Friday, October 31, 2008

Death of an ex-President

Tragedy today, as former President Gerald Ford was eaten by wolves.

Here, master impressionist Dana Carvey (Wayne's World) plays news anchor Tom Brokaw in a 01996 sketch for Saturday Night Live -- to my knowledge one of the finest moments the show has produced in over 30 years on the air.

It starts with a brilliant comic premise: the newsman is pre-recording a bunch of alternative future headlines so he can take an extended vacation in Barbados. Carvey's Brokaw covers a variety of contingencies in which former U.S. President Gerald Ford meets his maker, through a series of bizarre and increasingly unlikely scenarios. (Ford was still alive in '96, and had the good fortune to live another ten years, wolf-free.)

The sketch works not only because of Carvey's fabulous characterisation -- like any great caricature, whether drawn or performed, you don't actually have to be familiar with the original in order to recognise it -- but also because of the splendid absurdity of the premise, which naturally is stretched as far as humanly possible.

One take-home message from a futures standpoint (hey, you knew we had to go there) is that, although life -- and death -- unfold in infinite specificity, to anticipate and plan for such unforeseeable concrete particulars is inherently absurd.* Another thought that occurs to me is that while any useful statement about the future should appear to be ridiculous (per Dator's second law), it doesn't follow that any or all ridiculous statements about the future are necessarily useful.

They can, however, be very funny.

[via | embedded clip from | transcript here]

Related posts:
> Death of a President
> Future news-flash: your vote counts
> A death foretold

* Update (01/11/08): I just remembered a classic sketch by British comedy duo Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie in which Stephen's doddering old man character is trying to buy a get well card from Hugh's shopkeeper, but all the pre-printed messages in the cards are incredibly specific [video; transcript]. Great sketch, parallel concept.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Signs o' the times

In my inbox this week, a "sign from the future", warning -- with a nod to the long-running Smokey Bear forest-fire public service campaign -- about the dangers of nanotechnology:


Never Release Nanobot Assemblers Without Replication Limiting Code

Sound advice.

(By the way, "gray goo" -- by which they of course mean grey goo -- refers to a staple of nanotech-themed sci-fi; a scenario wherein tiny self-replicating robots basically eat the world, for which the marvellous shorthand is ecophagy.)

Now, this isn't a new design -- I saw it about this time last year over at Open the Future, and it also appeared at BoingBoing back in 02004. Turns out to be the handiwork, produced about a decade earlier, of designer Jim Leftwich (a.k.a. "Ward Parkway"); a continuation of the Urban Absurdist Survival Kit which appeared in The Happy Mutant Handbook (Riverhead Books, 01995). The Kit, according to one of the handbook's editors, Gareth Branwyn, consisted of "original artwork for stickers, coupons, and other signage that can be color photocopied and cut out". Classic culture-jamming.

So, here's another example of what we could regard as proto-future-jamming, posted by Branwyn at his website (undated, but from other dates on the page, probably around December 02001). Again, it's by Leftwich, and plays with the visual vocabulary of health and safety.

[Designs by Jim Leftwich | top image via BoingBoing, bottom via Street Tech]

Related posts:
> Another found future artifact (England)
> Future-jamming 101
> Sometimes it doesn't belong in a museum

Friday, October 24, 2008

Future news-flash: your vote counts

A last-minute push to remind U.S. voters, ahead of the 4 November Presidential election, that every vote counts, using a short video clip from eerily familiar news provider CNNBC, dated Friday 7 November.

This personalised "future artifact" comes from the nonprofit political advocacy group, and I have to say, political leanings notwithstanding; it's brilliant.

Guilt is a much more useful emotion to elicit prospectively, don't you think?

Send your own here.

Sure, I may not be eligible to vote (which makes my video counterfactual to boot) but as we all know, American citizens are not the only ones with a stake in this contest.

Update (28/10/08): I've just received an email from "The CNNBC Team" which begins:

Dear CNNBC viewer,

Wow. Thanks to people like you, this nonvoter video has now been sent to over 6.3 million friends. It's going out to more than 30 new people per second.

Research shows that this kind of social "nudging" is extremely effective. So we're aiming to reach 10 million people before Election Day—only a few days away.

Impressive figures. The combination of timeliness and surprising personalisation seems to be striking a chord.

The message mentions the effects of "nudge" research. I'm curious to what extent the mechanism of future-scenario immersion (via a vivid, and presumably non preferred near-future narrative; one satirical in tone, if seriously intentioned) affects folks' plans to vote.

(Thanks Ginny and Jim!)

Happy birthday

This post has nothing to do with design and futures -- or maybe everything to do with them. I can't quite decide.

Today, two of my favourite people on the planet, Jake Dunagan and Brady Fern, are having a baby.

This is for the three of them.

A wonderful recording I encountered this morning of violinist Andrew Bird and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, musicians I admire enormously, meeting for the first time and improvising beautifully together. This brought tears to my eyes. Somehow I feel that to be swept away by spontaneous musical invention is a really fitting way to say: Welcome to the World.

