Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Wandering, and leafing, through the future

Two interesting futures-oriented installations by an artist from the Netherlands, Marjolijn Dijkman...

One is called The History of Tomorrow (02007), which she co-produced with Maarten Vanden Eynde as a project of Enough Room for Space, an artist-run collaborative forum established by the pair.

Our contribution to this project was a publication printed and designed similar to the existing (red and blue) evacuation plans that are located underneath every telephone in the Van Abbemuseum [in Eindhoven, NL -- link]. The publication contains a short sci-fi story staged in the near future (starting during the Olympics in 2008).

The fictional story is set around the Van Abbemuseum and describes a situation in the future where the gravitation on earth is slowly disappearing.

"The History of Tomorrow" installation
Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, Netherlands (02007)

An extract from the story, which was written by Vanden Eynde [html; pdf]:

The loss of gravitation first came to general notice on the 15th of June 2008, during the Olympics in Beijing, China. On that day 27 world records were broken. Michael Keane was the first to catch everybody’s attention. As the only high-jumper to remain in competition, already assured of the gold medal, he decided on a whim to ask jokingly for a ridiculous world record height of 2m50 and jumped over it without apparent effort. He could not believe his eyes. Nor did the jury or the 32.521 shocked visitors that were present that day at the newly build [sic] Qinhuangdao stadium. The equipment was checked and rechecked, but everything seemed OK. He sensed the possibility of an even bigger stunt, and knew he had to seize the moment, now that it felt as if his actions were governed by a force other than his own and he too, like the enthralled spectators, could only watch his unprecedented aerobatics in stunned amazement.

The tale then spins out some of the big-picture implications of its startling premise.

Generally, I'm more interested in scenarios that have been developed as (or translated into) visual or other media than in traditional sci-fi text. However, it's the installation strategy here -- with the booklet physically resembling and accompanying real-world contingency manuals throughout the museum -- that sets the stage for many individuals' unexpected and thought-provoking encounters with the scenario. This fits closely with the recurring themes here at t.s.f.

The second project is called Wandering through the Future (02007). It was commissioned for Sharjah Biennial 8, United Arab Emirates, and has been exhibited since at several other sites. This multi-part installation includes a 60 minute film, which

consists of fragments of 70 film productions from all over the world. Passing all sorts of apocalyptic landscapes and scenarios, the one-hour video leads you through the future from 2008 until 802.701 A.D. in order of appearance. The film tries to examine the way the Future has been given shape and how the different scenarios relate to eachother [sic].

Accompanying this is "[a] printed timeline of the future with collected taglines and dates of major film productions" [in pdf; or click image for enlarged jpg]:

I haven't been able to locate the video online, but the timeline stands alone well enough in providing one overview of the landscape of filmic futures, which (as any moderately attentive movie-watcher will confirm) are particularly rich in apocalyptic portents. In a text prepared for an exhibition of the work in Heidelberg, Germany, Sabine Hillen writes [click for pdf of full document; my italics below]:

The time line, constructed with scenes from the golden age of science fiction until the millennium, draws on a broad stock of themes such as snow-clad nature landscapes, explosions that make buildings shake, frantic mobs of people that flee the assault of clocks… What strikes us most, when we consider the evolution in past decades, is that fear becomes increasingly [sic] highlighting fear and the rise of social criticism in recent productions. They ensure that the audience will at all times bear in mind that a disaster is bound to happen in the not so distant future.

The compilation and juxtaposition of a range of cinematic portrayals of the future is a striking (though by no means original) way to invite reflection on the colonisation of this frontier. Another component of the installation takes the idea further, in an unexpected way. Dijkman writes:

During my site-visit to Sharjah I became fascinated by the leaking air conditioning units that 'project' small green oases onto the desert sand. In response, I created a similar situation where individual imaginary 'oases' can be projected. Many film productions use 'Chroma Key' [a.k.a. greenscreen, or bluescreen] backdrops in order to edit actors into animated realities that represent another time and/or space. With two 'Chroma key' interventions in the city, this work encourages consideration of small scale individual future scenarios. Besides their position as site-specific interventions, these installations will function as startingpoints [sic] for participants to imagine themselves in the future.

Marjolijn Dijkman, "Wandering Through the Future" (02007)
Photo by Lateefa Maktoum, Dubai

It's hard to tell from the description exactly how this works -- whether people physically encountering the installation are themselves digitally composited into predigested "future" settings, or whether the visual reference to a (by now widely recognised) visual effects technology functions as a symbolic invitation to exercise the imagination by projecting or "compositing", so to speak, our own ideas about the future into the surrounds.

Either way, both the projects described here strike me as aspiring to stage mind-broadening encounters with scenaric possibilities. For which, kudos to Dijkman and collaborators. They gesture in directions that resonate with me, in the first case, by embedding or "camouflaging" the scenario against a real-world backdrop (albeit behind the walls of an art museum, not the most shocking of locations for such an experiment); and in the second case, by installing an unmissable bright-green invitation (out on the street, apparently) to contemplate, and perhaps to challenge, the dark array of 21st-century visions circulating in our culture.

(Thanks to Sally Szwed for passing this on.)

Monday, July 28, 2008

Is Found really lost?

