Thursday, August 21, 2008

Findability features FoundFutures

Earlier this week I was interviewed by Peter "Ambient Findability" Morville for his blog, about working at the intersection of design and alternative futures. (I recently rediscovered and responded to a post he wrote over a year ago, in which he expressed an interest in the interweaving of user experience strategy and futures studies.) We talked quite a bit about the ongoing collaborative project FoundFutures which fellow futurist Jake Dunagan and I have been running since 02006, with the help of a stable -- if stable is the word for these people -- of brilliant designers.

The resulting post appeared today.

I'm grateful to Peter for initiating a really interesting conversation.

As regular readers of t.s.f. are already well aware, there's an orientation in these pages toward how design and futures thinking are being (and can continue to be) woven together. One of the biggest challenges in synthetic, generalist, or transdisciplinary inquiry lies in semantic mismatches, so that people discussing essentially the same phenomena using different terms may never become aware of each other's research or ideas. Traditionally this has been a boon to the academy, in that people could become well-known, admired experts in their respective fields without ever having to take into account the challenges of other folks using different terminology in the next building over. Increased connectivity of people and subjects are rapidly breaking down those walls (notably, via tag-based taxonomies which allow you to have your semantic cake and eat it, so things can easily belong in and be accessed via multiple, previously siloed, categories).

So these disciplinary and linguistic divisions both impede and enable new discoveries: each is a different perspective, a different way of perceiving or knowing the subject.

Swings and roundabouts, my friends. Swings and roundabouts.

Consequently each discussion around design and futures with someone whose experience brings them to the intersection from a different angle opens up new (that is, new to me) insights, search terms, and avenues of inquiry. Peter's principal areas of expertise are information architecture and user experience. Several of the links he included in his post open up frontiers I look forward to exploring:

> Victor Lombardi's thinking on "tangible futures"
> The EU initiative and report Design for Future Needs
> Nathan Shedroff and Davis Masten's project Postcards from the Future

Coincidentally, I'd scheduled a meeting with Nathan (an experience design expert) in San Francisco yesterday afternoon, and we enjoyed a highly interesting exchange of ideas, many of which took the form of trading isomorphic insights arrived at via slightly different avenues. Thus, the beginning of another promising thread in this effort.

The Great Design-Futures Conversation continues. All are welcome.

An artifact for the future

Fifty to ninety percent of the world's languages are predicted to disappear in the next century, many with little or no significant documentation.
~Rosetta Project website

The Long Now's Rosetta Disk | Photo by Kevin Kelly

On Tuesday evening at The Long Now Foundation in San Francisco, we marked a milestone in a project conceived to celebrate and preserve linguistic diversity for the long-term future. It was inspired by the famously trilingual "Rosetta Stone", discovered by Napoleon's troops in 01799 at Rashid (which they referred to as Rosetta) in Egypt, and helped 19th-century linguists decipher hieroglyphic writing.

Kevin Kelly explains:

During a Long Now field trip to a southwest archeological site, the idea of a modern Rosetta Stone came up — a backup of human languages that future generations might cherish. At a winter retreat in 1999 [make that 01999], Long Now board member Doug Carlston [link] suggested that for the parallel common text of this modern Rosetta Stone we should use the book of Genesis, since it was most likely already translated into all languages already. We hatched a plan to produce a 3-inch non-corroding disk which contained at least 1,000 translations of Genesis and other linguistic information about each language.

Following the archiving principle of LOCKS (Lots of Copies Keep ‘em Safe) we would replicate the disk promiscuously and distribute them around the world with built in magnifiers. This project in long term thinking would do two things: it would showcase this new long-term storage technology, and it would give the world a minimal backup of human languages. We thought it might take a year to do.
All this took eight years because [at first the] technology could not handle the size of our library, and there was in fact, contrary to our assumptions, no library of already completed Genesis translations. There was no central depository of language information, either. So in order to gather 1,000 translations of Genesis and related linguistic information for those 1,000 language, Long Now created the Rosetta Project. [link]

An earlier version of the disk has since 02004 been hurtling through space on the European Space Agency probe Rosetta, bound for a 02014 rendezvous with a comet where it is to be deposited and will spend the next several hundred million years touring the solar system. The completed Disk unveiled on Tuesday is, however, intended for a terrestrial audience. Kelly:

One side of the disk contains a graphic teaser. The design shows headlines in the eight major languages of the world today spiraling inward in ever-decreasing size till it becomes so small you have trouble reading it, yet the text goes on getting smaller. The sentences announce: "Languages of the World: This is an archive of over 1,500 human languages assembled in the year 02008 C.E. Magnify 1,000 times to find over 13,000 pages of language documentation."
The Rosetta disk is not digital. The pages are analog "human-readable" scans of scripts, text, and diagrams. Among the 13,500 scanned pages are 1,500 different language versions of Genesis 1-3, a universal list of the words common for each language, pronunciation guides and so on.

The disk distils and embodies a tremendous amount of effort and dedication on the part of many people. It's a remarkable technical, social and scholarly feat, and a thought-provoking piece of farsighted communication. (The closest parallel that springs to my mind is the 10,000-year nuclear waste warning concepts commissioned by Sandia National Laboratories.) It highlights a facet of futures thinking less frequently addressed (at this blog, at least), which has to do with designing a suitable historical archive (more prosaically, "data storage") for future generations whose specific circumstances are impossible for us to anticipate.

Characteristically for Long Now folks, the wonderful Laura Welcher, director of the Rosetta Project, even while announcing her team's marvellous achievement, keeps looking forward:

So… if the Rosetta Disk is a prototype and facet of the Library of Ages (companion to the 10,000 Year Clock), what goes into the fine print next?

Good question.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Where every day is career day

Images of Wannado City via Theme Parks

A look at Wannado City™, "America's first indoor role-playing theme park for kids":

Wannado City is a theme park the size of three football fields built in the middle of Sawgrass Mills, a shopping centre complex in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It is a kid-sized replica of a real city and the little ones behave like adults here.

They work, are (mostly) law abiding, put out fires and deposit their pay-cheques into an interest earning account at the State Farm Bank. Not in dollars, but in Wongas, the official Wannado City currency.
The value of money is very important to the inventor of Wannado City. "This city for kids should be as close to reality as possible," says Luis Laresgoiti, 41, a tall slim Mexican man who sets out his vision in a quiet, soft voice. "Money is the most important fuel in every city and every country – also in Wannado City."
Children three to 13 years old can choose between 120 different professions.
In addition, 12 sponsors and their logos give the children's work the stamp of reality. [...] The money that the kidizens (junior citizens) accrue is managed at the State Farm Bank, an American financial firm that offers insurance and bank services. 'Watch how your Wongas grow,' exclaims the bank slogan.
Hidden interests are discovered in Wannado City, says [mother Judy Odsess]. "Sarah didn’t know what she wanted to do, now she wants to go in to television." The state of Florida agrees. Schools are sending entire classes on school trips to Wannado City with the blessings of the teachers and the parents.