(13MAR11 Original video embed no longer live; replaced)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Afterlife of Buildings

Rondo1 (office building, Warsaw, completed 02006)
Photo: Nicolas Grospierre (lower) | Photomontage: Kobas Laksa (upper)

Give your fantasy free rein. After all, we know that nothing lasts forever. Everything is changing. The world is in a constant rush. Architecture will also be subject to modification. Each of the six grand edifices will have to surrender to the passage of time. ... These visions of the future are likely, though one can imagine alternative ones as well.
Isn't it strange that, although we all sense the inconstancy of the world and hear an increasingly persistent ticking of the clock, architecture pretends not to be concerned?

~The Afterlife of Buildings website / Welcome

The Polish Pavilion at the 11th Architecture Exhibition, now on in Venice, features a show called The Afterlife of Buildings. Six prominent structures erected in Poland over the last decade have been photographed by Nicolas Grospierre and then destroyed through the photomontage skills of Kobas Laksa.

What the curators appear to think of as brilliantly novel has to this future-watcher the air of faddish me-tooism. Artful photoillustrations of cityscapes falling into disrepair, however competently executed, have become a well-worn genre in their own right (there having been already a rash of them this year; see Related Posts below). There are in a couple of these images a glimmer of something more interesting -- a practice of architectural visualisation which specialises not in designing from scratch, but in ingenious repurposing (sort of a forward-looking counterpart to Stewart Brand's 01994 book How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built). Indeed, to visualise one or two buildings' alternative futures -- evolving in several different ways, systematically adapting and branching off in different scenario directions -- would have been a much more interesting effort, in my view, than this series of contemporary buildings all trudging more or less the same downward spiral in parallel.

So the singular (supposedly "likely") scenario offered here, despite the creators' claim of being able to imagine "other ones", which comes off as idle, instead does both its creators and its audience a disservice, accomplishing something close to -- but fortunately not quite, with the waterslides and airport terminal-turned-farm -- another entry in our self-indulgent, early 21st-century collective catalogue of collapse.

The Metropolitan (office building, Warsaw)

Marina Mokotów (gated housing estate, Warsaw)

Warsaw University Library

Sanctuary of Our Lady of Sorrows (Licheń)

Terminal 2 (Fryderyk Chopin international airport, Warsaw)

[Photos by Nicolas Grospierre and photomontages by Kobas Laksa, all images via exhibition website]

(Thanks Bryan!)

Historical preenactment

An emerging trend?

Artwork by Aaron Diaz | via

At Burning Man this year I was intrigued to see in the schedule a theme camp called "Time Colony", featuring some sort of collective named The Historical Preenactment Society.

Now, historical re-enactments have long smacked to me of the thoroughly bizarre. It could be a result of exposure at an early age to Monty Python (see for example the unforgettable Reenactment of the Battle of Pearl Harbor, by the Batley Townswomen's Guild). Pre-enactment, however, while no less bizarre, is admittedly something of a preoccupation of mine (exhibit A, exhibit B).

My search for Time Colony around the advertised intersection was a bust, because (I later found out) the camp had been relocated at the last minute, so I missed their scheduled events. When I did eventually find it, I was pleased to make the acquaintance of one Nick Ernst, the camp's affable coordinator who in real life is an undergraduate student in maths and physics at UC Santa Cruz. Nick told me all about what they had been up to. He's just recently posted a description of their efforts at his blog...

The cyborg leader made to untie the robot at that point. Someone in the audience held up a gun and fired twice. The robot and cyborg leader fell. After a silence, a cyborg yelled "Murder! Double Murder!" And fighting ensued.
Everyone stopped for the end narration: The audience member who had shot the cyborg and robot was charged with two accounts of murder in the first degree. The robot was thus recognized as an entity with the right to life, and so this tragic event spurred a big step forward in the fight for robot rights.

This was, as far as Nick knows, the first instance of future performance to travel under the name of "historical preenactment". The concept for the Historical Preenactment Society was borrowed, he explains, from Dresden Codak, a webcomic by Aaron Diaz that will thrill anyone equally interested in manga-style artwork and The Kurzweilian Singularity. (Check out the comic's instalments featuring the Society's first and second mentions, but note they're both part of a longer story that starts here.) Nick has also set up a Facebook group for his version of the Society (296 members and counting -- and there are four or five other chapters, too). Meanwhile, someone else has (independently?) created a website for Society activities, the first instance of which is apparently a concerted group involvement in Superstruct, the massively multiplayer forecasting game set in 02019, which is currently underway. The entrepreneurial artist Diaz has also put HPS t-shirts on sale here.

While we eagerly await news of the group's next intervention, here's another bit of gleefully anachronistic entertainment, sent to me today by Zander Rose at the Long Now because "it reminded me of your projects but in reverse": Tweet Capsule is a twitter feed by Amos, "time twittering" from exactly 100 years ago with Blackadderesque snarkiness.  For instance, 6 October 01908:

Happy Birthday Carole Lombard! She turns 0 today!

