Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Adopt-a-vision: WikiLeaks edition

Could this be the future of WikiLeaks?


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Many organisations claim some larger purpose, although not that many offer a specific vision for the future they wish to bring into existence. As it turns out, even fewer make explicit such visions as they purport to follow by actually showing how the world could look, feel or work differently if they succeeded.

One technique I've developed for teaching experiential futures practice in recent years is to have students identify and adopt an existing vision –– as publicly stated, when available, or inferred, when it's not –– of an organisation they deem worthy of closer attention. The students can then draw on the whole range of experiential futures approaches and their cognates (strategic foresight, transmedia storytelling, design fiction, live action roleplaying) to bring that vision to life in the present, while in a sense reflecting the organisation's aspirations and assumptions back to it in a more detailed form.*

This is a way to interrogate existing futures discourse with greater rigour, and to prepare to hold our own investigations to a deeper level of consideration. As a side effect, it can also produce materials that a wider audience may find useful.

Adopt-a-vision: think of it as a sort of guerrilla consulting engagement; a service to the public imaginary; a contribution to the future as a commons.

Last year, a team in my Experiential Futures course adopted a vision for WikiLeaks and devised a guerrilla futures project around it, set a generation from today.

Check out the project video (1 1/2 mins):


The group that made this comprised five graduate students hailing from the Inclusive Design and Strategic Foresight programs at OCAD: Abid Virani, Anna Colagrossi, Chad Lesch, Courtney Cooper and Laura Mills. They lay out the story below (edited statements from project documentation).

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Where did the future scenario driving the project come from?

Our final challenge was to select a vision of the future to materialise and enact for unsuspecting passersby [in downtown Toronto]. We thought about topics from ethical supply chains to creative commons, open source to democracy and accountability.

We tried to articulate the vision of Anonymous, but it was challenging to nail down a vision for such a decentralised and varied group.

In the end, we settled on WikiLeaks because we share the belief that transparency can help the public make better decisions and hold organisations and governments accountable for their actions. We chose 02040 as our time horizon.

What future vision did you uncover for WikiLeaks?

In this preferred future, people expect transparency from their governments, corporations and NGOs. Technology is ubiquitous and the public is highly educated and informed. People realise the power of their spending habits and wield that power to stand up against corruption and exploitation.

How did you arrive at a concrete situation from there?

Once we had a clear scenario in mind, we scouted locations. We noticed many empty storefronts and were inspired by the DineSafe signs on all the restaurants, then brainstormed how the role of WikiLeaks could develop and how companies might signal their transparency in the future.

We imagined that a transparency agency might emerge that would issue a well-known certification similar to Organic or Free Trade. We decided to call this organisation WikiAudits.

For the live portion, we decided to film a WikiAudits representative being interviewed by a local news station. The scene started with a WikiAudits Representative hanging a closure notice on a storefront and a news crew arriving for an interview. Our hope was to spark the curiosity of bystanders and engage them in a conversation about transparency and corruption.

How did things go on the day?

The day of the intervention was much colder than expected. We met at 10am and set up our home base at Little Nicky’s [a cafĂ© near campus]. We spent the majority of the day filming and performed the intervention three times.

The biggest challenge was attracting attention. The biggest takeaway was that creating an experience in an open setting requires very compelling signals to provoke participation. What can often be missed in an open setting is an activation (a prompt, if you will) that can transport the participant into your designated future.

Despite some of the setbacks, we feel we built a well thought out and executed experience.

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I was recently in contact with the group's videographer, Abid Virani, who observes that the scenario they developed, six months before the U.S. presidential election, is eerily on track –– starting with the footage incorporated into their video of the Boston Globe's monitory "front page from the future" set in April 02017. (This was an unusually creative attempt on that newspaper's part to warn of the possible adverse consequences of a Trump win, published in April 02016.)

"The newspaper depiction of deportations from America, riots amongst increased policing and gold curtains all look plausible for Sunday, April 9th, 2017," says Abid. But it's not all grim: "The idea of WikiAudits was plausible to us as well and the entire project reflects what I now see as an optimistic outlook of the future."

Turning to the lessons of the project more broadly, he adds: "The mere act of considering a possible future and documenting it allows us to understand the present with greater nuance, and it can inform us of how to navigate forward."

"There is no shortage of possible futures, but I suspect there is a shortage of energy put towards imagining them."

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In a sense, Adopt-a-vision is an effort to generate and channel some of that missing creative energy towards public imagination.

It also seems to be a relative of political activist duo The Yes Men's signature move, Identity correction, described by Yes Man Andy Bichlbaum as "exposing an entity’s inner workings to public scrutiny". A key property that Adopt-a-vision has in common with Identity correction is a kind of ventriloquism; a tactic of assuming the mantle of an organisation, speaking in its voice.

But there are differences too. Identity correction often (not always) draws its potency from statements being mistakenly identified as coming from the target organisation. For Adopt-a-vision, the target org's public persona and statements are just a starting point; the intervention need not be taken to be authoritative in order to resonate.

A form of culture jamming, Identity correction has a critical agenda at heart, being usually applied to "some entity running amok". This can be immensely valuable, and some of my favourite guerrilla projects do precisely that (the Yes Men's New York Times Special Edition is a beautiful, multifaceted example; and their Dow Chemical intervention on BBC World in 02004 is simply staggering).**

Adopt-a-vision is not necessarily critical in the sense of requiring an entity running amok, or jamming in the sense of subversive. The approach is flexible: you might choose an organisation that worries you, or one with an agenda you wholeheartedly share. The point is not necessarily to propagandise for or against, but rather to use designed objects, performance, and film to ramify that entity's preferred future into a more granular hypothetical to think and feel with. In this way, you can aim for even greater depth of exploration of a future vision than the organisation itself might offer.