Judy Odsess also likes Wannado because it’s safe for her daughters. A security system inspired by the casino city Las Vegas takes care of total child protection.
In Wannado City no one is unemployed. The choice of profession is free and the middle class is intact. Outsourcing doesn’t exist. Wannado City presents itself as a city without any ideology.

~Peter Hossli, "When I Grow Up", Open Skies (reproduced at, 1 November 02005.

For those of us not blessed to live within an SUV ride of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, it's possible to get a sense of what the Wannado City experience might be like through a variety of home videos posted at YouTube, where one also finds that local TV news services have filed cooperatively infomercial-esque stories about the park (link). Since journalist Hossli interviewed its founder, however, some of the intended verisimilitude appears to have been traded in for unadulterated fantasy. Wannado City has lately been advertising a Jurassic Park-style "dinosaur adventure" in which "an era is reborn" and "mysterious creatures from the past are unleashed" (link). This move highlights the challenge, ubiquitous in pedagogically-oriented simulations, of blending education with entertainment: it's easy to lapse into excess of one or the other.

The experiential learning idea behind the $40 million facility (a figure quoted in a TV news spot linked above) here is fascinating to me. Visiting kids get a chance to do "what they wanna do" (i.e., when they grow up), sampling any of 120 professions, meanwhile earning and spending in the Wannado City micro-economy set within the giant Sawgrass Mills Mall, the largest shopping centre in the state of Florida. It would be great to see some scholarly analysis of the educational attributes of this experience, but a search at Google Scholar for "Wannado" turns up only a few English-language papers, the main theme in which seems to be the use of RFID tags in patrons' wrist-worn tracking devices. Even putting to one side the Foucauldian surveillance apparatus at play here, and notwithstanding its claims to be a "city without any ideology", it's not hard to spot a distinct ideological bent mixed in with all the fun. Where some onlookers will discern valuable learning, or harmless amusement, others are sure to find consumerist indoctrination. Of course, all that depends on your politics: what's intriguing me from a futures perspective is that the role-play here recreates occupations that are liable to change radically, or even disappear, by the time these kids enter the workforce.

Whether or how this matters is an interesting question that goes to the heart of what we believe education is about.

My bias, of course, is that in times of massive change, to prepare ourselves and our children for situations that don't yet exist is at least as important as being skilled in existing ones. Which leads me to wonder about the prospects for role-playing and simulation settings that offer the opportunity to experience not only existing jobs (and animatronic dinosaurs), but also -- or instead -- ways of life that could exist in times to come.

Related posts:
> Today at Tomorrowland: yesterday's future

(Article via swissmiss)

Monday, August 18, 2008

Imagining Africa

Image via City of Cape Town official website

Over at sci-fi blog io9, Charlie Jane Anders has posted about an award winning short story by South African writer Henrietta Rose-Innes.  "Poison" recently won the 02008 Caine Prize, Africa's highest literary honour. An extract:

The cloud was creeping higher behind her back, casting a dull murk, not solid enough to be shadow. She could see veils of dirty rain bleeding from its near edge. Earlier, in the city, she had heard sirens, helicopters in the sky; but there were none out here. It was silent. Standing alone on the highway was unnerving. This was for cars. The road surface was not meant to be touched with hands or feet, to be examined too closely or in stillness. The four lanes were so wide. Even the white lines and the gaps between them were much longer than they appeared from the car: the length of her whole body, were she to lie down in the road. She had to stop herself looking over her shoulder, flinching from invisible cars coming up from behind.

It's a tightly written, evocative read (find it in full at The Guardian). A day after the award was announced, Rose-Innes spoke with the Saudi Gazette:

Asked whether she thinks "Poison" taps into the wider anxiety pervading the globe, while having a specific South African context, Rose-Innes replies: "I think it’s in the zeitgeist. There’s a trend towards apocalyptic images in popular culture at the moment...The world is a pretty anxiety-ridden place, although at the time of writing the story it felt like it was very much embedded in the South African situation specifically".

Apocalyptic stories have "a weird attraction; part of me is drawn to the idea of everything being wiped away and starting again anew." She was a fan of science fiction when she was younger and "it’s interesting for me that a lot of those classic science fiction scenarios seem to have been discovered anew by mainstream literary authors."

~Susannah Tarbush, "Disquieting metaphor for our anxiety-ridden times", Saudi Gazette, 14 July 02008 [see also the tanjara

Now, while the question of whether this story ought to be classified as science fiction sensu stricto may be debated by some, what's more interesting to me is that its success has helped focus attention on the state of the genre in Africa. The story caught my attention because yesterday, flying out west to San Francisco, I got around to reading an article by futurists Sohail Inayatullah and Ivana Milojevic about a very similar topic ("Futures dreaming outside and on the margins of the western world", Futures 35(5), 493-507, June 02003: via IngentaConnect [subscription only]; via Metafuture). The authors make a case for broadening and diversifying science fiction, both in how we understand the application of the term, as well as in the number and variety of cultural perspectives presented through the genre. Through the former line of argument, they suggest that sci-fi equivalents exist in all cultures, even if they aren't visible or appreciated as such; while through the latter, they lament the actual dominance (presumably, in terms of both volume and visibility) of "western" science fiction.

While there is science fiction in all cultures, it is only the west that has systematized science and fiction, made it into an industrial endeavor, and created a particular brand of literature called science fiction. [p. 500]
Taking a paradigmatic view, to assert that science fiction exists only in the west is merely to favor one particular form of a much wider endeavor. Science fiction thus should not merely be about the technological as defined in forward time but the creation of plausible future worlds from a range of civilizational perspectives. Science fiction is not just about debating the consequences of scientific progress. It is also about creating utopian or at least eutopian (the good not perfect) societies of
the future. [p. 495]

I can't help thinking that the term science fiction is itself responsible for some confusion here. As I've argued before:

If virtually all future stories, by default, are science-fiction, and popular discourse around future scenarios winds up being coterminous with that designation, then in effect the future has been colonised -- by an instrumentalist, technology-heavy "science" fiction. To put it another way, the narrowness of our culture's thinking about futures is reflected in the paucity of our vocabulary for stories that happen there. It looks like we have science fiction on the one hand, and the venerable literary tradition of utopias (etymologically: "no place") on the other. Which, analytically and practically, pretty much boils down to a choice between technologised nightmare, or nothing at all.

I find myself in agreement, then, with the drive to encourage elaboration and dissemination of alternative imaginaries, as prescribed by Milojevic and Inayatullah, even if I'm a little wary of "science fiction" as a label. The open-ended, pluripotent future with its endless possible settings and interpretations is an ideal place to call eutopian dreams into discussion.

Having said that, "Poison" is no cheerful portrait of a dream-come-true. Thematically, it wouldn't have been out of place in last year's groundbreaking alternate reality game, World Without Oil, which saw players around the world produce stories, in writing as well as other media, imagining the effects of an oil crisis on their lives. Also, with minimal editing, the action could be transposed to any number of other settings in Australia, Britain, or Canada (all places where I've lived) or the U.S. (where I live now).

