Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Don't break the universe


In my view, one of the best feature films of the last ten years is the scintillating Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (dir. Michel Gondry, 02004). While researching it for a term paper, I discovered that the story originated with a kind of "found futures" art concept...

It all started at a Brussels restaurant when my friend and artist Pierre Bismuth challenged me with this concept: "What if in your mail you find a kind of official card stipulating: 'We are acknowledging, Monsieur Gondry Michel, that Lisa Brook had you erased from her memory. Please don't try to reach her.' Pierre wanted to randomly send these cards to people and study their reaction."

~From director Michel Gondry's introduction to the film's Shooting Script (02004, Newmarket, p. vii)

Gondry found this idea too enthralling for it to remain a small scale performance art project, and the rest is movie history. In case you haven't seen it yet -- well, first of all, you should, but it shouldn't spoil the experience for you to keep reading now -- the story plays extensively with layers of perception and time, so frequently you're unsure whether what's onscreen is the "real time" experience of the characters, a reconstructed recollection, or a fantastic composite of elements. It takes at least a couple of viewings to keep your bearings throughout, which oddly does not detract from enjoyment, but rather (for this viewer at least) deepens it.

I am fascinated with the idea of actually doing what Bismuth only got so far as suggesting, an influence which probably manifested in our recent postcards-from-the-future campaign (a connection that's far more obvious in retrospect). But, though Bismuth's splendid guerilla art initiative was duly sacrificed for the benefit of the larger audience eventually reached by Eternal Sunshine, it's interesting -- and, it seems to me, telling -- that part of the film's promotional strategy involved taking this thought experiment (what if selective memory erasure were possible?) and carrying it into "realistic" (tongue-in-cheek, yes, but attempts at stylistically and diegetically consistent) "artifacts" from the world of the film.

The memory-erasure company's website: http://www.lacunainc.com/home.html

And a low-rent TV spot:



I can't yet fully articulate what it is that works (or does not) about Eternal Sunshine's example, regarding the maintenance of coherence in the way scenarios are communicated -- the art of diegesis. But I think designer Matt Jensen (aka Tokyocrunch), is right on target in his terrific response to the "Simpsons simulacrum" post which recently appeared here:

I was similarly disheartened by the compromises the Kwik-E-Mart promotion made to the fourth wall (plastic stand-ups? blech.). [...] Promoverkill like this is a testament to the flatness of marketers and their unwillingness to accept the power of the cognitive bridges we, as a semi-intelligent audience, build between concepts. [...] It seems an awful waste of effort to build a universe only to break it.

The artifact's universe is a fragile creation whose creators undermine the beauty and -- I think this is a the key word -- integrity of what they make, with flashing arrows and elbows in the ribs. Jensen again:

I'd imagine that somewhere on that oh-so-authentic KrustyO's box is a reminder of the movie opening date and official movie URL, just like they have on the "real" boxes in the animated universe. [...] As if an ever-present box of KrustyO's on your kitchen shelf wasn't reminder enough that your obsession was soon to grace the big screen? Can we not connect our own dots in whatsoever way we choose to arrange them?

Plastic cutouts of Simpsons characters in Kwik-E-Mart; KrustyO's boxes with extrascenario URLs to make sure you don't miss the point. Similarly, and sadly, a picture of Eternal Sunshine's star Jim Carrey whose unassuming character just happens to be profiled on the memory erasure firm's website. Sigh.

Don't break the universe could be a good starting point, a rule of thumb for scenaric integrity. But whose universe is this? Let's be clear: an artifact from the future (or an imagined parallel present) is in a sort of competition for ontological authority with the consensual "real world" (the one within which you're building a Kwik-E-Mart, or Lacuna website). The difference is, I think, that the supposedly consensual universe was made to be broken (or rather, remade). But designers of artifacts and stories intended to transport us elsewhere -- whether for commercial, entertainment, or more explicitly transformative purposes -- can shatter their own fragile creations all too easily. And from the concerned futuryst's point of view, then, the transformative potential of experiential intensity embedded in these interloper artifacts (these competing realities) is weakened the more they concede.

