Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Barbershop futures revisited, part II

/Continued from a previous post.../

There are many well travelled, cosmopolitan, and highly informed people operating in the futures field, but few can claim to have experienced such systematic first-hand exposure to the many views about the future held across different lifestyles, cultures and geographies, as Maya van Leemput. Her post-doctoral project "Agence Future" consisted of riding around the world (on a recumbent bicycle) conducting in-depth interviews on camera, with some 400 people in 20 countries, over a 30-month period. The common thread of discussion was their attitudes and understandings regarding the future(s). I was delighted when my post "Barbershop Futures" about futures-related conversation elicited a detailed response from her, which I posted under "Barbershop Futures Revisited, part I". Here, then, is part II, being further reflections in light of thoughts Maya offered; not a literal response to her, perhaps, so much as another run at further developing a few of the same ideas.

As I suggested in the original piece, to find oneself talking futures with all sorts of people is one of the core aspects of this line of work. There may be nearly as many differing conceptions about what being a futurist means as there are people who label themselves that way (incidentally, a topic touched on in an earlier post, "The meming of futures"). Attempts to codify and generate consensus on the nature of the profession are many, but as they proliferate, paradoxically they seem to contribute as much to the diversity of the field as to its consolidation. The Association of Professional Futurists provides one take on what futuring is all about. Swinburne University's Strategic Foresight FAQ (especially from Q7 onwards) offers another. I think my favourite statement of what it means to work in this field is HRCFS founder Jim Dator's list of "attributes of a futurist", crowned with the wonderful notion of aiglatson -- yearning for the future -- which can serve as a kind of litmus test for one's readiness to embark on futuring Manoa-style. (If you haven't seen Dator's list, do check it out. It may be that if the intellectual jack-of-all-trades, Renaissance woman conception of the ideal futurist that he describes appeals to you, then you have the holistic sensibility, not to mention the kind of grandiose transdisciplinary aspirations, that ought to serve you well.)

Regardless of the details of one's philosophy or outlook, it is surely an inescapable characteristic of being a futurist that one finds oneself constantly in conversation with all sorts of people about the future, whatever that means to them. Typically they have plenty to say, and as Maya points out, when a chord is struck, folks may unexpectedly open up on all kinds of big themes on the nature of life, the universe, and everything.

Accordingly, one of the necessary (but not, I hasten to add, sufficient) steps to becoming a futurist is simply to declare this early in each conversation with a new person. I don't like being -- or at any rate being seen as -- monomaniacal, but part of the "getting to know you" process typically involves discussing what you do for a living. Put a stake in the ground as a futurist, and you can have a conversation with virtually anyone about their conception of the future. If this is something you enjoy, you'll be delighted to find it's one of the key parts of the job. And I want to suggest that there's a give and take here; the trick to communicating about futures lies not only in finding new ways to describe the field, ways to articulate it that are meaningful and useful to others. It is also about the reciprocal process of gradually mapping in your own mind how your particular interlocutor, as well as people in general, conceptualise it. Consequently, an increasingly fine-tuned awareness of the nuances and variations in attitudes, by psychological, temperamental, professional, cultural, and other dimensions, is to my way of thinking a crucial aspect of developing as a futurist, and an important part of what one takes incrementally and osmotically from the body of conversational data. (Of course, if I'm really not in the mood for a detailed discussion, I find that simply telling people I'm a graduate student in political science is a good way to keep the conversation short.)

In the course of having these conversations, you steadily accumulate a kind of expertise on how lots of different people think about the future. But there is an art to conversation, and as the previous paragraph suggests, both give and take are involved. One part is listening and understanding, probing for comprehension of an aspect of someone's world view that has in many cases never been explicitly or carefully considered by them before. The other is a sort of advocacy for more rigorous, detailed, rich, systematic, creative, well considered kind of thinking about futures. Maya referred to Wendell Bell's mention of the role of advocacy in futures. But I sense that at levels both general and specific there's a balance to be struck with the former process -- inquiry. Although the relative importance of the two is bound to vary according to circumstances, I don't think one can advocate effectively without sensitive inquiry.