This may be African science fiction, but the author acknowledges its roots lie in a global mood of apocalyptic anticipation which is grimly plausible almost anywhere.

So, while we may hope to find in African (or other) science fiction some kind of radical antidote to the limits of "Western" imagination; we may find instead that imagination is most appropriately located within individuals-in-a-context, not in monolithic cultures. In the interest of pluralism, I agree that to have many voices is better than to privilege a few. In the massively collaborative process of future-making, the variety of expression, through specific stories, ideas, and possibilities that play into and reinforce (on one hand) or challenge and undermine (on the other) is enormously important. But to be clear: the key question isn't merely whether a sci-fi story is "Western" or not in origin. It's whether (and how) it addresses, be it in endorsement or in dissent, the array of images of the future that we hold in our hearts and minds. I need scarcely add that "we" are many and varied, readers as well as writers.

No one can force anyone to think outside the box they live in, but given the opportunity, the future will irresistibly beckon to some of the people, some of the time, as a horizon of exploration: where today's impossible becomes a different normal.

Consequently, some African sci-fi is sure to look highly familiar. And some won't.

Kenyan writer John Rugoiyo Gichuki set an award-winning play Eternal, Forever in the year 02410, with the United States of Africa riding the cutting edge of technological advance. Gichuki says:

There is always cyclical development.

The British Empire was big. Now America is there. Maybe in the next 50 years it’s going to be the Chinese. Maybe in 100 years it’s going to be Africa.

A nice concept: Africa as cradle of posthumanity.

Related posts:
> The Darfur Olympics
> Colonising the future... on film
> Neill Blomkamp, visual futurist

(Thanks Rachel!)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Dreaming the home of the future


A scene from PATH Concept Home video (part 3 of 4: "Flexibility").
Top: a scene from Disney Innoventions video

Following a post here recently about Disney's new Tomorrowland attraction, a different take on the same topic...

A "House of the Future," a concept of what tomorrow holds for cutting-edge living, usually tells us more about the dreamers than the dream.

In the mid-1950s, Disneyland, with the help of Monsanto, cooked up its "House of the Future," nearly all of it made of plastic... This was pretty radical stuff, but it was also a vision of living in the future that was based on extending our reliance on cheap oil into infinity.
This summer Disneyland opened a new version of living in the future in its "Tomorrowland"... Like the Monsanto house of 50 years ago, this latest Dream Home is a big ad.
All of our old habits cultivated in a gluttonous energy culture are given free rein in Disney's version of tomorrow. You can't make a move without consuming kilowatts. This Dream McMansion preserves the suburban model that $4-a-gallon gas has made into a nightmare.

If anything, Disney ought to change the story line: "This is how people in the most resource-consuming nation on Earth dreamed they'd still be living in the future without environmental and economic consequences."

There's another Dream Home out there. It hasn't gotten a fraction of the attention lavished on Disneyland, but it offers a future that we might actually be able to live with. Last year the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development unveiled its "Concept Home."

The ideas behind the home try to come to terms with the energy mess we're in.

~Michael J. Crosbie, "Real House Of The Future Is No Disney Dream", Hartford Courant, 3 August 02008.

Restated in terms of Dator's generic images of the future, we have in these two houses (Disney's and HUD's) a pretty clear contrast between two embodied future scenario types: "continuation" (business-as-usual) and "discipline" (self-restraint on resources).

I'm very sympathetic to the point that Crosbie, an architect and professor, is making: HUD's so-called PATH (Partnership for Advancing Housing Technology) Concept Home is practicable, sustainable, and ethical in a variety of ways that Disney's immersive advertisement for energy decadence isn't, and yet comparatively, the former seems to have been all but ignored.

What gives? That's a question the Crosbie piece doesn't discuss at all; in other words, why this unjust situation might be so.

Well, I'm currently reading NYU media prof (and recent HRCFS futures salon guest) Stephen Duncombe's book Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy. And I think it might help us out here (pp. 8-9):

Spectacle is our way of making sense of the world. Truth and power belong to those who tell the better story.
If we want our ideas to lead and not trail the politics of this country, then we need to learn how to think and communicate in today's spectacular vernacular.

With that in mind, check out their respective websites (PATH; Disney) and take another quick look at the photos above. I know, I know, it's not at all a fair comparison -- the multimillion dollar dream machine going up against the the do-gooding public-private partnership -- but humour me. Words don't cost much to write; let's see how they look side by side. Here are the opening lines of the two projects' press releases:

HUD Unveils America's First Efficient, Sustainable, Affordable Concept Home

PATH Concept Home represents the New American Dream during National Homeownership Month

[6 June 02007]

Omaha, NE -- The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development today announced the completion of America's first PATH Concept Home featuring more than 60 efficient, sustainable and flexible products and systems all in one affordable home.

HUD Assistant Secretary Darlene F. Williams speaks prior to the Concept Home ribbon cutting on June 6. She is joined (left to right) by Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey, builder Fernando Pages, and HUD Regional Director Macie Houston."With the PATH Concept Home, HUD has created a blueprint for the future of the American Dream by using innovative housing technologies that support our goals of sustainability, efficiency and flexibility in an affordable home," HUD Assistant Secretary Darlene F. Williams told the gathering of community and industry leaders. "June is National Homeownership Month and we are excited to showcase a home that is affordable to purchase, maintain and renovate as families and their needs change over time."




New Tomorrowland Attraction at Disneyland Resort Combines State-of-the-Art Technology with the Latest in Disneyland Immersive Storytelling

ANAHEIM, Calif. - June 16, 2008 - Imagine a home so perfectly attuned to the needs of a family that it can anticipate and fulfill them, virtually without anyone lifting a finger. Now imagine that the home offers family members high-tech connectivity, not just with one another but with people, entertainment and information in the world at large.

Guests at Disneyland can soon do more than imagine it. Beginning June 17, the Innoventions Dream Home in Tomorrowland is bringing that world to life as a limited number of guests have the opportunity to preview the home.


So here's the Pepsi challenge, kids. Who's telling the better story?

Hint: Dream Home (Disney) vs Concept Home (HUD).

I feel a little bad saying it, but in this light, the attentional gulf separating the pair isn't all that surprising.

And lest I should be accused of overlooking or devaluing it, there is indeed far more substance, thought, rigour and ethical engagement in evidence in the concept home's presentation than in Tomorrowland's pile of eye-candy -- but that's just my point. In America today, the nutritious meal that doesn't taste good doesn't get eaten. (Yeah, thought that was a pretty neat analogy too.)

So, *brow furrowing, eyes narrowing*, doesn't Duncombe's dream prescription mean selling out progressive high-ground to crassly commercial ways of operating? In fact he's intensely aware of that risk, and notes (pp. 16-17):

Between arrogant rejection and populist acceptance of commercial culture lies a third approach: appropriating, co-opting, and, most important, transforming the techniques of spectacular capitalism into tools for social change.
The challenge for progressives is to create ethical spectacles.

