Sunday, March 27, 2011

Four future news clips from MIT

The following four videos are fictional newscasts from different versions of 2 November, 02037.

"Global Market Place"


"Technology Savior"

"One World Order"

Here's background from the FFFatMIT Channel on YouTube, where they were posted this week:

They are all part of the Future Freight Flows project run at MIT's Center for Transportation and Logistics (CTL) for the National Academies. Four separate future scenarios were developed over the course of a year through a series of focused expert panel sessions, practitioner acid testing, and industry wide surveys. The key driving forces and critical uncertainties were identified and formed the basis of the underlying scenarios. While originally designed to be used for freight transportation planning, they can be employed for a wide variety of different planning purposes.

Now, the fact that these are designed to support discussion about transportation made an impression on me because in the past fortnight, I've attended two vastly different events around this, heh, fast-moving industry. One was an upstart tech-geek unconferenceTransportationCamp West in San Francisco. The other was a staid, orderly gathering of transportation planning academics that has been running for over half a century, the Transportation Research Forum in Long Beach. The contrast between the cultures, rhythms and energies of the two events could hardly have been more striking. Yet one thing they had in common was that participants lacked a common background and framework for thinking both creatively and systematically about the broad futures or contexts in which the industry could play out. (That's no dig at folks involved with either event, just a comment on the fact that alternative futures thinking is still not yet widely known or understood in our culture, even in domains where it's most needed.)

So to me, it is heartening to see the Future Freight Flows project adopting scenario planning as a deliberate methodological response to the uncertainties inescapably attendant on the decades-long time horizons of infrastructure investments, and the wide variety of parties that they affect:

It is important to point out that this project will not develop the "official version" of the future for the US freight transportation system to be used by all decision makers.  As mentioned above, the system is too large and complex and faces too many uncertainties for this to be possible.  Also, the planning and assessment of policy and management strategies should be an on-going process involving as many stakeholders as possible -- not a one-time event.  Therefore, the project will not simply provide a static list of actions that a federal, state, or local Department of Transportation (DOT) planner should undertake to prepare for the future.  Instead, it will provide a set of customized tools and procedures that can be adopted and immediately implemented by the various decision makers across the stakeholders.

More about the underlying logic of these scenarios (which bear the hallmarks of a GBN-style two-by-two matrix as their generative protocol) can be found here.

The videos themselves, while clearly more Cambridge, Mass. than Hollywood, include a laudable attention to scenaric detail; "ticker" headlines, in-world advertisements and props, and not least, the choice from the outset of a specific, ordinary date in the future for which each of these clips manifests an alternative universe.

Future news (video, print) is of course a time-honoured and widely used way to economically convey a bunch of diegetic (in-scenario) exposition.

But scenario storytelling is indeed all about the detail that scaffolds an engagement with potential worlds to come. It's excellent to see signs of an increasingly experiential, media rich, and thoughtful approach to communicating such narratives making its way into the main stream.

Related posts:
Good news for people who love bad news
Guerrilla futurists combat war on terror
Future news-flash: your vote counts
> The value of hypothetical currency
> Humans have 23 years to go

(Thanks Loic and Teddy!)

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Beer-flavoured design fiction

And now for something completely different.

This evening, I purchased from my friendly neighbourhood outlet a six pack of beer. I was just approaching the counter with my selection already in hand, from a reliable local brewery, when at the last moment, spurred by curiosity, I switched it for one I'd never seen before. In part it was attractive pricing, in part it was the label promising delicious double-hopped goodness, and part of it was perhaps subliminal -- and mainly a personal response, I'm sure; this is a dubious basis for mass appeal -- in that this new beer had the same name as one of Radiohead's best, now largely forgotten, pre-OK Computer songs.

Black Star, a Double Hopped Golden Lager ostensibly from Whitefish, Montana, was at first taste unobjectionable, although less aggressively flavourful than the India Pale Ales, etc, to which many U.S. microbreweries have accustomed my palate. A suspicion began to form that I may have fallen prey to a cunning subterfuge recently deployed by America's Big Three -- Budweiser, Miller, and Coors -- to capture a slice of the growing independent market (as documented in the 02009 film Beer Wars). The scheme is to create pseudo-microbrews, sold with indie-sounding brand names under the banner of far-flung locations, thus duping the would-be beverage adventurer back into the oligopolistic fold.

So I googled Black Star. The aspect of their history that caught my eye, and the reason I blog this, is that in the '90s the beer was supported by a couple of ad campaigns based on artificial histories for the product, and using in-world documentary as part of the story. In 01994, a two-part Ken Burns-style history of Black Star was written by legendary ad-man Hal Riney, and voiced over by veteran actor Hal Holbrook. This 'documentary' plays as if looking back on a half-century of history, from several decades into the 21st century. Below is the first part, which has slightly less future in it than the second (both are amusing and quite well done).

A still earlier series of three ads [1] [2] [3], presented by John Corbett, went out under the disappointingly explicit title 'the make-believe history of Black Star beer' (c'mon, don't break the universe!).

So what, then, amid all these fictitious past and future artifacts, of my concerns about the beer's bona fides? Well, Black Star is indeed a product of the Great Northern Brewing Company, based in Whitefish, Montana, although the label I have next to me says 'Brewed and bottled by Great Northern Brewing Company, Milwaukee WI' (which set off my alarm bells, that city famously being home to Miller Brewing Company). At any rate, the brew was first introduced to an Oregon test market in the early 01990s, was out of production for most of the '00s, and then relaunched in 02010. But incongruously, the label claims 'a family tradition of unique brewing since 1856'. A bit of research turned up a San Francisco Examiner article from back in 01996, which helpfully deconstructs the company's 'instant history'. (Just add water... malted barley, and hops. And a bunch of marketing.)

