Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Sponsors of Utopia

Speaking of pregnant dudes, here's an ad for vodka:

Image via HalfDay

Huh? No, it doesn't really make sense to me either. The general idea seems to be that after 25 years of the same campaign, "Absolut [witticism]", the Swedish brand wanted to reinvent itself. Old vodka, new bottles? No: same vodka, same bottles... different ads. As this New York Times article explains, it made a switch back in 02006, and a year later tried something else again, alighting on the current strategy:

Drinkers are invited to imbibe "in an Absolut World," a fanciful, even surreal, place where common sense prevails and just deserts are always on the menu.

On Planet Absolut, for instance, men can get pregnant, the Curse of the Billy Goat is lifted from the hapless Chicago Cubs and the garish billboards in Times Square are replaced by masterpiece paintings. Lying leaders are exposed by their Pinocchio noses, protesters and the police wage street fights with feather pillows, nice Manhattan apartments cost $300 a month and it takes only one exercise lap in a pool for a fatty to become a hottie.

This effort has been running across a range of media for over a year now, and at the company website you can submit your own ideas about what for you would constitute an "Absolut world" and seek to have them realised visually (most are somewhat dull, I found). However, the campaign has recently garnered quite a bit of attention for this:

Image via LA Plaza [LA Times]

I found the campaign via a recent Reason magazine article, which explains:

In early March, Absolut ran an ad in Mexican magazines as part of its "In an Absolut World" campaign. The ad featured a map of North America from the 1830s, when Mexico still controlled great portions of land it eventually coughed up one way or another to the United States. If the real world were as perfect as it sometimes seems when you're smashed on vodka, Absolut suggested coyly, the Dallas Cowboys would be Mexico's team, not America's, and the Beach Boys would've had to settle for Nebraska girls.
The controversial Absolut ads crossed the Rio Grande via the Internet, and U.S. bloggers with anti-immigration leanings, already sensitive to the idea of being undermined by an army of dishwashers and day laborers, demanded a boycottini.

~Greg Beato, "Absolut Faux Pas: When vodka ads offend nativists", Reason, 10 April 02008.

It's amazing what gets people riled. Of course, the company must been aware this could happen, which puts an interesting spin on the not-quite-an-apology blog post at the company website:

This particular ad, which ran in Mexico, was based upon historical perspectives and was created with a Mexican sensibility. In no way was this meant to offend or disparage, nor does it advocate an altering of borders, nor does it lend support to any anti-American sentiment, nor does it reflect immigration issues. Instead, it hearkens to a time which the population of Mexico may feel was more ideal.

As a global company, we recognize that people in different parts of the world may lend different perspectives or interpret our ads in a different way than was intended in that market. Obviously, this ad was run in Mexico, and not the US -- that ad might have been very different.

~Paula Eriksson (VP Corporate Communications, V&S Absolut Spirits), "In an ABSOLUT World according to Mexico", 4 April 02008.

As I type, there are 3,384 comments to this post; quite a few of which aggressively express, shall we say, Absolut disappointment.

Let this be a lesson to companies being cavalier about riding into chauvinist country. (But it ought to be said, if this is seriously disturbing to that many people, the ad is not the problem.)

Some of the series do contain moderately interesting ideas...

Image via Duncan's Print

...such as works of art replacing premium advertising space in public -- ironic, isn't it?...

Image via HalfDay

...factories spouting (presumably) harmless bubbles, instead of toxic exhaust...

Image via Advert-Eyes

...kits to assemble "The Perfect Man"...

Image via Advert-Eyes

...and ubiquitous limos, mansions and red carpets. You know what? -- bring back the wafer-thin pandering to Mexican nationalism.

(There are plenty more -- try here if you haven't had enough yet.)

So, I should come clean: I've always enjoyed advertising. At age seven I remember setting up a cassette player in front of the television, and recording the ad breaks (why I didn't just use videotape, I'll ask my seven year old self first chance I get). Years later I see part of the attraction was that many of the best communicators in the world ply that trade, and make a handsome living at it. But I remember deciding years ago against being a copywriter, because -- like a diplomat -- your messages aren't really your own. This to me is a significant problem with much corporate imagery. Its coherence and integrity are always at risk, because the bottom line is the bottom line, and where that competes with the more profound things -- like engaging people in a thoughtful process of articulating their preferred world -- you get throwaway gags. Seriously; there's the signature of a frustrated idealist in the design of this campaign: "We believe everyone's a visionary" (quote from the animated intro).

I don't mean to say I think a lot of this isn't good artwork, or conceptually worthy up to a point -- it really is, and in a different setting, each of these images would qualify as nifty art. (The "Perfect Man" kit compares well with any of Wired's recent artifacts from the future.) But the advertising context cheapens it. This is not an anti-corporate argument, exactly, it's just my take on an observed lack of integrity that frequently emanates from this sector, and other quarters too.

Perhaps a more subtle association with the brand would have been interesting: make people work for it a little bit, draw their own connections. Minimise the Absolut bottle and slogan, even hide it altogether. Let these visions in all their odd extremeness -- if such be the aim -- speak for themselves. Such an approach might have appeared less like a corporate endorsement of any particular eccentric possibility, and more like of a platform for others to speak, which seems to be the vibe they were after.

But that's all trying to redeem something irredeemable, in the sense that what this really makes me long for is a compelling multimedia conversation about alternative futures (sure, including fantasies, why not?) that isn't sponsored by an alcoholic beverage. The way things stand, instead of a platform for crafting and negotiating visions of the future, you get a weird hodgepodge of fantastical, cartoonish, utopian, and casually offensive ideas all whispering "buy this". I know, I know: they're trying to sell vodka, not change the world. But that's exactly my point: this is the forum, and the form, in which our ideals are being discussed, and -- even more so -- neglected. (Our political process, for the most part, refuses to touch them.) That's not the company's fault -- I'm saying that if we had a healthy discourse about our ideals, this discursive space about the ideal would not be a mere blank for the vodka merchants to fill in.

At any rate, if there's anything to take away from the Mexico ad, and its comically irresponsible fiddling with the heartstrings of U.S. patriots, it could well be this: We are entitled to query the motives of advertisers, and when they fall short in any way whatsoever, to make obscene anonymous threats at their websites.

It's our Absolut right as consumers.

And by the way, in my ideal world, all that vodka would be turned into single malt scotch.

Monday, April 28, 2008

It's a small world, after all


To these recent posts about envisaging end-of-the-world ("after all") type scenarios, we can add the work of Lori Nix, who makes miniature dioramas of grim, sometimes amusing scenes, and takes pictures of them. It's The World Without Us, writ small...