If Crosbie is right, and the "House of the Future" tells us more about the dreamers than the dream, one of the things it may be telling us about the sustainability-oriented dreamers is that we're still learning to dream aloud in a compelling way. It seems to me that creating ethical spectacles that recast the -- perhaps necessary -- austerities of a "discipline" future as more "dream" than mere "concept" is where it's at, for building futures that are both practically inhabitable and aesthetically appealing.

That's where I'd prefer to live, anyway.

Related posts:
> Today at Tomorrowland: yesterday's future
> Sponsors of Utopia
> If they buy in, are you selling out?

A tangled web

Image: Screenshot from Web of Fate

A startup site called Web of Fate, launched in July 02008, crowdsources a timeline of users' predictions, goals and other ideas about the future:

Web of Fate is a social experiment that harnesses the collective intelligence of the web to visualize and uncover hidden relationships among future and historical events.

Maybe it's the liberal use of bold type that makes this read like it belongs in the voice bubble of a comic-book's mad scientist.

Web of Fate is ambitiously eclectic. It runs on user submissions, with four options; "make a prediction", "quote a prediction", "create a capsule", or "set a goal", thereby serving as a hybrid of prediction registry and to-do list. There is apparently a "semantic analysis engine" under the hood that produces links between the fragments of submitted content, but exactly what it does, and how it relates to grand questions posed on the site (such as "What can we learn from the past and make the future better?") is unclear.

The visualisation tool looks extremely interesting (see the image above); a cloud of prediction stems hover onscreen in a way that promises a dynamic exploratory interface (a la Visual Thesaurus), but although you can drag the nodes around, this yields no additional insights -- the function appears to have no informational referent. Also, it piles on the disparate elements (users' predictions, reported predictions, and goals) in a way one might hope would be thought-provoking, but which in practice generates more confusion than enlightenment. So a statement like "I will go to the gym everyday" (with no username or date given) sits alongside "$200 dollar oil prediction" (by the end of this year; from Daron in San Jose) and "By 2009, more than one third of IT organizations will have one or more environmental criteria in their top six buying criteria for IT-related goods" (submitted by a user citing IT research outfit Gartner). Those interested in accessing the material primarily through the visualisation may be disappointed when clicking on any prediction takes them to back to a page of static text, and similarly, any given category (users' predictions; quoted predictions; goals) is viewable only in lists, at this point.

A review of the site at Mashable (social networking news) says:

[M]y sense is that registered users will be quite pleased with what they’re offered. Given enough members, this place could become a real hotbed for forecasters.

I find myself wondering whether the conditions are in place, at the moment, for this service to generate that kind of momentum. In their current form, the range of functions seems too diffuse, the quality control too lax, and the interface too unwieldy, to attract and keep a core base of users, who may find more forecasting edification elsewhere at prediction markets like Predictify and NewsFutures, and dedicated "time capsule" functionality at future email services like FutureMe or EmailFuture. There's also the Long Now Foundation's Long Bets project [disclosure: I'm an advisor on it], which has since its inception addressed the quality control issue by requiring users to provide real names and front real money in support of their speculation. The tradeoff, however, is that it doesn't act as a repository where users can freely submit other people's ideas about the future whenever and wherever they appear. (However, Long Bets cofounder Kevin Kelly points out that such a registry has always been part of the plan.) I believe a reputable, well-designed prediction registry has long been needed and is technologically possible, but is yet to be done.∞

According to a Fast Company blog, Web of Fate is the brainchild of Arizona State University student Max Yuan, who, writes Francine Hardaway, "has a head full of projects I hope he has time to complete because they all seem great to me". I'm certainly pleased to see a prediction registry that enables submission of one's own ideas as well as reporting the prognostications of others; the latter an important prerequisite to improving accountability and quality in future-oriented public discourse. Web of Fate makes a brave effort to tap some of the potential for such a forum, but I hope Yuan can find the time to revisit and overhaul some elements of its design. Otherwise, I venture to suggest, this web will (to stretch the metaphor horribly thin) remain too tangled to catch the prey for which it was spun.

∞See futurist David Brin's 02005 article on this topic for more.

[Also posted at Long Views, 14/08/08]


Image: Screenshot from Superstruct

Hot on the heels of a recent post describing the IFTF's new alternate reality game, I'm very happy to announce that I'll be joining the Superstruct team as a gamemaster.

I'd certainly encourage readers of this blog, whose interests obviously stretch to strange immersive experiences of possible futures, to play -- email now to receive an alert about the September launch.

See you in 02019...

Update (13/08/08): And -- stop the press -- exciting news from HRCFS colleague Jake Dunagan, who will be joining the IFTF gang full-time, also starting in September.

Hawaii won't be the same without you, pardner.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Don't "save it for 2050"

Following the collapse of U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton's bid for the Democratic party's presidential nomination -- don't forget folks, you heard it here first -- last night The Atlantic published online an article from its September issue describing how it went down, replete with extracts from strategic memos and bitchy emails between her support staff.

It's not remarkable so much for the candid glimpse of Machiavellian scheming that we all know perennially animates -- and sometimes undermines, as in this case -- political endeavour, as it is for demonstrating how investigative journalism, as an example of the flow of information more broadly, has recently transformed. Astonishing how quickly this piece was put together, with the era of electronic communications enabling a rapid campaign post-mortem from materials that once could have taken years to assemble.

I was intrigued by one item in particular; the March 02007 memo (here in full) by Clinton's former chief strategist Mark Penn, which has been highlighted in the last day or two (NY Times, Washington Post, CNN, Politico, and more) for recommending that the Clinton campaign portray Democratic rival Barack Obama as un-American:

All of these articles about his boyhood in Indonesia and his life in Hawaii are geared towards showing his background is diverse, multicultural and putting that in a new light.

Save it for 2050.

It also exposes a very strong weakness for him—his roots to basic American values and culture are at best limited. I cannot imagine America electing a president during a time of war who is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and in his values.

~Mark Penn, quoted in Joshua Green, "The Front-Runner's Fall", The Atlantic, September 02008.

Race, in this still stubbornly divided country, has inevitably emerged as a key issue in the current election. Penn's is a strategic comment -- he's speaking to what he believes will fly with American voters, as opposed to expressing his own preferences -- about the undesirability of claims to multicultural connection, in contrast to good old "fundamentally American" thinking and values. Whatever those are.

While others can say more profound things than I about the politics of identity in this presidential, er, race, I'm intrigued by the words "Save it for 2050". A member at MyDD, a group blog on progressive politics in the U.S. ("DD" stands for "direct democracy"), comments, "Its meaning is very clear, very clear", and provides links to several sources highlighting the demographic changes forecast over the next half-century (e.g., Angela D. Johnson, "In 2050, Half of U.S. Will Be People of Color", DiversityInc, 11 October 02006).