Related posts:
> Humans have 23 years to go
> In memoriam
> Experiential scenarios on video
> My first Burn

Thursday, October 16, 2008

TH.2058: a dystopian pastiche

TH.2058 (02008) installation at the Tate Modern art museum, London
by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster | Image via Rob Brennan's Flickr photostream

It has been raining for years now, not a day, not an hour without rain. This continual watering has had a strange effect on urban sculptures. They have started to grow like giant tropical plants, and become even more monumental. To stop this growth it has been decided to store them inside, among the hundreds of bunk beds which, night and day, receive refugees from the rain. [link]

This is the premise for French artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster's installation, which just opened on 14 October 02008 at London's Tate Modern: TH.2058. Why that title? Apart from the sly pun on the title of George Lucas's first feature, the work is located in the Tate's gigantic lobby, the Turbine Hall (T.H.), and is set in the year 02058. Voilà.

The deluge scenario -- and especially the idea of reworking the Turbine Hall itself as the setting for a future refuge, lined with bunk beds, and complete with ambient audio of endless rain -- seems to me a fine starting point. But it runs swiftly downhill from there.

[Important: I'm not in London right now, and haven't seen this installation first hand. What I have to say below is aimed at the conceptual level and therefore should hold good regardless -- but it's conceivable that as an experience it's something else altogether. Anyway, before reading on, do check out this video, and accompanying articles.]

Says one review of the artist's work, "She has plunged us into the future by 50 years and into an immersive scenario on to which visitors can project their own fears and fantasies." Their own fears and fantasies? I find that hard to believe. With a background screening of what she calls The Last Film, a jumble of apocalyptic movie footage (Marker, Watkins, Roeg); the canon of paperback dystopias sprinkled across refugees' brightly coloured bunk beds (Bradbury, Ballard, Wells); and dotted with reworked sculptures (by artists whose names I confess are only vaguely familiar to me); the work is dominated by the derivative, diluted ingredients of others' imaginaries. "Used futures", an evocative term coined by futurist Sohail Inayatullah, suggests itself irresistibly here. The piece has the air of an unfocused pastiche. Guardian art critic Adrian Searle explains, "This is an extended joke about the purpose of art and art galleries..." Really? A cynical exercise in repackaging the insights of tragically prescient artists who came before? Some joke.

Atop the basically unobjectionable climate-havoc premise, perhaps it's the trivial surrealism of the twist that bothers me -- overwatered sculptures growing out of control. (Actually, as a 13 year-old kid in Brisbane, Surrealism was the first art movement I ever cared about.) It's also possible that my own work as a designer of experiential futures leads me to insist too much on the coherence of a scenario's premise. In any case, I admit to being disappointed to learn that this large-scale, influential gallery's commissioned installation actually set a half-century into the future -- the first that I know of -- has fallen prey to that debilitating disease, equally afflicting po-mo art and theory, of frenzied referentiality. I don't doubt the value of thoughtfully adapting, remixing, and commenting upon extant images of the future in our culture. Still, a chance to do something much more provocative and important than that -- to render experientially available any one of countless conceivable futures, on its own terms -- has not been merely overlooked here, but flouted.

Searle again:

We are meant to ruminate on catastrophe and laugh amongst the ruins of art and civilisation. But you don't need to wait till 2058 to do any of that. The end is now.

It saddens me to say that if this is the best that a world-class art institution can muster by way of an "immersive" exploration of our next half-century, he mightn't be far wrong.

Related posts:
> London after the rain
> Immaculate extinction
> Not drowning, thriving
> Second Nature
> Experiential scenarios on video

(Thanks again, Bryan.)

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The currency of Burmese dissent

Today, one of the most politically pointed uses of "future artifact" design that I've seen.

Since 01962, the largest country in mainland Southeast Asia has been ruled by a military junta. What was the Union of Burma after independence from Britain in 01948 has since 01989 been known as the Union of Myanmar, at that junta's behest (leading to frequent confusion over the name).

Aung San Suu Kyi, pictured above, is known internationally as a pro-democracy figure and advocate of non-violent resistance in Burma. She leads a party called the National League for Democracy, which she cofounded in 01988, and was elected Prime Minister in 01990. However, the junta refused to hand over power, and Dr Suu Kyi has been held under house arrest for 12 of the 18 years since then.

These designs for a hypothetical future 1000 kyat note (kyat is pronounced "chat") were produced in 02007 by Stockholm-based design firm Alphabetical Order. Owner and senior designer Marcus Linnér explained the project to me via email:

When our friend Martin approached us with his idea about a folder for the Burmese cause (he was at that time engaged in a student organization dealing with the situation in Burma), we took the opportunity to make use of one idea we’ve had for a long time; using the graphic language of bank-notes in a graphic design project.

The Burmese matter is of course heavily associated with the faith of Aung San Suu Kyi and she has become the very symbol of the struggle. Therefore, the idea of putting her on the cover came to us quite naturally. We also liked the provocative side to crowning her as the ruler of the country, and having her father Aung San, the founder of the Union of Burma and also an important symbol for the people on the reverse side of the bill. The peacock also featured on that side is by the way a symbol of hope in the Burmese tradition.

Another thing to mention is the very deliberate use of the word Burma as opposed to the official name Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi also bears the title President of the Federal Union of Burma. You might say that the cover symbolizes a possible future that could happen if, among other things, more western people got engaged in the struggle. It also shows a modernization of a poor country that at the moment is plagued by superstitious rulers who base their decisions upon astrology.

