Thursday, February 28, 2013

Apocalypse for one

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"If the world ended tomorrow, would you be happy with how you've lived your life?" 

A recent program by British hypnotist and television personality Derren Brown recently made this question the basis for an immersive experience created to convince one individual that the end of the world as we know it had arrived.

Twenty-one year-old self-confessed layabout Steven Brosnan was, unbeknownst to him, selected from among thousands of candidates, primed over several weeks for the outlandish scenario about to unfold, and then thrust into a calculatedly harrowing experience designed to teach him to really value his life. The whole thing was then broadcast on national television in the UK as a two-part special.

A consummate showman, Brown has created a number of ingenious made-for-TV experiments before. Three in particular were previously recommended to me with great enthusiasm - The Heist, The System, and Derren Brown Plays Russian Roulette Live - by my friend Jane McGonigal, a designer of what (a few years ago were called) alternate reality games. ARGs are (were?) a class of interactive role-play to which the nifty transmedia narrative stunt at hand bears more than a passing resemblance.

Derren Brown: Apocalypse designs a complex experiential arc around just one person. So evidently a key challenge was identifying the right candidate; someone who, as Brown says: "...currently leads a self-centered existence, and who takes his life, his friends, his family and material comforts all for granted. I'm hoping he'll be able to learn from the meticulously crafted experience I'm going to put him through. And by taking everything away from him, I hope to make him recognise the value of what he has."

The elaborate setup involved getting his entire family to play along, hacking their smartphones and doctoring media feeds to make the signs of impending disaster increasingly frequent, and then finally transitioning the subject into a fully immersive situation which he didn't know was hypothetical. Therefore throughout, amid all the actors and family members involved, he's the only one who doesn't realise he's on camera. Think Orson Welles's 1938 War of the Worlds radio play meets The Truman Show.

I won't describe the whole program blow by blow. If the description appeals, you'll be well entertained and should check it out yourself (video embedded below). Also, my thoughts shared after the break will contain spoilers and may not make complete sense if you haven't seen Apocalypse.

Now, futures as a field, I'd say, shares with education as a whole a common presumption at their heart that virtual experience can be as valuable as real. (Unfortunately, only a small proportion of education encounters are designed for maximum experiential impact. The same could be said of foresight.) Yet, even when carried out according to the most uninspired and dull-as-dishwater of conventions -- chalk-and-talk in the classroom; ploddingly written scenarios in the futures world -- both implicitly have an underlying faith in simulation (or for futures, simulacrum). Put another way, that article of faith is that you can learn from a situation that is constructed, that's not entirely real.

Such is Brown's basic supposition here, too, the plan being to simulate global catastrophe as "teachable moment" for Steven. The idea is that someone's life can be transformed by an encounter that, even though faked or engineered, presents as real to them, and so produces genuine revelation. And that's just what happens, or what seems to happen, in Apocalypse. We might say Brown's goal is to create an experiential learning journey (here, it's explicitly modeled on The Wizard of Oz, a classic "hero's journey" as in Joseph Campbell's mythic/archetypal Jungian framework). It's a thoroughly ingenious concept for a television narrative, and entertaining as all get out to watch. Yet I've also had a creeping sense that it's not entirely successful in the execution, and I've been trying to figure out why that is.

The reason I'm writing about this is because, as a designer of experiential scenarios, I'm keen to learn from these rare examples how to construct better immersions into hypothetical narrative situations, in order to make the practice more effective. What makes experiential scenarios tick, and how might they be improved? (To be clear, then; anything that seems critical about what I say here is part of an attempt to work with these thoughts as a practitioner, rather than gratuitous sniping from the safety of my armchair.)

I found parts of the show, especially the first half, very moving. The setup with the gradual introduction of ersatz news feeds into Steven's bubble, and the staging of a segue into apocalyptic territory is brilliant. For me, one of the best moments comes when the program makers reproduce during a bus ride their (clearly Orson Welles-inspired) radio-based dislocation into catastrophe, and then it ups the experiential ante magnificently.