Photo: Lori Nix, Vacuum Showroom [The City], 02006

Photo: Lori Nix [For "The Catastrophist View", New York Magazine, 28 October 02007]

Photo: Lori Nix [Featured at Wired, 21 April 02008]

Photo: Lori Nix, Natural History [The City] 02005

Photo: Lori Nix, Great Hall [The City] 02006

Blockbuster special effects a lá Day After Tomorrow are awesome — even that silly ice-encased Statue of Liberty — but you don't need $100 million to plausibly depict post-apocalyptic ruin. Case in point: the unsettling dioramas photographer Lori Nix constructs out of materials like wood, buckwheat flour, insulation foam, and acrylic gel. In her series The City, she imagines abandoned municipal settings where nature is taking its ineluctable revenge.
As a photographer, Nix has very traditional methods; none of her work is done digitally, and she even prints her own photos in a color lab.

~Asami Novak, "Nature Conquers Micropolis in Dioramas Photographed to Look Real", Wired, 21 April 02008.

Part of an interview with Lori Nix by Jonah Samson, in Cool Hunting, 11 May 02007:

Q: The newer stuff seems to have less obvious humor than the earlier work and some of the scenes, even though they are incredibly beautiful, are also feel very "it's the end of the world." Can you talk about that progression?

A: There are still humorous things, but they're more tucked away. It's not quite so obvious. I started the whole model thing while I was living in Ohio, and then I transplanted myself to New York eight years ago. I'm getting older and life is getting harder. I think I have less of a carefree spirit. I have worry about bigger things, like bills and money. I think my whole nature is turning a little darker, just from living in an urban environment. I also think that I’m getting more mature in my work and taking bigger risks—wanting to do more grand–scale scenes. I think that if I transplanted myself back to the Midwest, the scenes would become more simplistic again, because I really feed off of my environment. I think just being in the city, I'm more interested in architecture and I'm seeing it everywhere I turn.

Finally, a word or two from the artist's website:

Lori Nix is an artist who bends the line between truth and illusion in her photographs. She accomplishes this by photographing miniatures and models which illuminate her interest in the disaster movies of the 1970s and her memories of growing up in Kansas—a place that seems to attract disasters like no other.
In her most recent work, Nix has left Kansas behind as a subject, and, although depictions of disaster are still prominent in this new work, she has begun to explore situations that are as eerie and ominous as her former work was clear and present. This new work is charged with anxiety and uncertainty as witnesses to her previous disasters have become bystanders waiting for something to happen.

~Jeffrey Hoone, Director, Light Work

I much prefer the decay of intimate, mundane stuff that we're not used to associating with apocalypse (the top two of the images above are my favourites in this line). Somehow, portrayals of crumbling public buildings of the library-and-museum genre seem a bit obvious.

Nix's other work, while not set in a grandly posthuman future, is imbued with a similar melancholy. It's great stuff, in a surprisingly eloquent medium.

Photo: Lori Nix, Three Figures [Some Other Place]

Photo: Lori Nix [Featured at Cool Hunting, 11 May 02007]

Friday, April 25, 2008

Fatigue, irritability, and much, much more!

Since the Nissan old suit, I've been curious about other wearable simulators. Check this out...

The Empathy Belly® Pregnancy Simulator | Image: Birthways, Inc.

"The Empathy Belly"® Pregnancy Simulator lets you know what it feels like to be pregnant! It is a multi-component, weighted "garment" that will -- through medically accurate simulation -- enable men, women, teenage girls and boys to experience over 20 symptoms and effects of pregnancy, including:
  • Weight gain of 30 pounds (13.6 kg.)
  • Fetal kicking and stroking movements
  • Shallow breathing and shortness of breath
  • Increased blood pressure, pulse and body temperature
  • Bladder pressure and frequency of urination
  • Low backaches; shift in center of gravity; waddling
  • Fatigue, irritability, and much, much more!

Is this for real, I wondered? Turns out that, yes, it is...

"I wish you were pregnant for a day," she said. "Just to feel what it’s like!"

Millions of women have expressed similar fantasies to their husbands and boyfriends, which explains the ongoing success of "The Empathy Belly" pregnancy simulator.
As an educational tool, the Empathy Belly has numerous applications.

Hollywood uses it to train actresses preparing for pregnant roles, although the suits are too cumbersome to wear during actual scenes.

Ford Motor Co. engineers have worn them to design more pregnant-friendly cars, and sociologists have used them to study attitudes about pregnancy in the workplace.

Hospitals use the belly to give expecting fathers a taste of the physical and psychological impact of pregnancy. And it is also widely used with teenage boys and girls to encourage celibacy (or birth control).

The simulator is meant to be worn for only 30 minutes. In order to wear it for more than three hours in an unsupervised environment, I had to sign multiple health waivers.
My wife squeezes my fake body parts and is amused to see me walk like Baby Huey, the oversized cartoon duck. Mission accomplished. But she also notes I am not experiencing any heartburn (her archnemesis) or water retention in my legs and ankles. She’s absolutely correct, but a suit like this could never 100 percent duplicate her experience.
Overall, simulated motherhood wasn’t too much of an ordeal until the evening, when Stacy convinced me to sleep in the suit for "the full experience." I took her advice and grabbed a couch cushion to use as a body pillow. Resting on my back for the first time, it felt like a rhino was stomping on my stomach in hiking boots.

I spent the entire night shifting between three different positions: laying on my right or left sides and propped up sitting against the couch cushion. Each time I switched positions, I felt the rhino’s boots kick in again. And I asked myself: How do pregnant women get any serious sleep?

Answer: They often don’t.

~Darren Garnick, "Labor of love: Dad tries 'Belly' on for size", Boston Herald, 9 July 02007.

Garnick's 24 hours of simulated pregnancy earned him a measure of notoriety. Other men have since taken up the challenge, for instance, the hosts of Internet TV show Dadlabs; "An edgy, fun and Informative show for dads and the women who tolerate and/or love them".

(Video posted 2 April 02008.)

Meanwhile, the same company can also outfit you to get a feel for the adverse health effects of heavy smoking, with "The Empathy Lungs"™ C.O.P.D. Simulator -- C.O.P.D. stands for "Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (which is comprised primarily of Emphysema and/or Chronic Bronchitis), as well as Asthma and Lung Cancer."