The images for the cover were made using old bank notes from Burma that we obtained from an archive here in Stockholm. We created a kind of collage using Photoshop and parts from modern, Swedish bank notes were also used (the western number 1000 and its sliced version, as well as the burmese translation).

The folder was printed in 4000 copies and distributed as a supplement to a magazine, as well as by hand. It is featured on the site, that is a site displaying interesting design (only the backside in this case though). I think this is the only time we’ve done design from a possible future; interestingly enough designers tend to view backwards when creating artwork rather than trying to envision the future.

I find it intriguing that this isn't the sole instance of the use of a hypothetical design of Burmese currency to suggest a more democratic future. Some web research turned up the image below, a 5000 kyat note also featuring Aung San Suu Kyi, but this time evidently for a Burmese audience, with no concession to English speakers.

This comes from a dissident blog and was posted last October under the title "The New Burmese Currency Notes for the Future of Burma". I wondered about the circulation of such presumably inflammatory ideas, so sought the insights of a friend who is far more familiar with these issues than I am (but who, tellingly, preferred not to be named here because of the risk of being blacklisted):

websites and blogs with anti-government expressions continue to proliferate the burmese e-world and understandably so given not only the existence of those inside burma who oppose its iron-fisted governance, but the large expatriate community scattered all over the world who have been frustratedly speaking out for decades.
a year has passed [since the demonstrations which made world news last September] and there has been no visible changes in governance from the viewpoint of those who then took to the street -- protests that included the marching of the monks.
so if mimic currency portraying ASSK is indeed being designed or circulated, the folks who are doing so probably are risking their lives and their livelihood. but they're also envisioning a future where Burma will revert to being ruled by those whom they believe should rule: civilians (as depicted by national heroes such as Aung San Suu Kyi--currently under house arrest in Rangoon--and her father Aung San--who was assassinated in 1948 and could be regarded as the "George Washington" of Burma) vice the military.

however small the movement, it's a bold move. perhaps a brave new world awaits the Burma of the future, albeit it may not be in the very near future!

I also located a fascinating report from just last month that some people are writing messages on currency already in circulation, in support of their imprisoned leader:

A unique movement has been started by Opposition groups in Burma. Activists have launched a campaign for the freedom of the Burmese democracy icon and Noble Peace Laureate by writing: 'May Daw* Aung San Suu Kyi be free as soon as possible' on Burmese currency notes.

Some pro-democracy activists in Zeegone Township in Pegu Division wrote the message on Kyat 500, 200, 100, 50 and 10 denomination notes with pencils and bought goods with them from nearby shops, activists said.

However, Mizzima was unable to verify the information from independent sources.

"The campaign has been launched by well wishers of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi who want to see her free," another activist said.

Some shops unwittingly accepted the currency notes while other shop owners did it knowingly.

The regime usually views any expression on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest for over 12 years in Burma, with suspicion even if it is peaceful dissident political activity. And it can fetch a prison sentence because it is deemed a punishable offence.

~Than Htike Oo, "Burmese currency notes used to demand Suu Kyi's freedom", Mizzima ["Specializing in Burma related news and multimedia"], 22 September 02008

[*"Daw" is a Burmese honorific literally meaning "aunt"]

The use of currency as a vector for conveying political messages both literally, as in this case, and symbolically, as in the future artifacts described above, constitutes a really interesting mode of activism, repurposing the official paraphernalia of nationhood.

For me this find also puts the discussion of experiential (tangible, visual) futures at this blog in a somewhat different light from usual. I'm reminded of Indian scholar Ashis Nandy, who has called futures studies "a game of dissenting visions". This phrase has long resonated with me.

And from time to time I remember that for all the narcissistic chatter and sloganeering about democracy in the countries I happen to know best, in fact the realisation of basic freedoms as an everyday experience and mundane habit remains for large swaths of the planet the province of the future; the stuff of fervent, if necessarily private, hopes to be realised "as soon as possible". It is instructive to see visual manifestations of this dream-future playing a part, however modest, in its gradual realisation.

Update (29/10/08): Marcus at Alphabetical Order kindly sent me a hard copy of the Burma document they made, a 28-page booklet the size of a brochure, which arrived here in Hawaii last week. The cover, printed with the two different sides of their 1000 kyat design, and no other title or explanation, has the look (but not the feel) of paper currency. There aren't any other future elements to the design, but even so, I have to say that actually holding tangible future artifacts makes me so much happier than just seeing images of them online.

Not that I want to get anyone in trouble, but really, these things are crying out to be produced as high-end print artifacts and smuggled into Burma.

Related posts:
> Colonising the future... on film
> The value of hypothetical currency
> Architectural time travel

(Thanks Bryan!)

Monday, October 13, 2008

Not very long ago

in a galaxy not at all far away...

Star Wars fans are excited about this video of the Death Star making an appearance in the skies over San Francisco. Check it out:

While I've never been a rabid fan of the space opera franchise, to me this is a neat transreality tribute, and for a homemade effort, it's exceptional, playing the home-video approach completely deadpan (thereby making a virtue of necessity), which is just great. It also illustrates the point, noted here last week in relation to producing in-scenario fragments, that "the artifacts of documentary (jerky camerawork, imperfect vantage points, bad sound fidelity) can sometimes lend a more nuanced and lifelike texture to the story than squeaky-clean realist cinema".

