Monday, December 08, 2014

The technology of public imagination


A remarkable short called Wanderers has been going around online in the past week. It's a captivating vision of space exploration, channelling Carl Sagan's cosmic outlook (literally; it's his voiceover) with an aiglatson we seem to find it hard to muster these days.

This you-are-there take on spacefaring – in timely resonance with Christopher Nolan's recently released Interstellar – has rightly earned admirers in various quarters. But what's most exciting to me here is the fact that the piece seems to have been produced by a handful of individuals (one or two dozen at most, to judge from the credits), led by a very talented and determined CG artist, Erik Wernquist.  My point doesn't rest on precisely how many people were involved; it is simply to contrast the resource commitment required for this sort of thing now with what could be done less than a generation ago, say, when Terminator 2 came out (prompting my eleven year-old self to write a letter of appreciation to Industrial Light and Magic). Loosely speaking, the difference is one of orders of magnitude.

Wanderers is a fabulous calling card. It's also part of a significant trend. Let's think for a moment about what it means, this new situation where such things are possible –– photorealistic, far-flung futures, on a shoestring.

Short videos are constantly appearing online (e.g. last year YouTube reported 100 hours of video uploads every minute). These go variously viral, or not, and some proportion of these deal with possible futures, and of those, a few are sufficiently artful to be somehow genuinely curiosity-fuelling, or mind expanding, or alarming, or whatever. Like all successful media, they add their bit to the reservoir of what we can know or imagine together, to "the future as a commons" in Shiv Visvanathan's wonderful phrase. Also, and crucially, such vivid, 1:1-scale contributions to the shared imaginary no longer need to involve hundreds of crew and millions of dollars.

I have in mind for instance Neill Blomkamp's Tetra Vaal clip (02004) about robot peacekeepers, produced years before he was Hollywood-empowered to make District 9: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VTnxP7e7-YA I'm also thinking of Bruce Branit's almost entirely CG World Builder (02007): http://vimeo.com/3365942 And this sardonic glimpse of augmented reality gone mad, by Keiichi Matsuda (02010), which has launched a thousand conversations: http://vimeo.com/8569187 Or, in a more modest, geek-culture-tribute way, Mike Horn's (02008) video that puts the Death Star over San Francisco: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AfqDVP_0O0c (I'm sure there are dozens –– please feel free to add to the list.)

As I say, these specific images and artifacts are often striking and masterfully made.

Meanwhile, however, there's another story here; a layer up, in the spread of the means and modes of production. The tools are giving stunning new power to diegetic (in-world) storytelling idioms –– artifacts from the future, design fictions, and other experiential futures –– that help us visit these places. Wernquist's imagery is based on actual locations in our solar system. For many viewers, this is the first time we'll have been invited to regard and contemplate these locations as real places one might conceivably visit. This is a remarkable (because until recently, impossible) gift for a group of Swedish geeks to be able to give the online world.

Powerful technologies of public imagination are hitting the street. They are fast infiltrating society's main stream. And as they go, we find ourselves living out a dictum something like McLuhan meeting Polak: "We shape our images of the future, and meanwhile, they shape us."

Related:
> Death of a President
> The Futures of Everyday Life
> Neill Blomkamp, visual futurist
> Death Star Over San Francisco
> In praise of Children of Men
> A History of Experiential Futures

Saturday, April 26, 2014

A history of experiential futures

What could become of all this intriguing experimentation around turning ideas about the future into visceral experiences?

Fortunately, a research paper unearthed from the year 02034 offers some answers.
 

(Update 26aug16: Free pdf download here.)

Apparently co-authored some twenty years from today with fellow Toronto-based design futurist Trevor Haldenby, the article provides a timeline documenting the rapid rise and remarkable reach of increasingly large-scale efforts over a generation or so (02006-02031) to bring futures to life through immersive scenarios and participatory simulation. What emerges is a portrait of a society that, via experiential futures and transmedia storytelling practices, has integrated and harnessed public imagination as a world-shaping cultural force.

In a way this so-called "age of imagination" echoes in more concrete terms an argument I mounted in the last chapter of The Futures of Everyday Life (pp. 287 ff.) about the development of what Richard Slaughter dubbed "social foresight", a distributed and always-on capacity for thinking and (let's be sure not to omit) feeling ahead.