Someone recently sent me an article (Andrea Shapiro, "Applying Lessons from Public Health to Organizational Change", The Systems Thinker, September 2003) which usefully nailed the distinction between these two as follows:

In The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook (Currency/Doubleday, 1994), Richard Ross and Charlotte Roberts describe the value of both advocacy and inquiry. To them, advocacy involves expressing a certain position convincingly, forcefully, and clearly; it requires presenting your own assumptions, distinguishing between data and opinion, and articulating the logic and reasoning behind your conclusions. In contrast, inquiry means seeking to understand another's position by listening well and reflecting back what you heard, as well as seeking to understand the data and reasoning behind their conclusions and avoiding imposing your own interpretation on them.

Maya describes the animation and engagement that result when people warm to their future theme. I share her delight in being able to draw that out. At the same time, my original post alluded to the confusions or preconceptions that we futurists often encounter. These are not mutually exclusive; for instance, my experience with Wally the barber had elements of both. While eager to talk about the future, he was somewhat confounded at first by the idea that I wasn't thinking of it principally as a predictive endeavour.

I have found that plural or alternative futures thinking requires a sort of big-picture paradigm shift that some people don't quite grasp right away. Resistance to the plural view of futures is not incompatible with enthusiasm for "studying the future". I've been struggling with the question of what it is psychologically, educationally, developmentally or temperamentally (to name a few possible factors) that makes the difference between people "getting" futures or not -- and I'd love to hear readers' thoughts on this issue. I'm also currently going through some fascinating material on the psychology of counterfactual thinking (see this post for some remarks on counterfactuality, and expect more on that topic to appear here at the sceptical futuryst). Indeed, many of the thoughts presented here revolve around exploring more effective ways to communicate foresight, alternative futures, and long-termism (three interrelated but analytically separable modes of thinking).

But here's the bottom line, if there is one: inquiry and advocacy are both required in the futures communication process. After the quote above, the author continues;"Balancing advocacy and inquiry is especially important when dealing with apathy or resistance." It has been my observation that alternative futures thinking can be useful and engaging for pretty much anyone. However, apathy and resistance are not uncommon, so being able to deal with them in conversation is essential.

It was my own sense that I'd failed to communicate futures to full effect in terms interesting and relevant to a hairdresser which prompted the original piece. And Maya pointed out that I might have tried moving beyond framing the field in terms of its possible economic value to the barber's business to describe the field's big picture relevance. I take her point and agree completely. Yet the tension will likely to remain between, on the one hand, encouraging a future orientation to do better (or cheaper, or for longer) what we already do; and on the other hand, using conversation about futures to move beyond today's problems, and dream big, and construct idiosyncratic or dissenting visions of the individual, family, community, and planet. In the former case, inquiry trumps advocacy, as futures thinking is brought into the service of existing priorities, and its revolutionary potential to transform thought and action is defused to that extent. In the latter case, advocacy can trump inquiry, and if you push its transformative potential too far on a party unwilling to entertain that, they shut it out; increased resistance or apathy (varieties of the same syndrome -- denial of responsibility?) may ensue.

Hazardous and difficult though it may be, one thing is for sure in all this: we need to keep working on the Great Futures Conversation. Thanks to Maya, and to Wally, for the impetus to continue evolving these ideas.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Death of a President

Every narrative film is, in a sense, a thought experiment. Every plot is a "what if". The way the characters behave and interact, the decisions they make, the consequences that ensue, and the backdrop against which it all occurs, are strands which together comprise a hypothesis about how things would or could unfold if x, y, and z were the case. They are in that sense elements of a theory about how the world works, although very few films explicitly set out to explore specific futures in a plausible way.

I am a longtime moviegoer and sometime filmmaker, and have for years been especially interested in the way the future is depicted in film (at one point co-writing an article on the subject). This medium is our most powerful mechanism for broadcasting pre-imagined scenarios. It's far more vivid, detailed and accessible -- to audience members, not to producers -- than literature. There's a case to be made for comics, or, to use Will Eisner's term, "sequential art"; but that's a topic for another time. The point here is simply that the way film, or more accurately, audio-visual scenarios (let's not exclude television), provide a reference point for future-oriented discourse is important, from a futurist's perspective.