Seems that Wired's "Found: artifacts from the future", a feature appearing monthly in the long-running tech-culture magazine, since February 02002, has quietly been canned. In its usual back-page spot, the issue currently on newsstands (August 02008, no. 16.08) instead runs an electronics advertisement.

I guess we can't say they didn't warn us. For July's edition, the "Found" item was a cover of the magazine itself, dated 02018, with (naturally) a number of clever headlines, reportorial witticisms and future references, including "The Final Found". Little did we suspect that "final" referred to 02008, rather than a decade hence.

So, what gives? Are they selling out coveted magazine real estate to eager advertisers? Taking a break to keep readers guessing? Or have the good folks at Wired simply run out of ideas?

Whatever the story, people are disappointed. On 23 July, programr commented beneath the last "Found" published online:
I can't believe that it looks like Wired has ditched Artifacts from the Future in the latest edition. I for one, would consider stopping subscribing because of this. It sounds silly, but this single page was part of the reason I told others to subscribe to this magazine. Without it, well, a major talking point is now gone.

Sentiments echoed in comments posted since.

And I agree with them. To me, for some time this has consistently been the magazine's most interesting feature.

In the wake of this development, Rhaomi at Metafilter has posted links to all the archived versions of Found (similar to what we've done here, most recently for the 02004 collection), and in the process, added dates for the projected futures depicted, which makes for an interesting overview of the varying time horizon.

Pending confirmation of the end of Found, I won't publish the 02008 collection just yet, but I do intend to continue next month with the pre-'04 archive (which as yet appears nowhere else online, it seems). And, with many other Wired readers, I'll hope we haven't seen the last of this innovative segment.

[02007 | 02006 | 02005 | 02004]

Update (04/08/08): Found is finished, according to a FishbowlNY report quoting personal email from Wired deputy editor Thomas Goetz. But a replacement feature, edited by Found veteran Chris Baker, is scheduled to start in October: "we are cooking up something very cool and very original for our *new* backpage feature, a new twist on the form that we think will engage and entertain our readers as much as Found has."

Update (22/09/08): Found: Redux

Today at Tomorrowland: yesterday's future

Joel Garreau, writing in the Washington Post last weekend, points out the nostalgia of Disneyland's recently unveiled Innoventions Dream Home, which (according to a press release) "invites guests to experience the future today"...

What's interesting about Tomorrowland's newest future is its focus on what doesn't change. This Dream Home future at 360 Tomorrowland Way in Disney's original California park is intentionally reassuring.
But this is absolutely not the future in the research pipeline. No genetically modified critters here that eat carbon dioxide and poop gasoline. No nanobots smaller than blood cells, cruising our bodies to zap cancer. No brain implants that expand our memory. No cellphones that translate Chinese. No dragonfly-size surveillance bots, no pills that shut off the brain's trigger to sleep, no modified mitochondria sustaining our energy while making obesity as quaint as polio.

Apparently that tsunami of change doesn't sell. That disturbing but dazzling future rumbling our way is distinctly different from the soothing one Disney thinks we crave.

What does this disconnect say about us?
"Americans feel very little connection to the future anymore," says Danny Hillis.

Hillis is in a singular position to make this statement. He has long been a deity of the computer age, having pioneered massively parallel processing -- now the basis for most advanced computers. Then he was a Disney Fellow, and vice president for research and development at Walt Disney Imagineering. He is now co-chairman of the Long Now Foundation, which fosters long-term thinking and responsibility for the next 10,000 years.
"What I think it says is that we are nostalgic for a time when we believed in the future. People miss the future. There's a yearning for it. Disney does know what people want. People want to feel some connectedness to the future. The way Disney delivers that is to reach back in time a little bit to the past when they did feel connected.

"It's a bit of a cop-out. There was a time when the future was streamlined jet cars. Rather than create a new sense of the future, they say, 'Ah, remember when we believed that the future was streamlined jet cars?' It's a feeling of connection to the future, rather than connection to the future."

So: one reason for the retro-orientation of Tomorrowland seems to be that the qualities of the futures that now confront us are alienating. A second reason the article suggests is that, against a backdrop of accelerating change, they're just really difficult to imagine.

"It's much harder to astound people today, " says Marty Sklar, the former principal creative executive of Walt Disney Imagineering, who in 2001 was named a "Disney Legend" for his work going all the way back to Walt's era in the '50s. "They see the speed of change all around them."
Keeping up is a problem. A major Disney attraction has to last a long time to recoup its investment. To be serious about the future in Tomorrowland, one would have to be constantly vigilant for change, lest you wake up one day and whoops, what's that rotary-dial phone doing on the set? That's one of the reasons Orlando's Tomorrowland has dropped back to the last resort: irony. It's inspired by a change-proof 1920s and '30s Buck Rogers-Flash Gordon nostalgia future. Tomorrowland in Paris -- called Discoveryland -- is a tribute to European seers of previous centuries, like Jules Verne. The antidote to rapid change in Hong Kong -- one of the most futuristic cities on Earth -- is for much of Tomorrowland to be set in an intergalactic space port.

~Joel Garreau, "The Future Is So Yesterday", Washington Post, 20 July 02008.