Although like all infomercials it verges on self-parody, to me this really is a fascinating intervention. A couple of observations made during the video by Empathy Lungs co-inventor Linda Ware:

Both I, and the professionals I interviewed, all agreed on one fact: that whatever wrongdoing or self-destructive behaviour people are engaged in, be it smoking, drinking too much, overeating until they're obese etc, people are experts at rationalising and staying in denial about how much harm they are causing themselves.
Given this pervasive denial of smokers, and knowing as an educator that experience is a much more persuasive teacher than just words, I set out to develop a device that would simulate the experience of C.O.P.D. to let smokers get a sneak preview of the probable future if they kept smoking.
The Empathy Lungs is a multi-component garment, put on only by a professional in the medical, educational, or social service fields. It is designed to be worn once by each person, for as little as ten minutes, in an office or classroom setting. In a medically accurate manner, the Empathy Lungs realistically simulates ten of the physical and emotional symptoms of C.O.P.D.
The exciting thing about the Empathy Lungs is that, since it gives people an experience that is tangible, here-and-now, visceral and emotional, it gets past the wall of denial. You put it on someone, and suddenly they feel debilitated, handicapped, and sick. Then, even after just ten minutes, you take it off of them, and they are elated that the C.O.P.D. wasn't real -- this time.

The Empathy Belly and Empathy Lungs each simulate physiological states that in some cases represent genuine future possibilities for the wearer, and in other cases might be used by parties seeking a more empathic (Greek: empatheia "passion", from en- "in" + pathos "feeling") comprehension of the lives of others -- for instance, the belly for fathers-to-be; the lungs for families of elderly smokers. In relation to the pregnancy simulator, the verisimilitude of the suit may be less important than the heuristic value of encountering the "shape" of the experience, so to speak; not to mention the social importance of simply being willing to try it on. This certainly seems to be the case with the men who wore the belly in public -- both Garnick's article and the Dadlabs show emphasise, if light heartedly, the extremely positive response from women to their daring.

Both these outfits prompt me to spend more time considering the values and limitations of "embodied foresight" generally. For me, the specific bodily states (old age, pregnancy, ill health) stand as examples of a "wearable" approach of thinking and feeling ahead, which can also be accomplished by other kinds of intervention. Simulated and vicarious experiences of possible futures range from thought experiments, to films, to participatory exercises and games, through to -- some day soon -- direct neural interface; all these and more can be located on a continuum of foresight (or rather foresense) activities.

Now, the particular uses that existing simulation suits may be put to are bound to vary, of course, and I'm less enthused by some than others. For instance, I'm not especially keen on the Empathy Belly being used to scare teenagers into not having sex. Then again, maybe ten minutes in a "harrassed parent of a pregnant teenager" suit would change my mind.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Futurist food for thought

(Or: From Italy to Brazil and back, via London.)

I learned this week about a recent event at the British Library which immediately captured my imagination...

Italian chef Giorgio Locatelli prepares to serve the Futurist Banquet
Image: Alastair Grant/AP (via Today/MSNBC)

More than 100 well-heeled diners are sitting in the august British Library in London, eating a fennel slice, an olive and a kumquat while stroking pieces of velvet, silk and sandpaper. The scent of cloves wafts around the room as an airplane engine roars. And this is just the appetizer.

The main course of this unusual banquet is "Alaskan Salmon in the Rays of the Sun With Mars Sauce." Dessert is Elasticake, a fluffy pastry ball oozing blood-red zabaglione and crowned with quivering licorice antennae.

Welcome to the weird, sensory world of the Futurist Banquet -- an eccentric but strangely influential combination of culinary experiment, political statement and artistic stunt served at the library recently for an assortment of food lovers, artists, academics and diplomats.

The menu was based on the 1932 "Futurist Cookbook" [link] by Italian writer Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, a combination of radical manifesto, practical joke and recipe book whose dishes include chicken with ball bearings, salami cooked in coffee and eau de cologne, and the enigmatically titled "Carrot + Trousers = Professor."

"Futurist food is a revolution," said Lesley Chamberlain, editor of the cookbook's English edition. "The 20th century is a century of revolutions. This is perhaps the funniest one, the one you have to take least seriously -- but one we are still living with."

Marinetti coined the term "Futurism" for the art movement he founded in 1909. Intended as a celebration of modernity and a rejection of romance and sentiment, it was dedicated to modernity and speed, to the violent, the urban and the mechanical.

Its followers were famed for playful, provocative pranks and manifestos -- and, less appealingly, for an uneasy but enduring allegiance to the Fascist movement led by Benito Mussolini.

For the Futurists, food was about art, not sustenance. A meal should be a feast for all the senses, as well as a rejection of bourgeois values. Marinetti was the sworn enemy of comfort food -- he caused a sensation by proposing that pasta be banned on the grounds it promoted "lethargy, pessimism, nostalgic inactivity and neutralism."

Turning Marinetti's exuberant vision into an edible meal was a challenge, said Giorgio Locatelli, the Michelin-starred London chef called in to oversee the dinner. Real-life Futurist banquets held in the 1930s were raucous affairs in which food was often secondary to sensation.

"We did a lot of reading, and it seemed like one guy would cook a meal for six or seven people, and 200 people would turn up," Locatelli said. "So there was no food at all -- just people drinking and then beating each other up at the end."

Marinetti's cookbook includes descriptions of various dishes, as well as descriptions of meals appropriate to various occasions. For lovers, Marinetti suggested a cocktail called War-in-Bed, "composed of pineapple juice, egg, cocoa, caviar, almond paste, a pinch of red pepper, a pinch of nutmeg and a whole clove, all liquidized in Strega liqueur."

Soldiers about to go into battle should eat "raw meat torn by trumpet blasts." The recipe begins: "Cut a perfect cube of beef. Pass an electric current through it, then marinate it for 24 hours in a mixture of rum, cognac and white vermouth."

In adapting Marinetti's freewheeling ideas for the table, British Library organizers were forced to strike a balance between the avant-garde and the edible.

Curator Stephen Bury said he regretted the absence of chicken with ball bearings. "But we thought, 'Oh God, the liability if someone choked.' "

Entering the dining room, guests passed a carne plastica, or meat sculpture -- a towering pyramid made from 36 chickens, assorted guinea fowl, chunks of lamb, beef and sausage, topped with a honey-glazed tumulus of minced beef.

Courses were served by waiters in striped flannel pajamas. Salmon with Mars sauce turned out to be an inoffensive piece of fish with a sauce of anchovies, capers and pesto, and was dismissed as "boring" by one diner. Almost everyone agreed the Elasticake was delicious.

Other elements were more unsettling. After the appetizer, diners were ushered away from the table by a man with a megaphone and herded downstairs to chew on rice balls while listening to Futurist tracts read out in Italian and English.

Futurism and other avant-garde movements such as Surrealism and Dadaism have had a well-documented impact in the arts, visible in everything from the paintings of Salvador Dali to the free-associating slapstick of the Marx Brothers.

Futurism's influence on the way we eat today is less obvious. But traces of it can be seen in nouvelle cuisine, with its focus on tiny portions and artistic arrangements.

Marinetti's declaration that scientific principles should be used in the Futurist kitchen is reflected in the "molecular gastronomy" practiced by acclaimed chefs such as Britain's Heston Blumenthal and Spain's Ferran Adria.