Well, more on this to come, but tomorrow morning I'll be heading home to Black Rock City for a second time. Plenty of wide open space out there on the playa to facilitate reflection on artifacts from the future, and life's other conundrums.

/To be continued.../

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Futures found in Brussels



These images were produced by students in the advertising department at Sint-Lukas College [English site] in Brussels in the first term of 02006. Their assignment was create a visual awareness-raising campaign around Greenpeace themes, i.e., environmental activism. Many of the results are quite striking; and some highlights appear here with commentary [in italics] courtesy of Belgian futurist Maya van Leemput, who passed these along (regular readers of t.s.f. have met her before). Thanks, Maya!

Hello futures finders,

Found some futures for the collection.

"John-from-Ghent" is the name of seagull type bird, the obituary states:"With great sadness we announce the passing away of john-from-ghent. Seabird at the beach of Mar de Fora. Born in Sagres on May 25 1995 and suddenly deceased in Mar de Fora on November 21st 2002 following an oil spill. To testify your sympathy, you can transfer money to the accountnumber...."
An ordinary residential street in Belgium, prepared for rising sea-levels:


Two signs with the names of small towns in Belgium:
"Baraque Michel" is the highest point in our little low country.

"Kapellen-in-the-Wood" becomes "Kapellen-in-the-Wood-at-Sea".

The price of space-suits:

The text below says: "400 million tons a year, that is the amount of chemicals added globally every year. You would move to Mars or the Moon for less."

Most of [these are] just images, except for the first two which count as (film) posters (like a postcard is an object, something other than merely the actual image on its front). The death notice might count as an object also if it was presented and sent in an envelope or printed among the obituaries in the newspaper (which it wasn't). Anyway, some of the other images show objects that in 3-D would count as future artifacts, others just show images of what a future might be like.

The archive from which these images are drawn can be found here (N.B. text in Flemish).

So, a few thoughts. As Maya suggests, none of these function strictly as future artifacts. The "Greenpeace" branding immediately breaks the fourth wall, so to speak, in all these cases, and there is a certain lack of diegetic coherence -- e.g., even were it not for the brand name, the savage irony of the film posters belies their ostensible status as actual posters for future films, so the viewer is deprived of space to make the connection between the supposed artifact and the disturbing conclusion. The dots are, forcibly, joined up for us.

Still, features they could be said to have in common with such artifacts are: futures orientation expressed through an implicit future setting (except the obituary); evocation of some relevant issue or trend; and dissonance in the design (something impossible, unfamiliar, or futuristic that doesn't "fit" today).

The talented artists who produced these, I hasten to acknowledge, were briefed to make a visual campaign, not "artifacts from the future" per se, so lest these comments seem gratuitously critical, my aim is merely to think with these examples (and others of their ilk) about how best to use design to provoke futures thinking. Still, it's interesting, I think, that future artifacts of this sort are not uncommon as a strategy in environmental awareness-raising (compare with these previous examples). Both raising and acting on our awareness are things we need to get very good at -- the sooner, the better.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Neill Blomkamp, visual futurist

South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp, hired last year to helm the forthcoming adaptation of the video game series Halo, has made some of the coolest video artifacts from the future I've ever seen. His directorial portfolio to date has consisted of advertising spots and short films, but he started out in visual effects, an expertise in which is evident through all his work.

From the director profile at Canadian production house, Spy Entertainment:
[H]is forte is creating pure photo-real visualizations of concepts that not only can't be photographed, but exists [sic] only in his imagination.

Recognizing that filmmaking is as organic as it is artificial; Neill has merged the two seamlessly, making a hybrid which feels unexpectedly authentic. He enjoys creating atmosphere in a spot where the concept is not only unique, but slightly bizarre.

The combination of documentary style camerawork and editing, together with futuristic (mainly robot-related) subject matter, conspires to present the not-yet as here-and-now; and all this so beautifully done that, in my book, he's an outstanding visual futurist -- whether he knows it or not.