Due to some sort of wrinkle in the spacetime continuum, it seems this paper from 02034 by Trevor and me was actually prepared and accepted for the ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, which – lo and behold – starts in Toronto today. While neither of us could make it to the event in person, the program has some very alluring bits; particularly the workshop Alternate Endings: Using Fiction to Explore Design Futures. Here's a full list of accepted papers.

And here is the abstract (aka summary) for our paper, the full text of which is embedded above:

Imagination is a critical public resource. However, in Western culture, as late as the turn of the 21st century, it was primarily thought of as a fragmented and personal property of individual consciousness. This paper examines the recent flourishing of transdisciplinary practices for cultivating shared public imagination, focusing on the generation-long period circa 2005-2030, now known as the Age of Imagination. The historic emergence during this time of design fiction, together with other experiential futures practices consciously scaffolding collective imagination, proved to be a turning point for collective human capacity – not only, as many initially recognised, for practical design applications on a modest scale, but also for shaping history itself. Acknowledging a cultural debt to long-standing and diverse strands of imaginative activity including storytelling, theatre, simulation, prototyping, and the 20th century tradition of futures studies (aka strategic foresight), two practitioners who helped bring this new tradition into being pause to look back upon a quarter century of astonishing change. In the process, they acknowledge the growing significance of seventh generation ritual computing technologies to the Age of Imagination.

Related:
> The futures of everyday life
> A future of design
> Build your own time machine

Sunday, April 13, 2014

A film from the future



One of the more interesting and humbling aspects of getting older is seeing things you have imagined come to pass, or not. No doubt this is true for everyone, but such moments perhaps carry an extra charge when you imagine possibilities for a living.

Sometimes it's a matter of provocative notions materialising sooner than expected. In 02006 Jake Dunagan and I featured corporate candidates running for public office as part of our continued growth scenario for 'Hawaii 2050'. We were taken aback when a public relations company called Murray Hill Inc announced its plans in early 02010 to run for Congress in Maryland. Apparently they were making a satirical point in the wake of a recent Supreme Court majority decision which seemed to pave the way for corporate voting in elections. Our scenario had played in the same satirical territory 3 1/2 years before – only set 44 years into the future. Too far, perhaps?

An even more striking example of the future arriving early came with a project called Coral Cross, a 'serious game' about a flu pandemic, which I was directing for the Hawaii Department of Health. (The CDC was funding it as an early experiment in using games to engage the public for serious health promoting purposes.) Just weeks before the game's scheduled launch date, the game's hypothetical near-future scenario was pre-empted by an actual pandemic – H1N1 swine flu. To this day it's still a little bit hard to believe that actually happened. The project went ahead, incidentally: we turned on a dime and redesigned it from the ground up to make what we dubbed an Emergent Reality Game as opposed to an Alternate Reality Game.

Sometimes, the opposite occurs. A thing you expected doesn't happen, or happens otherwise than anticipated. We could perhaps file the following story under that heading.

Back in April 02007 when I was in grad school, a number of us in the Dept of Political Science at UH-Manoa made a short film for a 48-hour film comp in Honolulu called 'Showdown in Chinatown'. The way these things work is that certain creative constraints are provided at the start of the period, which both helps to inspire projects and to verify that submissions are authentically tailor-made for the occasion. You then run around like headless chooks for two days trying to make a short film using those parameters.

Readers will be unsurprised to learn that I was interested in making a film from the future. (On which theme more in another post soon, but meanwhile anyone keen to understand where I'm coming from may begin here.)

The given constraints called for referencing the topic 'addiction', using the line 'that's it', and incorporating an apple and a pencil as props. During our Thursday afternoon beer-and-brainstorm session, Ashley Lukens (now Dr. Lukens) made the outlandish and frankly inspired suggestion that the addiction in question could be someone 'addicted to being a dog'. The film pretty much made itself from there.

Why do I blog this now? It's not that it was an especially serious bit of forecasting or rigorous future-date-selecting, but when I edited the short together, the excerpt from our fictitious news magazine show Aloha Tonight happened to be post-dated seven years: April 14, 02014.

Which is – holy crap – today. Time flies when you're meddling with it.