The clip is reminiscent of what to me stands as the gold standard of high-tech, lo-fi "future documentary" -- South African director Neill Blomkamp's shorts Tetra Vaal and Alive in Joburg.

However, what really excites me here is that this kind of visualisation is becoming so accessible, a sign of the rapid democratisation of the means of production of video artifacts "from" the future. Says the filmmaker, Michael Horn, in an interview for The Official Star Wars Blog:

I shot everything on my junkie DV camera, did motion-tracking and comping in After Effects, and basic sound design in Final Cut.

Now that's cool.

Related posts:
> Neill Blomkamp, visual futurist
> Death of a President

(Thanks Bryan Boyer!)


On the political importance of impossible dreams.

This is a video of political activist, theorist and NYU prof Stephen Duncombe (previously mentioned here) presenting recently at the Honolulu Futures Salon. It runs for about half an hour.*

Imagining and planning for the future on a large scale, argues Duncombe, is usually the province of "experts"; architects, urban planners, engineers, and yes, futurists (sometimes). Similarly, the purveyors of future-oriented texts whether utopian (such as Thomas More and Edward Bellamy) or science fiction in genre have been individual authors. The result is that the production of images of the future has traditionally been quite undemocratic. That is, it has been left to a very small group of individuals.

In its most pernicious form, the top-down imposition of a particular, singular vision of the future has meant projects seeking, and sometimes accomplishing, a terrifying lockstep obedience, embodied by autocratic figures like Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Rumsfeld. However, Duncombe points out that intrinsically "the future is a democratic project -- people make history". And various participatory, public projects have been animated by this more collective, bottom-up way of thinking, such as Constitutional Conventions, Glasgow 2020, and (to add my own example to the list) Hawaii 2000 [pdf]. He notes:

With this model of futurism, the futurist's job changes. They're no longer architects of the future, but instead, organisers and facilitators of situations and experiences that bring people together to imagine the future.

Notwithstanding the explicitly "political" character (in an institutional sense) of these examples, future-oriented initiatives need not be positioned that way in order to tap public concern and imagination. The above quote happens to be practically a word-perfect description of the futurist's role in Superstruct, the world's first massively multiplayer forecasting game, and a cutting edge instance of harnessing collective intelligence. (By the way, the game is live as of last Monday, so if you're interested in these themes and not a registered player yet, you should be!)

Now, Duncombe knows that even if this more democratic, distributed kind of futuring addresses the autocratic problem, serious challenges remain. One of these, which may sound abstract, but plagues even the most practically oriented attempts to envision the future, is "the problem of totality". However much we might like to, we can't simply step outside our social, political, cultural and temporal context to think and communicate about radical change.

It is exceedingly difficult to imagine something you don't know.
Not only can we not dream something new, but even if we could, it would be impossible to communicate that. It would literally be insensible; I would be seen to be speaking gibberish.

Thus goes the argument, support for which can readily be found in the way that conceptions of the future, historically, are so clearly a product of their time: consider Bellamy's inescapably Victorian vision in 01888 of the year 02000 [link], or 01950s designs for future cars (especially flying ones) replete with telltale tailfins [i.e.] that instantly date them [e.g.].

Against this backdrop, then, comes Duncombe's central idea, a contrast to Otto von Bismarck's Realpolitik contention that "politics is the art of the possible". Another way to approach politics (in the broad sense that covers perceptions, not just institutions) may be a practice that Duncombe calls Dreampolitik, to invoke the art of the impossible. He cites the work of artists Steve Lambert and Packard Jennings (blogged here earlier) and also the FoundFutures postcard project (see here) as examples of strategically provocative depictions of futures that may appear entirely unlikely, and yet which enable discussion of possibility in a different way.

Duncombe says:

These impossible dreams open up a space for democratic participation in the process of imagining the future, which also offers the possibility of escaping the tyranny of the present... for people to imagine, 'why not?', and 'what if?'

This argument is essentially identical to the distinctive conception of futures practice at the "Manoa School", the most well-known encapsulation of which remains Dator's second law: "Any useful statement about the future should appear to be ridiculous". However, the usefulness of ridiculousness is not universally appreciated by practising futurists. And the fact that Duncombe, a political theorist and activist, has found his own way to much the same conclusion as veteran futurist Dator does not in itself make them both right. But I happen to think that they are, and here's why.

Imagine a spectrum or scale of likelihood, ranging from "impossibility" at one end (probability = 0), to "inevitability" at the other (probability = 1) . Any point on this scale may be associated in our minds with a scenaric proposition. The extremes of this scale, those notions of impossibility and inevitability, are among the most politically potent ideas in existence, because, deployed effectively, they are like the traffic lights of the attentional economy. An idea about the future that is constructed (we could say "tagged") as impossible or outlandish is red-lighted, and those who adhere to it or perhaps even idly entertain it may, it follows, be dismissed as stupid, dangerous or irresponsible. A proposition tagged as inevitable, on the other hand, is accordingly green-lighted for all manner of attention in response.

