Sunday, November 22, 2015

Dreaming Together

Below is the text of an article I wrote for Made Up: Design's Fictions, a collection edited by Tim Durfee and Mimi Zeiger at the ArtCenter College of Design.

Artwork: Willie Riley Japanangka, Bush Plum and Snake. [source].


In my first year of university, I remember reading Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. One passage in particular leapt out at me:

It is impossible to convey the life sensation of any given epoch of any one’s existence – that which makes its truth, its meaning, its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream – alone.

Something in my eighteen year-old mind resonated with this expression of fundamental existential loneliness which I suspect everyone feels to a degree as they come of age. But these words haunted me for years, and I’m not entirely sure why. It may be that I was grappling with this paradox: Are we truly condemned to live and dream alone? All of us?

Much more recently I read a novel by Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End. It’s a terrific story, and has stood up well over something like fifty years; although here, as always, there’s nothing so characteristic of an age’s thinking as its science fiction. Clarke is of course most famous for co-writing with director Stanley Kubrick the epic 01968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Of all sci-fi writers, he strikes me as remarkable for the way his imagination burned to achieve escape velocity from the culture of his era – not to mention his species; to dream a way out into truly different times and places, and take us there.

It was reflecting on Clarke’s feats of imagination that got me to wondering about the odd fact that our brains are not temporally bound. There’s no physical limitation preventing us from cognising wildly different and yet fully coherent life-settings in detail. Anatomically, human brains across the planet, and over tens of thousands of years, haven’t really varied much. Yet the variety of worlds – landscapes, cultures, languages, values, technosocial setups – that the human brain has managed to host, to create and navigate, has been enormous. The very fact that each of us today carries in mind a model of our personal context and surroundings at this historical moment, a world in many ways unimaginable to our ancestors, underlines that in principle we’re capable of imagining equally disparate possible worlds of the future – even if we generally don’t. It’s what our minds are surrounded and scaffolded with that makes all the difference.

“Unimaginable” is not absolute, it’s situational. The reason that this matters, I suggest, is that it points to a missing piece in our modern technoculture: I think we have a chronically impoverished practice of public imagination. Yes, there’s Arthur C. Clarke, and Godzilla, and Star Trek, and many other speculative entertainments before and since; but for “serious” purposes – governance, politics, and the “real” worlds we shape using those processes – we simply have not developed a habit of imagining and sharing the long-range scenarios at issue in any concrete way. Meanwhile the massive failure to understand our power as a species and to exercise it with anything approaching strategic foresight, let alone wisdom, is producing epically hairy environmental, economic and other consequences that are increasingly plain to see.

This is not a new line of thought. Noting the curious imbalance that we have countless thousands of history specialists and yet pay scarcely any serious attention to the rest of time, it is now over eighty years since the stupendously influential author H.G. Wells (The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, The Invisible Man) called for Professors of Foresight. Some inroads have been made on that front since; indeed the entire scholarly field of futures studies, also known as foresight, speaks to the need highlighted by Wells in 01932.

Nigh on half a century has passed since Alvin Toffler observed, in a classic article which led to his 01970 bestseller Future Shock, that we have no “heritage of the future”. This observation goes right to my point about the need for an overall cultural capacity, toward which an academic field has proven to be only a partial solution: our inherent and permanent lack of a future “heritage” means we have to work hard to create one. And although certainly a challenge, the creation of tangible compensations for our lopsided temporal inheritance can certainly be done, as the emerging practitioners of experiential futures and design fiction are now learning.

It seems to me that the stakes and eventual possibilities for these hybrid forms of design are far greater than one might suspect from watching highly produced videos on the thrilling future of glassware, or prototypes of nifty gestural computer interfaces.

For when it comes to the process of public choice – the way humanity supposedly shapes its destiny in our ostensibly most “developed” communities – we congratulate ourselves on the accomplishment of democracy, and fret endlessly over its procedures; the whos and hows of voting; the rituals of deliberation (the weighing of alternatives) and decision (the killing of alternatives when we make a choice). But regardless of who votes, what is the real meaning of any such choices if the alternatives among which we are selecting are underimagined, or clichéd – or simply absent?

Whatever their personal shortcomings, I locate the problem not with political candidates but in the scandalously uninspired fodder used to generate public conversation. So where might we look for a solution?

My friend Natalie Jeremijenko, an engineer and artist, has described her work as being about the creation of ‘structures of participation’, a phrase I use often because to me it captures what good futures work does, too. Foresight practice involves creating structures of participation for co-imagining. Likewise, the task of governance is bound up with the design and use of structures of participation for collectively shaping the common good. To my mind, those appear in quite diverse forms and at different scales, ranging from the design of a meeting or conference, to the design of a political/legal system like the United States of America, and also to the design of a political and experiential futures intervention like the one I’m about to describe.