Related:
On Death of a President, and other films from the future
Hawaii 2050 kicks off
This is not a game
Coral Cross concludes
Hawaiian shorts

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Strategic foresight meets tactical media


It has been just over six months since I moved to Toronto, and some irons placed in the fire early on are getting ready to be hammered out. Particularly exciting to me is the Guerrilla Futures studio/seminar class to be run together with my Situation Lab co-director Jeff Watson, also a new prof at OCAD University, during the Northern Hemisphere summer now approaching.

Our description for this course (affectionately dubbed SFIN 5B01 by university admin):

'In order to work, fantasy needs to be rooted ten feet deep in reality.' - Maurice Sendak

Many artists, designers and entrepreneurs aim to bring the future to life: the Guerrilla Futures studio offers a unique approach to doing just that. Co-taught by a professional futurist and a game designer, you will systematically picture how alternative worlds could unfold; manifest your own visions playfully and compellingly in a range of media; and make these narratives available in the real world, via live urban interventions for unsuspecting audiences to encounter. Prepare to imagine rigorously, explore genuine change, and learn first-hand the joys – and hazards – of unsolicited transmedia storytelling.

Intended Learning Outcomes for the class:

- Analyse environments and systems in order to identify opportunities for transformative action;
- Formulate action plans to effect change in lived environments through the use of tactical media interventions;
- Produce and document urban media interventions using both digital and analog technologies and practices;
- Develop a designerly, impact-oriented approach to communication, honouring mastery of convention as well as appropriate experimentation; and
- Acquire experience and confidence in foresight methods and skills, kindling a lifelong interest in developing these further. 

Course registration is just about to open.

For anyone wondering just what guerrilla futures means, my short answer is 'strategic foresight meets tactical media'. A fuller answer's in this presentation given last year at FESTA, the Festival of Transitional Architecture.

[Update 30nov16: dead presentation embed fixed & moved to top of post.]

Related:
> FoundFutures: Postcards from the future
> Fast-forwarding gentrification
> What becomes of Chinatowns in a world where China is the global superpower?
> Street art simulates bird flu epidemic
> New York Times Special Edition
> Future jamming 101
> The Futures of Everyday Life

Politicians discussing global warming


This is a small-scale sculpture in Berlin created by artist Isaac Cordal that has gone viral in the past few days, under the caption 'Politicians discussing global warming'.

A bit of research reveals that this installation actually took place in 02011 and that the work is part of a series called Follow the Leaders, which has been exhibited in various forms and locations including Milan (below), Brussels, and London (below, lower).



Blogger Jon Worth has commented today on 'the power of a title to make a picture go viral': it seems the original title of the Berlin piece was 'electoral campaign', so there was no apparent intention on Cordal's part to reference climate change or rising seas in particular. Intriguing how one audience member recontextualising the artist's work with an alternative title (whether accidentally or deliberately doesn't really matter) gives that work startling potency and a new lease of life.

Although Cordal seems to have had no part in these developments, they fit neatly with his interests. Looking into his work brought me to a couple of installations themed and framed explicitly along similar lines; Waiting for climate change, from the Triennial of Contemporary Art by the Sea in De Panne, Belgium (02012).



And this more recent piece of the same name at the Ch√Ęteau des Ducs de Bretagne in Nantes, France (02013).



[Top image via Sierra Club and William Kramer, HRCFS; others from the artist's website.]

Related:
> Participatory Cli-Fi
It's a small world, after all
> Mapping c-change
Ignore global warming
> Not drowning, thriving
> A climate of regret
> Footwear for a warmer world
> Climate change for fun and profit

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Whose future is this?

In 02010 and 02011 a series of earthquakes devastated Christchurch, New Zealand's second-largest city, and left large parts of the downtown core in ruins.

Last October I gave a talk at TEDxChristchurch called Whose Future Is This?* Without presuming to comment specifically on the official plans now afoot for the rebuild, I urged Cantabrians (and others) to recognise that, as a matter of principle, the future we get is co-created in community – it is a story that we tell together – and should not be treated as scripted or predetermined.

Here's an interview I gave for The Press in the leadup to TEDx.

Video of the talk itself was recently put online.