Here's Blomkamp in an interview for Ain't It Cool News, shortly after the Halo announcement:

I have to be doing something creative all the time, I like just rolling up my sleeves and just making stuff, for the sake of learning, or experimenting, or messing around, shorts can be better than pretty much anything for that. Commercials I was beginning to find uncreative because your end goal is to sell a product, and music videos are really great, but you can't really have dialogue, so I just defaulted to making my own pieces on the side of doing commercials, and ironically they seem better known then all the commercials, except that one for Adidas which was basically a short.

He doesn't seem to have given many interviews, but it would be interesting to gain some further insight into his approach. Meanwhile, four of Blomkamp's future documentary-style shorts (including the Adidas promo) are offered below. Enjoy.


Tetra Vaal (02003, 1'20")
Stunning. This is the first Blomkamp piece I saw, but only recently discovered his other work. I especially like the fact that this advertises a non-existent company; yet they went to the trouble of launching a basic website, providing diegetic continuity.


Alive in Joburg (02005, 6'20")
Alien/robot invasion, documentary style. As in Tetra Vaal, the vivid, gritty setting serves as realism-enhancing counterpoint to a futuristic premise. Which makes it intrinsically more arresting than the same story set in the (already abundantly mythologised) United States would be, I think. (Interestingly, rather than a future- or high-tech present-day setting, the short purports to take place back in 1990, during South African apartheid; which affords a grim social commentary on the divisions of that time.)


Yellow (02006, 4')
Shot for Adidas as part of a viral series called Adicolor, so technically a commercial for the sportswear company. Happily, its content pushes in a less irritating direction all its own (although the logo is hidden in the film), and it exhibits comparable aesthetic and production values as the others.


Tempbot™ (02006, 15')
An interesting anomaly: this comic short is sort of I, Robot meets The Office. A few too many sudden shifts of pace, and excessive music -- but a step from Bay-and-Bruckheimer melodrama towards something more intriguing, because it frames something extraordinary as mundane. Here's hoping that after he's done with Halo, Blomkamp might return to further exploration of the future documentary genre.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Saving trees with postcards

Wish you were here? Uh... not so much.


The postcard shown above, distributed by environmental advocacy organisation ForestEthics, presents a depressingly ugly vision of a drastically deforested Sierra Nevada Mountain Range (which lies mostly in California, partly in Nevada). Its irony-heavy play on the customary 2D postcard idyll prompts a double-take, hopefully provoking at least a moment's reflection, like many of the future artifacts discussed here at the sceptical futuryst.

Now, in using an actual photo, this doesn't purport to be a postcard from the future strictly speaking, and yet it is implicitly future-oriented. The organisation aims at "Motivating people to reform corporations; motivating corporations to protect forests". To that end, this flyer in postcard disguise, part of their "Save the Sierra" campaign, deploys a sort of metonymic strategy -- a part stands for the whole -- saying, in effect; "here's what's happening now, and there's more destruction to come". Their website elaborates:
The rich forests are heavily logged by Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI), and the area is marked by clearcuts. SPI is the largest private landowner in California. They’ve already clearcut hundreds of thousand of acres in the Sierra, and they have plans to clearcut over a million more.

We can see here how, in intent as well as appearance, politically motivated future artifacts can fit into a wider spectrum of awareness-raising, conversation-starting efforts. Indeed, as an instance of shock-based visuals in aid of an ecological cause, there's more than a faint resemblance in this postcard to the posters mounted for Berlin's Landwehrkanal tree-felling awareness drive, noted at this blog recently.

The Sierra campaigners, pictured below, seek to mobilise people against the clearcutting of mountain forests (rather than harvesting lumber from a sustainable source) for the homebuilding industry. It would be interesting to know what level of response is generated -- how many folks are moved to sign in support of the forest conservation cause. Although, naturally, it'll be hard to tell how much of that is due to the postcards themselves, and how much to other aspects of the campaign; nifty costumes etc. In any event, the good news is, they did use recycled paper (phew! -- that could have been embarrassing).


Saturday, August 04, 2007

A Simpsons simulacrum

Life imitates art at the Kwik-E-Mart (for a limited time only)...