Penn knows which way the wind is blowing. A veteran pollster, public relations specialist and trendwatcher, in his 02007 book Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow's Big Changes, he says (pp. 63-64):

In the future, it seems, race will be less divisive than it was.
[A]part from needing our respect and support, interracial families of all sorts are owed our attention, because very quietly they are eroding the assumptions that have guided America's race-related policies, customs, and habits for decades.
One big theme of this book is that America is no longer a melting-pot -- that, rather, small groups are now defining themselves in sharper, starker distinction than ever before. To some degree, interracial families are an exception. For hundreds of years, this country had significant racial divisions, and now those divisions appear to be easing in some very significant ways. But at the same time, people can now express and choose their individuality not predetermined by race or creed or date of birth, but rather as an expression of their life experiences and beliefs. And Americans are learning how to be different and accept differences in new ways. Perhaps what makes interracial marriages such a good sign is that it shows how even old divisions can become unifying forces over time.

(He also notes, interestingly I think, that the first poll he ever made, at age 13, was on race relations [p. 61].)

Now, just to be up-front here, since this is a topic that's sensitive for many people (with good reason), my aim here is not to weigh in on the question of whether Mark Penn is racist or not. If that's your interest, please have at it. I just want to point out the tension between the race-indifferent future toward which he gestures in his book, and the dismissal of that same future in the cut and thrust of competition for the Democratic party's presidential nomination.

When he says "Save it for 2050", Penn is at once both acknowledging and dismissing the changes afoot in the United States. With his political realist hat on, he can simultaneously grant the intergenerational demographic shift towards a more complex idea of what "American" means, and assert its insufficiency to determine the Clinton-Obama contest in the latter's favour.

Well, so far he's been wrong on outcome, although sadly the tactic he recommended, namely playing on voters' past and present unease with difference, was not at all unusual.

Still, I'd like to see a political contest (or indeed, system) in which the anticipated shape of the country (or more broadly, polity) one or two or more generations hence was deemed essential to the success of the candidates.

This is not that contest, and the United States in 02008 is not that country. But we don't need Mark Penn to tell us that it will not always be thus: things are changing.

Let's not wait for 02050 to blow the meaning of "American" open: it is happening, and should happen, now.

The very best of luck to you, Senator Obama.

Update (13/08/08): CNN reports this evening on the latest evidence of demographic shift in America:

By 2050, minorities will be the majority in America, and the number of residents older than 65 will more than double, according to projections released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Minority children are projected to reach that milestone even sooner. By 2023 [i.e., fifteen years from now], the bureau said, more than half of all children will be minorities.
Obviously, the projections will have "very strong policy implications," [Dave Waddington, chief of the Census Bureau's population projection branch] said -- medical care for an increasingly elderly population, for instance, educational needs for increasing numbers of minority children and economic effects for the labor force."

Open Source futures and design

Fellow futurist Jamais Cascio recently blogged on working with San Francisco design consultancy Adaptive Path to build scenarios for the future of the web (which can be found here). The end result of that work was a set of concept videos portraying a web browser, dubbed "Aurora", in the year 02018.

The clip above is the second of four illustrating Aurora's use in different settings. (NB The time horizon isn't foregrounded, but watch for a geeky hint in the events menu.) Its development is described in detail at Adaptive Path, and Lead designer Jesse James Garrett helps dispel any possible confusion:

This is not a demonstration of a real product. What you see in the video is a visualization of our ideas created by animators. Technologically, much of Aurora would be difficult or impossible to implement today. However, we expect everything you see to be possible in some form in the future.

The project was instigated by open-source software org Mozilla (makers, among other things, of the Firefox web-browser which I'm using at this moment), as part of Mozilla Labs' Concept Series, which aims "to provoke thought, facilitate discussion, and inspire future design directions for Firefox, the Mozilla project, and the Web as a whole."

Adaptive Path's Dan Harrelson elaborates:

The Aurora browser concept video is our first venture into the new world of open source design and, in keeping with both Adaptive Path’s and Mozilla’s core philosophies, we are sharing our insights into the design process and providing much of the original source material. Our hope is that others will be inspired to try their hand and release their own vision of the web browser of 2018.

Mozilla Labs' call for participation, released 4 August 02008, notes that Concepts submitted may take the form of Ideas, Mockups, or working Prototypes, but emphasises that all should be set loose for others to tinker with, via a Creative Commons license (for Ideas and Mockups) or the Mozilla Public License (for Prototypes).

Some viewers may find the explanatory video clips a little contrived (like, um, every instructional video ever made) but regardless of what you think of them, or the specific design features of the Aurora itself, what's exciting to me here is the emergence, and potential, of this mode of collaboration: design thinking and futures thinking coming together in a forum deliberately established on the commons model. It makes an intriguing complement to the Superstruct strategy (noted here yesterday) of crowdsourcing scenario fragments through the medium of a game.

I ended an earlier post about a similarly outward-facing concept project from Adaptive Path (the Charmr) with these words:

Encouragingly, it seems, companies prepared to share their "reimaginings" with the wider world -- preferred futures , in the form of ideal design concepts -- stand to do well, and also to do good, at the same time.

They've done it again.

Related posts:
> Public service and self-promotion meet on the adaptive path
> Humans have 23 years to go

Monday, August 11, 2008

Humans have 23 years to go

Do not be alarmed. Continue swimming naked.

Image: NASA† (via astroThink)

Last month, the newly-quadragenerian nonprofit thinktank Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, California, announced an exciting upcoming project. Superstruct, billed as "the world’s first massively multiplayer forecasting game", is an ARG run by avant-gamer Jane McGonigal and future-opener Jamais Cascio, set to unfold over six weeks, starting in September. Here's an extract from the press release (drafted as an in-world artifact -- nice):

SEPTEMBER 22, 2019

Humans have 23 years to go

Global Extinction Awareness System starts the countdown for Homo sapiens.

PALO ALTO, CA — Based on the results of a year-long supercomputer simulation, the Global Extinction Awareness System (GEAS) has reset the "survival horizon" for Homo sapiens - the human race - from "indefinite" to 23 years.

"The survival horizon identifies the point in time after which a threatened population is expected to experience a catastrophic collapse," GEAS president Audrey Chen said. "It is the point from which a species is unlikely to recover. By identifying a survival horizon of 2042, GEAS has given human civilization a definite deadline for making substantive changes to planet and practices."

According to Chen, the latest GEAS simulation harnessed over 70 petabytes of environmental, economic, and demographic data, and was cross-validated by ten different probabilistic models. The GEAS models revealed a potentially terminal combination of five so-called "super-threats", which represent a collision of environmental, economic, and social risks.
The spokesperson for United Nations Secretary General Vaira Vike-Freiberga released the following statement: "We are grateful for GEAS' work, and we treat their latest forecast with seriousness and profound gravity."

GEAS urges concerned citizens, families, corporations, institutions, and governments to talk to each other and begin making plans to deal with the super-threats.

