pivoting section which can be angled towards either of the front seats.

I remember, at first, being taken in by the ad, which on closer inspection turned out to be an April Fool's Day prank. What I didn't realise until today is that this spoof ad was part of an annual tradition at BMW (in the UK, anyway). Says the company website:

Each year WCRS (BMW's advertising agency) produces a tactical April Fool's day advert which appears in the broadsheet press on April 1st only.

The April Fool's day concepts are designed to teeter on the verge of credibility, therefore taking in scores of slightly less vigilant readers. The concepts tend to focus on a new and revolutionary piece of technology from BMW, yet push the idea just beyond the plausible.

The tongue-in-cheek adverts take exactly the same format as all non-spoof BMW adverts, hence it is down to the reader to notice the difference between the plausible and the non-plausible.

April Fool's day adverts have become a BMW tradition primarily aimed at BMW drivers as a once-a-year opportunity for them to drop their guard and have a laugh at themselves. They have all the wit generic to many of BMW's brand adverts and allow the intelligent owner to feel part of the BMW tradition.

The ideas in the past have covered a range of themes and ideas to test the credulous and humour the knowing:
  • The new in-cabin Klimatabeiter Climate Control System (KCCS), which - supposedly - can recreate any of the world's 23 registered climates inside your BMW and comes as standard in BMW 7 Series models.

  • The 'Toot and Calm Horn' (T.C.H.) system, which creates a noise that manages to calm, rather than aggravate the other driver so reducing the risk of road rage.

  • Other ideas have included remote control gadgets worthy of James Bond, with windscreen wipers on the esteemed BMW badge and insect-repellent windscreens!

Some of the concepts are more self-evidently whimsical prank material than others. I realise, on reflection, that steering-wheel free cars and driverless cars aren't at all the same thing. But this ad's concept, the former, neatly plays into the long-anticipated science fiction image of the latter.

An encounter with an ad such as this, in a credible context (British broadsheets, on days other than April 1, are pretty stern) can pull off the trick of having a presumably possible future technology take you by surprise. It thereby achieves a response we like to aim for with some of our future artifacts: a minor hoax, or simulation, of a possible future insinuated into the present; a sense of the future arriving early. The subject matter of this example is a little too benign to qualify as future-shock therapy, but it's a nice, playful bit of future-forward design (and self-parody) nonetheless.

I do very much like the ad company's concept brief for this series, which "tend[s] to focus on a new and revolutionary piece of technology ... yet push[ing] the idea just beyond the plausible." (I'm also highly amused by idea of pretentious BMW-driving jerks enjoying a "once-a-year opportunity ... to drop their guard and have a laugh at themselves".)

My favourites from among the other mock ads:

I also learned today that Spanish car manufacturer SEAT announced "the ultimate in 21st Century motor racing – the driverless touring car" -- on 1 April 02007 (report at Autoblog). Another hoax, it turns out, but one that strikes me more as a witless publicity ploy than a revealing and amusing play on future expectations (sure, I'll cut a clever publicity ploy a lot more slack).

Still, just this week, automotive giant GM announced -- apparently serious -- plans to develop a driverless car (report at The Australian).

Funny the way the line between absurd, science-fiction fantasy and prototype is constantly in motion. Dator's second law strikes again.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Posthuman New York

"If all the insects were to disappear from the earth, within 50 years all life on earth would end. If all human beings disappeared from the earth, within 50 years all forms of life would flourish."
~Jonas Salk (attrib. by Sir Ken Robinson, TED, Monterey, February 02006)

2 days: New York City subway system floods
Timeline: Scientific American Image: Mondolithic

2-4 years: Weed covered streets cave in
Timeline: Scientific American Image: Mondolithic

300 years: New York's suspension bridges have fallen
Timeline: Scientific American Image: Mondolithic

Image: Mondolithic

Wending its way to me through the US Postal Service as I type is Alan Weisman's 02007 book The World Without Us, described by Bill McKibben (quoted in a spooky animated intro to the book's website) as "one of the grandest thought experiments of our time" -- in principle, right up the proverbial alley of the sceptical futuryst.

The book imagines "what would happen if the human species were suddenly extinguished [...] a sort of pop-science ghost story, in which the whole earth is the haunted house" (from a New Yorker review extracted at Amazon). When I first heard about it, I assumed for some reason that it was a picture book, which turns out not to be the case. But these days a compelling bit of apocalyptic fantasy doesn't seem to be confined to text for long, and in July 02007, an interview with Weisman appeared in Scientific American accompanied by a series of illustrations envisaging the gradual decay of New York City. These were produced by Mondolithic Studios, an illustration and design firm in Vancouver with a strong record in futuristic and science fiction imagery.

On the basis of this work, report the artists, an additional image along the same lines was commissioned by Expresso magazine in Lisbon, Portugal, depicting the city's 25 de Abril Bridge, to lend local flavour to their coverage (see below). It was incorporated into a slideshow at the magazine's website posted 26 October 02007 (and featuring the theme from Blade Runner as background music!)