On Thursday night I saw Death of a President, a feature-length film which ingeniously uses documentary technique to imagine the assassination of US President George W. Bush -- next year -- by a sniper in Chicago. Despite mixed reviews, in the US, at least -- for two different aggregations of critics' responses check out Rotten Tomatoes (33% positive reviews) and Metacritic (average score 49/100) -- I found it quite effective and very interesting, and, appropriately, difficult to pin down ideologically. I say appropriately because a truly effective scenario laid out in this way ought not to be a partisan matter, and although it will inevitably reflect or embody a theory about how (some specific aspect of) the world works, it must ring true in its reflection of different participants' perspectives on the events, whatever they might be. We may return to the critical reception of the film as the subject of a future post, but for the time being, let's take a look at the medium -- which we'll call the future documentary; documentary film as artifact from the future.

D.O.A.P. is not unprecedented as a future documentary. The first such feature that I recall coming across was made by a London-based company named Wall To Wall, and screened by the BBC. It was called Smallpox 2002: Silent Weapon (02002), the story of a devastating international terrorist attack perpetrated with the smallpox virus. The filmmakers were eerie in their timing -- while the film was being made (from February '01 through January '02) both 9/11 and the US anthrax attacks occurred. Its impact on the viewer had a lot to do with the documentary approach to fictional material: the story was put together in a highly plausible news-doco style, and narrated as if the viewer were now in 02003, looking back on a global tragedy, counting tens of millions of lives lost, that had unfolded late in '02. The friend who alerted me to the existence of this film had stumbled across it that year on cable TV in Serbia, and had watched in horror, transfixed, until it sank in that this had to be merely a hypothetical storyline. The director, Daniel Percival, later made Dirty War (02004) for British television, a topical drama about a nuclear device being detonated in central London.

The director of Death of a President, Gabriel Range, has himself made two other films using a similar format, The Day Britain Stopped (02003) and The Man Who Broke Britain (02004). Both were made through the same production house as Smallpox 2002, but neither, for obvious reasons, was fated to make a major international impact. And although there has been a recent spate of British film and TV productions using documentary to depict futures (including the excellent BBC series If... referred to in a recent post at this very blog), it goes back further than that.

English director Mick Jackson made the 01984 film Threads, and in 01988, the TV drama series A Very British Coup, also a politically themed "what if" (though the latter was not, I think, in documentary format -- I haven't seen that one). Earlier still, perhaps the founding exploration of a future scenario in documentary format, is The War Game (01965), by maverick documentarist Peter Watkins, which used the newsreel-style documentary footage of the era to present a chilling vision of what a nuclear attack on Great Britain might be like. Although, like Smallpox 2002, it was produced for the BBC, the film was banned from British television -- ostensibly (according to the director's own account) on the grounds of artistic failure. The ban was not lifted for some twenty years, and Watkins relates an intriguing, even scandalous, story about the intensely political fate of this film. Yet it is, emphatically, anything but an artistic failure: it is an underappreciated landmark in filmmaking, which still packs an emotional punch after forty years. In fact it won an Academy Award in 1967 for Best Documentary Feature. What was that? Yes, Best Documentary Feature: a fictional film about a hypothetical nuclear attack.

Now, I have written in this setting about what I see as a need for futurists to design and communicate scenarios in more engaging ways. Examples include the immersive futures workshops designed for "Hawaii 2050"; the idea of gaming alternative futures; and the futures audio tours currently in pre-production. In this vein, the future documentary genre can be used to render hypothetical scenarios more vivid, and I suspect (though it would take more research to prove) that the quality of conversation which ensues makes it a valuable exercise. But we can reasonably contemplate why the documentary format invites a particular, and particularly useful, kind of discussion.