Like last year's World Without Oil (McGonigal again, working with writerguy Ken Eklund), Superstruct is a serious game predicated on *real play rather than role play; people remain themselves in the scenario and bring their own resources to the table, making it a psychologically and socially meaningful simulation rather than an escapist diversion. So Superstruct is designed to be not only a source of future-oriented entertainment, but also, and more profoundly, an innovative distributed research strategy for IFTF's 02009 Ten-Year Forecast.

You can find a bit more about the game at the curiosity-piquingly brief FAQ, or this ARGNet article.

While awaiting its official beginning, prospective players and applicants for the gamemaster positions have been submitting short dinner-time vignettes to lead into the game. The scenario outline states: It's the summer of 2019. You are yourself, but 10 years in the future. Describe where you are having for dinner, what you're eating, and what you're thinking or talking about. How did you wind up there, compared to where you had dinner most often in the summer of 2008?

Here's mine:

To my left, the Taedong drifts by slowly. But I'm in a hurry -- for two reasons. First, it's raining like a sonofabitch, and second, I have places to be. So tonight, I'm having dinner at a McDonald's. For the first time in over twenty years.

Back in 01995, at age 15, I launched a personal boycott after seeing the golden arches on the Champs Elysees. It blew me away that the French, in all their gastronomic genius, could be wooed by such inglorious industrial tidbits. But, to be fair now, over the last decade, the company has reinvented itself. Completely. They faced a choice between a catastrophic erosion of customer base, as environmental and personal health came to the fore; or staying big by going local. In the summer of 2008, in New Haven CT, where I was staying with my very health-conscious girlfriend, every night we ate organic food we couldn't really afford, and avoided all foodstuffs deemed too "fast", for reasons that were sound at the time. However: that was the last summer of the old Mickey D's.

Early in 02009 -- just over ten years ago -- way ahead of legislation, and with rising transportation costs hot on their heels -- they were the first major fast-food concern to initiate a strategic five-year shift to a 200-mile limit for key suppliers. Where they led, others followed, pushing the development of hundreds, and eventually thousands, of micro-providers and farms within the radius of each branch. As inventory practices, and consumers, got more sophisticated, the actual carbon cost per item came indexed and included on the menu; as a result they now boast a cheeseburger footprint 20% lower than any other global provider. All-important signature condiments are still usually imported from further away, but the staple supplies come from close by. Of course, as a result, menus vary hugely from place to place; that's the model now. A few recognisable items remain -- the "Kun Mac" tasted more or less as before, though there's a popular animal-free beef option -- but the rice I'm eating tonight, declares the biodegradable package proudly, is from a farm just to the south, in the former DMZ; and my kim chee is made in a facility just a mile or so down the river.

All this is on my mind because of the project I came here to do. This is my first trip to Pyongyang, and with "Dear Leader" departed nine months ago at the ripe old age of 77, the transition to a more open era has been energetic. Many of the high-tech firms established in the south are in the midst of opening northern operations, and the whole peninsula is hungry for foresight expertise. I'm here with a delegation of futurists, many of them based in the lower half of the newly reunited country --- some I've known since we worked in Hawaii together over a decade ago. And now, in about an hour and a half, at the convention centre next door, we're staging an event that translates to English as "Food Court 02049". Executives from some of the biggest enterprises like Samsung and LG, and Daewoo Electric Vehicle Co. are interested in so-called smart- and nu-food technology (the intersection of agriculture, psychopharmacology and info science is a big deal at the moment -- they're touting "consumable software"). As a provocation to their "C-level" and "D-level" -- D for design -- teams, we're offering a series of meal options; some real, others simulated with help from master chefs and artists). There's a fish speakeasy (simulating endangered species that can't be consumed legally), a neo-aztec taco stand (culinary archeology is set to take off -- try the cuisines of an extinct civilisation!), an ayurvedically diagnostic, instant personal currymaker (which whips up a curiously neuroactive Saag Paneer), and just for fun, several bio-electrical charging posts for the possible post-singularity denizens of our imaginary 02049. We won't be serving Kun Macs at tonight's event -- that'll just be my no-longer-guilty indulgence at this newly opened branch. Sure, it would've been a stretch to imagine myself stooping to McDonald's ten years ago: but I figure, if McDonald's can change, then so can I.

My wife is no less health-conscious these days, but I've persuaded her to join me. Everyone says this is the best kim chee in town.

Related posts:
> Gaming alternative futures (anything but text)
> Gaming the end of oil (*See the comments to this post)
> World without oil photo essay

† Link not functioning at time of writing. If you're desperate to get to the original, try Internet Archive's Wayback Machine.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Cheap prototypes, valuable insights

Ran across a very interesting pair of guest posts about "Prototyping on the cheap" by Sean Howard, at Experience Matters, the experience design blog of Calgary-based interactive marketing agency Critical Mass.

There are many stages in a development (and research) process where I believe prototypes are highly effective and powerful parts of our arsenal. However, more than one person has brought up the costs associated with building prototypes and that this cost can preclude their use.
Rather than focusing on prototyping the device or service directly, we can prototype a manual, quick start guide or even a magazine article about the product. Clients, stakeholders and even audience members can then use this to envision and grasp the final product without a prototype having ever been built.

~Sean Howard, "Prototyping on the cheap - Part I", Experience Matters, 20 May 02008.

This way of thinking about prototyping; simulation via a "second-order" representation that evokes a much larger reality than you can feasibly build, is very much in alignment with the "tip of the iceberg" principle of future artifact design that we've developed in the course of our various FoundFutures projects. It helps explains why, for example, in-scenario news reports are such a useful way of evoking a future scenario.

The more effective-yet-cheap a prototype can be, the more efficient and pared-down a model it is for the scenario in question.

Howard goes on to describe a number of approaches to low-cost, high-impact prototyping, including storyboards/comics, short video user scenarios, "re-enactments" (which would include wearable simulators like this), DIY construction, and software-enabled mockups (for example, using Axure RP).

I'm reminded of the day-long seminar I took last July in San Francisco with information design expert Edward Tufte. His mantra; "Whatever it takes". That is, be prepared to deploy all necessary communicative means to convey information clearly and accessibly. This formula, though he uses it in a somewhat different context, helped to crystallise my already ecumenical preference for using whatever it takes, media-wise, in communicating futures for the enhancement of foresight. I've lately gravitated towards "experience design" as a broad, medium-neutral substrate on which to build the practice of communicating scenarios ("experiential futures"). Many of us are still learning from Marshall McLuhan that the medium is the message, and therefore that any and all media are fair game. I don't mean to suggest that anything can be communicated in any old way, because budget, time, politics and aesthetic preferences together provide plenty of constraints.

It may be interesting, in light of this idea of futures communication as prototyping exercise, to revisit some of the posts appearing here over the past several months, at the intersection of concept design and future artifacts.

