Saturday, December 22, 2007

Mars Products

The three shops opened their doors to the public at ten A.M., on the tenth of March -- in local time and day. In New York, the letters spelling out MARS PRODUCTS had been displayed for eight days, and a good deal of curiosity had been aroused, both among the public and the press. But until actual opening, no information had been offered.

During those days, four objects had been on display in the shop windows. No doubt the reader of this précis has seen or examined these objects, each of which stood upon a small crystal display-stand, framed in black velvet, for all the world like precious jewels, which in a sense they were. The display consisted of a clock, an adding machine, an outboard motor and a music box...
This advertisement was hardly the first word in the press concerning the Martian shops. Already, every columnist had carried an item or two about what was, without question one of the most imaginative and novel publicity schemes of the space age.

Futurist colleague Howard Rheingold, in Honolulu with his family last week, drew to our attention a 01959 science fiction short story by Howard Fast (01914-02003) called "The Martian Shop".

Fast, a versatile, prolific, and politically conscientious writer, was at one time a member of the American Communist Party and was blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee. He may be known to movie buffs for Spartacus, a novel which he started writing while serving three months in prison for contempt of Congress, and on which the Stanley Kubrick film was based.

Anyway, the work we've been doing with public installations of future artifacts reminded Rheingold of the story, a nifty account of the intriguing, sudden appearance of luxury stores showcasing Martian technology in Tokyo, Paris and New York. Fiction, yes, but a tale of proto-future-shock therapy nonetheless (or so I'd like to think).

The full text of "The Martian Shop" can be found here. It's well worth a read.

Thanks, Howards!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Second Nature

This week, while searching for visualisations of future cityscapes, I encountered for the first time the work of American artist Mary Mattingly. Mattingly produces astonishingly beautiful images that moodily, and seamlessly, blend landscape photography with future-inflected human subjects and dwellings. Her website is replete with these gorgeous shots, some of my favourites shown above. Most appear to be part of a strand she calls Second Nature; "a name that articulates a point in time of my ongoing work. This work continues, through photography, sculpture, video and podcasting."

The last of the images above, "The New Mobility of Home" (02004), was featured in an exhibition called "Ecotopia" at the International Center of Photography last year, which I came across via this Scientific American blog post referring to "surrealist depictions of a semi-post-apocalyptic future". That post links to a New York Magazine article and a review in the New York Times (check out the audio slideshow). From the Times piece:

"Ecotopia" might be described as "An Inconvenient Truth" in exhibition form. It is a tale of beauty and devastation told by nearly 40 photojournalists and artists. Their viewpoints vary, as do their subjects and forms, but you rarely escape a sense of nature's vast, incalculable richness or of photography's ability to do it justice. There may be no greater meeting of subject and medium.

Interesting to see Mattingly's work drafted here under the rubric "photography", which doesn't quite seem to do it justice. From an interview with Mattingly transcribed at her website::

In my artwork I will use any medium to realize an idea, however, I usually finalize a piece through photography, video, or sculpture because these mediums, to me, allow for a direct translation of reality or of a created real-space and because they either represent the world around us or sit in the world around us, they carry a truth. Photography and video have an inherent honesty – we continue to want to believe what looks believable. Manipulating "reality" within these mediums to create futuristic scenes allows for the ability to provide latent meaning. Indelible, purposeful and fantastic.

In a sense, the narrow, documentary connotation of the label and practice of photography, conventionally understood, are part of where these plausible-yet-fantastic vignettes draw their strength. The visual codes of photorealism are belied by seemingly impossible (futuristic) subject matter.

Asked about these futuristic themes, she elaborates:

My work has always been an interleaving of the past, present and future, understanding that the future is imminent and immanent. I have always practiced some form of future scenario-planning, and have always been environmentally and politically concerned in my life and art. Out of everything that interests me, some things tend to frighten me, and the things that frighten me tend to eat away at me. It is those things I usually end up making work about.
Kurzweil states that, with the exponential acceleration of development in technology and so-called progress, the human condition will reach a point when we can no longer process our environment from our present perspective as the accelerating speed of growth outpaces our faculties. However, Bertrand Russell made an excellent point, saying that if the bath water got only half a degree warmer every hour, we would never know when to scream.
Kurzweil is predicting singularity as a future happening, but as far as I can tell, it is already here and will continue to grow.

The prolific Mattingly's labyrinthine website is intriguing to explore, and contains detailed photographic records as well as written (esoteric, theorist-sprinkled) statements for her varied, and frequently interwoven, projects, as well as critics' responses. She fearlessly develops a wide-ranging and idiosyncratic vocabulary -- conceptual, visual and verbal -- with projects including a Spatial Lexicon (a "Dictionary for functioning in a New Space"), New Time (a proposed "universal time scale without confusion"), and the Waterpod™ (billed as "a completely sustainable, navigable living space"). She also has a statement specifically addressing The (Kurzweil) Singularity, including this observation:
When people are imbedded with different forms of technology, from the wireless to the plastic to the drug, and when we procreate solely outside of the body, we just continue the abstraction from nature and person that began before the Greeks invented the cosmos.

