Friday, November 28, 2008

The compleat Wired future artifacts gallery 02008

[augmented reality windscreen] | Wired 16.01 (January)

[bioluminescent tattoo] | Wired 16.02 (February)

[vat-grown meat infomercial] | Wired 16.03 (March)

[Risk boardgame] | Wired 16.04 (April)

[Smithsonian exhibit] | Wired 16.05 (May)

[wine spectrometer] | Wired 16.06 (June)

[the last "Found"] | Wired 16.07 (July)

The feature disappeared for two editions -- 16.08 (August) and 16.09 (September), before making a comeback, with a slightly different format involving more moving parts. Each published "Found" is now constructed as a scene incorporating multiple future "fragments", rather than as a single idea (usually a hypothetical product) like before. Below, then, are the remainder of the 02008 features, with corresponding details under each one. (These detail images can be accessed in a slideshow, via the Wired URL provided for the main image, but they're perhaps a bit easier to access and appreciate in the scrolling layout used here.)

[bumper stickers] | Wired 16.10* (October)
Details below...

[fridge] | Wired 16.11 (November)
Details below...

[Wall St] | Wired 16.12 (December)
Details below...

Since the relaunch of Found, there has also been a monthly "Found Photoshop Contest", which we'll look at in a future post.

Related posts:
> Found 02007 | 02006 | 02005 | 02004 | 02003 | 02002

*NB: This edition is mistakenly labelled 16.09 on the Wired website.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Surveillance Supreme

This is a highly ingenious, widely viewed, and justly acclaimed near-future artifact, in video form, produced for the American Civil Liberties Union. It was released in 02004 as part of a campaign to raise awareness about surveillance, and over four years later, the flash version remains live at the ACLU website. The brief but effective clip warns, with humour relieving some of the deadly earnestness of its agenda, about the possible privacy-endangering implications of joined up databases containing personal information.

I'd seen this some time ago, but only a short while back did some research and found it to be the work of one Micah Laaker, designer of interactive experiences. Micah kindly agreed to an interview by email, to explore the story behind this excellent in-scenario fragment of an electro-panopticon future.

SC: So if you could first say who you are in one or two sentences, then...

ML: I lead a team of designers and prototypers on Yahoo!'s efforts to provide platforms and tools to 3rd-party developers and publishers. Since joining 4 years ago, I've led teams on our efforts around adaptive personalization, RSS, user registration, My Yahoo!, and more. Before Yahoo!, I led the design efforts of Island Def Jam Music Group's artist and label sites, wrote two books, designed and illustrated a paranormal trivia game, directed a hip-hop music video, and worked with clients like Stan Lee, Zagat, Disney Channel, and Sprint PCS. I herald from the great city of Omaha, NE, and am a fan of tiny houses, illustration, semantic metadata, cryptozoology, and information design.

SC: What was the story behind the ACLU clip?

ML: The ACLU Pizza Surveillance movie came from the good folks at the ACLU. I'd been working with them for several months on a number of infographics when they asked whether I'd be willing to come up with a visual storyline to better present a recording they'd made. To be honest, I don't remember the whole back story in terms of how they decided to record the awkward pizza ordering scenario.

I do remember that I received an MP3 file, and began sketching out 5 visual accompaniments to the piece. Most centered on the people in the story (the order taker and the gentleman caller), but one flipped the focus to the screen of the order taker. I wanted to try that one out, as (after about the 50th listen to the recording) I began wondering, "What is this lady seeing that she isn't saying to the guy?"

I'd like to think it was the little details (like the Nancy Drew book checkout, the suggestion of seeing his voting record, and his eczema inflammation) that won them over. But, after reviewing the different proposals, the ACLU centered in on this approach quickly, too. (I showed 4-5 screens for each approach with a paragraph or two about how the visuals would unfold.) They were (and continue to be) great to work with, and really let me run with the visuals and animations from that point.

SC: What kind of reception has it received, and what lessons have you been able to draw from that? How has it affected your subsequent practice as a designer?