And his anti-pasta stance finds an echo in today's low-carb diets.

"A lot of the things these people talked about, like the tactile sensation of the food, are things that chefs today talk about," Locatelli said.

"And it's true that Italians tend to overdo it a little on the pasta. I agree with that. So the idea of a varied diet was very forward-thinking at the time."

~Jill Lawless, "Futurist Banquet blends the avant-garde, edible", The Associated Press (The Oregonian), 15 April 02008.

A few thoughts.

This particular event was part of the British Library's exhibition "Breaking the Rules". Its curator, Stephen Bury, blogged on the event here: "I was expecting a gimmick but I curiously started to perceive the food differently. [...] It's a fantastic evening." Tickets ran £75 each, "including all food, wine, cocktails and other distractions". It's amusing to me that this rather lavish effort sought to recapture a genre of 01930s dinner party aimed at the "rejection of bourgeois values" (so, maybe that phrase meant something different back then).

A 02003 article at Cabinet magazine explains that the Italian Futurists weren't above a little hypocrisy: at "a banquet for 300 people held on 18 December 1931 at the Hotel Negrino in Chiavari. [...] Although the Futurists had advocated the abolition of eloquence and politics around the table, the guests nevertheless first had to sit through a lecture by Marinetti on the state of world Futurism."

Why does that kind of irony seem so eerily familiar?

In part, it could be a lingering effect of the movie I just screened tonight for the EWC classic movie program (previously mentioned here), Terry Gilliam's Brazil. There's a great scene where Jonathan Pryce's hapless character Sam Lowry finds himself in a fancy restaurant with his vain, cosmetic surgery-obsessed mother. Their haughty French waiter insists that each dish be ordered by number only, and the food arrives in revolting piles of processed mush, with a photograph of the real food you were expecting planted on a little stand in the middle of the plate.

So when I saw this passage in Cabinet, it positively clanged with irony:

Ultimately, Marinetti believed, modern science would allow us to replace food with free, state-sponsored pills composed of albumins, synthetic fats, and vitamins that would lower prices for the consumer and lessen the toll of labor on the worker. Ultraviolet lamps could be used to electrify and thus dynamize food staples. Eventually, a totally mechanized production would relieve humankind of labor altogether, allowing man to be at leisure to pursue nobler activities. Dining could thus become a purely aesthetic enterprise.

~Romy Golan, "Ingestion / Anti-Pasta", Cabinet, Issue 10, Spring 02003.

It's curious and quite troubling to note how (what Golan characterises as) an expectation that speed, mechanisation and standardisation would herald workers' liberation came to be turned on its head. (Indeed, the whole movie Brazil is a requiem for the freedoms and dreams sacrificed at the altar of the modern -- the entrapment of the worker.) History's revenge: the promise that the Futurists discerned in mass produced synthetic foods has been disintegrating -- Fast Food Nation, anyone? -- with Italy, of all countries, the centre of the Slow Food movement protesting against it.

Very rarely, yet still occasionally, art history types get us postwar social change-watching futurist types confused with these prewar fascist Futurist types. (I'm not sure if I'm adding to or lessening the confusion with this post.) Let me be clear: I'm no fascist, but I love the banquet idea. It's not quite the fanciful, absurdist aspect of it that gets me -- although that's fun -- so much as the attempt to create a parallel experience, outside of our reflexes, that is attentive to all sensory details.

Jake Dunagan and I have been talking for a year or two now about a futures dining event, an immersive, experiential scenario where apparently impossible future foods are served (a timely but non-essential example could be in vitro meat, as reported in the New York Times this week). It would aim to be considerably less disgusting than the restaurant scene in Brazil (or the Chinese restaurant in David Cronenberg's eXistenZ); more attentive to food than theatre in contrast to Tony and Tina's Wedding; and more grounded in emerging possibilities for food consumption patterns -- with respect to changing tastes as well as shifting availability of ingredients -- than the artful fripperies of the Futurist banquet... but nonetheless, an immersive scenario intervention to get you right in the stomach.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Feeling old?

An excellent article in the New York Times Magazine last weekend profiled Jan Chipchase, a "human-behaviour researcher" for Finnish cellphone manufacturer Nokia, who travels the world looking at how people use, and could in the future use, the company's products...

This sort of on-the-ground intelligence-gathering is central to what’s known as human-centered design, a business-world niche that has become especially important to ultracompetitive high-tech companies trying to figure out how to write software, design laptops or build cellphones that people find useful and unintimidating and will thus spend money on. Several companies, including Intel, Motorola and Microsoft, employ trained anthropologists to study potential customers, while Nokia’s researchers, including Chipchase, more often have degrees in design. Rather than sending someone like Chipchase to Vietnam or India as an emissary for the company — loaded with products and pitch lines, as a marketer might be — the idea is to reverse it, to have Chipchase, a patently good listener, act as an emissary for people like the barber or the shoe-shop owner’s wife, enlightening the company through written reports and PowerPoint presentations on how they live and what they’re likely to need from a cellphone, allowing that to inform its design.

The premise of the work is simple — get to know your potential customers as well as possible before you make a product for them.

~Sara Corbett, "Can the Cellphone Help End Global Poverty?", New York Times Magazine, 13 April 02008.

Observation and conversation are certainly ways of getting to know your potential customers.

Another approach is to climb inside their bodies. This week, there appeared a report of an intriguing approach to designing vehicles for the elderly. With Japan's ageing population comes increasing incentive for businesses to anticipate the special needs of that demographic.

Carmaker Nissan Motor is using a specialized driver's suit and goggles to simulate the bad balance, stiff joints, weaker eyesight and extra five kilograms (11lbs) that may accompany senior citizenry.

Associate chief designer Etsuhiro Watanabe says the suit's weight and constriction help in determining functionality and accessibility within cars by putting young designers not only in the minds of the mobility-challenged, but also in their bodies.

"Difficulty in walking, back pains, trouble in lifting arms -- we wanted to consider assorted infirmities," said Watanabe of the concept known as universal design.
An ageing suit was first used by Nissan a decade ago, while Japanese washlet maker Toto uses such suits to simulate bathroom mobility, even including tub water as part of the program.

Launched in a rapidly graying nation where over 40 percent of the population is expected to be over 65 age by mid-century, the design strategy also aims to find traction abroad.

Over 40 percent of Nissan's Japanese and U.S. sales are to customers over 50 years old, according to the company.

~Dan Sloan, "Japan aging suit puts car makers in senior circuit", Reuters, 16 April 02008.