However, after the apocalyptic bit of the story kicks in, it becomes increasingly difficult to believe. You might find it all terrifyingly realistic; I wanted to, but simply didn't. You might object that it's not our (as audience) credulity that matters. Yet it does, I think. When a hypothetical strains belief, it simultaneously becomes harder to believe that anyone else could buy it, either. The specifics of the apocalyptic narrative and experience that Steven is expected and appears to buy into get exceptionally silly. Without going into detail, having already warned about spoilers, one word really makes the point: zombies. An inspired Truman Show-esque first half morphs into a less convincing knockoff of 28 Days Later or The Walking Dead.

Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that some controversy arose in the UK over the central character of Steve, who was accused of being an actor complicit in the whole deal. These are claims that Brown has denied and debunked, but doubts may remain; based neither on Steve's half-finished acting website profile, nor on his amusing physical resemblance to an actor from a noodle commercial -- but rather on the internal merits and coherence of the program itself.

I won't go into the performances of the questionable actors by whom Steven is surrounded, or some of his reactions which, at times, even if real, felt even less credible. (Perhaps I'm just not a very experienced viewer of reality TV -- and if I watched more of it I'd realise that real people in reality actually behave like the way I consider bad actors act.) As it happens, I'm less interested in establishing the truth here as such than I am in understanding what's at stake for the program in its believability. You see, for the viewer of Apocalypse, its emotional and intellectual impact rely on an authentic deception. We are invited to empathise with Steve, for whom life as he knew it is ostensibly over. If it turned out that Steve were just another actor, there would cease to be anything truly novel or worthwhile about watching him go through this exercise: we've already seen our share of (more highly produced and impressive) end-of-the-world diversions. So the interest here turns entirely on Steven's being unwittingly drawn into a simulated catastrophe, which means it is significant only to the extent that he experiences as real something which is not.

Brown knows this, and makes that very point in his own defence: pretending to all this with an actor at the centre of it would be pointless. Well, yes and no. There's room for a cogent sceptical view here that a sufficiently cynical TV producer could benefit greatly from persuading an audience of millions that they were really putting an unwitting man on the street through armageddon's onset, while in fact orchestrating the whole thing with an insider-actor. This, the sceptic might argue, would obviate the investment risk should a carefully selected actual dupe clue into the subterfuge and suddenly ruin a presumably expensive and logistically elaborate end-of-the-world simulation-for-one. So the question comes to rest on Brown's insistence on his own integrity as an artist.

But here we come to a problem for the audience's experience of the show, one which is built-in, and unavoidable: Derren Brown, the "man behind the curtain", is fundamentally questionable. By no means am I saying I don't like him, or that his work isn't vastly entertaining, thought-provoking and insightful. I do. It is. I'm simply pointing out that a large part of the show's very premise, and part of the basis for our interest in watching it, consists in his charismatic persona and cultivated talent for understanding people and creating situations that play on their foibles. He's a master persuader, hypnotist and manipulator. No pejorative connotation intended; that's his schtick, and it's why we watch. But if Brown is being straight with us, the audience, then he is indeed deceiving Steven monumentally. On the other hand, if Steven's colluding with him (as I - and apparently others - had occasion to suspect), then Brown is deceiving us, his audience. Either way, there's a tangled web, and our charming host is right in the middle of it. Such ambiguity is at the very heart of his profession as an illusionist and mentalist, and shows up in all the situations that he creates. Little wonder, then, that some people question his veracity.

To continue the line of thought above for a moment more: if he were discovered to have been pretending, Derren Brown could still have a workable artistic alibi -- that the joke was deliberately, all along, on all of us, the audience. Maybe there's a meta-point in the offing here around our own susceptibility, but there's a trust we place in him, despite his own "untrustworthiness" which is the premise of our interest -- and if it were betrayed it would be a real pity. Especially amid all the fakery, the grain of truth still matters. 

All of this reminded me of another exquisitely ambiguous viewing experience, Exit Through the Gift Shop, the outstanding film about street art genius Banksy. It presents as documentary but leaves you (or at any rate, left me) wondering whether the central character, Mister Brainwash, was fabricated. He's such an outrageous character, and his commercial success as depicted in the doco such damning evidence of the cynical commercialisation of art, that it all seems too perfectly perverse to be true. A couple of years after watching it, I still find myself on the fence about Exit Through the Gift Shop's documentary status. And that's actually something I absolutely love about it -- and in some ways perhaps I'd prefer not to know the truth -- because it so effectively acts out one of the key questions it raises, regarding the importance of authenticity or truth as a value in the art world.