This was the fourth annual TEDx gathering curated by the Ministry of Awesome's incomparable Kaila Colbin, who brought me over from Toronto to contribute. I was honoured (and a bit dumbfounded) by a report in Christchurch's daily newspaper the following day that listed my talk as the highlight of the event.

The author of that roundup, journalist Will Harvie, subsequently got in touch to say that he had begun thinking about what it might be like to create an edition of his newspaper from a future year, perhaps 02031 or 02036. His interest came in the wake of a story I had recounted during the talk, about the extraordinary #16juin2014 cross-media experiential futures campaign in Tunisia during the Arab Spring in 02011, which helped get the country back to work following the turmoil of revolution, painting a vivid portrait of how the next phase of national life could look.

I have now learned that the idea of news reports from various Christchurch futures has made its way into reality, with a series of articles by various contributors, set exactly 20 years after the worst of the earthquakes – in parallel versions of 22 February 02031.

This is the first case I can think of, offhand, of a newspaper bringing to life the stakes of today's choices by reporting diegetically from alternative futures (i.e., mutually exclusive logics rendered in the same medium, cf. our guerrilla postcards from the future intervention). There are of course more instances of papers or magazines – either officially, as here, or 'unofficially' – issuing reports from a single scenario.



It is most encouraging to see these strategies for experientialising multiple futures spreading and impacting how people imagine and discuss their options: steps towards a participatory platform of public imagination.

Well done, then, to Will Harvie and colleagues at The Press – I hope the experiment was a success, and that this forward-looking exploration continues.

Update (23mar14): Will Harvie got in touch last week to provide pdfs of the original publication – now embedded above. He points out that much credit for this journalistic experiment is due to Press editor Joanna Norris who 'risked her reputation much more than anyone else involved and had the cojones to see it through.' Also, 'Full credit to Camia Young for allowing us to publish her students’ work.'

[I'm grateful to Kaila Colbin both for the invitation to speak, and for the video, and also to Gapfiller's Ryan Reynolds for the tipoff about the future news.]

* This title is a riff on Ken Kesey's famous question to the Merry Pranksters, "Whose movie is this?" – for more background see page 128.

Related posts:
> Tunisia, 16 June 2014
FoundFutures: Postcards from the Future
> New York Times Special Edition
> Designing Futures
> Travelling without moving

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Build your own time machine

Newcomers to the design/futures party are often curious about bridging from abstract talk of possible futures into more tangible exploration -- but such interest doesn't automatically come with a sense of how to begin.

Last year I wrote a piece to provide a possible way to venture into this territory, for an anthology called 72 Assignments: The Foundation Course in Art and Science Today.

The 'Time Machine / Reverse Archaeology' assignment embedded below is a free pdf download from Scribd.


Published by the Paris College of Art, the collection's premise was to reimagine the Bauhaus Vorkurs ('foundation course'), almost a century after Johannes Itten introduced this landmark in arts education. (The book's working title was 100 Assignments: The Future of the Foundation Course in Art and Design.) Each assignment is meant to be doable within a three-hour window.

My piece was intended mainly as a first-timer's scaffolding for translating existing future scenarios into either physical prototypes or immersive situations. (You could tackle it alone, but in a group would be better. You could also do it in three hours, but longer might be easier.) The 'Reverse Archaeology' variant addresses the object-oriented concerns of design fiction. The 'Time Machine' variant exemplifies the more encompassing simulation/situation territory of experiential scenarios. Since publication in late 02013, both versions have given rise to some interesting results. More about those in posts to come.

It builds on similar assignments I've set for students at the University of Hawaii at Manoa (02008, with Scott Groeniger), at California College of the Arts (02011, with Jake Dunagan), and at the National University of Singapore (02012, with Aaron Maniam and Noah Raford). It also owes much to the alternative futures processes [pdf] that I learned from Professor Jim Dator and colleagues at the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies.

The whole idea of sharing materials like syllabi and assignments is bound up with a problem space I'm thinking about a fair bit lately: 'structures of participation' (a phrase borrowed from Natalie Jeremijenko) for designing experiential futures. This interest in structures of participation is about democratisation of the tools, in service of growing a more adept community of practice, in order ultimately to deploy experiential futures -- design fiction, experiential scenarios, etc -- at scale and to greater overall effect in the culture. To hone fluency in one's own practice is a fine thing, but it needs to be learnable in order to scale. And scaling our efforts towards 'social foresight' is the point, I think (see Chapter 7).