With foresight and design colleagues I have been doing experiential futures since 02006, and its roots and influences go back much further. Of all interventions that I know of in this vein, the most exciting to date is one I heard about shortly after it occurred during the Arab Spring. It is a significant illustration of the faculty of public imagination.

In January 02011 Tunisia ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, ending a 23-year dictatorship. Immediately the economy started tanking – the revolutionaries hadn’t known they would succeed, and didn’t have detailed plans for next steps. With a backdrop of economic suspension and a political vacuum, what followed might have been as bad as what had gone before. What did in fact happen next was rather extraordinary.

A month after the revolution, for one day in February 02011, several newspapers, television and radio stations across the country reported as if it were June 16, 02014; three years and four months into the future. They reported stories from within a hypothetical future Tunisia enjoying newfound stability, democracy and prosperity.

Social media activity swarmed around the #16juin2014 hashtag (and for the first time led the national conversation to trend at number one on French Twitter), and critically, the mood and situation began to change as people imagined and debated the destiny of their country. The intervention also helped spread the call for Tunisians to get back to work, a key step towards recovery in the wake of the upheaval.

This remarkable story should prompt many questions, but the one we’re most interested in here is: how might a sustained commitment to structures of participation for public imagination work in other contexts at scale?

For instance, what if standard political brand-oriented advertising expenditure were curbed, and candidates instead had to produce feature documentaries not about, but “from” the future that their policies envision?

Most places have a library or museum dedicated to preserving their past; how about a public building dedicated to immersing visitors in an ever-evolving array of experiences of what the community could become one generation from today?

Or why couldn’t we set aside a public holiday each year, dedicated to staging a Festival of Possible Worlds in the streets, parks and piazzas of great cities around the globe?

Let us return to where we began. It is true that at some level, our personal experience can be only ours. But I no longer fear that we are condemned to dream alone.

I think that humanity is fundamentally psychedelic – quite literally: mind-manifesting – and that the history we collectively choose to live out in years and decades to come will depend on how well we cultivate public imagination, through experiential futures, large-scale participatory simulations, transmedia games, and the like.

I believe we can dream together, now. And I suspect that to the extent we rise to the challenge of good governance for the 21st century, that’s exactly what we will be doing on a regular basis.


(updated 05feb18)
Pdf version of the article including references as it appears in the finished book. The full title is "Dreaming Together: Experiential Futures as a Platform for Public Imagination".
Made Up: Design's Fictions finally published by ArtCenter Graduate Press and Actar in April 02018.
Video of the short presentation at Institute for the Future's 02013 ReConstitutional Convention, on which this piece was based.

The Futures of Everyday Life
> An experiential scenario for post-revolution Tunisia
A History of Experiential Futures 02006-02031
> Whose future is this?
The technology of public imagination
> TEDxFutures 

Friday, November 06, 2015

Found: The Future of Church

An unearthed future artifact, and the story behind it.

A few years back I worked with Wired magazine on their wonderful monthly feature "Found". I had been inspired by this series during our early work developing experiential futures practice, about a decade ago now, and by 02011 had done a fair amount of "artifact from the future" creation (especially with Jake Dunagan via our jointly-run public art outfit, FoundFutures, staging live encounters with future artifacts and scenes in everyday life).

It was an honour to be involved as a freelance contributor to the magazine, helping to flesh out these playful snapshots of possible futures, and seeing where we might push the envelope a bit.

Each month editor Chris Baker and I would hop on a phone call and iterate on possible concepts to inform image production. One time he brought the idea of the "Health Spa of the Future", and I excitedly proposed making a future spa brochure to tuck inside the magazine; a sort of diegetic insert, and a twist on the SOP of using the back page. Unfortunately, the cost of a separate print run was prohibitive. (The Future Health Spa still ended up being a pretty neat image.)

The concepts Chris brought to the table were usually part-developed already, but one I eagerly initiated for us to explore together came from a news item I'd seen in May 02011:
[N]euroscientists ran a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test on an Apple fanatic and discovered that images of the technology company's gadgets lit up the same parts of the brain as images of a deity do for religious people. (CNN)
According to this research, "Apple was actually stimulating the same parts of the brain as religious imagery does in people of faith." (BBC News)

The Future of Church!

Here was a different cultural register from the Future of Health Spas, Yard Sales, Sporting Events, Doorbells, etc. And this image could come, I suggested, from the mashup of a house of worship and the Apple Store, playfully reworking the architecture and symbology -- altars, icons, stained glass, and so on.