Lisboa e a ponte 25 de Abril vistas de Almada, 300 anos depois
Image: Mondolithic

I'm fascinated to learn that a feature film adaptation of The World Without Us is in the works, slated for release in 02009 (there's a pdf prospectus at the book's website). It's being scripted by Michel Fessler (March of the Penguins) and directed by Jacques Malaterre, who made a three-part documentary series called A Species' Odyssey (review) about the evolution of humanity.

I'll reserve judgment on all this until I actually get a chance to read the book, but I want to say I find The World Without Us phenomenon interesting for two reasons.

The first is the fact that this "thought experiment", though initiated in text, simply begs to be manifested visually. Regular readers of t.s.f. will be thoroughly unsurprised that I see here an example of my usual contention; that good quality futures thinking wants to be more visual and visceral than it has been hitherto. This is the way to get through to people. I hope, of course, that the film version manages to deliver on the tantalising promise suggested by these eerily beautiful images dreamed up by the artists at Mondolithic. What impact the film might have, if any, I can't really say anything meaningful about for now.

The second point I want to make -- as much a bookmark for my own future reference as anything -- is that, while addressing what may seem a rather morbid theme, its popularity suggests a resonance with what I see as our contemporary mood of pop existentialism, associated with big-picture threats such as climate change. (The book has spent several months on the NY Times best seller list, and is currently #25.) I can't do justice to this line of thought here, but in short (and contrary to the pejorative reading it may invite -- "we're narcissistically obsessed with our own demise"), I wonder if this couldn't more helpfully be regarded as positive evidence of a sort of coming of age. There may be, it seems to me, a long delayed and long denied -- especially in callow Western culture -- collective realisation of our species' mortality, akin to the experience each of us has in our childhood or youth of awakening to the prospect of our own death, out there on the horizon. It's the same thing I think about when I consider Jared Diamond's bestselling book Collapse -- that these kinds of salutary thoughts are gaining currency might be seen as signs of emerging maturity.


(From the movie outline:)
Given the rapidly increasing human population and the phenomenal reach of our technologies, humankind has been become a real force of nature. Human activities have shaped our planet for better or for worse. We are involuntarily changing the climate; alerting, polluting and eradicating ecosystems; and driving evolution as other organisms struggle to adapt to a new human-made world. So, what if humankind suddenly vanished?

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Human Lust Inducing Virus

I just got back from two weeks on the mainland United States, including my first real exposure to The South.

It was a terrific trip.

But more on that later. For this, my first post of 02008, we might as well pick up where we left off last year -- with Howard Rheingold in Honolulu, and close encounters of the oddly futuristic kind.

There was what I half-remembered as a future artifact anecdote, about which I couldn't quite recall enough to muster a coherent question over dinner on Rheingold's last night in town, in his 01988 work Excursions to the Far Side of the Mind: A Book of Memes. It's out of print and not digitised yet (sigh) so I had to wait for a hard copy from the library to refresh my memory.

Today I found it, in the article titled "Saturday Night with the Technarchists", Rheingold's eyewitness account of a characteristically earth-shaking show by the pyrotechnicians at Survival Research Laboratories. But the bit I'd wanted to follow up wasn't about SRL. His story concludes thus (pp. 45-46):

As soon as I unpried my fingers from their grip on the chainlink fence and turned to leave, someone whose face I didn't see handed me a small matchbox-sized container. I shook it. Nothing rattled. I looked at it, noted that it was a clever kind of flyer of some kind, and put it in my pocket.

The next day, when I reached in my pocket, looking for something else, I pulled out an unexpected object. It was a matchbox, made of flimsy cardboard, covered by a photocopy of a scanning electron photomicrographic image of a gang of viruses. Printed notices covered four sides.

I held the box up to the light and took a close look at one of the two broader sides, which said: "HLIV -- Human Lust Inducing Virus -- developed by OK GENETIC ENGINEERING to solve an important world problem -- what to do when he/she just wants to be friends. IMPORTANT -- OK GENETIC ENGINEERING has no idea how this product will effect [sic] the ecological balance in Northern California. DO NOT OPEN THIS BOX without reading the warning on the back!"

I turned it over. The proclamation on the other side said: "WARNING -- OK GENETIC ENGINEERING has not received permission to release this organism from NIH. We used a Stanford patent without paying the license fee, and we do not know how to file an Environmental Impact Statement. We are distributing HLIV free. Please make your own decision whether or not to release these organisms."

I read the message on one of the narrow sides, where the match-striker would be, and it said: "This box contains at least 220 HLIV virions in culture." On the other narrow side: "OK GENETIC ENGINEERING -- J.P. Malloy, Pres. -- 'Quality Clones Since 1984.'" I opened it. Inside, a neatly typed label, glued to the bottom of the matchbox, said: "uh-oh." It was like getting a message from an apollonian evangelist on the way home from a dionysian rapture.

I keep the box on a shelf, near the coach where guests sit down in my living room, and use it as an observational instrument. Not one person has failed to open it.

Feeling intrepid, I googled "human lust inducing virus" and got six hits, which led me to the website of Judy Malloy (J.P. Malloy, Pres.), "a magic realist who works at the conjunction of poetry, hypernarrative, and information art" -- and the person responsible for the boxes of "HLIV". Her 01988 article in Leonardo about this work requires a subscription I don't have, but a version on a currently inactive page of her website is available via an Internet Archive copy dated 3 June 02001. (Isn't the web great?)