Of all the work I've seen at her site, aside from the images above, I especially like the Wearable Home, designed for nomads, including a substantial future cohort of environmental refugees -- and downloadable patterns for producing your own.

Altogether, there's an interesting mixture of deadly seriousness and playful irony in this body of work, which from my point of view is highly appealing. With a freewheeling combination of lyricism, tragedy, hopefulness and wry comedy, it's hard to peg Mattingly down. Such are the tightropes the futurist needs to walk, and she does so with skill and grace.

Which brings to mind the words of my mentor, Jim Dator:
Should I be optimistic or pessimistic about the future?
I believe the answer is: neither. I should be aware and active.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The value of hypothetical currency

The science of money -- numismatics -- is not typically the bread and butter of futures discourse. But I'm impressed by coin designer Daniel Carr's hypothetical currency for a North American Union -- the "Amero".
Bruce Sterling's Beyond the Beyond blog picked up the story via World Net Daily (WND), which reported that:
Parody coin designer Daniel Carr has launched production of an "amero" coin which he is marketing to coin dealers and collectors.
"Like any artist I have to survive by selling my work," Carr said. "I have been reading about the amero and I started asking myself what I would come up with if I was in charge of minting the amero coin for the North American Union."
He is also known among collectors of privately minted coins for his parody state quarters.
Carr's calling card is a one dollar brass coin celebrating his anticipated election as the 45th president of the United States, designated as serving a term from 2017 to 2021.

Like the Amero, this tongue-in-cheek exercise in self-promotion is also a future artifact:

(From Carr's website: "Obverse self-portrait by Daniel Carr. 45th President, 2017-2021. To comply with US regulations, the reverse is marked 'S1' rather than '$1'.")

The WND article links to an organisation called the Unrecognised States Numismatic Society (USNS), "the first and only group catering to numismatists whose collecting interests largely focus on coins minted by groups purporting, pretending or appearing to be sovereign states, but which are not recognised as such by established governments."

This territory can be controversial. Mr Carr's website, in addition to selling these and various other designs, links to an exhaustive catalogue of micro-national and fantasy coins, maintained by numismatist Eric McCrea (USNS member #002). Writes McCrea of Carr's Amero designs:

Just days after the first pieces had been produced, members of at least one online numismatic forum were already suggesting, with some very hostile words, that Mr. Carr may be part of a conspiracy to replace the dollar under a global dictatorship. Mr. Carr, a member of that forum, replied: "Wow, I really stirred up a hornet's nest here...I guess the nest was just waiting all along and I just happened to be the one to stir it up."
We must bear in mind that Mr. Carr is an artist and he has to earn a living by selling his work. Amidst all the fuss, he reminded everyone that "The goal of any art work is to provoke some sort of thought or emotion."
In order to fully appreciate Mr. Carr’s Ameros, we must place them in the context of the North American Monetary Union (or North American Currency Union), a speculative entity in which the main countries of North America (Canada, the United States, and Mexico) would share a single/common currency. This idea, which has existed for many years, is based on the common European Union currency, the Euro. The hypothetical currency is sometimes referred to as the "amero", but I have also seen it referred to as the NAMU (North American Monetary Unit).

On the front page of Carr's website is a disclaimer, explaining further:

I have received numerous inquiries as to my personal stand on the North American Union (NAU) issue.

My goal with these coins is not to endorse a Union of North America or a common "Amero" currency. I fully support the United States Constitution, and I would not welcome (in any form) a diminishment of its provisions. I expect that these coins will help make more people aware of the issue and the possible ramifications. I leave it up to others to decide if they are in favor of, or against a North American Union. And I encourage citizens to voice their approval or disapproval of government plans that impact them.

It seems that Carr's "Amero" design has, perhaps unwittingly, administered a dose of future-shock therapy to parts of his audience.

So, a couple of quick remarks:

First, the symbolic importance and weight -- literally -- of coins (and objects struck in metal generally) make this a nice example of a simple, yet provocative, future artifact in 3D; standing out against a landscape where so much is done in 2D imagery. (The bronze memorial plaque for FoundFutures:Chinatown's "Bird Cage" scenario, our single most expensive artifact, drew part of its impact from that same sense of physical permanence or tangibility.) USNS again:

As well as fulfilling their basic fiscal function, coins have been used for several thousand years to advertise the legitimacy of the regimes that create them. Because they are seen as an important symbol of sovereign power, and because they are easily distributed, groups who aspire to, or who maintain pretensions to independence outside or in competition with established political structures - or who wish to promote some other agenda, be it commercial, cultural or social, frequently produce coins as useful tools of propaganda.