The Simpsons Movie was released last Friday, 27 July, on the back of a clever, extravagant, and lucrative campaign involving immersive, real-life versions of the fictitious Springfield convenience store, Kwik-E-Mart, across North America.

An undisputed pop culture phenomenon, The Simpsons' nearly two-decade roll makes it both the longest-running animated series and the longest-running sitcom in television history, during which time it has driven what must amount to many, many millions of dollars' worth of tie-in sales (I remember getting my first Simpsons shirt at about age ten). But for its transition to the big screen, now an almost mandatory rite of passage for successful TV shows, the marketers opted for an unusual strategy which has generated considerable buzz (and I'm not just talking about the cola). According to a Wall Street Journal report [subscription required], 26 July 02007, p. B1:
[T]he Kwik-E-Mart promotion ... is the most visible example of how the long-running television show's alternate universe of brands has been spun into a kind of reverse product-placement campaign to tout the film.

Instead of having real products from 7-Eleven and other companies strategically dropped into the movie, the "Simpsons" team is putting its fictional brands -- from Krusty Burgers and KrustyO's cereal to Buzz Cola and Duff Beer -- to work in the real world.
...
"We had to come up with something different for this movie because everyone is used to the standard promotions," says Pam Levine, co- president, domestic theatrical marketing for Twentieth Century Fox.

While staying in Vancouver recently, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to see for myself the Kwik-E-Mart in Coquitlam, British Columbia (like the others, a 7-11 store with a temporary Simpsons makeover). It's the only one in Canada; there are eleven in the US (and that's all -- sorry, world). And so, as uncool as I realise this admission reveals me to be; yes, on the day the movie opened, I undertook a half-hour drive to get to this store, snapped a bunch of photos, lined up with a slew of other fans, and bought and devoured one of Apu's revolting Squishees.

It was great.

And then it got me thinking. I was reminded of a low-key theme park. I always have mixed feelings about theme parks -- ingeniously designed experiences on the one hand, shameless commercial artifice on the other. But this was not the same as a theme park, because it wasn't behind fences and ticket booths and designated as a fantasy zone; it managed the illusion almost seamlessly by temporarily redecorating, inside and out, a basically identical type of enterprise (7-11) on the same premises.

What was notable here, then, was to find this rather well executed recreation of a corner-store franchise from a cartoon, in an unassuming strip mall between a Starbucks and a Chinese restaurant. Yes, it was embarrassingly satisfying to behold, and consume, tangible incarnations of things hitherto seen only in Matt Groening's colourful parallel universe. But on the island of fiction-come-to-life in a sea of unremarkable suburban fact, the ways in which the fiction maintained its internal consistency were what tickled me most.

That is, the green Kwik-E-Mart uniforms sported by the cashiers, and the Squishee machines modelled on those in the TV show, were much more interesting than the Simpsons-branded merchandise actually featuring the famous four-fingered family, or the life-size character cutouts next to which customers would cheerfully pose for happy snaps. The difference being, I suppose, that the former category of props kept up the in-scenario conceit (diegetic), while the latter category broke the fourth wall and were instead about, and in that sense outside, the scenario (non-diegetic). Perhaps others felt the same way, because non-diegetic "souvenirs" still sat on the shelves -- keyrings etc -- while almost all the specially produced "Kwik-E-Mart" products were, said some apologetic signs, sold out.

One of the interesting things about The Simpsons' distinctive, era-making humour is the way it's been able to satirise and mock corporate America relentlessly, while remaining thoroughly integrated with it. This brand of subversiveness is deeply ambivalent -- because literally, it is a brand, and a highly successful one at that. For example, the characters frequently joke at the expense of Fox, the US network owned by Rupert Murdoch that is its TV home. But meanwhile, its executives are laughing all the way to the bank. Who's the joke really on, in this situation? The tongue-in-cheek signage around the store highlighted the irony of the earnest commodification of The Simpsons' often scathing social critique ("Buy 3 for the price of 3!", "Satisfaction guaranteed or your money begrudgingly refunded", "Thank you for loitering. Please come again."). 7-11 was having the piss taken out of it even while the money kept flowing in.