This quandary reminds me of another insightful comment by Danny Hillis, in his 01995 essay "The Millennium Clock" (which called for the ten thousand-year clock now being pursued by The Long Now Foundation):

When I was a kid, three decades ago, the future was a long way off - so was the turn of the millennium. Dates like 1984 and 2001 were comfortably remote. But the funny thing is, that in all these years, the future that people think about has not moved past the millennium. It's as if the future has been shrinking one year, per year, for my entire life.

Nearly a decade after the turn of the millennium, oddly enough, the trend Hillis spotted has continued unabated. It seems that for many, the horizon of the future, incapable of shrinking any further, actually receded into the past. There's been a surge of interest in the way the future used to be, ranging from the scholarly to the satirical: retro-futurism has become a fully-fledged aesthetic genre of the early 21st century. See books like Yesterday's Tomorrows (01996, accompanying a Smithsonian Institution exhibition*), Where's My Jetpack? or Exit to Tomorrow (both 02007). On screen, there's Matt Groening's sharp animated series Futurama (since 01999), and movies like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (02004) or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (02003). Indeed, consider the whole literary-genre-cum-subculture of Steampunk which has emerged in the last decade into mainstream consciousness. (Incidentally, the Long Now Foundation's recent event Mechanicrawl taps this aesthetic trend. ) Online, I suspect Matt Novak's excellent blog Paleo-Future -- about "the future that never was" -- pulls in a bigger readership than a lot of current writing about futures that may still have a shot at being realised.

I've written before at t.s.f. about "lost futures", so won't retread that ground here. But clearly, it's not just Disney that is increasingly (whether inadvertently or disingenuously) mining the past in an effort to envisage the future. Ironic, postmodern play with retro-futuristic tropes is well and good. What intrigues and to some extent concerns me is that we seem to have so much difficulty envisaging hopeful futures without immediate recourse to the past -- way back when, we seem to be telling ourselves, such hope was sincere.

Image: Carlos Puma/Washington Post
"In the Innoventions Dream Home, a futuristic device can render designs in 3-D, but it is surrounded by nostalgia: Lionel trains, an ocean liner, vintage books and candles."
[Caption from slideshow accompanying article]

(Thanks to Chris Jones for posting the article to the HRCFS listserv.)

* This is the most recent active version of the website at the Internet Archive, dated 9 February 02006.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The compleat Wired future artifacts gallery 02004

It's been a while since I posted the last annual instalment of Wired magazine's "artifacts from the future", from the back-page feature called "Found", because the magazine's usually scrupulously complete online archive doesn't include that segment prior to November 02004 (number 12.11). Therefore, as far as I know, they haven't been available anywhere on the web to date.

So today I went to Yale's Engineering Library and scanned the missing pieces, one by one. (Please excuse quality differences in the scanned images.)

[mood machine] | Wired 12.01

[chococeuticals] | Wired 12.02

[bulletproof fashion] | Wired 12.03

[nanobot inhaler] | Wired 12.04

[postcards] | Wired 12.05

[20 big ones] | Wired 12.06

[power gym] | Wired 12.07

[media archives] | Wired 12.08

["lost file" poster] | Wired 12.09

[bathroom vendor] | Wired 12.10

[e-vote receipt] | Wired 12.11 [@ online edition]

[space bag] | Wired 12.12 [@ online edition]

[Back to the 02003 collection | On to 02005...]

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Wanted: 25,000 miles of crime scene tape

Wanted poster, International Criminal Court: Future Generations Division
FoundFutures artifact produced for "Hawaii 2050" kickoff (Silver Room)
Layout and logo by Steve Kiyabu,
August 02006

Distinguished climate scientist James Hansen has called for the chief executives of fossil fuel companies to be tried for high crimes against humanity and nature.

Hansen appeared before U.S. Congress on 23 June 02008, the 20th anniversary of his historic speech in the same forum expressing 99% certainty on evidence of the greenhouse gas effect. This time, he urged swift and far-reaching action by the next American president and Congress to bring the level of CO2 in the atmosphere down from the current 385 parts per million (and rising 2ppm annually) to 350ppm.

The Real News Network, an emerging user-funded news and documentary service I hadn't heard of before, released this report:

In an interview with The Guardian newspaper, Hansen added: "When you are in that kind of position, as the CEO of one the [sic] primary players who have been putting out misinformation even via organisations that affect what gets into school textbooks, then I think that's a crime." (Ed Pilkington, "Put oil firm chiefs on trial, says leading climate change scientist", The Guardian, 23 June 02008 [print edition: "Sue fuel firm CEOs, urges climate change pioneer", p. 10]. A written statement by Hansen to accompany the speech is available at the Huffington Post and The Guardian.)

This is a bold call to arms on Hansen's part. Leaving aside whether or not you agree with it (which is bound to depend on how bought in you are on the risks associated with climate change), let's note a couple of points.