Today the Hollywood camera can virtually venture anywhere, a question of "visual access" which seems relevant here. Consider these four shots: into a soldier's body in Three Kings, the life's journey of a round from factory to firing in Lord of War; Ed Norton's fear-addled brain from the inside out as a gun is pointed at him in the opening sequence of Fight Club; and through the air, faster than a speeding bullet in The Matrix. All these are examples of recent, innovative film techniques which readily spring to mind and which communicate the bodily violence wrought by guns. (All are also widely recognised as excellent movies, and I share that view.)

Death of a President is a much less violent film than any of the four mentioned above. Its story does revolve around a shooting, but it doesn't dwell on the act itself, and certainly could not be said to fetishise gun violence -- which is merely a vector for telling another story, about how such an event can be used opportunistically to advance domestic and international political agendas. While there is a certain amount of dramatic mileage squeezed out of the lead-up to Bush being shot, from a filmmaking point of view it's necessary scene-setting that shows how and why such a consequential security breach could have been allowed to occur. The moment of the crime itself, when it comes, is all handheld, shaky camerawork, deliberately chaotic and close to being visually incomprehensible. The most interesting part of the film comes afterwards, when the plot thickens with a series of suspects being examined, and a sort of documentary whodunit unfolds.

Now, John Gaeta, the man behind the Matrix special effects, has spoken of that movie's "bullet time" effect as heralding a new development in filmmaking, the "virtual camera". But every narrative film -- where, courtesy of actors trained to ignore the camera in the room, we're privy to the most private parts of characters' lives -- is, in a sense, shot with a virtual camera. It's like the omniscient narrator of a novel, who can guide us at will inside thoughts and motivations of characters who would, if they were real people, be at a loss to explain themselves. In other words, these devices enable a type of intimacy which in turn makes it possible to tell the story. And both types of storytelling require our complicity, in agreeing to the invisibility of the storyteller. The bargain is that, when the ploy works, we get to see deeper inside the human condition. Though at one level it's a bigger lie, the payoff in terms of human truth can also be bigger.

Unlike most fictional narratives, Death of a President is not meant to be a novelistic meditation on the human condition. It may all be fiction, but virtual cameras are eschewed in favour of virtual realism. In choosing to present this story as a documentary about an unexpected event, by contrast with a "scripted" drama where the camera can be anywhere, the filmmaker's materials are limited to ex post facto piecing together of "fragments", carefully crafted -- interviews, security camera footage, TV news reports, file tapes, and the like. The paradox that arises here is that the fictional documentary ("mockumentary", as in Rob Reiner's seminal comedy This Is Spinal Tap) is, in relation to the story it tells, simultaneously more real -- because presented with the familiar audio-visual conventions, including limitations, attendant on presenting "real" stories -- and less real -- because it's more self-evidently constructed and the seams are harder to ignore. The way I read it, the film asks us to engage with the question of the plausibility and the possible consequences of something like this happening, by presenting it as "real". (How would it feel to see this documentary presented as fact in two years' time?) If the same story were given the Hollywood treatment, and an actor -- say, George Clooney -- were playing George Bush, it's easy to imagine that it would risk either mythologising or trivialising the possibility of presidential assassination. And while I don't think this is necessarily the most important, interesting or relevant topic about which we could be asking "what if?"; as a well-made instance of the future documentary genre, it's not a bad example of how that question can usefully be posed.

These films also invite us to recognise, by their skilful use of documentary conventions that appear to frame their content as factual, that every narrator has a position vis-à-vis the tale she tells. As the masterful Swedish writer, Sven Lindqvist, confesses: "Even in the most authentic documentary there is always a fictional person – the person telling the story. I have never created a more fictional character than the researching 'I' in my doctorate, a self that begins in pretended ignorance and then slowly arrives at knowledge, not at all in the fitful, chancy way I myself arrived at it, but step by step, proof by proof, according to the rules. (Exterminate All The Brutes, 01992, p. 104) If we accept this invitation, we should discuss scenarios -- and indeed, any films, novels, political events, products, or anything else worthy of public attention -- in light of a full and frank recognition of our personal investments in them. What's much more interesting than a filmmaker's take on the material is the ecology of opinion that greets it. The great director Billy Wilder said: "If people see a picture of mine and then sit down and talk about it for 15 minutes, that is a very fine reward, I think." There was much more than fifteen minutes' worth of top notch conversational fodder in Death of a President. Maybe films like this should be judged more for the quality of the discussion they inspire than for the viewing experience itself.