This story serves as an interesting counterpoint to the "prosthetic intuition" device blogged here a few days ago. The old suit could be considered another instance of "embodied foresight" -- wearing, rather than merely thinking, what your future may hold. The simulation condition of the suit is negatively oriented -- assuming that impairment and decrepitude comes with senescence, which, one might think, could change as medical treatments and lifestyles evolve -- but the pessimistic approach makes good sense because the goal is "universal" design; stretching to meet drivers at the needier end of the user spectrum.

There are limits, of course, to how far we can walk in another's slippers, so to speak, even with relatively simple questions of mobility... but it makes wonder what other uses suits along these lines could have. Simulated weight gain to encourage more responsible eating habits?

Tangent: the late writer and master satirist Kurt Vonnegut once wrote a short story called "Harrison Bergeron", set in 02081, about an America in which physical and mental equality across the population was sought by systematically handicapping anyone with gifts exceeding the lowest common denominator. Although the "handicap bags" in that grim satire are aimed at obliterating differences in ability, rather than accommodating them... Whatever. Read Vonnegut.

(Thanks Dad for the Nissan story, and Leo for the NY Times tip.)

Reality prototyping

Two IDEO folks advocate the application of design thinking to management challenges in a book I came across tonight:

We read everywhere about rapid and constant change and, therefore, the increasing unpredictability of the future. And yet, we have seen little in the way of tools and methods to manage that change effectively and proactively. The tools of traditional business planning start with the assumptions that maintaining the current state is the best strategy and that incremental growth is a satisfactory outcome. What if we can no longer base our future business on what has happened in the past? This essay suggests that organizations might look to tools from the field of design. [p. 188]
Below, we describe three tools in the designer’s toolbox that we have found effective in helping businesses to manage change. These tools include contextual observation, human-centered frameworks, and rapid prototyping. [p. 189]

Rapid prototyping helps people to experience a possible future in tangible ways. These include rough physical prototypes of products or environments, or enactments of processes and service experiences, as well as the internal infrastructure and business plans that will be required to deliver them. It allows a very low-risk way of quickly exploring multiple directions before committing resources to the best one. Prototyping is commonly used in design development to explore details of how a product, service, or experience will be manifest. It externalizes the project team’s thinking, allowing for quicker convergence and more useful feedback from stakeholders. This feedback is based in the reality of an experience, rather than in an interpretation of a description of that same experience. [p. 191]

While design continues to be seen as a specialized expertise, we have found that the tools of design are learnable and applicable to challenges that business managers face every day. When we couple design process experts (with no vested interest in perpetuating the current way of doing things) with business content experts (who are looking for ways to think differently about their area of expertise), we create a capacity to envision and realize futures that are both desirable for people and viable for organizations. The challenge remains for business schools to find ways of integrating design thinking into their curricula and for design schools to expand the purview of design to include not only products, services, and experiences, but the organizational means by which they are created and supported. [p. 192]

Quotes from Peter Coughlan & Ilya Prokopoff, "Managing Change, by Design", in Richard J. Boland Jr. & Fred Collopy (eds.), Managing as Designing, Stanford Business Books, 02004, pp. 188-192.

This chapter was hit number two in a google search this evening for the phrase "experience a possible future". The phrase "reality prototyping" was cooked up a couple of months ago by our design collaborators, Nathan Verrill and Matt Jensen.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Choose your instincts wisely

A day or two ago I stumbled across this fascinating project, the Alertness Enhancing Device by Susanna Hertrich, an MA student in Design Interactions at the Royal College of Art, London.

Before/after | Image: Susanna Hertrich

Writes Hertrich:

This project picks on how much today's people have detached themselves from their original animal inheritance. Which of our lost animal abilities do we miss and how would we try to regain them?

It is said that no other generation before has been as anxious and risk aware as ours. Other than animals, we aren't equipped for the challenges of contemporary living. We don't have the abilities to identify the real dangers in a surplus of potential threats and horror scenarios offered to us by mass media. We don't have the right instincts to tell threat from panicmongering.

This device is meant as a physical prosthesis for a lost or missing natural instinct for the real fears and dangers that threaten us – as opposed to perceived risks that often cause a public outrage.
The device stimulates goosebumps and shivers that go down your spine through microcurrents resulting in your neck hair standing up. You will be more alert and ready for the real dangers in life.

A chart at Hertrich's website illustrates the tremendous disproportionality between statistical risks (below the line) and the issues that actually cause us to worry (above it):

This is a marvellously clear portrayal of that disjuncture. (I'd like to dig into the data behind each of these misshapen risk-snowmen -- but details notwithstanding, it makes intuitive a rather tricky point, with a whole lot of examples.*) And the Alertness Enhancing Device is a splendidly provocative route toward narrowing that gap.

Adds Régine "we-make-money-not-art" Debatty:

While we consciously know what are the things that really threatens us, we tend to dedicate much more of attention to spectacular disasters with many deaths.

That's when the Alertness Enhancing Device comes in. If you feel dispassionate and bored when reading news stories about another environmental pollution scandal, it's probably time to turn the dial of the device on.

~"Prosthesis for a lost instinct", 21 February 02008

I'm excited about this project, but not on account of the recovery of "lost animal abilities" angle so much. That frame conceals, I think, what's rather more novel here. No animal -- including humanity -- has developed properly calibrated survival strategies, let alone instincts, for such challenges as traffic accidents, cancer, and pollution. These threats (in their present forms) play little or no part in the wilds of the jungle or savannah. They are not the problems we evolved to deal with, even though they have become some of the most pressing risks we now face.

This approach reunites the assertion of animality (if we insist on understanding our embodiedness that way), with highly subtle collective cognitive operation -- in effect, guiding evolution, which is of course what technocultural change is all about (McLuhan: "We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us"). What's interesting to me is that the recruitment of the body enables (more) direct feedback loops, expressed in somatic language, which bypasses (or, better yet, compresses into instantaneously "comprehensible" form) the complex conjecture of risk assessment. It also makes available a new take on both future-shock therapy and ambient foresight -- perhaps indeed a counterpart idea; embodied foresight -- concerning the engagement of new risks, in old forms. It's a programmable, strap-on judgment heuristic. Or, if you prefer, prosthetic intuition.

Taking the hypothetical proposed by this device a step further, I should add right away that we ought to be mindful of some of the risks (more risks!) associated with the implementation of such a system. Who wears it, and with what effects, and with what actrivation thresholds, and for what purposes -- all are politically charged questions raised even at the hypothetical level by an intervention of this form. Maybe my hackles are too quick to go up, but there are spectres here of Pavlov's dogs, of psychiatric treatments such as shock therapy, and more broadly speaking, other bodily and neural policing strategies (about which my colleagues Sean Smith and Jake Dunagan, among others, will be able to comment far more intelligently). Still, this activation and fine-tuning of instinctive responses for the purposes of presenting complex risks that provides great food for thought. Perhaps later versions could include specialised and nuanced bodily responses tailored specifically to the issue (so, for instance, riding in an SUV could cause your skin to crawl in a really unique way -- in case it doesn't already).