First, naturally he has been greeted with a mixed reception, variously pleased or disgusted with his sentiments. No surprise there. What does surprise me is that it appears to have been left mainly to the blogosphere to respond. As I write, more than two weeks after the event, a google search ["James Hansen" crimes] returns the Guardian piece (top hit) and a Telegraph article, both quality British newspapers, in the top ten. The top 100 hits, all relating to this story, are dominated by blogs, environmentally or politically themed sites, and news aggregators. American newspapers are barely represented -- exceptions being a critical editorial in the Washington Times, a Washington Post blog post on the story, and a NY Times blog addressing the speech and the coal industry's retort. To some extent, this reflects the shift afoot in how news breaks and circulates, away from traditional newspapers: witness this recently adjudicated Long Bet. Still, I find this curious -- it sounds like silence, from mainstream U.S. media -- given the prominence of both the audience (the House Select Committee On Energy Independence And Global Warming) and the speaker (among other things, he heads the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City, and serves as Al Gore's science advisor).

Second, the idea of trying corporate CEOs for serious crimes, regardless of whether we like it or not, is an intriguing meme. For the state legislature's Hawaii 2050 kickoff, we at HRCFS staged four immersive scenarios to get attendees thinking more deeply about the variety of alternative futures which could eventuate over that period. One of them, the Silver Room (a "collapse" scenario, in contrast to continuation, discipline, and transformation scenarios) posited an energy crisis, followed by the military taking over to ration resources and maintain order [video]. The poster above was one decor item we installed as a clue to the mentality of this post-collapse society: in the wake of a crisis, prosperity is rewritten as prologue to disaster. Let the blame games begin!

Meanwhile, punitive responses to corporate behaviour are already sought in some circles. I came across this picture today at the Rainforest Action Network, documenting an activist intervention in Washington D.C. last November to highlight the notion of global warming as a crime scene.

So, Hansen's call is provocative, there is no doubt about that. But it's an idea that is unlikely to go away, I think, due to broad trends around (a) increasing comprehension of the way systemic risks and harms are distributed across space and time, and (b) increasing focus on corporate social responsibility.

We may not get a "Future Generations Division" of the International Criminal Court (as suggested by our poster) just yet, but people do seem to be awakening to the incremental, emergent consequences of habitual behaviours -- like smoking tobacco, which has recently been outlawed in many public buildings in Europe, North America and Australia. (There's an interesting analogy between tobacco and fossil fuel industries. Hansen: "Instead of moving heavily into renewable energies, fossil companies choose to spread doubt about global warming, as tobacco companies discredited the smoking-cancer link.") If the worst happens, and some of the more dire forecasts of climate change materialise, the environmental, economic, humanitarian and security consequences (distributed harms par excellence) could well see corporations, and their main representatives, called to account in ways that apparently seem ridiculous to many at the moment.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Feel that sting?

That's pride, f**kin witchoo.

A world without bees...

Today I glimpsed an advertisement for this in the Guardian's Saturday magazine, Weekend [print p. 54], and wondered: some lame entomological ripoff of The World Without Us?

Guess again.

Jane McGonigal's next alternate reality game? (ilovebees + World Without Oil = ?)


In fact, it's no hypothetical entertainment, but a sort of latter-day Silent Spring, published in Britain last month, which sounds the alarm on a very real ecological crisis in the making.

A Guardian article by the book's co-author, Alison Benjamin, explains:

Since [November 02006], close on two million colonies of honeybees across the US have been wiped out. The strange phenomenon, dubbed colony collapse disorder (CCD), is also thought to have claimed the lives of billions of honeybees around the world. In Taiwan, 10 million honeybees were reported to have disappeared in just two weeks, and throughout Europe honeybees are in peril.
UK farming minister Lord Rooker [...] warned last year that honeybees are in acute danger: "If nothing is done about it, the honeybee population could be wiped out in 10 years," he said. Last month, he launched a consultation on a national strategy to improve and protect honeybee health.

People's initial response to the idea of a bee-less world is often either, "That's a shame, I'll have no honey to spread on my toast" or, "Good - one less insect that can sting me." In fact, honeybees are vital for the pollination of around 90 crops worldwide. In addition to almonds, most fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds are dependent on honeybees. Crops that are used as cattle and pig feed also rely on honeybee pollination, as does the cotton plant. So if all the honeybees disappeared, we would have to switch our diet to cereals and grain, and give our wardrobes a drastic makeover.

According to Albert Einstein, our very existence is inextricably linked to bees - he is reputed to have said: "If the bee disappears off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left."

Bees are a barometer of what man is doing to the environment, say beekeepers; the canary in the coalmine. Just as animals behave weirdly before an earthquake or a hurricane, cowering in a corner or howling in the wind, so the silent, empty hives are a harbinger of a looming ecological crisis. But what is causing them to vanish - pesticides, parasites, pests, viruses? No one knows for sure.

~Alison Benjamin, "Last flight of the honeybee?", The Guardian, 31 May 02008.

These culprits are considered in turn, and the interlocking factors of monoculture (both the crops and the honeybees used to pollinate them), vulnerability to disease, chemical interference in biological processes, and overwork -- that's right, overwork -- amount to a pretty grim picture.

One thing I'd never thought about or realised before is quite how reliant agricultural industry is on the services of honeybees, for far more than just honey. The article notes, "In 2007, honey production was worth $160m to the US economy, compared with pollination services that have been estimated at $15bn."