In general, I find it extremely interesting the way both history and future narratives are recruited to provide a sense of substance -- for both fun and profit -- to something that would otherwise lack it. I don't mean to speak of this specific product in isolation (and this post is intended neither to criticise nor to promote it), but the case throws into relief, both in its consciously satirical ('make-believe history'; mid-21st century mockumentary) mode, and in its seemingly earnest ('since 1856') mode, the ubiquity and importance of the back-stories about the things we interact with, and choose to consume.

As the saying goes, when truth and legend collide, print the legend. To this we might add: if there isn't an adequate legend, make one up. (Can we really doubt that there's a good deal of that in how 'actual' history gets made, or rather, canonised?)

In his January presentation at the launch of the landmark design fiction show Made Up (which is still open for a few more days, check it out if you can) at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Bruce Sterling highlighted the wide variety of activities which can be co-located on the landscape of 'design fiction'. His definition of that activity, offered for the first time there, was 'the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change'. Consider that this includes not only the designed artifacts and media spinoffs of vividly portrayed futures, but it also comfortably accommodates playfully counterfactual, as well as patently false, histories.

A potent brew.

Which leads me to suspect, not for the first time, that there's far more design fiction woven into everyday life than we might at first imagine.

Related posts:
> Don't break the universe
Amusing anachronisms
> Killer imps
> Chocolate, beer and futures

Monday, March 14, 2011


It seems to be a commonplace that having one’s first child means crossing a threshold, from entertaining a relatively abstract interest in the longer-term fate of the world, to being genetically invested, having skin in the game, so to speak.

I don’t have any children yet myself, but over the past few years, as various relatives and friends a few years my senior have begun nesting in earnest, I am increasingly intrigued by a key tension inherent in becoming a parent. On the one hand, there is a sense in which a new parent’s focus narrows as their child’s well being assumes paramount importance; on the other hand, that same well being depends ultimately and inescapably on the state of the wider world the youngster inherits.

So I thought it could be interesting to provide a way for people with very young children to be prompted to cast their thoughts forward to a specific date in which their child has a concrete stake. This would be a gesture towards reconciling parental concern, responsibility and love for their offspring, with a commensurate interest in the bigger picture.

In the photo above is Andrew, born 6 July 02010. Other things being equal, he should graduate high school in the (Northern Hemisphere) Spring of ‘28. Thus he sports the inaugural ‘Class of 2028’ onesie, lovingly, if incompetently, decorated by me, at his parents’ baby shower last June.

This may be a meme worth spreading. So, get your ‘Class of 02028’ and 'Class of 02029' paraphernalia here at the Futurewear Cafepress shop. I'll donate any proceeds to The Long Now Foundation.

Update (16mar11): In line with Long Now convention, the designs on sale now use five digit dates.  Also, 'Class of 02027' has been added, enabling the current generation of toddlers to take advantage of this exceptionally wonderful line of merchandise. Cheers, Zander.

Note: Of course, a precisely correct prediction is not the point, but it's not a bad idea to think about it. So, a baby born today would most likely be 'Class of 02029' in the U.S. (a calculator to help the confused). In Australia, where the calendar year is in sync with the school year, you'd add 17 or 18, depending on your state's convention, to the year of birth.

(Thanks Sara, Mike and Andrew!)

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Artifacts from the present

A few weeks ago, I started working with Chris Baker over at Wired on some upcoming Found features, and it seems to be heightening my filter for sights with an 'artifactual' quality; objects that look and feel like artifacts-from-the-future, that to me are somehow surprising or odd, and seem to say a lot about the time and place we live in.

Photo taken at Walmart checkout, Long Beach, California, 27 February*

A Dunaganian riff: curious how engaging particular media shapes -- even highjacks -- the thought process.

Like when you used to fall asleep, not counting sheep, but arranging tetris shapes behind your eyelids. Or when you catch yourself unintentionally composing tweet-length bon mots about a situation while it's happening. Or when your brain slips silently into photographic mode, composing a shot that captures it all, despite having no camera to hand.

Related posts:
> Future-framing images
> World Without Oil photo essay

*thanks to Maurice Conti, who lent me his iPhone for this shot

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Revisiting The Catalogue

To file under just-in-case-you-haven't-seen-it: British video artist Chris Oakley's brilliant short film The Catalogue (02004).

Preferring to let the thing speak for itself, I won't describe the content, but just want to note that I find it raises an interesting line of thought about the difference between, on the one hand, the modes of visual and narrative representation that make a complex system or technology legible and communicable (especially in prospect, when it doesn't yet exist), and on the other hand, how it might actually work in practice, which may be altogether different.

Drawn to my attention back in January '06 by longtime design collaborator Matt Jensen, I think this video failed to appear previously here at the sceptical futuryst mainly because I didn't start the blog until a few months after that. But a couple of weeks ago, in discussion with Liam Young (of the fabulously interesting Tomorrow's Thoughts Today) I found myself singing the praises of this -- I'm tempted to say classic -- video artifact-from-the-future.

[Update 30nov16: video embed fixed.]

Related posts:
> Surveillance Supreme
> Permission Culture
> Neill Blomkamp, visual futurist