ML: Aside from the MF Doom music video, the Pizza piece continues to be one of the best-received works I've tackled. It won honors in resfest|10 and the Media that Matters 5 festival, and was the subject of Jon Udell's (and others') examinations of how social media moves through the Internet. It's been very flattering to have such smart and talented folks applaud the work, although I largely believe I get far more credit for the piece than I deserve. (Again, the folks at the ACLU who came up with the original idea deserve the real credit; I'm proud of the way we worked together to package it in a creative manner and extend its implications through the animation.)

In terms of changes I've incorporated into my design process since, it's rather technique-oriented. The video was intended to playback only on the ACLU website. As I built the graphics, I wondered whether I should spend a bit more time building resolution-independent versions. Considering the amount of time I've since had to spend to rebuild the movie, and the requirements from all the festivals for high-resolution footage, I've learned to build (when at all possible) for dimensions and media larger than what the project requirements dictate... you just never know when those requirements might change.

Most surprising, though, is probably the fact that I then went on to Yahoo! to work on its personalization efforts, where we work to tailor the network's content and interfaces to match users' behavior. Not surprising, however, is that I have made a priority of providing users with the control then to delete such data in such interfaces.

SC: How does the clip "work"? (For example, how does communicating "in-scenario" affect the message?)

ML: The decision to focus on the order taker's screen helped us communicate the extent to which an individual's sense (and reality) of privacy could be eroded. Anything lost by not showing the caller or visualizing the specific elements discussed is overshadowed by the sinister details exposed to the viewer of the piece. In several instances, you can watch as the order taker browses through caller's personal information (as just about anyone would, should they be given such a dashboard on another person's info).

This idea that the mundane task of ordering a single meal could expose extensive personal information has clearly resonated with a large viewing audience, likely because folks begin to see steps toward this future already. Whether via the request for your ZIP Code when buying batteries at Radio Shack or having your name announced to all around when picking up groceries at Safeway while using your club card, many of us uneasily participate in such exchanges and wonder if we're slowly being desensitized to the "master plan" illustrated in the video.

SC: What do you think these two fields of practice, futures (scenarios) and design, have to offer one another?

ML: Design is largely a process used to make something complex understandable and interesting. Whether text and image, interface, or tabular data, the source becomes far more engaging and meaningful after passing through this process. So, if by "futures" you are describing how to package and present possible scenarios of some yet-to-come moment or issue, design is clearly well suited for such a task.

By this, I simply mean that the design process can be useful to those looking to find meaningful ways of sharing their articulations of the future. Conversely, those in the practice of design generally enjoy thinking of "what if" situations, where the rules and dictates of everyday projects fall away; futures work would seem, in a similar fashion, complementary to design work and could provide inspiration for solutions yet to come.

SC: What other artifacts, videos, media (in any form) are you aware of that have this quality of inviting someone to "experience" a future?

ML: Hmm. Tough question. In many ways, what we did with the Pizza piece is really no different than film. We used a visual storytelling medium to walk the audience through a disturbing (and disturbingly possible) scenario... a scenario which, for all intents and purposes, is generally annoying already. (Who, after all, looks forward to giving up their credit card number to the underpaid high school student at the other end of the line?)

The staid answer to this, of course, is that video games would appear to run closest to this experience. Often set in the "first person," as is the Pizza piece, the game allows individuals to experiment with alternate (and some would say worrisome) behavior, and the in-game scenarios are often seemingly plausible. In other words, even when set in the future, many games leverage existing environments (such as specific cityscapes) and existing physics models to paint a realistic but alternate scenario.

In this case, though, the player of such a game is in control (to some extent) over which direction they head, whereas in the Pizza piece, we drive each viewer down the same disconcerting path.

Micah, many thanks again for your time.

Related posts:
> Permission Culture
> Future news-flash: your vote counts
> In memoriam

Sunday, November 23, 2008

White House Redux

White House Redux Project 1342 by Brandon Shigeta (#2 in popular vote)
The presidential residence reimagined as a Disney theme park.