Commenting on Daniel Gilbert's observations about why climate change is such a tough issue for us to wrap our primate heads around, it was noted here a couple of months ago that...
without a mechanism for manifesting the outcome of long-slow processes here and now, a mechanism for rendering visible the risks and opportunities that are otherwise invisible, we will have no choice but to keep stumbling on happiness and catastrophe alike.

This is a really cool project, I think, because it asks us to rethink and perhaps redesign the coupling of our thoughts and feelings, the unmooring of which have put at serious risk not just our bodies, but entire ecosystems. It suggests how we might choose to render available otherwise abstract and distant thought processes, both immediately and profoundly. So, prosthetic intuition about risk scenarios, both wearable and distributed elsewhere in our informational environments, will now figure more prominently in my ruminations about how we might feel (v. tr.) tomorrow.

* Incidentally, here's a comparable graphic from the National Safety Council (U.S.), of positively Tuftean clarity and elegance, posted by Bruce "Schneier on Security" Schneier:

Design fiction is a fact

For the past two weeks, the intro to politics class I'm lecturing at UH-Manoa this semester has been doing a public art project generating artifacts from the future jointly with a digital imaging class.

I briefed my students to keep an eye out for interesting visuals along these lines, and last week one of them forwarded me a chain email he'd received which seemed to fit the bill. It's reproduced below (original spelling, etc):

Fwd: Awesome, to say the least!!!

You will not be able to know what is ahead of you, until you have seen at least 4 pictures and read the explanation of what they are,our future is here ,incredible!! what an age we live in.
(Kind of scary, in a way)

Look closely and guess what they could be...

Are they pens with cameras? ..... NOPE:)

Any wild guesses? No clue yet?

Ladies and gentlemen... congratulations!
You've just looked into the future... yep that's right!

You've just seen something that will replace your PC in the near future.

Here is how it works:

In the revolution of miniature computers, scientists have made great developments with bluetooth technology...

This is the forthcoming computers you can carry within your pockets.

This 'pen sort of instrument' produces both the monitor as well as the keyboard on any flat surfaces from where you can carry out functions you would normally do on your desktop computer.

Can anyone say, 'Good-bye laptops!'
Looks like our computers are out of date... again!!!

Seeking a source for this unlikely bit of breaking news, I found an entry on Snopes, the "Urban Legends Reference Pages", which alternately validate or debunk Internet rumours. Their entry on this ("Pensonal Computer", a pun so bad, it's almost good) features an email archived at the site more than two years ago, with exactly the same sequence of photos as above, and almost identical text.

The Snopes verdict on the claim in question ("Photographs show a conceptual pen-sized personal computer system") is "Partly true". They refer to Japanese technology company NEC's 02003 trade show presentation of the concept, which is called P-ISM (huh?). See this technology briefing in WAVE, dated 20 February 02004, where most of the above images appear. As Snopes points out, the last two have been appropriated from somewhere else, which adds somewhat to the confusion.

Now, apart from the oddly anachronistic carnival sideshow tone to the email -- step right up, marvel at the amazing bearded lady, and the fabulous pensonal computers carried within her pockets! -- the other thing that's strange to me here is that, in such a fast-moving arena of innovation, the same ideas and images are bouncing around the Net four or five years after their first appearance. I'm not just referring to the chain email from my student -- which, like any meme worth its salt, clearly has a sort of electronic bottom-feeder's life of its own -- but at the time of writing, I can find the P-ISM (with the natty subtitle, "A Pen-style Personal Networking Gadget Package") and the same illustrations, featured together with other concept designs -- "not planned to be commercialized at this point" -- at NEC's website. They're under the heading Resonantware: "Next Generation Ubiquitous Networking Devices Visualized By Designers". Others include the "gumi" -- edible, gummy-coated RF-ID chips containing usage rights to images and music; the malleable communication device "tag" (which looks a lot like the Morph); and the "dew" Life Recording Interface (which appeared in PC Mag's 25th anniversary feature on "Future Concept Designs" in January 02008).

In recent months, in pursuit of future artifacts and an understanding of what makes them tick, we seem to have stumbled into a design twilight zone where notion, concept in development, prototype and fully-fledged gizmo are all fluidly in play (and at work) in the ideascape. A few posts ago, I thought aloud as follows:

With increasing numbers of people turning increasingly sophisticated (CG-enabled) design ideas loose in the mediascape, in some settings, the virtual (or hypothetical, or future) artifact and the real one have become exceedingly difficult to tell apart. Playful design concepts like the iRing [link] seem to appear more and more often in my meanderings around the web. Real or not? At a glance, there's no way to tell.

Even on closer inspection, the development -- or, if you prefer the philosophical take, ontological -- status of many gadgets is ambiguous, which for me highlights the interesting and complex state of affairs in which our technoculture finds itself, stewing in a semi-concrete imaginary technobubble. It's a bit trippy. It also brings home with some force, I think, proto-futurist Fred Polak's point (which serves, more or less, as the starting assumption for the field of futures studies) that the images of the futures that we entertain are the key ingredient in the future our culture creates. In the technology domain, all manner of bits and pieces of possible futures hang around -- increasingly well-dressed -- waiting to be transmogrified from concept to reality. But that transition is a difficult one to track.

In that same post recalled a moment ago, I also cited Bruce Sterling's use of the term "design fiction", which I think may describe this whole nebulous genre rather well, including concept designs (and concept videos), hypothetical products, future artifacts, and visual depictions of alternative futures (venturing finally beyond the gadgetry to evoke more of the technocultural/scenaric context).

So: the "fictions" -- a word with weight, seen from here -- that we entertain, and that entertain us, however well-designed or ill-conceived, are social facts which serve in no small way as drivers of the world we co-create. These ideas matter, and they appear to lead lives of their own. Here, then, I want to call for design fiction that ranges beyond the playful next generation gizmo, and ventures gamely into the further reaches of yet-to-be-lived experience; the communities and myths, rituals and habits, heavens and hells of tomorrow's Joe and Josephine Sixpack.

Well, I know that's a tall order. But the students in my class, most of them in their first year of university, are currently grappling with the beginnings of it, crafting interventions to speak alternative futures (set in 02038) through public art installations. Stay tuned for more on their efforts, and let's see what we can see about expanding the horizons of the imaginable.

(Thanks for the email, Shane!)

Friday, April 11, 2008

In praise of Children of Men

Spoiler warning*

I advise you not to read this post if you haven't seen Children of Men. If indeed you have not, and enjoy watching challenging movies, rush out and get it -- be careful as you cross the street, but don't look at the DVD cover, avert your eyes when the menu loads (both of which tell you things you might not want to know about the story), darken the lights and enjoy. Then, if you like it, come back and read the rest of this post.