Currency is at once tangible, symbolic, and socially embedded. It's an icon with practical applications; with genuine social purchase (pun intended), and also carrying associations of identity and deep-seated commitment, similar to those borne by national flag and anthem. Which accounts for the hints of hysteria and ideology that seem to have attached to this phenomenon like a bad smell:
Fantasy coin my ass! Is this a government-sponsored disinformation site? Eat Sh*t
~Featured comment at the Amero Currency discussion website
Second, despite the oddly esoteric air and disreputable conspiracy-theory connotations around this topic (see Wikipedia's North American currency union article, editing of which was restricted at the time of writing this, owing to vandalism of the page); I think this is a particularly interesting example of a future artifact -- precisely because of its political charge.

As an outsider, one can only guess at whether this is a calculated bit of muckraking or a genuinely accidental foray into a "hornet's nest"; the other point is of course that what is "effective" (for getting attention) is at the same time ripe for misinterpretation. For me, the perennial question this raises is as follows: how can one bring to public attention genuinely difficult or sensitive issues (using futures artifacts or not) without being dismissed as wantonly provocative, irresponsible, or ideologically biased? That is, how should we be effectively radical? Says Carr: "The goal of any art work is to provoke some sort of thought or emotion." But how to draw the line between useful provocation and counterproductive pot-stirring?
I don't propose to answer that question here. But fantasy coin expert McCrea may shed a little light on the situation:
I believe that the existence of the Union of North America coinage is a very historic event, numismatically. Once in a blue moon, the line between "fantasy" coins and "real-world" coins becomes blurred. These Ameros truly reflect a realistic modern-day geo-political scenario, and I think they are definitely "crossover" pieces that will have major implications in our community that go far beyond the usual impact made by a typical privately minted coin.

However far the conversation gets this time, I think in principle he's already right.

When hypothetical artifacts assert a tangible presence in the world, there's an epistemologically ambiguous, yet politically important, moment in which we're called upon to grapple with their sudden thereness. We need to negotiate their meaning internally, and may discover with unexpected clarity what we really think about the possibilities they portend. A future artifact, erupting ahead of schedule into our consciousness, commands the type of attention normally reserved for a fait accompli. Therein lies its power.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Further long views

Long Views, the blog of the Long Now Foundation, tracks news, art and ideas related to large-scale and long-term thought and action. As Research Fellow of the Foundation I contribute occasionally, and am grateful for feedback as well as leads to interesting stories in this vein.

My recent posts:

Other regular contributors include Alexander Rose, Kevin Kelly, and Stewart Brand.

There is some worthwhile reading here for anyone concerned not only with cultivating the forward (futures) view, but with developing sensitivity to our macrohistorical context, the "long now" -- an antidote to the short now in which we otherwise tend to become trapped.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Fragments of a low carbon future

The UK's Forum for the Future has released a project called Low Carbon Living 2022. Its rationale:
A low carbon Britain doesn't have to mean cutbacks and sacrifice. Climate change is an enormous challenge. But if we respond in the right way, many of the changes we make could improve our quality of life.

Based on a literature review, and interviews with people campaigning for carbon reduction, they developed a series of visions -- scenario sketches depicting aspects of everyday life -- set in 02022. The selected date is, admirably, "far enough in the future for some new technologies to have become available and for progressive policies to be put in place, but similar enough to today to be recognisable".

I'm especially taken with some of the hypothetical products developed alongside the visions, and which feature throughout them -- nine new goods and services that could enable low carbon lifestyles. For instance, the Kinetica generates electrical current from body movement, to be used to power personal electronics or charge batteries. U-Grow provides equipment and training for growing produce in the small spare spaces in urban environments, and aggregates any surplus for sale to local customers.

The parting question posed under each product or service outline, to solicit public feedback, is "If this was a real service [or product], would you be interested?" This is an interesting approach, sort of a hybrid of focus-group product testing and scenario workshopping. This seems a useful way of doing long-range product planning -- and open sourcing promising elements -- for preferred futures. However, I'd be tempted to use more visual material ; some of the nine concepts are described in text only, while others have a pictorial counterpart, in the form of mocked-up advertisements, several of which appear at the top of this post. Concepts with an accompanying image appear to have attracted more feedback to date.

This seems to me a very constructive and carefully thought out project. It would be great -- though logistically difficult, perhaps -- to track whether and how these initiatives (together with others developed at the Low Carbon Living workshop) lead to development of actual products and services for a low carbon future.