White House Redux, an international architecture competition, was launched in January this year by the Storefront for Art and Architecture and Control Group. The competition brief explains (the first page, mysteriously numbered p. 33, in the book):

Home of the world's most powerful individual. Universally recognized symbol of political authority. One of America's greatest tourist attractions. Nerve-center of the world's most complex communications system. The architectural embodiment of power.
The original White House design, by James Hoban, was the result of a competition held in 1792. ... What if, instead of in 1792, that competition were to be held today? What would a White House designed in 2008, year of election of the 44th President of the United States, look like?

An impressively miscellaneous set of responses was gathered, and made available via a project website, as well as an exhibition which concluded earlier this month at Storefront's space in New York City. From 487 projects submitted, with 42 countries represented, 123 of those concept designs (a quarter of all entries) have also found their way into a fascinating book, published in a limited run of 500 copies, which I learned about through BLDGBLOG. Mine arrived in the mail not long ago, and I had an opportunity to read it yesterday.

Physically, it's an odd specimen. About as thick as the O'ahu phone book, and alternating between sections of B&W printing and colour, it's printed on the flimsy stock that's characteristic of more ephemeral publications (comics, newspapers, telephone directories). The newsprint ink rubs off on your fingers, and thence, all too readily, back onto the shiny white paperback cover. This isn't your usual coffee-table art book.

Among the side-effects of having been assembled in what was obviously a bit of a hurry (shipping just over four months after the competition jury convened at the end of May) the book has no ISBN or edition notice, nor is there any sign of the advertised essay contribution of Storefront's Joseph Grima. The introductory 50-page photo essay, about the jury's day of deliberation in WTC Building 7, is unnecessarily long. However, to me it's interesting not only as a partial record of the production process -- which is nothing if not collaborative, all the way down -- but also, kicking off a 700-page tome, it is an example of the overall direction in which the work prefers to err, towards excess, low-rent generosity.

Indeed, content wise, this is an embarrassment of riches. The quality of entries may be uneven, but the eclecticism is astonishing.

There are aerial, submersible, floating, inflatable, and underground White Houses in the mix. Many envisage its functions as going mobile or being dispersed, however systematically or haphazardly (and in ways fanciful, pragmatic, or symbolic) around Washington D.C., the United States, and the world. At the mischievous behest of this architectural swarm, the Presidential residence is uprooted, launched, buried, destroyed, rebuilt, renovated, redistributed, and repainted. It's reimagined as mall, museum, battleship, space station, farm, coliseum, zeppelin, forest, and theme park, and transposed to such diverse environs as Antarctica, the Moon, and Lebanon (not in the Middle East, but a small town in Kansas identified as the geographic centre of the lower 48). One entry envisions a giant plant à la Jack and the Beanstalk, for some future President to both inhabit and nurture, in downtown Manhattan. Another gleefully proposes a global centre of ice cream distribution. There are hypothetical White Houses made from blasting a huge rock slab; delicate bubbles; edifices rhizomatic and spongiform; quivering bionic blobs; and monumental phalluses -- literally -- which lie flaccid during peacetime but engorge and stand menacingly at attention in times of war.

Project 1386 by Fernando Molina and Paola Zini
The White House as harvest farm, embodying knowledge, nourishment, and shelter

Project 236 by Tom Marble and Ariel Hsieh
An article, dated July 02009, for the fictitious magazine "Retropolis", about the incumbent President delivering on a promise to make the Executive Branch turn a profit, by redesigning the White House as a mixed use hotel/retail/office space.

White House 2.0 (Project 1369) by Wayne Congar, Arrielle Assouline-Lichten
The White House as an immersive, Open Source information display space and hub of global political conversation

Project 655 by Jorge Rocha Antunes (winner popular vote)
The White House enveloped in an enormous glob of biotic jelly

Project 1463 by Yoshi Ogawa
The concept starts from an intersecting arrangement of the 13 stripes of the American flag

12 Cautionary Tales for a New World Order (Project 1485)
by David Iseri, Jefferson Frost, Justin Kruse and Laura Sperry (Second place winner)
A tribute to architectural firm Superstudio, with 12 alternative possibilities for the White House, each based on different cultural, economic and environmental scenarios. They are presented as snapshots of a book, some including in-scenario artifacts. This one puts the White House in Las Vegas, the new U.S. capital after "the Malthusian catastrophe of 2012".