To gather the information for the projects discussed in this paper, I formed my own research and development companies. Not only was it easier to acquire vendor information as President of OK Research, OK Genetic Engineering, and Bad information, but also, by becoming a part of the subject myself, I was able to look at and describe it as an insider. In the way court painters became a part of the court, I have tried to become a part of the technical community.

Such was her ingeniously subversive starting point, described in the introduction. The following comes from her description of the OK Genetic Engineering project -- quoted verbatim; only the ellipses are mine. (For the record, a brief outline of this project in more or less the same terms also appeared in the Winter 01987 edition of Whole Earth Review.)
As President of OK Genetic Engineering (1983-1985), I collected information about genetic engineering research and development. I used that information to make a series of reports and products -- small reproducible combinations of words and images that were distributed as free handouts or by mail.
In the first months, as publicity for the project and to find out how people feel about genetic engineering, I drove a company car [...] with "OK Genetic Engineering - Quality Clones Since 1984" painted on its side panels. [note that it was actually 1983 when the car took to the streets of Berkeley] Typical reactions were: "Can they really do that?", "What's that stuff you do that begins with a 'C'?" "Do you have any jobs?"
OKGE put out three products and five reports. The products were HLIV (Human Lust Inducing Virus), SH gene (Shrinkage Hormone Gene) and NFD bacteria (Nuclear Fuel Devouring Bacteria). the five reports dealt with various aspects of the biotechnology industry. Some used slogans from the information. Others were based on my personal experience as president of OKGE.
I distributed over 400 [handmade] boxes of Human Lust Inducing Virus and had quite a few favorable reports about its efficacy. It appears that most people do not worry about disturbing the ecological balance when it concerns a product they feel they really need. I know of only two people who choose not to open the box. One, a rock musician, was motivated by environmental concerns. The other, a gentleman in his eighties, said that he was old enough to know when he had enough of a good thing.

A marvellous bit of interactive art that seems suitably ahead of its time, in topic and approach alike, for 01983. It also has an air of future-shock therapy about it -- and raises an ethical dimension that I haven't yet discussed much here at this blog, but which does require further attention. Malloy reflected on this aspect of the HLIV experiment some years later, during a 01997 interview on the WELL:

[I stood] on the street corners in San Francisco in appropriate/inapproriate outfits and hand[ed] out containers of "Human Lust Inducing Virus". Lots of people wouldn't think it was art, but nevertheless might be interested in the concept of whether or not to open a container that clearly stated it could be harmful to the environment but contained something you might want.

It really doesn't matter whether the recipients of the HLIV thought it was art or not. What matters is the hopefully the work stimulated them to think about how far they would go in the use of a genetically engineered product. However, it was also clear - whether they thought it was art or not - that it was a performance of some kind.

If instead, I had choosen to address the subject of lust by hiring actors to go into bars and make dates with people they met and then behave in certain ways. I could have designed an interesting experiment. I could even have put people in a similar position as the HLIV did, but the HLIV was hypothetical - stimulating people to *thought*. If I did the work in real life, I could trigger behavior that I would have no way of predicting and - unless it was made clear to the participants *in advance* - I might be effecting other people's lives in ways that could have serious repercussions, ways that I might not be able to envision.

I can see that someone might think this was art. That's the problem I think we all need to look at as our work begins to cross these boundaries. There is an uncomfortable similarity between work that is designed to interfere with someone's life without that person's knowledge and the thinking behind Nazi genetic experiments.
In my hypothetical HLIV bar situation, it might be ok to do this if I talked to the participants before hand and explained exactly what I was doing even though I'm aware that this could slant the results. Otherwise, even if they guessed that it was a work of art because the theatrical nature was apparent, they might misunderstand its intent or be sensitive in some way I couldn't foresee to this alteration of their environment.

Now, the extent to which ethics figures in the manifestation of disturbing futures does depend, I think, on the extent to which people could reasonably mistake them for facts. In FoundFutures:Chinatown, for instance, we were careful to label all the most prominent bird flu artifacts with future dates -- a decade away, in order to "stimulate people to thought" (to paraphrase Malloy), yet without inviting panic (witness the Boston bomb scare in 02007), or unflattering comparisons to Nazi genetic experiments.

Rheingold's loungeroom guests, like Malloy's other subjects exposed to Human Lust Inducing Virus, may have been unperturbed by the "warnings" perhaps because the matchboxes spoke with an artistic or satirical voice, a parody of the presumably stentorian tones of virus distributors. (But what do I know, I've only read about them.)

In all, I do find myself wondering how to gauge responses to future artifacts more systematically, aspiring as I do to an understanding grounded in something more solid than speculation as to how encounters with embodied futures really affect what people think. This, coupled with the ethical issue, makes for a pretty lumpy methodological soup.

I also wonder how the experiment with "Human Lust Inducing Virus" would fare these days.

And I wonder where I can get some.

You might think of it as paradise, but Hawaii can be such a lonely place.