The industrial-age model of production, and its ideological counterpart, the conception of nature as a machine, are still very much with us. And with those come systemic weaknesses, threats to our survival, in a renovated global ecology that we have barely begun to understand.

I'd certainly recommend the full article; the book is probably worth a look too. You may also like to read this: Jim Dator, 02002, "Assuming 'responsibility for our rose'".

Friday, July 04, 2008

Not drowning, thriving

Flood (dir. Tony Mitchell, 02007); image captured from DVD ch. 13

Yesterday, almost a year after my spies in London spotted a BBC News report about its forthcoming release, I got around to watching Flood, a British disaster flick about the inundation of the capital. Not even the usually sterling efforts of star Robert Carlyle (Trainspotting; 28 Weeks Later) could keep this determinedly mediocre movie afloat. (Sample the reviews; and join me in sympathy with whoever kept his name off the list of players at the DVD's Amazon UK listing.)

Arguably the best thing about it, as a film, is the nifty shot of Westminster awash (see above).

However, as a contribution to public discourse on flood risk, the film has possibly done a bit better. Its timeliness in confronting/exploiting one of the bogeymen of climate change has been noted, and its likelihood evaluated (The Times; BBC News Magazine). It also earned an audience of 7.2 million when reincarnated as a TV miniseries two months ago (Brand Republic). A film need not be an artistic masterwork in order to offer a useful contribution to our mental environment. I'm not qualified to do this, but it could be interesting to see an evaluation of how money spent on a movie production compares to expenditure on more orthodox means of bringing issues to public attention (public service announcements, government reports, and the like).

Meanwhile, the flooding of London as a long-term prospect, as opposed to popcorn cataclysm, appears to be trickling into the collective mind. Over at Open the Future, Jamais Cascio has posted on a series of photoshopped visualisations called Flooded London 2090, produced by Squint/Opera, a film and media production studio based in the city. (Thanks to Jake for the tip.)

"St Pauls -- A late afternoon plunge from the Whispering Gallery"
Image: Squint/Opera, Flooded London 2090
via www.jamesshaw.co.nz (->Visualisation->Flooded London)

"St Mary Woolnath -- Rich Pickings from Bank"
Image: Squint/Opera, Flooded London 2090
via www.jamesshaw.co.nz (->Visualisation->Flooded London)

"Honor Oak -- Suburban Bucolia"
Image: Squint/Opera, Flooded London 2090
via www.jamesshaw.co.nz (->Visualisation->Flooded London)

The strikingly attractive images above (disappointingly, there are just five in the set) are now being exhibited as part of the London Festival of Architecture, and so, being nearby, I made my way to the venue this afternoon to take a look.

Medcalf gallery, 38 Exmouth Market, Clerkenwell
Photo: the sceptical futuryst

(The details and background of the artwork are, of course, much better appreciated when mounted in large prints on lightboxes than onscreen.)

Outside, it's a sunny 02008; inside, an après-déluge 02090
Photo: the sceptical futuryst

From the project description:
The general scenario is set 80 or so years into the future, long after the sea levels have risen. The catastrophe side of the sea coming in has long since past [sic] and the five images are snapshots of people going about their lives, long since having adapted to the worlds [sic] new circumstance. The five scenes shown through lightboxes present London as a tranquil utopia with the architecture of the distant rat race suspended below the water.

It's good to see here what I've previously suggested, following Jim Dator, we need more of; namely, images of futures in which people are adapting responsibly and pleasantly to climate changes which we no longer have the lead-time to avoid; "promoting a range of viable responses -- various different scenarios which all assume global warming, and some of which show us thriving anyway".

Also, it strikes me that this approach could make a marvellous basis for a much larger exhibition, in London or elsewhere -- imagining alternative futures for a whole variety of urban settings, in a sort of Worth1000 challenge for professional artists. Better yet, include original photos of the current locations alongside each set of alternative visual forecasts.

Disaster scenarios are dramatically exciting, and conceptually vital to risk management; but I suspect that without a sense of their (comparatively mundane) non- or post-disaster counterparts, our best intentions will be found dead in the water.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Immaculate extinction

Another gorgeous post-people sunset at London's Tower Bridge
Image: Chris Stocker for BBC Focus #191, July 02008

"What if we all vanished overnight?" That's the question posed in the current edition of BBC Focus magazine ("The world's best science and technology monthly") in its cover story about "Earth Without Man" (which inside, is labelled with the rather more PC, less portentous "Earth Without Us"). Written by sci-fi author Stephen Baxter, the article offers, garnished with a few words about London for the British audience, a generic account of the post-human trajectory with which readers may already be familiar, if not from Alan Weisman's World Without Us, then perhaps from either of the two identically-themed TV programs that have appeared on screens so far this year.

We have visited this topic before at t.s.f. Back in January, I posted Mondolithic's imaginative renderings of New York City succumbing to the march of time in the absence of human intervention. The only distinctively British visual accompaniment to this BBC magazine story was the one on the cover (see above), but it started me wondering whether others had perhaps been produced to adapt the post-humanity idea for a local audience.

An article in the tabloid Daily Mail included the following shots...