The White Wing (Project 1414) by Ralf Arno Schormann and Alex Schulz
A helium-powered zeppelin with on-board environmental research laboratory.

The White House Show® (Project 248) by Joachim Seyer
Seyer proposes to split the White House in half lengthwise, rendering it an open stage in two parts, on which political figures perform nightly at 8 p.m.
[While this project is featured in the book, this particular "artifact" image isn't.]

To devour the book in a single sitting, as I did yesterday morning, makes for a heady kind of aesthetic workout, an exercise in navigating the wilfully abundant alternative premises of some anarchic, multimedia short story collection; stumbling between the pieces of a bewildering collage of imaginative gambits. This may be the first politically themed collection of "architecture fiction" (a Sterlingism which applies perfectly here), and it's fully as invigorating, frustrating and engaging as, say, a half day spent at the Tate Modern; or an end-of-semester presentation marathon for a massive and wildly divergent design class.

Reaching for a more immediate comparison, actually it put me in mind of playing the collaborative forecasting game Superstruct -- just when I was at risk of starting to miss it. (As a Game Master/Community Leader on that project, for me it entailed a regular process of sifting hundreds of user-generated proposals for hypothetical, collaborative organisations, intended to reverse the world's flagging fortunes, which formed the centrepiece of game that just completed its sixth and final week.) I wonder whether the resonance of that game with this book's contents may come from an emergent, shared aesthetic wavelength -- the look-and-feel of collective imagining, lightly moderated, of the early 21st century.

In White House Redux there is of course a fair complement of half-baked ideas, but this is part of what makes it so stimulating; one is invited to sample an array of exploratory hors d'oeuvres -- earnest and satirical, critical and hopeful -- made according to any of 123 different recipes.

However, this great strength is also its great shortcoming: you don't get a full meal. The essay which brings the book to a close, written by ever-insightful BLDGBLOG curator Geoff Manaugh, runs less than a page. I found that after the whirlwind tour of visual and conceptual possibilities, I was hungry for more substance, insight, analysis. To drop the culinary metaphor for a literary one; the book read like a choose-your-own-adventure novel, with a superabundance of beginnings that all turn out to be loose ends, and nowhere to go from there. I wanted something to help me tie these disparate ideas together, to help connect original question ("What would a White House designed in 2008... look like?") to the startling multiplicity of orthogonal responses before me. Just what the hell is this revolution that seems to be going on in architecture, and giving rise to such a cornucopia? That query, or something like it, was what I had hoped a commentator more familiar with that subject than I am might address. Manaugh's all too brief gesture in that direction concludes as follows ("Speak Space to Power", p. 719):

How do we spatially respond or give shape to the political situation today? We can use architecture to diagnose and interpret the world -- risking the projection of our own fantasies upon such structures -- or we can use architecture to lay the foundations of future terrains no one anticipates.

By the end of the day, then, with nearly five hundred entries, White House Redux began to feel more like a genre in its own right, something between science fiction and political manifesto. But that is precisely the strength of architectural design today: it is literary and diagnostic; it speculates and narrates. Applied to icons of political power, architecture extends the imaginative reach of design into the realm of everyday possibility -- changing governments, minds, and nation-states alike.

I think he's making an important point. It does, very much, have the feel of a new genre, an experimental and potentially very fruitful type of work -- and play -- at the crossroads of futures, and politics and design (clearly not just "architecture" as strictly understood). "Architecture fiction" is part of it, as is "design fiction". Alternate reality gaming is getting close. What I call experiential futures is implicated here also.

The thing we're talking about here, the transdisciplinary theory-object at the centre of this developing conversation, is hybrid, serious-fun in tone, promiscuously multimedia, playfully transreality, and above all, potentially world-changing.

We saw another example recently in Bryan Boyer's speculative design for a new U.S. Capitol building. Although the crossroads we're looking at here is not always literally, institutionally political, it's always very political in the broader sense of having the potential to rearrange our perceptions.