Related posts:
> Future watch
> Reality prototyping
> Design fiction is a fact
> Warning: This product might not actually exist
> Greener Gadgets
> Public service and self-promotion meet on the adaptive path
> Morphing art and design into advertising

Thursday, August 07, 2008

When money falls from the sky

Deals in commodities of the abstract sort
Buys them in bulk but then he sells it short
Talent, genius, love / even signs of affection
He floods the market / there's no price protection
And when his master plan is unfurled / there stands
A handsome bid / on the weather systems of the world

~Andrew Bird, "Banking on a Myth"
Mysterious Production of Eggs (02005)

A few months ago I saw on DVD the documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, about the late U.S. energy company (dir. Alex Gibney, 02005; if you missed it there's an excellent review here). One of the strongest impressions it left was of the ingenuity of the company's financial schemes -- such as "mark to market" accounting -- perceptions of which may reasonably run the gamut from clever, through audacious, to downright fraudulent. (Since it includes some murky, moral territory, it isn't always easy to say where one category ends and the next begins.) Part of Enron's inventiveness was manifested in pioneering weather derivatives, which allow traders to reduce risks associated with the unpredictability of weather conditions. (Conceptually related is the recent emergence in financial markets of catastophe bonds, or "cat bonds" for short, which do not necessarily pertain to weather events, but certainly can -- such as the Thames river flood bond issued by German insurer Allianz in 02007; I wrote about it then at the Long Now blog.)

Today, I came across this report on a similar instrument available through an online provider; currently limited "to accredited investors with a minimum net worth of $1 million" but perhaps, in due course, to become available more widely.

As businesses contemplate losing massive amounts of money from events like droughts and hurricanes, WeatherBill hopes to carve out a market in the growing field of weather-related risk-management products, offering what are essentially weather futures contracts to companies with an internet-era twist. The contracts pay off automatically without any kind of claims process based on objective weather measurements like the inches of rain a given area receives.
"Our business has all sides of risk—we've got customers wanting rain, drought, heat waves, frost, no frost. We even have people who want hurricanes," says [founder David] Friedberg.

~Chris Colin, "Doing Something About the Weather, Financially at Least", (at, 7 August 02008

There's something terribly fascinating, I find, about the commodification of natural processes, this gaming of life's details via insurance and financial instruments. I don't know if Andrew Bird, author of the elegant lyric at the top, had former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling in mind when he penned "Banking on a Myth". But there's an air of dramatic, even mythic resonance here, in the cavalier exploitation of complex systems for short-term gain. As Lester Pimentel's insightful review of the Enron doco notes: "[Former Enron exec Ken] Lay and Skilling are classic tragic characters: incredibly intelligent men felled by their own hubris."

I'm just experimentally putting pieces together for consideration here, not mounting a fully ramified argument; but I'd be really interested to know what others think.

London after the rain

Ben Marzys is "a young London based designer with an academic background in architecture and motion design". He produced the above video in 02006 while a student in Nic Clear's Unit 15 at the Bartlett School of Architecture. BLDGBLOG's Geoff Manaugh explains in a profile of Clear for Dwell magazine (March 02008) how moving images are integrated into the curriculum:

Each film functions as an architectural proposal -- or as an avant-garde form of urban analysis, albeit of a decidedly futuristic kind. This suits Clear just fine.

"Film can be a much more appropriate way of training architects than the traditional reliance on orthographic representation," says Clear, who once also studied philosophy, "and the skills learned in film production are great for transferring to conventional architecture. Even at the most basic organizational level, film is all about the flow of information. A decision you make now can have enormous consequences later."
"This type of work opens up a whole new series of possibilities about what architecture is," Clear explains. "The availability of film tools fulfills a deep-seated need in architecture to communicate beyond an architectural audience. But for all my polemic about the spatial, immersive, experiential, and narrative qualities of film, the main reason I teach this way is because it is so much fun."


The short came to my attention via the recent London Festival of Architecture (noted here earlier). On 12 July 02008 it was screened as part of onedotzero terrain 07: "distinctive visions and evocative interpretations of terrains and environments real and imagined, from built urban worlds to the shifting rural landscape and beyond". I was in the city at the time, but wasn't able to make it to the show. Still, even on a laptop screen, the tone of this short film (aptly described in in Manaugh's Dwell piece as "both Edenic and postapocalyptic") is arresting. The motion-collage and sudden context switches made me think of Röyksopp's music video "Eple", and the empty, yet somehow whimsical après-déluge imagery put me in mind of Mary Mattingly's series Second Nature, as well as Squint/Opera's series Flooded London 2090.

Other work by Marzys includes the somewhat jauntier and less polished 2012 (02006), and the more abstract, mood-driven Dystopian Dreams (02007); both videos exploring similar territory.

I'm interested to see where he goes with this work, and equally, look forward to seeing what else emanates from Unit 15. Certainly, their communicatively rich and broad conception of architecture is converging on the exploratory practice of experiential futures that keeps this blogger busy.

Related posts:
> Not drowning, thriving
> Second Nature

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Introducing Space Collective

From the gallery at Space Collective
(AquaJelly by Festo)

Space Collective is, according to itself, "Where forward thinking terrestrials exchange ideas and information about the state of the species, their planet and the universe, living the lives of science fiction today."

Or, put another way, it's a designery, membership-based web portal for futuristic stuff, spiritually and aesthetically guided by three wise (albeit deceased) men: media maestro Marshall McLuhan, psychedelic prophet Timothy Leary, and astronomy star Carl Sagan.

The site, which is very sleek, highly eclectic, somewhat haphazard, and a little coy about giving you a clear idea up-front of what it's doing, is however explained elsewhere -- by its founder, filmmaker Rene Daalder, in a 02007 interview [rtf] for Volume magazine #10:

Our initial metaphor was to use the Internet to create updates of Carl Sagan’s time capsule on board of Voyager and by the end of each month beam them up into space.

Web designer Folkert Gorder adds:

Besides the episodes and the relating meta text, the additional contents of the monthly Payload are generated both by the site's registered members and Space Collective's writers, curators and designers, providing the front page with a blend of public and "native" content, feeding into the site's continuously updated information and entertainment digest, loosely inspired by Sagan’s time capsule.

It's an intriguing concept and, since being launched late last year, with quite a bit of content already, is great to poke around. The impression I get is of a highly literate (in the broadest sense of the term), technologically informed, future-oriented social network. Some nice examples of user-provided content:

> Wild dinners in 2019 (by Wildcat)
Five chow-time vignettes from 11 years into the future, written for IFTF's upcoming alternate reality game Superstruct.
> The world without us: Chernobyl (by A0013237932294)
Featuring some astonishing, unphotoshopped post-apocalypse photos from the still-deserted ex-Soviet nuclear reactor site.
> Summery Books Too Far Out For Johnny Depp (by wilfriedhoujebek):

[A] list of books I can wholeheartedly recommend you to dive into this summer. They are all completely bonkers and they all start from first principles. [...] Only two of them are fiction and this is no coincidence. [...] One can imagine only a few things, one can belief a whole lot more.