Now, as irritatingly and gleefully postmodern as some might like to get here, rejoicing - or wallowing - in the unknowability of the truth of it all, let me prepare to draw a conclusion: Exit succeeds because of its ambiguity, where Apocalypse falters. Let's be fair: if the show succeeds, it's despite any doubts about Derren Brown's and his subject Steven's veracity, not because of them. Audience doubt about Brown's truthfulness puts a dent in Apocalypse as an experiential scenario. To the extent that people doubt the authenticity of the deception, so to speak, to that extent the exercise is not quite working.

So much for questions of plausibility, ambiguity and fakery. Now I want to come at this from another angle.

Here's what Brown says about the motivation for staging an apocalypse for his victim. "In an effort to help Steven realise the value of the things he has, like his family, home and friends, I took them all away from him by creating the end of the world, through a deadly meteor strike."

But of course, there's a simpler way to end the world.

By sheer coincidence, just hours after viewing Apocalypse and then having a big group of friends over for dinner, I was revisiting the 1999 classic Fight Club, a testosterone- and irony-fuelled film essentially about living to the full. I hadn't watched it for maybe ten years. (If you haven't seen it, please do; but there are no spoilers below.)

A sequence about halfway through exemplifies the perversely life-affirming spirit of the movie, when the two lead actors, Brad Pitt and Edward Norton, conduct what they call a "human sacrifice", whereby the life of a Korean convenience-store owner is threatened, as an existential goodwill intervention. At gunpoint, the hapless shopkeeper is told, "Raymond, you're going to die". He's asked what he wanted to be in life before settling for quik-e-mart drudgery. The answer: a vet. Holding a gun to the poor man's head, Pitt takes his drivers' licence away, telling him, "I know where you live. If you're not on your way to becoming a veterinarian in six weeks, you will be dead." They let him go.  What was the point of that, demands an exasperated Norton. Replies Pitt: "Tomorrow will be the most beautiful day of Raymond K. Hessel's life. His breakfast will taste better than any meal you and I have ever tasted."

Here again, almost word for word, is the question behind Apocalypse (quoted at the top). There's a climactic confrontation later on between the two leads, when Pitt's trickster says to Norton's sceptic: "If you were to die right now, how would you feel about your life?"

My point is simply this -- and thanks, Fight Club, for the reminder: the whole planet need not be jeopardised in order for a person to experience a revelation about their life. If a single moment of staring into the abyss can be used to reactivate a sense of purpose and direction, there's more than one way to get at it.

I'm not for a moment suggesting (however compelling a TV show it might have made) that Derren Brown could or should have made a program based on directly threatening the life of a subject. But from an experience design standpoint, there's a curious quality of using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut in Apocalypse. Of course the grandiosity of the simulated experience is all by itself a large part of the point, in terms of televisual entertainment.
But in fact, what I think Brown and his team are doing most effectively here, with this complex exercise in forcing suspension of disbelief, is to dramatise vividly the fact and extent of the constructedness of mediated reality, or  -- if this makes it any clearer -- the mediatedness of our experience of wider systemic realities. Few of us are in a position to register first-hand most big-picture world news stuff, be it economic crisis or volcanic eruption or political upheaval. Almost all comes to us second-hand, through a handful of vectors (devices, sources, individuals) cross-cutting our sensorium. No, this isn't a new thought. But the show is a kind of masterclass in the partiality and manipulability of the tiny straw through which we get to receive only a fraction of a far bigger reality. 

And recognition of the excessiveness inherent in making widespread crisis, rather than personal mortality, the focal point for a "revaluing life" experiment also led to something else I'd sensed was missing from the show. The serendipitous encounter with Fight Club's counterexample helped clarify for me what that something was. 

Brown apparently went to the trouble of spending a couple of months convincing a listless but suggestible young man that his world could end, then went ahead and made that subjective experience "happen". Apart from Brown's skill and showmanship, the other reason to watch this specific program is this: apocalyptic anxiety is a real phenomenon. Not only is there a mounting array of planetary threats - climate change, loss of biodiversity, the ascent of superbugs, the ever-present nuclear spectre, etc - at the time this show was broadcast, the Mayan calendar transition was looming just weeks away at the end of 02012. (It passed by without incident the week before I caught the show on YouTube.)