And so, to that question of democratisation, which might alternatively be framed as a matter of Open-Sourcing design/futures practice; it's nice to see the PCA Press collecting assignments, of all things. I'm now teaching graduate students full time. For three years before that I was consulting full time. A common feature to both areas of work, it seems to me, is that documentation isn't shared as much as it could be. A good deal of both teaching and consulting work seems to take place in bubbles, with no one quite knowing what's happening in others' bubbles. This is a paradox of practice-led discourse. You get practitioners so preoccupied with  learning-and-deploying in their own contexts that they don't, for whatever combination of reasons, share as fully as they could, thus depriving the commons of resources that would benefit all. We need quite deliberately and systematically to Open Source the work around which we seek to accelerate collective learning.

A disclaimer. The step-by-step process outlined in 'Time Machine / Reverse Archaeology' is probably bleeding obvious in some ways and a bit opaque in others. One or two of the key steps from scenaric premise to concrete future artifact/situation may be reminiscent of the old Monty Python sketch about D.P. Gumby's School of Flower Arranging: "First, take your flowers. Then, arrange them in a vase!"

But perfection is not the first step. Getting involved is. To the extent that any how-to guide helps people cross the threshold to a first attempt, it has in an important sense already succeeded.

Do get in touch if you decide to try out #timemachine or #reversearchaeology assignments -- it'd be great to hear how you go.


[Thanks to Bruce Sterling for blogging this over at Beyond the Beyond -- the curiosity that piqued in various quarters helped prompt me to post here too.]

Related:
> Travelling without moving
> 99 cent futures project
> Strategic Foresight at CCA's Design MBA
> The first guerrilla futures class
> Why futures and design are getting married

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Participatory cli-fi: the Making of FutureCoast

FutureCoast is an ambitious, just-launched collaborative cli-fi (climate fiction) storytelling game, created by the PoLAR Partnership at Columbia University and funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF).

IMG_9572

A central interest of ours at the Situation Lab* has to do with the design of participatory frameworks for storytelling at scale - also a central challenge for this project. So we asked the creative team behind FutureCoast, our friends Ken 'Writerguy' Eklund (World Without Oil) and Sara Thacher (The Jejune Institute), to tell us about what they have been learning from the making-of process. Here's what they said...

Stuart Candy: How do you describe the kind of work do you do, and what's the situation in that domain?

Ken Eklund: I am a creator of authentic fiction, by which I mean I create the attractive narrative vacuum that people fill up with their stories – playfully, yet with intention. I use game design behind the scenes, but often that's not apparent at all in the play itself. I help people find new ways to engage audiences, especially through collaboration. It's work that's more and more in demand, as old ways of communicating ideas and presenting issues lose ground to open, participatory experiences.

SC: What's the story behind FutureCoast? And the PoLAR Partnership?

KE: In fall 02008 the NSF convened a day-long symposium at The Exploratorium, in which innovative practitioners outside of science explained what they did to the NSF's advisory team. Afterward, Stephanie Pfirman, a chaired professor from Columbia, sought me out and we talked for two hours about game ideas set in the polar regions (her area of study). This is how my projects often begin...

Fast-forward to early 02011: Stephanie's back in touch. The NSF is calling for proposals for climate change education projects, and Stephanie thinks learning games are an exciting approach.

We learned we were chosen for funding in fall 02012; that's when the PoLAR Partnership was born.

The NSF has begun to focus on storytelling as a necessary part of climate change education, which maps exactly to how FutureCoast is played. So suddenly there's a lot of attention on our gameplay and methods.

SC: Some intriguing terms appear in the project description ("authentic fiction", ""de-abstractifies", and "veil of unreality") which seem to go to the heart of things. Where do these come from?

KE: Short answer: I made them all up.

As you know, I have trouble describing concisely what a game like World Without Oil is. After years of struggle I hit upon "authentic fiction" and like how it feels as a descriptor of my work. "Authentic" in this context means multi-authored, textured in the way only diverse minds can supply; but also reality-based, painting reality within a playfully fictional frame.

