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: I'm also thinking of Bruce Branit's almost entirely CG World Builder (02007): And this sardonic glimpse of augmented reality gone mad, by Keiichi Matsuda (02010), which has launched a thousand conversations: Or, in a more modest, geek-culture-tribute way, Mike Horn's (02008) video that puts the Death Star over San Francisco: (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."

> 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

1 comment:

Noah Raford said...

Great meta-observations Stuart. Thanks for sharing; glad to see the blog is still alive!