Anyway, I haven't gone to see the movie, and I won't bother until it hits DVD. But as a sort of commercial art installation, this Simpsons simulacrum (a copy without an original) gets top marks, meanwhile lending weight to an idea long espoused in eastern mysticism that ostensible opposites, such as reality and fantasy, critique and co-optation, are closer than they may at first appear.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

It looks like rain


I want to propose two umbrella terms (brutal pun intended) for ways of looking at things that I find highly interesting playmates: embodiment thinking and ambience thinking.

In embodiment thinking, crystallised elements are reopened up as distributed in space and time (a conceptual analogue of the visual technique of the exploded view). The object is at the centre. In ambience thinking, a process may be deliberately distributed to enable more organic, interactive results. The subject is at the centre. They seem to be reciprocal or complementary concepts that have in common a manifest sensitivity to the complexity of systems. In that sense they are perhaps each subsets (or offshoots) of systems thinking, and natural partners of futures thinking. Let's consider each in a bit more detail.

Embodiment thinking looks at objects as somehow containing or condensing the processes that produced them. Hence, embodied energy is "the quantity of energy required to manufacture, and supply to the point of use, a product, material or service". The spreading awareness and use of ideas such as the ecological footprint, and the related carbon footprint, are encouraging instances of embodiment thinking because their uptake heralds a way of perceiving the ecological impact of our choices, more holistic and nuanced than before (the rise of "products of service" is part of the same trend, I'd say). Variations of this way of seeing have been around for a while; for instance, Marx wrote in the 19th century, "all commodities are but definite measures of congealed labor-time." To see a machine as "congealed labor" is a clear example of embodiment thinking.

Ambience thinking looks at environments and detects (or arranges) a distribution of salient elements therein. As with embodiment thinking, it takes a certain "ecological" cast of mind to see things this way. Ambient music (invented by artist Brian Eno in the mid-70s) was intended to suggest a kind of sonic environment, rather than a linear, narrative-like musical structure. In recent times, there has been a rash of similar neologisms in both commercial and academic settings: ~ intelligence, ~ computing, ~ findability, and ~ gaming. My colleague Jake Dunagan and I have been calling for the cognate notion of ambient foresight to be developed by embedding futures thinking -- or the ingredients for it -- in one's informational environment.

The complementarity or overlap here is rather intriguing. Objects expressing or invoking possible scenarios (eg "artifacts from the future") could be regarded as embodied futures thinking. But, deliberately placed so as to systematically provoke it, such objects (like information, such as forecasts) could be said to engage ambient foresight. It seems to depend whether you focus more on the "object" itself, or on the experience of the person who encounters it.

Anyway, I was prompted to this line of thinking by a product going on sale this week, which pulls off the neat trick of blurring these tentative lines completely. Reuters reports:
Ambient Devices, which specializes in integrating Internet information into everyday products, has devised an umbrella with a built-in radio receiver in its handle that receives weather data for 150 U.S. locations from forecasting site Accuweather.com via a proprietary wireless network.

If the forecast is for rain in the next 12 hours, the umbrella's handle lights up. Soft, intermittent pulses mean you can expect light rain while a very rapid, intense pattern signal thunderstorms ahead.

It seems to me this invention actually embodies ambient foresight rather well. First, it's a networked object, so the information communicated by the flashing handle is the visible tip of an iceberg, namely the complex underlying system of meteorological models and ICT. Second, it takes and augments a useful physical object, rather than an ornamental, experimental or speculative scenario (as usually embodied in the artifacts noted at this blog). And third, it renews and builds on an existing symbol of future-oriented thinking. The following is from a briefing on futures concepts by consultant and scholar Richard Slaughter for one of his clients:

Foresight is, first and foremost, a human capacity. It is used in many ways to protect the organism from harm and to guide it on a moment-to-moment, hour-to-hour and day-to-day basis. People exercise foresight when they take a raincoat or an umbrella (even though the sun is shining), make an appointment or put money aside for a new car. Foresight is one of the basic skills that protect us from making certain kinds of errors and suffering the consequences.