Architecture of course does not have a monopoly on artistic licence, however, both as an academic discipline and a broader, cultural practice it certainly seems to promote fluency, or at least tolerance, across different modes of expression. (Spoken from the wistful vantage point of a doctoral student in a university department where much energy is expended deciphering and encoding theory.) As far as I can see, right alongside design, architecture is fast moving toward exploiting this more fully (here's another example). Back in July, I presented at a conference where design theorist Benjamin Bratton (one of whose architecture-related involvements is teaching at SCI_arc) pointed out that of the articles by Nicolai Oroussoff -- since 02004 the NY Times architecture critic -- half are about proposals rather than actual buildings. Architecture's comfort with the visual/experiential modes of exploration, coupled with its necessary familiarity with the speculative and the hypothetical, seems to position it ahead of a lot of futures practice for engaging a wider audience in the tricky enterprise of worldbuilding. What it doesn't seem to do so well, yet, is scenaric depth. Still, that can be learned.

In any event, the confluence of these practices seems to me to be edging towards making available not just an argument, but a visceral experience, of the malleability of reality itself. The essay title "Speak Space to Power" neglects the design strategy that is used arguably to greatest effect. Of course, architecture is a spatial practice, but that's not all it is, and that's not the dimension in which the contributors to White House Redux (or the kindred activities to which we've pointed) make their most important contribution.

It is what we might call alternativity -- a plurality of worlds, in terms not only of different futures but also of rewritten histories and presents -- that speaks to power in this work. Not space, but hyperspace; different universes, configurations of reality, possibilities. It brings them into our awareness here and now, not merely to say, but rather to manifest, with a panoply of visual, symbolic and rhetorical strategies: "Other worlds are possible. Now, here they are."

Related posts:
> Architectural time travel
> London after the rain
> Design fiction is a fact
> Dreaming the home of the future

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The future of yesterday


Detail from an illustration in Mechanix Illustrated, November 01968

IT'S 8 a.m., Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2008, and you are headed for a business appointment 300 mi. away. You slide into your sleek, two-passenger air-cushion car, press a sequence of buttons and the national traffic computer notes your destination, figures out the current traffic situation and signals your car to slide out of the garage. Hands free, you sit back and begin to read the morning paper -- which is flashed on a flat TV screen over the car’s dashboard. Tapping a button changes the page....

~James R. Berry, "40 Years in the Future", Mechanix Illustrated, November 01968, reproduced at Modern Mechanix blog, 24 March 02008

So begins a speculative "day in the life" article published exactly forty years ago, in the same month Nixon won the U.S. Presidential election, and the Beatles released the White Album -- and set precisely yesterday, 18 November 02008.

We don't tend to deal much with retrofutures here at t.s.f., partly because others do such a good job of covering them already (such as the blog linked above, and Matt Novak's Paleo-Future). So I don't intend to analyse this in any detail. But if you're interested, read the original (using the page-image reproductions rather than the transcript below them, for a better sense of the original). And see whether we agree on the following two points...

1. To me, the magazine ads are more interesting than the article itself. The garnish trumps the dish. These incidental, textural details of the past seem to afford, or betray, at least as much insight into the passage of four decades than the content which squarely addresses it. (This is not, however, a criticism of the author or publication: the piece was written for the audience then, not today.)

2. There's something weirdly counterintuitive about the inexorable way a specific future date and time, however far away it may be, eventually rolls around. Recently I've been reading about how our minds process time, and I see a connection here to what psychologists Yaacov Trope and Nira Liberman call Construal Level Theory [pdf]:

The greater the temporal distance, the more likely are events to be represented in terms of a few abstract features that convey the perceived essence of the events (high-level construals) rather than in terms of more concrete and incidental details of the events (low-level construals).

Or, to render a similar insight in more poetic terms, I'm reminded of a lovely, humbling haiku in Stewart Brand's Clock of the Long Now (composed in reply to one by poet Gary Snyder, p. 1:64):

This present moment
Used to be
The unimaginable future

Related posts:
> Lost futures
> Today at Tomorrowland

(Thanks, Josh Judkins! | via Rocketboom)