As for the site's "official" content, Daalder's monthly video dispatches, gathered under the modest title The Future of Everything, are rather sensationalistic, but have an ambitiously broad thematic sweep, by no means confined to space (so to speak). There are seven posted to date, but no permalink, so to find them visit the homepage, and under "The Future of Everything" click "View all chapters". (Incidentally, as these videos have been pieced together from existing footage, I really like the fact that the clips' sources are referenced in a sidebar at right -- it would be great to see this more often in documentary filmmaking.)

Daalder's bio states "He is currently lecturing at major universities and art schools in America and Europe about The Future of Everything." I'd love to find out more about these lectures, but multiple searches (Daalder + "future of everything" + lecture, lecturing, university, college, school) have yielded a paltry handful of hits, none of them pointing to any transcripts, recordings or even promotional fare. Oh well.

(Thanks Jesse!)

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Post-apocalypse Tokyo

Shibuya Center-gai 3 | tokyogenso | via Pink Tentacle

Shibuya Center-gai 2 | tokyogenso | via Pink Tentacle

Shibuya Center-gai 1 | tokyogenso | via Pink Tentacle

Pre-apocalyptic Shibuya Center-gai
via Weekly Teinou 蜂 Woman (Geisha Asobi)

We've seen London, New York and even Lisbon each given their respective post-apocalyptic makeovers. Now, the Japanese capital joins our burgeoning gallery of Things Falling Apart, thanks to images from 東京幻想 (Tokyo Fantasy) by tokyogenso, drawn to the attention of English speakers by Pink Tentacle.

I find the images above, of Shibuya Center-gai (a narrow street in the city's famous shopping district) somewhat more interesting when viewed in "backcasting" mode -- reeling us back in from the imaginary frontier of the humanless far-future, to the mundane present.

Related posts:
> Immaculate extinction
> It's a small world, after all
> The go-to guys for post apocalyptic chaos and destruction
> Posthuman New York

(Thanks Jake!)

Monday, August 04, 2008

Future watch

"Energistime" | Winner, Timex2154: conceptual category (02004)
Photo: the sceptical futuryst

"Energistime" | Design by Francois Gustin / Francois Laine / Nicolas Montabone
"In 2110 was voted [sic] a new law by every country: 'An ecological behaviour makes people earn free time.'"

In 02004, to mark its 150th anniversary, American watch manufacturer Timex partnered with industrial design magazine Core77 (previously mentioned here) to stage a global design competition, Timex2154, envisioning concepts for watches another 150 years hence.

From the competition's design brief:

The essence of time has many interpretations. Some revere time as a regulator, providing context to actions and order to schedules. Others deem it as a checkpoint device that invites accomplishments and permits life to be enjoyed to the fullest extent.

The capture of time is also ripe for investigation. Some people respond to the precision of the digital, while others welcome the tradition of the analog. Some are fascinated with the march of time, while others are liberated by its constant rhythms. Whether too much or too little, most are constantly referencing time's metric, and portioning out attention, energy and lives by its metronome.

Watches in the year 02154. As a basis for a design competition, it's an interesting combination of theoretical contemplation, on the one hand (uh, no pun intended) and commercial savvy on the other (get designers around the world to sketch out some long-range product development ideas, on the cheap). The panel of judges included, notably, Paola Antonelli, MoMA's curator of architecture and design, and the woman behind the exhibition SAFE: Design Takes on Risk (02005) as well as Design and the Elastic Mind (02008), the latter previously blogged here.

So when I learned last week that the company was founded in nearby Waterbury, Connecticut, and that the Timex Museum there (Timexpo) included an exhibition of the winning designs, I had to check it out, and was able to make the journey there Saturday afternoon.

The Timex Museum, Waterbury CT | Photo: the sceptical futuryst

Now, it's not necessary to visit Waterbury in order to see the designs, which have been available online for some time (e.g., blogged at We Make Money Not Art in October 02004). However, one thing that appeals to me is that the winning entries in each of the three categories (wrist-based, wearable and conceptual) have been prototyped in tangible form and are on display at the museum.

"Time-aid" | Winner, Timex2154: wrist-based category (02004)
Photo: the sceptical futuryst

"Time-aid" | Design by Christophe Koch / Lea Kobeli
"Intelligent watch to display all the clock faces around the world."

"Time-aid" | Photo: the sceptical futuryst

Timex2154 wearable category display | Photo: the sceptical futuryst

"Sticker Watch" | Winner, Timex2154: wearable category (02004)
Design by Alexey Koptev

"Sticker Watch" | Photo: the sceptical futuryst

"Notable entries" which didn't earn a place at the museum can be browsed online, and are also worth a look. A couple of examples:

"Krikos" | Timex2154: notable entries (02004)
Design by Breanna Guidotti
"The word Krikos is Greek for circle, a never ending path. [...] Krikos is a way for people to adopt a built in sense of time. As users grow accustomed to the cues Krikos gives them about time they will also take cues from their environment and will acquire the ability to feel time."

"Epidigital Patch" | Timex2154: notable entries (02004)
Design by One & Company Team
"The epidigital patch leaves the user with an animated topographic timekeeping image on his/her skin. [...] Composed entirely of organic matter, the nanobots dissolve after several days at which point a new patch can be applied."

There's much more to the museum than the Timex2154 entries -- indeed, most of it is history-oriented, but I found it illuminating to learn about the industrial past of the state of Connecticut, to see the home of the phenomenally popular (and ubiquitous even in my childhood) Mickey Mouse Watch [photo] and to find how photography and portable timepieces were used for ingenious cross-promotion in their early days [photo].

But, getting back to the futures: unsurprisingly, many of these concepts do not appear to be grounded in compelling society-level scenarios that would provide plausible in-world parameters. (For in fact the world as we find it shapes industrial design efforts in the present, providing key affordances and constraints that make a product not "plausible", but "useful".) To me, richer and more interesting than the technological marvels presumably enabled by a century and a half of time's passage -- and many of these ideas project, at best, a decade or two into the future, let alone fifteen -- are the possible social shifts which would be embedded and embodied in the artifacts of that distant era.

What would be really shocking is if most people needed or used (other than as a romantic, antique affectation) anything remotely like the quintessentially 20th-century watch in 150 years' time. Already, fewer and fewer of us wear them today, because of the ubiquity of other devices that tell time, and a whole lot else besides. Timex, and other watch manufacturers, must be concerned that their time is running out, and I find myself wondering if that's what prompted the comp in the first place.

At least they were astute enough to abstract from the concept of "watch"; "personal and portable" "timekeeping devices". (From the design brief: "**IMPORTANT** Regardless of category, all entries must embody two key criteria: Personal and Portable. Entries in this competition should examine ways to embody and communicate time on an individual level.") "Future of X" exercises are intrinsically hazardous because they take for granted the continuity of conceptual categories, objects, values and practices which are themselves bound to be subject to important historical shifts. Although I'm always interested in futures concepts which can be physically crafted and thus encountered, I also recognise that artifacts are only a poor proxy for the future -- like the past -- and there is a very great deal about our lifeworlds that simply cannot be conveyed in stuff.