Now, there's a kicker in all of this, so stay with me just a moment more. The film grabs attention with its premise of the sitting President being killed. Few supposedly secular phenomena come closer to being sacrosanct in America than the office of Commander-In-Chief. But the future documentary format, which appears to have thrived on British screens in the past few years, has apparently not been so popular in the United States. (It's pretty much unthinkable that this British-made film, though set in the US and featuring American actors, could have been financed and made by Americans... but if any readers of this blog would like to draw comparable examples of US-made future documentaries to my attention, that would be very illuminating). The twist here is that Death of a President has been banned by two large American cinema chains: echoes of The War Game in Britain, forty years ago. There's surely no clearer signal that a political film needs to be seen than when it gets banned; a lesson which, one might think, ought not to be lost on fans of the First Amendment. I've suggested that if films can be likened to thought experiments, some very useful results can be expected from future documentaries like these, which are presented as artifacts from their respective possible futures -- so long as we are prepared to entertain an open conversation about the scenarios they propose. When we're refused the chance to see them, it lends a degree of urgency to finding out what all the fuss is about... so look for a screening near you, sit back and watch Death of a President, and then let's have a nice chat.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Meditations on spam

I've been called many things in my life -- but never, until today, "Emmett I. Zoratoric". The origin of this novel appellation is none other than a spam attack that appears to have kicked in about 10pm last night, the first being an "automated delivery failure" message to Emmettizoratoric (who??) at I'd say that ordinarily, a pretty small percentage of unwanted email makes it through to my actual inbox, but I counted over thirty messages that did so between yesterday evening and this afternoon -- like so many electronic wetbacks slipping across the digital Rio Grande -- and on closer inspection, found more than ten times that many again in my spambox, apprehended by the border guards of spam filtration. That makes close to 400 messages sent out illegitimately over about 14 hours, ostensibly from users of emails operated under my domain name; and those are just the ones I know about because of the automatic replies they generated.

For the last half day, phantom cyber-assholes have been taking liberties with the good name of and pestering people as far afield as Brazil, Japan, and somewhere Arabic-speaking. So, first things first: when I pester people, I do it under my own name. If any human being that is reading this happened to receive some message from Emmett I. Zoratoric, Elijah W. N. Tuneful, or anyone other than me claiming to be affiliated with this website, please delete and disregard. Someone's phishing and I personally have nothing to do with it. In any case, though, I'm sorry it happened. (Desculpe. Gomennasai. Aasef!)

It does make me wonder, though, what the hell is going on with spam. At whom are these messages really directed? Usually you can infer something about the target audience of, say, a TV show, from the sports cars, game consoles or incontinence treatments peddled in the ad breaks. Perhaps we can deduce something about the imagined recipients of spam messages from their content. Actual examples of typical subject headings currently residing in my email account include: "We cure any disease!"; "casino on net"; and "Permanent Male Enlarger + Bonus!!!" They conjure a picture of some kind of gambling-addicted, disease-ridden, financially distraught male wrestling with chronic insecurities about all things penis-related.

Clearly they've got me pegged (I wish I were kidding). But you, like me, would have to be mad, in addition to some or all of those other things, to instigate any kind of financial transaction on the strength of these unsolicited messages. And yet this is apparently the optimistic conclusion most of them are driving at. I do of course understand that, even if I don't bite at these remarkably stupid opportunities, the transaction costs are zero to send out millions of messages promoting this or that dubious product or service, so even a vanishingly small response rate from the most desperate or credulous recipients can make it worthwhile for the shadowy entrepreneurs behind the curtain. Even so, it's sometimes hard to believe that this is what real people do with the prodigious powers that technology puts at their disposal. Let me venture an alternative explanation. True artificial intelligence may still be decades away, but artificial stupidity is thriving: this is what self-aware computers with a juvenile sense of humour surreptitiously do with their spare processing power in 02006.

