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.

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

Monday, April 14, 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.

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