"Washed away: Harrods, London's premier department store, rots among derelict double-decker buses in flood waters caused by the bursting of the Thames barrier"
Image: Life After People (via Daily Mail)

"Crown and out: Buckingham Palace sinks into decay"
Image: Life After People (via Daily Mail)

...which turn out to be culled from a filmmaking effort to turn this oddly popular thought experiment into a feature-length thriller.

Life After People screened on Channel 4 in the UK, but was produced for the History Channel in the US. I watched it online this week, via a low-resolution, though adequate, version archived at Google video.

I'll start with what I liked about it. It's great that the History Channel can take a sufficiently broad view of history and documentary (both of which are, often enough, pretty ponderous enterprises) to carry out quite a fanciful, extended thought experiment in prime time. It seemed that by far the majority of shots were dreamed up from nothing, and a lot of the CG visuals were pretty cool, up to a point.

But on the whole I found it an overblown and self-important excuse for a bunch of thunderous effects, more or less on a par with The Day After Tomorrow. So much sound and fury, even after the last poor player has quit the stage. Percussive action-thriller music and smarmy narration were incessant. A sample from the script, to be intoned in a gravelly American movie-preview voice: FIVE YEARS AFTER PEOPLE, THE ROADS OF THE WORLD ARE DISAPPEARING BENEATH A GREEN MAT THAT SPREADS LIKE SOME RELENTLESS MONSTER. THE ADVANCE OF NATURE KNOWS NO BOUNDARIES. The topic appeared to serve mainly as a pretext for animated sequences looking at how cities, particularly U.S. cities, and even more particularly U.S. cities with towering iconic structures that look good collapsing in slow motion from various angles, would fare. By the end of an hour and a half, frankly, it was wearing thin.

The National Geographic Channel's tilt at the same premise, Aftermath: Population Zero (which can also be found online, posted in five parts by a thoughtful netizen) is less tabloid, attempts to spend approximately equal time destroying U.S. and European capitals, and divides attention more evenly between the ecological and engineering aspects of the post-people scenario. It also doesn't feature talking heads, which in Life After People are handled with utmost cheese by zapping interviewees in and out of the frame -- see how they disappear! Playing to a traditional NatGeo strength, Aftermath also illustrates the reassertion of non-human ecology with some cleverly orchestrated predator-prey scenes.

Image: Post-something London
as imagined in Aftermath: Population Zero (National Geographic Channel)

So, what are we to make of all this?

I'm tempted to take back my earlier, perhaps too-optimistic notion that the spate of interest in post-human Earth could be seen as "positive evidence of a sort of coming of age". While this could still be the case, the way the subject is handled in these TV movies lends rather more weight to the unflattering alternative, that "we're narcissistically obsessed with our own demise".

But it's an interestingly empty demise: we all suddenly, a propos of nothing, ascend into heaven? This conceit of the impromptu disappearance of the entire human race, with everything else remaining untouched, is a telling piece of fantasy, I think. In Australia some years ago, there was a non-alcoholic beverage called Claytons, marketed as "the drink you have when you're not having a drink". Here we have Claytons eschatology: the idle contemplation of the end times that you engage in when you're not up for considering genuinely frightening possible futures. It's an apocalypse the whole family can enjoy. Velvet Revelations. An immaculate extinction.

Last week on BBC World News, I caught a report [video] highlighting the massive reliance of the U.K. economy on imported Chinese goods. The point was illustrated graphically by several shots panning across a typical home, wherein they magically zapped out all the household items originating in China. Without them, things looked pretty bare. Now, you wouldn't take that experiment as evidence that, without China, we would literally have next to nothing in our homes. Historically, things would develop elsewise; we might be doing without certain items, while making other things ourselves, or importing them from elsewhere. But the point was simply to dramatise, visually, how reliant we presently are on one exporting giant by taking its products out of the picture.

The two films in question could, similarly, be explained on the basis that they're not intended to be read literally, but simply to show, by simulating our absence, how much impact humanity has upon the world. Fair enough. But the thought experiment about what "could (however qualified) happen" is prone to being misinterpreted as "coming soon". Many futurists I know make a distinction between a forecast (tentative if-then statement) and prediction (confident assertion about what will occur), but as sensible as this may be, such distinctions tend to get lost in public fora. The Daily Mail headline introducing images produced for Life After People: "Revealed: what the world will look like when we've gone".

A counterfactual "how the world could look if humans had never existed" would presumably be equally effective for the purpose of illustrating, by subtraction, our collective impact: but by starting from the present day, the films invite being (mis)understood as a possible, or even probable, future.

The emphasis on spectacle also helps put to rest suspicions that they can be expected to substantially improve scenaric thinking. Going back to our China products example; suppose the roof had been held up by Chinese-made dry wall; the news segment might have been a lot more dramatic had the walls vanished so the house caved in. That approach isn't far off the one adopted in Life After People and Aftermath: taking an absurd premise -- instantaneous, cause-free disappearance of humans -- to its (il)logical, if spectacular, conclusion. It would be disingenuous to claim that we're merely being given an creative, accessible depiction of human impact on the world: we're also getting Armageddon Lite.

And, it's worth noting that Life After People was apparently the most successful broadcast ever for the History Channel: 5.4 million viewers watched the show in January (Washington Post).