Chris persuaded me that a stained glass window alone could be equally evocative but easier to execute (a better tip of the iceberg). We brainstormed its contents and then in the summer he set to work finalising these and getting the thing physically made to photograph for the feature. The resulting illustration by Sam Gilbey, and glass by David R. Forte, made for one of my favourite future artifacts ever produced for Found. It seemed to dig beneath the usual tech preoccupations and invite some deeper questions.

However, Steve Jobs was unwell at the time. The world famous inventor and CEO had been battling cancer, and a "Found" artifact referencing this notion of Apple fans' religiosity through a beatified Jobs could be poorly timed, and in light of his health situation might be misinterpreted. 

So the feature was done, but unpublished. At that time I thought Wired might have been taking an overly cautious view, but the final nail was driven home on October 4th, 02011: that was when Chris told me that, as far as the magazine was concerned, this stained glass window would not see the light of day.

I remember the date because 24 hours later, Steve Jobs died.

Holding off had of course been the right decision. If the piece had run as planned in the October 02011 print issue it may have caused unintended offence, and drawn unwarranted criticism, since the thinking behind the artifact had had nothing to do with Mr Jobs's illness or mortality, and everything to do with the neuroscience research published earlier in the year -- and beyond that, with the far-reaching admiration Jobs inspired, the iconicity of the brand that he had grown, and the enduringly religious character of American society, ever a culture of true believers.

In any case, sure enough, the Future of Church never made an appearance, and "Found" ceased to run in Wired in 02013.

Still, with the back story in view, perhaps this once lost, now found artifact can be seen as food for thought on how the future appropriates the past, as well as fair tribute to an icon of contemporary culture.

Update 6 Nov 02015: Wired's Chris Kohler got in touch to report that the image was later repurposed for another feature comparing the resignations of Jobs and Pope Benedict XVI.

> The Thing From The Future
> FoundFutures postcards
> More found futures
> The Darfur Olympics
> Anachronisms
> Artifacts from the present 

Monday, November 02, 2015

La Chose du Futur à Paris

A special edition of The Thing From The Future was distributed to 500 delegates at the UNESCO Youth Forum in Paris last week.

Since 01999 the Youth Forum has been the institutional mechanism for youth (which in the UN system means people aged 15 to 24) to make recommendations to the UNESCO General Conference.

This 9th edition of the Youth Forum incorporated, for the first time, a process aimed at improving participants'  futures literacy, developed by UNESCO's head of foresight Riel Miller. The Future Literacy Knowledge Lab, or FKL, is described in outline here and in detail here [pdf].

From my perspective as an advisor and senior facilitator for the Forum, among the most notable elements of the experience was the juxtaposition of this process, aimed at exploration and emergence, with the formality and fixity of international diplomacy's default settings. Ingenious workarounds were required in order for delegates to be able to converse and co-create in small groups given the geometrically pleasing, but collaboratively disabling, furniture arrangements. The literally nailed-down meeting room configurations reflected a firm expectation of centrally managed, as opposed to open or peer-to-peer, conversations.

How does such an architecture shape what happens, and what doesn't? An instructive contrast may be found in the opening and closing circles of Open Space, a meeting format which both symbolically bespeaks and practically enables something very different; a fluid and participant-driven flexibility (see, for example, Harrison Owen, Expanding Our Nowpp. 82-83). Maybe someone has already compiled a pattern language of meeting spaces. There's much to learn from such cases.

In any event –– despite its best efforts, here the furniture's expectations were not allowed to triumph! Far-reaching futures discussions were had, assumptions were surfaced and questioned, alternatives were articulated, expressive future artifacts and prototypes were created.

And at the end of the Youth Forum futures workshop, a special bilingual English / French The Thing From The Future / La Chose du Futur * was distributed to all attendees, a concrete expression of the intention to democratise and distribute futures thinking far and wide. Now these hundreds of delegates have made their way home to communities all around the world, cards in hand.

Thanks to UNESCO, to Youth Forum delegates –– and especially to Riel Miller and team for their efforts to open space for possible futures, not only in the proceedings themselves, but through providing an experience and a tool to use again in days and years to come.

Of course distributing cards and rearranging spaces are fine ways to begin; meanwhile I wonder about working with the deeper cultural currents in play. How may we make a habit of inviting fuller versions of ourselves to show up in these formal and ritualised settings? How might we offer better hospitality to the unusual, the creative, the crazy and playful and magical and wild and unborn in each of us?  For when it comes to "serious" conversations about the future, these voices too seldom find any place at the table.

> The Thing From The Future
> The technology of public imagination
> Whose future is this?

* Very special thanks to Cedric Flazinski of N O R M A L S design lab, and to Sandra Coulibaly Leroy of the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie (OIF) for their invaluable translation assistance. And on a semi-related note: bilingual Emglish/French Playsheets for the game are available via the UNESCO website [pdf, A4].