* My spoiler policy is, I should confess, somewhat strict. Despite my passion for film, I don't follow the trade papers or read about movies currently in production. If someone whose opinion I value recommends a film to me, I'll usually try to change the subject before their enthusiasm leads to any proverbial bean-spilling. If the thing turns out to be good, I'll certainly want to know all about it after I've had the filmgoing experience, but not before. Consequently, for the weekly classic movie program that I run at the East-West Center, when I publicise the show I include little or no plot info -- just something about the actors and director, the genre and reputation of the film, plus a link for people who insist on finding out what they're about to watch!


In January 02007, with Jake Dunagan on a research trip in New York City, we went to see Children of Men, which had just been released and about which I knew nothing, except that Clive Owen was in it (I'd been impressed with him, going back to Croupier in the late 90s) and that it was directed by Alfonso Cuarón (whose Y Tu Mamá También and dark Harry Potter effort both led me to believe he'd be a worthwhile filmmaker to follow).

More than a year later, I can say without fear of hyperbole that it was one of the most electrifying filmgoing experiences I've ever had. The opening scene, of a few short minutes -- the breaking news of "Baby" Diego's death in the café, followed by the glimpse of London streets both rickshaw run-down and teched up -- interrupted by a sudden explosion, was enthralling. It also took me through an experiential arc that operated, I now think, precisely the way an encounter with a future artifact should unfold. To begin with, I struggled to make sense of what I was seeing, then pieced together the scenario's premise -- that twenty years had passed and babies had ceased to be born. The reality of the hypothesis, or put another way, the plausibility of the scenario (the mechanism of which is never properly explained in the film) was asserted with such fluidity, confidence, and integrity of detail -- just the way we encounter the real world, which is crammed full of people accepting complete absurdities as wallpaper -- that I found myself drawn in, having to meet the story on its own terms.

The movie was thoroughly compelling, and for the duration held me spellbound. I won't attempt a review here -- Dana Stevens at Slate did a far better job, well over a year ago, at saying the sorts of things I'd want to say about it as a film. But the point is, walking in, I'd had no idea about the premise -- I'm not sure I knew in advance even that it was set in the future -- so the whole thing hit me with full force: it was the kind of experience that helps makes a film fanatic out of an ordinary moviegoer.

This also reinforced my preference not to know about movies before I see them, because that "blank slate" quality has preceded some of the most exhilarating cinema experiences I remember, including Sneakers (01992 -- I was twelve), The Usual Suspects (01995), Gattaca (01997) and Donnie Darko (02001). Looking at a map of the rollercoaster before getting on, to my mind, defeats its purpose. And that sensibility informs the creation of futures experiences, and, I suspect shapes the philosophy of FoundFutures -- because it seems to me that the unexpected, unscheduled encounter can have much more impact. It certainly wormed its way into the setup for our presentation at South by Southwest Interactive in Austin last month, too.

Anyway, enough about that.

The proximate reason for this post is that last week, while trawling futures consultancy Pantopicon's blog (mentioned here), I found a showreel of design work made for Children of Men by London-based design firm Foreign Office.

[[Update 10jan12: Also at Youtube - via @johnpavlus]]

This is simply stellar material, in my view. Not only is it really nice design work in its own right, but they are beautifully embedded in the context of the film -- which is not "about" the things shown, yet it incorporates them, holds them together, as organic pieces of what feels like a fully imagined universe.

As the movie plays, we glimpse these fragments of Cuarón's nightmarish Britain in 02027 -- and they vary enormously in terms of visual and storytelling importance on the central/incidental spectrum -- yet all the pieces matter, I think. As Brian Eno says of ambient music (a genre he invented), the key feature is that it must accommodate multiple levels of attention. Similarly, we could say that it is ambience (i.e., atmosphere, depth, mood) -- to me the most ineffable and yet crucial ingredient (or perhaps emergent property) of film -- that is created with these jigsaw puzzle pieces to which we can attend at multiple levels. That is, they are enjoyed at one level during the telling of the story, and at another in appreciating the artwork after the fact. For example, one British blogger commenting on the showreel astutely points out:

The adverts for pampered cats and dogs may seem to offer a little comic relief in a dark movie, but it also makes a lot of sense plotwise. That in a society with no children a lot of misdirected love would fall onto pets. It also taps into that great cliché about what a nation of animal lovers we are, worrying over the comfort of pets while people are being rounded up in cages.

~The Londonist, 5 March 02007.

Happy was I to find, then, when the DVD was released, that it included a nine-minute short about the production design dimension ("Futuristic Design"). These are quotes I've transcribed from interviews featured there.


Rule number one in the film is recognisability. We don't want to do Blade Runner [link] -- actually, we talk about being the anti-Blade Runner in the sense of how we were approaching reality. And that was kind of difficult for the Art Department, because I would say, "I don't want inventiveness, I want reference. [...] And, more important, I would like, as much as possible, references of contemporary iconography that is already ingrained in human consciousness.

Jennifer Williams, Set Designer:

What we thought was that we would take it [...] to 02010, and then everything would just start getting old and tired-looking, because there's no money coming into the infrastructure, therefore that would start disintegrating.

Jim Clay, Production Designer:

The whole style of the movie which Alfonso wanted to make is very documentary in its style. It's not a job where a production designer comes with a big visual concept and says, "Look at this world, isn't this exciting". It's providing a world and an environment full of texture, full of reality, which can allow the action to take place.

One of the most impressive things to me from the very first viewing was the newspapers lining the room in the scene where Julianne Moore interrogates Clive Owen. Says Williams:

[We realised that the newspapers] would have to be generated, because it's 02027, and therefore what was happening in 02027, or 02026 if they had some old newspapers. And then we really needed a timeline of what would happen from present day to the year 02027.

Aside from stunningly assured direction, flawless performances, and a fascinating premise, this level of attention to detail is a major part of what earns Children of Men, in my view, gold-plated MRP status ("most repeatable programming", Steven Johnson's phrase).

To clarify: Children of Men, to me, portrays a horrifying world -- not a future I like in any way. However, as a compelling presentation of a possible future in a narrative film, it is without question one of my favourite things.

Ignore global warming

...and the WWF might kick your ass.

On the last trip I took from Hawaii to the mainland U.S., at the end of February, I took the above snapshot of an ad in the inflight magazine -- airline passengers being a worthy target audience indeed for awareness-raising around the underappreciated risks of fossil fuel consumption. The WWF (World Wildlife Fund, Canada) here uses heavily ironic images to make the point that (as their slogan has it) "Ignoring global warming won't make it go away."