It is not trivial, I think, to wonder about the refusal to posit a mechanism, in both films, by which the disappearance could happen. It is certainly not because we lack the means to destroy ourselves -- for evidence to the contrary, Baxter's article refers the curious to Nick Bostrum's veritable catalogue of existential threats. Of course, I understand the spirit of the experiment, that the story is not supposed to be about those threats; we are asked simply to grant the assumption and see what follows. But why should we? That elides too neatly the single most important thing about the prospect of human extinction -- that it's almost certain to be our own damn fault. And, arguably the second-most important thing about it, too -- that it would in all likelihood be neither instantaneous nor painless.

One of the possible criticisms of Children of Men, a near-future feature film praised at this blog not long ago, was that the backdrop of the story (worldwide infertility) was never explained in the film. Still, the movie worked wonderfully as a document of, and metaphor addressing, an epochal confidence crisis -- today's -- and its emotional plausibility is preserved partly because that plot mechanism, which isn't the point of the story, is deliberately denied rational scrutiny. That film unflinchingly showed how people's lives might play out under such circumstances, and it's a profoundly human piece of storytelling.

For another comparison, I'm currently reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and if you can get into the mannered prose, you find an intensely atmospheric description of what it could be like in a hellish -- drastically diminished, close to post-human(e) -- world. Children of Men and The Road both come from a kind of "last man standing" genre of apocalyptica; in contrast, I appreciate the (rapidly diminishing) novelty of the no-more-people-whatsoever approach, but I'm wondering to what kinds of useful conclusions it leads, vis-a-vis present action. Because Life After People and Aftermath entirely avoid the biggest questions they raise: Life after people why? Aftermath of what? The fact that they do so deliberately and up-front hardly makes it any less of an omission. Who, literally, could give a damn what happens to the world's landmarks 300 years, or 10,000, after the last of the landmarkers has departed? It's a matter of profound -- no, towering -- unimportance. We all disappear, without cause or human consequences, then our toys slowly fade away too. So what?

Meanwhile, the starting point of these explorations, namely, humanity suddenly ending its tenure on this planet, is -- when considered as genuine future-historic potential -- surely the ultimate tragedy in the fullest sense of both those words. By tragedy I don't mean simply "very sad occurrence" (there's plenty of room to doubt that), but the Aristotelian arc; a protagonist's dramatic reversal of fortune from triumph to downfall, brought about by a persistent characteristic that turns from strength to fatal flaw.

In other words, it's a hell of a story. These films have found a roundabout way of raising the topic in polite society, without confronting the central issue. And it's terrifically difficult, I suppose, to address such grandiose possibilities without being, or at least seeming, either pathetically self-congratulatory (the cockroaches will miss us) or misanthropic (good riddance). Yet there's an inescapable air of the masturbatory about this no-more-people genre -- as a thoughtful Washington Post article on the phenomenal popularity of the post-people line of products put it: "there's the unstated human ego at work here, navel-gazing and overstating our importance."

However much they have in common, though, these two films are not interchangeable, and they're both worth a look. One of the differences between the pair is that Aftermath, where Life After People goes for the Jerry Bruckheimer jugular, has a somewhat more meditative element to it. The concluding, salutary sentiment is as follows: "Earth is resilient. In time, it cleaned up every mess we left behind. All we had to do was get out of the way."

Hmm. What "getting out of the way" might entail -- not as a magical fait accompli, but as a voluntary process engaged over time -- could make an interesting premise for a film.

Or a civilisation.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

London's burning

Last week, here in London, I went for a rather remarkable walk.

And While London Burns is an "operatic audio tour" in three acts, a self-guided, immersive audio experience of The City, a.k.a. The Square Mile, London's financial district. The story it tells is woven around the area's extravagant fossil fuel consumption; past, present and (other things being equal) future. It's told mainly through the anguished persona of a young investment manager, who starts out by showing you his place of work, and who, as you listen, quits his job in a wave of self-disgust and wanders the streets ruminating aloud on his, and our, ugly predicament. It deals with two layers; one schematic, the tangled "carbon web" wrapped around the city; and the other personal, the woman who left him, along with her own parallel career in high finance, for a remote off-the-grid commune.

The tour is a project of political art collective Platform, which "works across disciplines for social and ecological justice... combin[ing] the transformatory power of art with the tangible goals of campaigning, the rigour of in-depth research with the vision to promote alternative futures." An impressive, and resonant, undertaking. At the project website, you can download the audio files for free (thanks to Arts Council England, which puts public money to work "to get more art to more people in more places"). Then, you put them on a portable music player (iPod or similar) and make your way to the Starbucks adjacent to the underground railway station at Bank, where the journey begins.

This wasn't the first time I had taken the walk. It was on a brief stopover here in February 02007, on a quiet Sunday morning, that I did it the first time. En route to the airport, I wheeled my heavy suitcase through deserted streets and alleys, and the grim eschatological tone of the tour and its melancholy score was underlined by the emptiness of the buildings and thoroughfares along the way. The tour is generally intended to be taken during business hours, however, because at one stage you're guided indoors through the Royal Exchange Building (formerly the London Stock Exchange), now a luxury shopping centre. The other time, the building had been closed; but on this occasion, a lunchtime crowd of snappily dressed financiers sat round tables in the vaulted atrium, surrounded by top-end stores like De Beers and Cartier. Generally I found the backdrop of the teeming, oblivious hive of The City just as effective as its sombre, emptied-out weekend version. The latter condition, however, does make the tour a little bit easier to hear.