"De-abstractify" is my attempt to fill a hole in the language. There's a thing that happens with stories, when you stop observing the story and enter it. In real life, we say "the shit got real" but there's no equivalent in a storytelling context. Yet we all know there are those times when you're reading a book or watching a movie or, especially, playing a game, and the shit gets real and affective.

"Veil of unreality" comes from observation of the climate change discussion.

Sara Thacher: These are Ken's words. Words that I've also found very handy for discussing the project because they all touch on the personal nature of FutureCoast. The structure of a voicemail – one person calling another and leaving a message – is a hyperlocal thing. It's not a global phenomenon; it's about the connection between two individuals. Each of these words get at what happens when you start trying to think about climate change – something we generally hear about on a grand scale – on a much more individual level. It becomes something that's part of your neighborhood, something that impacts where you decide to buy a house, or the news you share with your parents.

 
IMG_9700

SC: The time horizon for players' voicemails from the future is 2020-2065. Can you walk us through the thinking there?

KE: Well, a software system in many of our futures has a leak in it. It's in the voicemail system, so voicemails are what's leaking through space-time. This software system comes online around the year 02020 in most futures, and they finally fix the leak around 02065. That's just what's happening, as near as we can tell anyway, so our thinking really doesn't enter into it.

Of course, this timeframe is probably a sweet spot, futurethinkingwise. It encompasses the lifespan of many people alive today and includes the adulthood of their possible children, so there's plenty of emotional engagement on offer.

SC: What comparable efforts have appeared before around climate change as a theme, and where does this project fit in? What challenges come with that territory?

KE: I don't know of any comparable approaches, but in a wider sense this project fits into the emerging genre of "cli-fi," climate fiction. Works of cli-fi tend to be single-authored stories about a single possible future, though; I don't know of any that are participatory or that explore the cloud of plausible futures.

The challenge with climate change as a subject is the polarized state of its discussion. It's made people wary of engaging with anything that has the global warming or climate change label. Less well recognized, it's also disefranchised people from the story – a scorched-earth war of talking points with no safe place left for the common person to venture hopes and fears or express what they know.

SC: As a "collaborative storytelling game" what precedents does FutureCoast build on? What perhaps has not been tried before (and why not)?

ST: Participatory storytelling happens around shared worlds – places where all of the participants generally know what the world is and then create their own space within that universe. These can happen with worlds that are anything from Harry Potter fanfic to people Tweeting as characters from The West Wing long after the show is over.

There are also participatory storytelling projects where the participatory part was explicitly planned for by the creators. Welcome to Sanditon let the fan community that had built up around their wildly successful web series, the Lizzie Bennett Diaries, have the opportunity to make their own characters in the fictional town of Sanditon (another Jane Austin adaptation).

What these projects and FutureCoast have in common is establishing a world that participants can share. Everyone participating agrees on two things: (1) the basic structure of the world – voicemails are appearing from the cloud of possible futures and (2) to the improv rule of "Yes, and . . ." where everyone's contribution is accepted as part of the world.

KE: This all very apt, and it made a connection for me that I've never made before:

I grew up in Arizona, in Phoenix, and my dad had this huge map of Arizona on our family room wall. On Friday nights we'd gather around that map and Dad would announce, "Well, we've never been HERE" and point to the map. (Some completely empty spot, like as not, as there are a lot of those in AZ.) And then on Saturday we'd pile some things into the family station wagon and go there.

Along those lines, as I grew up, as much as I admired Sherlock Holmes or Rivendell, I was even more captivated by Mycroft or Minhiriath – the unknown stories, the rabbit holes, curiouser and curiouser.

I think if you look at FutureCoast, World Without Oil etc. you can see there's an intention there to create as thin a narrative frame as possible, to make that "Yes, and..." as inclusionary as we can.

FutureCoast builds on the other works of authentic fiction I've done, most notably World Without Oil. It also builds on Sara's experience with The Jejune Institute and other geolocated experiences. But by design it's mostly experimental. I don't know of any other experience that uses in-game voicemails as the storytelling itself, or that embraces our level of multithreadedness, for example. We take a very positive approach, and that's noteworthy too, especially given the subject.

And it's rare to see game narratives that take their immersion as seriously as I do with mine.
 