Of course, the spectrum between these poles is possibility -- a greyscale of maybes. Now, I'm focusing on the extreme cases because they make the point clearer, not because the middle is insignificant. But these extremes, though they appear to be opposites, have one important thing in common: when we believe something is either impossible, or inevitable, we are by definition implicitly accepting that nothing can be done about it. Such conclusions are showstoppers. Inevitable means it's going to happen; and impossible means it's not on the menu. Either way, there's no scope for agency, or responsibility for the occurrence of those things. (There may, I hasten to add, be plenty to discuss about what to do following such a conclusion -- e.g., if some course of action is tagged "impossible", the "possible" alternatives may come under scrutiny; or an "inevitable" disaster may be mitigated, even if you've concluded that it can't be avoided.) But the point I'm making is about the crucial consequences that flow from embracing these extremes. If a tax hike is to your mind "impossible", any argument about it is over before it begins. If war is "inevitable", you might prepare to fight the war, but evidently you'll no longer fight the proposition that war is in our future.

Incidentally, "necessity" is another politically charged tag, substituting normative commitment for probability. That which is "necessary" needs to happen; although it's conceivable, if unacceptable, that things go otherwise.

In any case, clearly our understandings have concrete normative implications. To question ideas about what's possible (a restlessly moving target, if ever there was one) is part of a mode for futures work that encourages people to think for themselves, and for us as political actors to assume as much responsibility as we can for the great mass of possibilities that rightfully belong on the greyscale of probability, where things can be influenced to some degree, and preferred futures may be invented, pursued, and (perhaps) realised.

I'm not convinced that a scenario or artwork needs to be literally (or according to informed consensus, at any rate) "impossible" to be useful, although neither do I think that Duncombe is necessarily advocating that. "The art of the impossible" that he describes deliberately plays with subjective perceptions of impossibility, as a political heuristic, a lever to pry open what Dator has long called (after C. Wright Mills) the "crackpot realism" of the present. In my experience, for the purpose of exploring alternative futures, a good scenario ought to seem ridiculous or even impossible at a first glance, and then become more compelling as you spend time with it. That's a powerful way in which our perceptions may be rewired, and our conceptions of the range of plausible futures rewritten.

It is in my view necessary -- but not, I think, inevitable -- that more futurists develop their appreciation for, and facility with, the art of the impossible.

Related posts:
> The production of necessity
> Dreaming the home of the future
> How future-shock therapy works
> San Francisco's awesome future

* The full version with post-talk discussion can be found via the HRCFS website. Jake Dunagan and I started the Honolulu salon in 02005, with the encouragement of John Smart at the Acceleration Studies Foundation. Since then, we've been delighted to host a variety of interesting forward-looking thinkers, including GBN cofounder Jay Ogilvy, Long Now executive director Alexander Rose, Jamais Cascio of Open the Future and IFTF, as well as Smart himself.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Architectural time travel

Above is a series of images from Bryan Boyer, who recently completed an MA in Architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Here's Boyer's task, as described by him at the blog he maintained while the project was on foot:

[T]he design project I've chosen for myself is to redesign the US Capitol building.
The short version of the pitch is that the Congress is broken... [yet however] much we dislike the current administration, they're playing by the rules of the game, more or less.

In the course of my research I discovered an interesting coincidence in the history of the US House of Representatives. Intended to grow with each uptick of the census and maintain something of a parity with the population, the House of Representatives actually stopped growing in 1911. The date has no significance, but it's interesting to note that 435 is about as many people as can comfortably fit into the chamber of the house as it stands today (the current chamber was first occupied in 1858 with 262 desks). In other words, the House's membership stopped growing because of architecture, not politics. By interfering with the political process of the country, in 1911 the US Capitol changed from monument to memorial.

The real issue is what architectural questions we can address with the Capitol as our vehicle. The primary issue at stake here is how one may develop a sense of monumentality without fixity. Perfect static environments, little capsules of space preserved for future generations, are memorials that purposefully mark a certain moment in time.

Here Boyer confronts, directly and quite literally, the insight captured in Mitch Kapor's memorable aphorism "Architecture is politics". What he says also opens up some other fascinating lines of inquiry. For me, an important one is the ambitious but, as his argument implies, necessary program of redesigning the political system itself, not just its edifices. A fully-fledged political design discourse is especially needed for moving beyond well-entrenched but misguided assumptions, such as the idea that an increasing number of representatives requires more co-located space. (e.g., What about electronically-enabled direct democracy; a virtual forum?) Indeed, (re)designing political systems themselves is the task that Dator has assigned to generations of students, including me, in the futures studies program at the Dept of Political Science, UH-Manoa. (This semester he's co-teaching a seminar which brings architecture and politics students together to synthesise their disciplinary perspectives, but in relation to the institution of the University, rather than Congress.)

Still, I digress; the main point I want to discuss isn't about the project's topic per se, but what Boyer goes on to do with it.

In addition to the elevation plans, exploded views and interior mockups shown above (and there are more where those came from, as well as a nifty animation), Boyer produced photo-illustrations of the new Capitol in its Washington, D.C. location. These boldly reimagine the famous view from Pennsylvania Avenue...

...and from the Lincoln Memorial, looking down the National Mall:

The iconicity of the target makes this a pretty audacious student project. Even so, this is all pretty standard architectural fare so far -- designs and artists' impressions of the structure-to-be.