The audio walk -- which, regrettably, by its nature can't really be appreciated or grasped by an audient not on the spot -- emphasises how much things change on the surface, and how little they change underneath. There's a world-weariness about this view that's not shallow cynicism, but burdened by a deep awareness of history. I think the great achievement of the project is that the walker comes to appreciate this depth, and accompanying entanglements, much better. Along the way, you cross the line of the Great Fire of London (01666), as well as the possible future shoreline of a risen River Thames. One of the practical consequences of the constant change is disruption of the tour's route as time goes on: both a pedestrian overpass leading away from Tower 42, and the Monument which concludes the walk, are currently closed for renovations. Obviously the times for walking certain sequences do vary, and the directions were sparse enough that I accidentally strayed from the path once or twice the first go around, but I was able to hit pause and get my bearings. Another potential frustration that can pull you from the story is if your batteries run out. That happened to me ten minutes in, this time -- a charming little irony for an audio walk about unsustainable energy consumption, ha ha. I had to recharge and come back the next day.

Still, I find this rapidly developing medium, the immersive audio walk, a fantastic way to experience a place. You get a new, mind-expanding vision of the City that is afforded only by inhabiting it differently (a bit like the Situationists' dérive, but carefully constructed to place you in another man's shoes). The cocooning of the listener in her private aural environment, which might in other contexts be regretted for disconnecting people from their fellows and surroundings (armies of commuters spend their journeys either shouting into cellphones or retreating into iPod solitude), in this setting provides instead a cinematic soundtrack-to-life, an unpredictable (the first time, at least) meandering path to which you can surrender, and a thrilling sense of insider's initiation. Sensory synchronicities, both planned and unplanned, make the experience exciting, and somehow grounding. The voiceover mentions a layer of fine black dust on all the buildings about -- the accretion of miniscule particles of fossil fuel exhaust -- so you touch a finger to the handrail, and it gets coated in grime. On two occasions, during the choral refrain admonishing the audio-walker to "look up at the sky", I raised my eyes in time to catch, at precisely that moment, a jet passing overhead.

I love the contradiction that it's substantially the same experience, and yet unique in each detail, every time it is taken. The audio walk is a designed experience, the script pre-recorded, but the motion performed by you, with the improvised assistance of the location and thousands of unwitting extras. It's more unpredictable than a film, feels more labile than most live theatre, and is certainly more personal, by dint of participation, than either.

The essence of the experience is not the walk per se, but the detailed choreographing of attention in the midst of a genuinely chaotic environment. Directing the attention, cognitive and sensory, in a real place in motion, seems to make it eminently suitable for futures, which is ultimately about perceiving the present differently. This is the only audio walk I've encountered which really succeeds in heightening appreciation of the fragility, ephemerality and contingency of the present, although I see this medium as ideally suited to engendering that reflective frame of mind.*

In any case, I'd recommend this to anyone within reach of London who's interested in the forces behind climate change, or even in just the possibilities of this immersive medium. Platform is to be applauded for a daringly critical piece of public art that asks, and enables, us to survey and move through our dazzlingly, dizzyingly busy surroundings with a more inquiring gaze; it invites us not to be overwhelmed by all the things that appear to change, but to be more sensitive to the things which stubbornly do not.

On that point; yesterday, while getting updated on Platform's current work, I watched their recent home-brewed documentary Burning Capital, which is about BP (formerly British, now ostensibly "beyond", Petroleum; one of the largest energy companies in the world, headquartered in London). It's quite a technical investigation -- not in an engineering sense, but a political one -- so may not enthrall all comers, but it does explicitly ask one question implicitly posed by And While London Burns: "How long is it before government, forced by rising public pressure, changes the theoretical cost of carbon into an actual cost, and the company is forced to carry the real economic impact of climate change?" (Burning Capital, Act 3.1)

How long, indeed.

* Colleague Jake Dunagan (HRCFS) and I did a bit of research towards a possible futures-themed audio walk in Chinatown, Honolulu. As funding for the (surprisingly expensive) studio production bit proved elusive, that project morphed into a more immediately viable, but very different, multi-part FoundFutures intervention late last year. Still, with my appetite whetted thanks to that development process, the series of audio walks or tours I've taken in the past year and a half is surprising even to me: Chinatown Manhattan; the 9/11 Sonic Memorial; Wall Street; Belleville, Paris; the disappointingly dull Da Vinci Code tour at The Louvre; the eye-opening driving tour Invisible-5 between San Francisco and Los Angeles. I've also taken more standard key-in-a-number tours of Pearl Harbor, Stonehenge, Tate Modern (a multimedia guide on a handheld computer), and a couple of urban walks of the cheap talking-head variety that gives audio tours a bad name. The one that first alerted me to the potential of the medium, which I first took in 01998 and revisited last year, was the Alcatraz prison audio tour in San Francisco. The most fully realised urban experiences were the Soundwalk tours (Chinatown, Wall St, and Belleville), along with And While London Burns.