Futurists often introduce their topic by pointing out that all of us have, and exercise to a greater or lesser degree, a capacity for foresight in everyday life: the umbrella is rather a good icon for this type of habitual future orientation on which the study of futures seeks to build.

Now, I don't want to oversell this idea -- it's not exactly a first. A neat extant example of ambient foresight implemented can be seen in cars which forecast approximately how much further you can expect to drive on petrol left in your tank ("feed-forward", as opposed to feedback). But to be implemented for more significant purposes than just short-term and low-level planning, it would need to be quite a bit more sophisticated, e.g., forecasting contingent alternatives and what-ifs; and what such a system should look like is a conversation to which all are welcome, and many of us in the futures business are already taking part. Meanwhile, if I put aside the umbrella's $140 ticket (at that price, I expect Manoa Valley raindrops to keep falling on my head for some time to come), I see here a kind of icon for embodied ambient foresight -- of which we can expect, and hope, to see much more in years to come.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Castro, Taleb, and The Superman Effect

An interesting coincidence -- and addendum to yesterday morning's post (read it first).

So, in the afternoon, while flying from Vancouver to Honolulu I was listening to a podcast (EconTalk, April 02007) of Nassim Taleb talking about his new book The Black Swan. About 27 minutes in, Taleb describes a classic psychological experiment in which subjects were shown a very blurred image, which was incrementally brought into focus, and they were asked to identify what was in the picture (e.g., a dog).

I dug up the paper by Bruner and Potter that he was referencing, which appeared in the journal Science in 01964: "Interference in Visual Recognition". Their conclusion was that "The greater or more prolonged the initial blur, the slower the eventual recognition." How so?
The amount of exposure necessary to invalidate an incorrect interpretation seems to exceed that required to set up a first interpretation, so that at any particular clarity of the display, those who see it for the first time are more likely to recognize the objects than those who started viewing at a less clear stage.

It seems the early hypotheses people formed about what they were looking at while the dog image became sharper threw them off the scent, as it were. I don't know if this tendency has an official name, but for convenience we might call it the Superman Effect ("Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird...It's a plane...It's Superman!")

Viewers with less hypothetical baggage perceive more clearly at the same level of resolution. This provides an insight into the cognitive goings-on behind the viewer's experience of Hanley's Castro corpse video; we can surmise that the gradual reveal, counterintuitively, culminates in more surprise for the viewer than would a clear snapshot of the same thing. This may have implications for communicating futures, for both activism and pedagogical purposes.

For Taleb, this effect illustrates the "confirmation bias" at work (the tendency to process new information so as to confirm our preconceptions or beliefs). This is perhaps the key concept informing his work at the moment, and he urges us to recognise it as a serious hindrance to apprehending what's really going on, when we try to understand the world.

Now, the post yesterday implied an analogy between visual perception and thinking ahead (the idea being that "prediction" of what's swimming into focus corresponds to one's understanding of the unfolding process you're watching). I'll get into why this troubles me some other time. But for now, this relationship seems to me more than merely a casual metaphor or convenient symmetry -- for instance, it's deeply embedded in the very notion of "foresight". And it leads me to wonder whether the Superman effect (viewers with less hypothetical baggage perceive more clearly at the same level of resolution) might be related to political psychologist Philip Tetlock's findings in his book Expert Political Judgment (see this earlier post). His massive research project on predictions showed, among many other things, that dilettantes can do as well as or better than subject-matter experts in making forecasts about the future in a given domain. Greater familiarity with a complex topic may actually get in the way of discerning the broad trends at play.

This is good news for the generalist, but bad news for those who seek to understand of the broad changes going on by following current affairs. In the same EconTalk interview, Taleb argues -- and I concur -- that newspapers are best avoided because of their tendency to overblow, overinterpret, and overnarrativise every micro-event.

Which also explains why, in light of the Cuban President's fluctuating health in recent times, reports of his imminent death have been greatly exaggerated.