But then it gets really interesting. Boyer offers a hypothetical back-seat passenger view of the Capitol out the windshield of a vehicle on New Jersey Avenue NW...

...which (although maybe a bit cryptic out of context) to me has the ring of a photographic artifact from the future.

Yet there's more. He also produced a series of souvenir plates adorned with the proposed building's imagery...

(below, a more detailed shot of one of the plate designs)

...and (the icing on the cake) a U.S. $50 bill featuring his version of the U.S. Capitol building:

Not only is this an ingenious riff on the current bill design, it's close to "guerrilla futures" gold.

(Compare to Daniel Carr's hypothetical Amero coins, which appeared here late last year.)

OK. A few more points and we'll be done.

Generally, I don't post much on architecture at this blog. That's partly because I feel somewhat out of my depth talking about it. (A perhaps unkind but difficult-to-deny rejoinder could be that my boundless ignorance doesn't seem to dent my willingness to write about anything else; and duly chastened on that point by my internal critic, I've searched for a more compelling reason why future buildings don't make a more steady stream of appearances here at t.s.f.) I'm sure it has something to do with volume, as in, there are so many public-park or building-and-skyline visualisations that I couldn't hope to keep up. And the other side of that coin is banality. Most of the time, I find, architects' renderings of buildings-to-be isolated, visually sterile and uninteresting, in much the same way (as noted here previously) that the minimalist backdrops of concept designs in the gadget world usually say nothing of interest about the social context for those gadgets. They don't therefore do much to help us imagine tomorrow any more wisely, but bypass or occlude the most interesting questions about the various forms that the future they purport to show could take.

Now, Boyer's strategy doesn't precisely address that type of (what we might call) scenaric context-anemia, and since his focus lies elsewhere, I don't mean to fault him for it; I'm just observing that we can't deduce much about how, if at all, the political system might be different from today's in the vision set forth. He has, however, hit on a few extremely interesting ways to convey his building design, and more importantly, its iconic intent. Ironically, it's not by the "direct" schematic and traditional design representations of the building that we get a feel for it. Instead, it's through the mediation of the new Capitol building's role as a cultural force -- one iconically reproduced on currency, commemorated in tacky souvenirs, and glimpsed through grubby windows from the backseats of cars -- that the presence of his future makes itself felt. In cinema and television, the artifacts of documentary (jerky camerawork, imperfect vantage points, bad sound fidelity) can sometimes lend a more nuanced and lifelike texture to the story than squeaky-clean realist cinema, with the camera always positioned just-so. Boyer has found his way to a sort of architectural equivalent of documentary, and I think it works.

Matt Jones of Magical Nihilism puts it well:

[The project] seems well-considered and suitably imposing - but the killer part is not the building I think.

For me it’s the almost science-fictional level of world-building touches around his project of new currency featuring the building, folk art and even commemorative plates.

Puts you in mind of Paul Verhoven’s ad breaks in RoboCop and Starship Troopers in terms of really convincing peripheral visions of a world.

It puts you in a future-fictional America where something or someone has caused and completed a reboot of the Union’s sacred symbols.

It seems that Boyer knows he's doing it, too. Buried in his project blog, not apparently in reference to these specific artifacts, is a meditation on time travel (emphasis added):

The time traveler, as an individual in a new land, must both confront material differences and be curious about the mental framework (consciousness, subjectivity, design intentions) that put this material into that world.

Nostalgia is passive, time travel is active. Hijacking an object or aesthetic from another time is to rip it out of context. Fair enough. Time travel, however, as a mode of working requires that you move people (and their ideas) into a new time and then force them to adapt to their new setting. This is an active process that must evolve as a conversation between then and now. Time travel uses primary sources and thus tends towards literalness instead of abstraction.

A future-facing analog to history's "primary sources" is an idea I feel like I've been hovering around (in relation to future artifacts) for some time. I'm relieved to have found it, along with Boyer's work around these ideas, and look forward to hearing more about what may be going on in architecture that taps the same vein.

Related posts:
> FoundFutures (ongoing project thread)
> The value of hypothetical currency
> London after the rain
> Put on a happy face
> Why the language of design must enter law and politics

(via Magical Nihilism | all images from bryanboyer's Flickr photostream)

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Music City runs out of gas

Officials displeased.

Late in September, the city of Nashville, Tennessee temporarily ran out of petrol, following rumours that it was about to run out of petrol. Offhand, I can think of no clearer example of the productive (that is, reality-making) impact of images of the future. See for instance this report from CNN, "Nashville pumps dry after panic about rumor of no gas", 20 September 02008:

Call it a self-fulfilling prophecy: An estimated three-fourths of gas stations in the Nashville, Tennessee, area ran dry Friday, victim of an apparent rumor that the city was running out of gas.
Hearing the rumor, drivers rushed to fill their cars and trucks.

The above video is a simply brilliant hack (à la Woody Allen's 01966 comedy What's Up, Tiger Lily?, which dubbed an old Japanese movie) of a scene from Downfall (Der Untergang, 02004) a deeply serious cinematic account of a certain German dictator's final days.