None of this, of course, guarantees any particular outcome. The ingenious future fragment created by Abid and colleagues, portraying a WikiLeaks spinoff that works locally to make companies ethically transparent at street level, may or may not be a likely trajectory.

But whereas a tactic like Identity correction is about revealing what is true, Adopt-a-vision is about probing what is possible. It's not a matter of prediction –– it's a matter of thinking through the possibility space by generating more detailed reference points within it, to see where those in turn could lead.

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My thanks to Abid, Anna, Chad, Courtney and Laura for their work on this, and courage to vision adopters and future explorers everywhere.

* For more on using experiential futures to "hand an audience's assumptions back to them", see The Futures of Everyday Life, p. 103, note 224.
** For more on culture jamming and guerrilla futures projects, see TFOEL Chapter 5.

Related:
Impacting the Social

Thursday, January 19, 2017

How to move to Canada*

*Without leaving home

A surprising guerrilla futures intervention speaks to the current political moment.

All photos by SAIC American Futures class

For many progressives in the United States, Canada conjures a wistful ideal of multicultural harmony and civility. After three years in Toronto, followed by six months of electoral madness back in the U.S., I can understand the romanticisation of our neighbour to the north. Indeed, the fact that the Canadian immigration website crashed on election night was interpreted by many as a sign of widespread alarm at the prospect of a Trump administration, an impending reality to which people around the world are now adjusting.

The grass may or may not actually be any greener in the land of moose and maple, but as things take a turn for the disturbing in America, the more utopian the idea of "Canada" becomes in contrast.

This post is about a project created by my students in "American Futures", a special one-off experiential futures course at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I designed the curriculum to use the unfolding 02016 U.S. presidential contest as fuel for our collective imagination, and with the election itself taking place a month before semester's end, the culminating efforts of the class were conceived and staged in response to the incoming president's shock victory.

MFA student Cat Bluemke pitched this particular intervention, drawing on her Canadian background to imagine a near-future organisation called CanAssist.Us, and following her lead, the whole class worked together to bring it to life in the streets of Chicago. Below is an email interview with Cat (edited for length and clarity).

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What is the premise of this project?

CanAssist.Us is a [hypothetical] private company that helps clients navigate the Canadian immigration system for Americans under President Trump. The project channels the anxieties driving this escapism into critical review of the individual’s responsibility within their community to challenge complacency in this reality.



What is the near-future situation you created for people to bring that scenario to life?

The initial ideas for the project were obvious once a few days had passed since the American presidential election results. CanAssist.Us is an absurd but potential reality from a near “post-truth” future (02018, perhaps). Using the familiar form of sidewalk canvassing, the performers offered the ultimate service to "get away from it all".

Once a member of the public engaged, the structure of this American future came into the picture: dehumanising "reform"; life-threatening retraction of health services; and destructive global relations; all promises of a Trump presidency.

[A short questionnaire quickly showed how simply quitting America might not be so straightforward; but to channel people's real concerns productively, and help them manifest the ideal of "Canada" locally,] suggestions for immediate action were presented as workshops the audience could take in their own communities. [These included Multicultural Awareness, Intersectionality, and Anger Management -- as well as popular intensive courses such as Poutine 101.]

How did the public react?

Satire is a great tool for starting a conversation, a united front can exist through a well-structured joke. Structuring that joke to include everyone -- consistent with our urge of a united, intersectional left -- was the difficult part. However, after establishing our position through humour, once we began working with the public, the conversations came easy. The reactions were overwhelmingly positive.



Where does this project sit in relation to other things you've seen that aim to deal with the emerging state of American politics and futures?

The Black Lives Matter movement deserves enormous credit for its accomplishments as a platform for multiple systemic injustices to enter public scrutiny.

CanAssist.Us was more explicitly influenced by artists like Eva and Franco Mattes or the Yes Men, whose public interventions disrupt the complacency that has become the norm.

Where does it sit with respect to projects that you personally have done before?

Both in concept and in execution, CanAssist.Us complements the project Tough Guy Mountain, a group project based out of Toronto, Canada; part art collective, part postcapitalist advertisement agency, and part fantasy table-top RPG.

How does the design of this intervention speak to and work with concerns of the present? How does it make use of the future?

CanAssist.Us uses experiential futures to demonstrate what realities could still be averted, and to encourage the will of the individual to unite under this goal. The situation of our American reality makes the future a particularly urgent tool to engage with.

What challenges did you discover working in a guerrilla futures mode?

I think the whole group could agree that next time, we’d rather guerrilla future on a sunny beach. Jokes aside, the participation of the group members was key in the project, and I’m so thankful that everyone shared in the passion. The kind of improvisation and confidence that is required of a guerrilla futures practitioner is really incredible, but this kind of dedication is desperately needed in order to create a future reality that benefits us all.



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Many thanks to Cat and the whole of the American Futures class for all their creative contributions, and willingness to brave the Windy City winter to enliven public conversation with an experiential flash-forward.

I appreciate this ingenious effort to turn an understandable sense of alarm, and the potential impulse to flee or turn away, into constructive engagement with possibilities for action in our communities today, through exploring what it means to bring "Canada" (code for "a better place") to where we are.

Our thanks also to Jonathan Solomon, Helen Maria Nugent, and office staff in the design department (AIADO) at SAIC for wonderful assistance and support.

And best wishes to all concerned, as this troubling new chapter begins in the grand experiment that is the United States.

The class and project team comprised Cat Bluemke, Angie Gonzalez, Miiko He, Josh Leslie, Stella Shen, Clint Stayton, Alexander Wilson, and several other students who wish to remain anonymous.

Related:
> Impacting the Social
> Future documentary
Introduction to Strategic Foresight
> The weight of alternatives
> Stephen Duncombe on the Art of the Impossible