Upon investigation, it turns out there are three images in the print campaign, each based on a photo set in a disastrously disruptive, climate-chaos future where people are carrying on business as usual -- sporting upper lips of almost British levels of stiffness -- regardless:

(These compare interestingly with the Diesel "Global Warming Ready" fashion ads seen here not long ago.)

There's also a TV spot along the same lines (via glossy):

Insight into the purpose of the campaign -- launched back in late 02006, although my own encounter with a current print ad was just a couple of months ago -- comes from a Canadian marketing and advertising industry magazine:

WWF posted the spot on YouTube with a call-to-action to participate in a Toronto-area event last month. The post attracted dozens of comments from interested users, and at least 5,000 people showed up to the demo. At press time, the YouTube posting was averaging 1,000 views a day.

The campaign, which also includes OOH, print, radio and a microsite, www.saveourclimate.ca, aims to broaden the WWF's image from simply an animal rights group to that of a "world security guard" of sorts, says [copywriter Chris] Taciuk. It's running across English-speaking Canada in donated media space.

~Annette Bourdeau, "WWF goes beyond wildlife to take on broader remit", Strategy Magazine (Canada), December 02006.

It's enlightening to find that the goal here is not simply to promote issue awareness, but also to signal the Swiss-founded WWF's interest in ecological concerns beyond just wildlife (since 01986, outside North America, WWF's official name has been the less issue-specific World Wide Fund for Nature). Layers.

I also find myself pondering this use of grim futures imagery in pursuit of the duties of a "world security guard", for two reasons. First, that's an intriguing and somewhat unsettling phrase -- though perhaps not officially a label the organisation itself would use? Second, as regular readers may have anticipated, I'm curious about the substantive strategy here, which entails questions about what kind of impact on people's thinking and behaviour are sought or anticipated by WWF, as a result of such an intervention. There's a copy of the same clip on YouTube -- although note that the "glossy" version posted above has better audio -- with 1,068 views, but only one comment, from user "rhode74", which from an eco-activist standpoint seems almost too good to be true:

I saw this commercial the other night while I was using my hair dryer.

I couldn't understand what was going on at first since I couldn't hear it. But after seeing the hurricane; then the firestorm; I shut off my hair dryer and heard Mr.Rogers' song, "Please won't you be my neighbor".

Then I saw, "Ignoring Global Warming won't make it go away"

That had an impact on me.

I will now try to recycle what I have.

Call me sceptical, but to me it's a safe bet that meanwhile, others saw the clip, noted that was a WWF joint, thought to themselves "hippie fuckers", and went back to clubbing baby seals with renewed vigour -- buoyed by a fresh wave of contempt for what they might (were they to pause momentarily, exchange club for pen, and commit an opinion to writing) describe as the outlandish fantasies of conservationist ideologues.

Some people dismiss An Inconvenient Truth because they don't like Al Gore.

However much good faith is brought to one's position, single-minded advocacy in the face of uncertainty (a tendency closely related to monofuturism) is all too easily caricatured and ignored. The habit of thinking in alternative futures cultivates simultaneous consideration of divergent lines of scenaric logic side by side.

I'm not arguing for considering "alternative" futures in which global warming doesn't hit. Quite the opposite. I'm suggesting that this style of advertising -- parodying denial -- may not win over many new converts. Instead, promoting a range of viable responses -- various different scenarios which all assume global warming, and some of which show us thriving anyway -- may now be a more powerful strategy.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Life in general

This just happened: a few minutes ago, I bumped into my Russian friend Igor in the hallway.

"Igor! How's life?"

[puzzled] "You mean, in general?"


[shrugging towards our 9th floor view of the Manoa valley] "In general, life is very nice. But, in particular, it's pretty difficult."

(Спасибо, Igor!)

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Warning: This product might not actually exist

This evening I was reading an article in Harper's Magazine from February 02008, "The Next Bubble: Priming the markets for tomorrow's big crash", by Eric Janszen.

Then I saw this ad on the back cover:

The body text begins:

Imagine: A daily commute without using a drop of gas.* The extended-range electric vehicle is no longer just a rumor. We have put tremendous design and engineering resources in place to make this vehicle a reality.

However, the fine print at the bottom of the page comes clean: "Concept Chevy Volt shown. Not available for sale."

The Volt was officially unveiled in January 02007 at the Detroit Auto Show, and since then, despite remaining more idea than reality, has been plugged, every which way but literally, around the world...

The Chevy Volt is still at least three years away from start of production and a good four to six months from real running prototypes. However none of that is slowing down General Motors from using the car to charge up its image.

[B]anners and billboards are turning up in high-visibility locations. [...] Many magazines over the last six months have also featured the image of the range-extended EV and now there is a TV ad as well.

(Quote and ad from "Three years before Job 1 and GM is already advertising the Volt", Autoblog Green, 13 September 02007.)

Here's what the Vehicle Line Director for the Volt, Tony Posawatz, says about it at the Chevrolet website:

Although we haven't said exactly when the Chevy Volt will come to market, we've set our internal targets to complete the vehicle by the end of 2010. The specific date depends on the results of rigorous battery testing that's going on right now.

Now, I don't own a car, although I do occasionally drive borrowed or hired vehicles: the expenses, hassles of traffic and parking, and (not least) environmental problems all associated with car ownership -- particularly in Hawaii -- have so far provided an overwhelming deterrent. So, I don't typically pay much attention to developments in automotive technology. However, that enormous industry's response to American society's comparatively sudden awakening to concerns of fuel sustainability and the like is too striking to go unnoticed, even by me.

I recently saw the 02006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?, a sort of policy whodunit about the mysterious fate of General Motors' EV1 which briefly flowered in the 01990s, before being withdrawn amid a cloud of suspicions and a flurry of angrily pointed fingers. Among the elements that make a strong impression in that film is the existence of a very committed core of car buyers who want to see automotive technology go green, and the success of the Toyota Prius has no doubt helped auto manufacturers to take this market segment much more seriously. The Volt has a sort of fansite (operated by a full-time physician who claims no affiliation with General Motors), which aims "to help make sure it does arrive!"

While the circulation of images and ideas about greener vehicles, similarly to the abundance of ideas about Greener Gadgets, is encouraging from a certain limited point of view, it leaves unscathed the underlying patterns and passions of consumption which arguably drive the gravest threats to our collective well-being. Still, I certainly join others in wishing great success to GM's hard-working battery of battery testers.

Meanwhile I find it a curious and fascinating strategy to advertise a concept car years ahead of its actual availability. I suppose in this case it's a long-term -- and I use that phrase without irony in this context -- branding strategy, as no one wants to be left behind if the vehicle market continues to migrate towards "greener" versions of existing products.

* These folks appear not to have heard about bicycles.