Sure, it's not a future scenario, but a dramatisation of a past one, redeployed to satirise the present in, er, a rather different context. Still, such a format could serve as a terrific way to evoke, satirically or not, a future scenario by analogy. As Prof Ira Rohter asked, when posting the clip to the HRCFS listserv today, "Could this be Pres McCain in 2012?"

[Video via Nashville Scene.]

Related posts:
> World Without Oil photo essay
> Oil and water

(Thanks Ira!)

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Where futures meets experience design

Six dimensions of experience design
Diagram: Nathan Shedroff | via Pantopicon

Over at A Thousand Tomorrows, Antwerp-based futurist Nik Baerten has published the transcript of a recent interview with experience designer Nathan Shedroff, about the intersection of futures and experience design. Below, some [abridged] highlights...

NB: We have learnt that both as a means to inspire future thinking and to communicate and discuss alternative futures, experiences add significant value to the process of participatory futures exploration and envisioning. [...] How do you look at using experiences as tools, as a means to an end (e.g. gaining insight, anticipating & preparing for change)?

NS: Everything we perceive is an experience so, fundamentally, it’s impossible not to create an experience. The difference between what you're suggesting and much of futures work is done is simply about considering more of the dimensions of experience in the delivery. For example, reading a white paper or watching a video are still experiences. They're just not as immersive as immersing audiences in scenes or environments in realtime. All have their place, however.
Many people in the business world have trouble truly visualizing opportunities or even any sense of an alternate future. To help transform their perspectives, it's important to immerse them in an appropriate way -- sometimes widely and sometimes deeply. Usually, the more that the experience models how people live and work in their present lives, the easier it is for them to accept changes that transform their perspectives. This is why immersive experiences like environments and even workshops can be so much more powerful than reading a report.

NB: The fields of foresight, visioning, scenario planning etc. are not unknown to you. You have dealt with future scenarios a few times as well. Could you tell us something about your own experiences?

NS: Scenario Planning is an incredible tool. [...] However, it can be tricky in business because, often, executives "get" the new vision but they're still left with no way to implement it and alternate scenarios are often purposefully provocative extremes. Taking these visions and weaving them back into present strategy is often too confusing or difficult for managers and leaders to do.
Artifacts from the future that relate directly to an organization's business (whether part of the original future studies or completed in a second phase) can help support courage and commitment to innovation since the tangible attributes of prototypes helps leaders "see" examples of offerings and not merely imagine details between the organization’s current and potential strategies. It's extra work but usually well worth it.

NB: In my personal humble opinion design and futures studies are intimately linked. Both basically deal with the yet-non-existent, both look for creative solutions to challenges, both are about changes of perspective, both are about thinking in terms of alternatives.

NS: You're absolutely right. Whether the design process is being applied to future studies or current offerings doesn't really matter. It's still, mostly, the same process. That's a powerful situation because it means that the same development teams that produce an organization's solutions can usually turn to future studies with little change to their process (thought they could always use a chance to change their own expectations to the new context) and vice versa. The same teams that work on future artifacts can turn their same skills to integrating what they've learned to real products and services. Of course, they need to be given permission to actually do this, something that takes a special kind of management.

NB: One could say that an experience is always co-designed, in the sense that it emerges from the interplay between creation and beholder. [...] Co-creation, co-design, participatory design … how do you connect those to the design of experiences?

NS: There is no one, right way to design or develop anything. To a large degree, it needs to reflect the culture -- especially the innovation culture -- of a company. [...] Future scenarios are often used as a way of confronting an organization's leadership, purposely jarring their thinking. That works for some organizations and not for others.
You're absolutely correct that design and development is a co-creative process. It's best when there are multi-disciplinary teams that represent al of the key areas of development, production, distribution, messaging, and service. These teams can be difficult to manage because there may be so many people and many may not be comfortable suspending their disbelief in order to explore new options.

NB: Do you see a certain evolution in the types of experiences we expose ourselves to and why? Where do you see it going?

NS: We definitely hunger of meaning in our lives. That's the most important aspect of any experience. [...] I don’t think we're accelerating the pace or strength of experiences in any way, other than to recognize them and build them more deeply and more thoughtfully. In terms of storytelling, entertainment, and information, we are getting back to more interactive forms of experience than we have in the recent past simply because interactive media have become so prevalent in our lives.
In terms of business, however, we still have a long way to go toward making truly compelling experiences part of the way we learn within organizations, collaborate, share understanding, and build strategies.

NB: [H]ow do you look at design aimed at transforming society instead of companies (and their product/services)? Where do you see similarities and differences?

NS: A product, service, event, or environment can all be transforming -– or not at all. There's nothing exclusive within the categories.
Everything an organization does has a social impact, whether intended or not. Creating people social impacts, as well as better environmental ones, is simply a matter of addressing and valuing these issues at the strategic level of the organization as well as the tactical level of product and service development and implementation.

A strange conversion is taking place in the business and NGO worlds. Not only are business people learning that they can address social and environmental issues through their work -- profitably -- but, also, leaders of NGOs are waking-up to the fact that just because they have a social mission to their organization doesn't mean they can't learn to be a more successfully managed group using leadership and management techniques from the corporate world.

Cheers to Nik and Nathan for sharing their ideas! [Link]

Related posts:
> Cheap prototypes, valuable insights
> Reality prototyping
> Findability features FoundFutures