In the same way that the potency of Orson Welles's radio show, a year before World War II began, channeled and amplified a generalised anxiety in the zeitgeist, Derren Brown: Apocalypse attracted record numbers of viewers because, I think, there was (is) actual and, at some level, valid worry about apocalyptic scenarios. Such power as it had, then, both at the audience (TV-viewership-of-millions) level and at the subject (sucking-Steven-into-the-story) level, draws on real, existential issues and concerns animating our culture at the moment. However, this potent cultural energy is skilfully marshaled only to be squandered; it's used to augment the Oz-like mastermind/puppeteer persona of Brown, but as an engagement with actual and worthwhile issues, either for the audience or for the one-man eye of the storm, it's hard to think of how it could possibly have been more superficial. (In case you've forgotten: zombies.)

So there's a sadly missed opportunity to address a worthy value, a counterpart at the wider social scale to the value of an individual life fully lived. If it were just a matter of making someone appreciate their parents more, or go back to school to become a veterinarian, then a bit of clear and present danger -- say, a few seconds at gunpoint, or even just a good talking to -- may be all that's needed.

By the way, I suspect the two problems I've tried to puzzle out above are related; the implausibility of the scenario in watching it, and its failure to engage in the real issues that bring resonance to apocalypse. They seem to be two sides of the same coin. 

Maybe I'm overthinking a work of pure entertainment. But then I think about the fact that entertainers have a capacity - and to that extent at least a potential obligation - to inform and enlighten, just as those who primarily inform and enlighten ought also to find ways to entertain and engage while they're at it. The mutual exclusivity of those modes is stupid.

There's an unfortunately missed opportunity here, is all.

When I mulled over this stuff around the ethics of deception in experiential scenarios for my PhD a few years ago, I wrote (p. 270), "when it comes to human intentions and perceptions, paradoxically, there are some issues you may not be able to get a clear look at without an element of deliberate, carefully engineered misdirection." After looking into it I ended up saying (p. 286):
[T]he value of enabling someone genuinely to contemplate a compelling alternative future universe -- if perhaps only for a moment or two -- may be profound. Everyone can recount instances in their own life where sudden, contingent insights have led to momentous changes in direction. The value of these interventions and futures perspectives should not necessarily be sought in their enabling a particular or permanent future orientation (although those are conceivable outcomes). Even small glimpses of other worlds may make the effort worthwhile. It is not usually necessary to go to the lengths suggested here, but ontologically pointed strategies are available, and are sometimes needed. As Whitehead reminds us, it is the business of the future to be dangerous -- which makes it our business to be able, at certain times, to conjure with that danger in order to navigate it more wisely.

The point was (and I still believe this) that deception can be a useful tool in enabling certain types of  experiential learning that may be hard or even impossible to get at in other ways. But it's to be used judiciously; downsides and upsides weighed against one another. Serious learning can come from a comparatively minor deception, but a trivial lesson from a major shock (or risk) isn't defensible.

Consider that audience outrage would surely have been universal had the show been about simply threatening Steven's own life personally to cause him to value it more highly (although that's presumably a worthy cause), and yet by contrast the excess of appearing to end the world just for him probably seems okay, even though the selected narrative mechanisms (meteors and zombies) studiously avoid saying anything about the terrifyingly genuine and varied prospects of anthropogenic apocalypse.

Intriguing ethical calculus.

Don't get me wrong. Derren Brown: Apocalypse is a hell of a show, and it plays on ontologically and ethically unstable ground that's often a hallmark of truly interesting art. In his recent (fantastic, highly recommended) book on art forgery, Jonathon Keats writes:
The far side of legitimacy is not necessarily illicit. To act on our anxieties, art must break mores. In some cases, those mores may be enforced by law, yet the full range of human behavior is beyond the imagination of legislators and judges, whose work is essentially reactive. Artists can experiment with possibilities outside our current reality.
Keats is writing on forged artwork, but the parallel's instructive: Brown's experiment with a simulated truth is in principle precisely what makes possible the expansion of layabout Steve's reality. Perhaps, zombies aside, this is the kind of experiential wakeup call that could benefit a great many more of us.

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