At any rate, believe it or not I do occasionally derive pleasure from the absurdity of some of these messages. Like the proverbial thousand monkeys at the thousand typewriters, from time to time there do emerge, if not Shakespearean masterpieces, fragments of poetry with a degree of offbeat literary appeal. Currently I find in my spam filter, for instance, no less than six separate exhortations to try "VkAGRA for LESS" (from my good friends Gittan Manos, Rhosyn Carmody, Buffy Seidell, Moriah Bruner, Agrafena Hagel, and of course Borghild Puglisi.) The body text of one is, I kid you not, an astonishing ode to Viagra itself (unintentionally, judging from the nonsense populating most others):

circulated about this particular planet.
Gentlemen-this way if you please

It's Viagra time -- roll up, roll up! Let's get the party on this particular planet started!

But the names are probably my favourite thing about spam. Here are a few harvested from my current crop:

Cadwalader Soller
Edvige Mapes
Jamaal Orozco
Happy Labrecque
Yaromira Scherer
Alaric Beaudreau
Isaac Alvarez
Haruko Weigel
Mattithyahu Samaniego
Keeleigh Legrand

I really don't know anything about the technology behind spam, and I doubt these are the names of real people (if they are, Cadwalader and co., please accept my apologies). Either way, there is, seen from a certain angle, a clue here about the burgeoning diversity in our world, the intermingling and recombination of cultures and ideas that is somehow emblematic of contemporary globalisation processes. Some of these names, given the cultural combinations they imply, would have been unthinkable a generation or two ago. Now, it's hard to tell whether they're real or not. It reminded me of anthropologist Grant McCracken's online work-in-progress, Plenitude 2.0: "The world will always fill with difference, no potentiality of being can remain unfulfilled, all that can be imagined must someday be. There is no box."

I'm no lover of spam. But, from a certain angle it affords an interesting window on what's going on in our culture -- a modest index of some of what's changing (modes of communication; increasing sophistication of automated processes; commercial opportunities everywhere and anywhere) and what's staying pretty much the same (worries about health, sex, and money).

It was reported yesterday that last month (October 02006), the size of the web surpassed the 100 million websites mark, compared to just 18,000 in August 01995 (one month after my own first encounter with the web, at the home of a family friend, on holiday in England). The number of people and machine participants in this global, hyperdimensional orgy of pointless communications continues to balloon. And with that comes exponentially increased potential for both highly productive and utterly stupid encounters between people; and between people and machines; and between machines themselves. Already, every day there must be literally billions of unnoticed interactions between automatically generated email messages and automatically activated spam filters. Our machines are talking to each other. And soon, inshallah, a whole lot more robots will be fighting each other on our behalf too! From a Guardian report last week: "By 2015, the US Department of Defense plans that one third of its fighting strength will be composed of robots, part of a $127bn (£68bn) project known as Future Combat Systems (FCS), a transformation that is part of the largest technology project in American history." (Sorry, this is simply too mindbogglingly stupid and depressing for me to comment further at the moment.)

As for the future of spam -- now there's a space to watch. As long as we're talking about people being responsible for the epidemic (rather than bored artilects), it's fervently to be hoped that an effective legislation regime could raise the spammers' risks to the point where they look for more traditional ways to irritate people. But TV advertising, billboards and garden variety spam look utterly benign in comparison to an idea Jamais Cascio wrote up last month:

The same logic could apply to molecular manufacturing spam, but MM-spam could take myriad new forms. Advertising messages etched into whatever objects get made by a nanofac. Code that tells the nanofac to use all available nanotoner to continuously print out small, mobile commercial-shouting bots. Hacks that instruct a nanofac to embed into the hardware of any new nanofac it makes commands to add commercials on whatever the new nanofac makes. I'm sure I'm only scratching the surface here, and that far more insidious and hard-to-root-out forms of nanospam are on the horizon.
Forget home-printed assault rifles and field-produced drones. Forget gray, green and red goo. The real danger we will face in the time of molecular manufacturing is spam.

From here on in, I think I'll stop complaining about my petty email troubles and start thinking harder about the insidious futures of spam. Go ahead, call me Emmett and spam me silly.