IMG_2295-sm

SC: Tell us about the choice of media and other elements of structure you've created for players to plug into.

KE: The main media are the voicemails. We've really focused on that medium because:
  1. It's rich. It's the human voice; people are wired to glean meaning from it (both informational and emotional).
  2. It's familiar and accessible. People widely have experience with the vmail form itself and are comfortable with it.
  3. It's EZ Story. People use voicemails to tell and receive stories all the time. Very low barrier to entry!
Voicemails are compact. In voicemails, people get to the point. They are a breath of fresh air in the climate change discussion.

The main storytelling structure is: the voicemails leak out of the cloud of possible futures. What this means is: inclusiveness regarding the voicemails that people contribute. Your expression of the future is not only accepted, it's valuable and welcomed as such.

Structurally, there are two halves to FutureCoast: the immersive narrative centered on FutureCoast.org, and the behind-the-curtain participatory storymaking centered at FutureVoices.net. At FutureCoast.org, you play along with the game narrative, listening to voicemails from the future and collecting them into mixtapes ("TimeStreams"). At FutureVoices.net, you help create the game narrative: you call the FutureCoast hotline to record the voicemails that express your visions of the future. You also volunteer to geocache a chronofact, a secret mission to make it seem the chronofacts are mysteriously appearing from the future.

At FutureCoast.org, you interact with the game characters as though the fiction were real. At FutureVoices.net, you interact with the gamerunners to help move the game forward.

SC: What main lessons for practitioners (in transmedia, futures, or game design) have come from the "making of" process?

KE: One main lesson is about the power of storytelling to engage hearts and minds. From the time I proposed FutureCoast to now, I've watched it move steadily from a shot in the dark to the bullseye in terms of how to frame issues in a meaningful way.

Another corollary lesson is about making a narrative truly participatory. As a storyteller, as long as you keep it your story, your audience won't regard it as their story – and will be less affected by it. I think futures practitioners should be especially interested in this approach. In our playtests so far, we've seen the future take on a high level of reality for people, very quickly. We have a fascinating blend of seriousness and playfulness.

Last, this authentic fiction stuff is really hard. But do it anyway!

SC: What sorts of possibilities do you see for this kind of work in the medium to long term?

KE: The more analysis I read about the effects of an Everything Is Connected world, the more well-positioned this approach seems to be in terms of creating engagement engines for real-world issues. The challenge is to keep moving; today I murmured to myself, "I don't think I'm unlearning things fast enough".

ST: I think our perceptions around 'authorship' are going to continue to break down. The area for participatory storytelling that I'm most excited about is just how much our remix culture has changed what it means to participate. Appropriation is almost not the right word anymore, because there's already a feeling that stories/media belong to everyone. In this brave new world, the TV show 'Mean Girls' becomes an avenue for political commentary and The Hulk becomes an advocate for feminism. In the future ahead, I'm excited to see how this'll be applied as increasing numbers of storytellers realize that their creations are already participatory.

[Chronofact images courtesy of Ken Eklund and Sara Thacher. What's a Chronofact?]

*Originally posted at the Situation Lab blog.

More posts:
> Mapping c-change
Superstruct
Coral Cross
> A climate of regret

Friday, January 03, 2014

Happy new year

The astonishingly popular new year's folk song Auld Lang Syne comes from a poem penned by Scots literary hero Robbie Burns back in 01788 (which happens also to be the year that the first fleet of convict ships arrived to found the penal colony that would become Australia, where I was born not quite 200 years later).

The phrase auld lang syne means "long, long ago". The whole song's about looking back, an activity that is not without its merits, but one handsomely served by many other occasions, e.g., every anniversary of everything that has ever happened. For all sorts of reasons, a new year's song that instead looks forward seems to be in order.

***

For Future Time; or: Auld Lang Syne (aiglatson edition)

Should all our futures be ignored
And never brought to mind?
Let's cast a gaze to years ahead
For the sake of future time

For all of future time, my dear
For all of future time
Tonight, we toast posterity
And imagine future time!

Oh, auld lang syne is well and good
And nostalgia is fine
But every hope and dream depends
On the shape of future time

For all of future time, my dear
For all of future time
We'll dream together, you and I
Of our lives in future time


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