Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Your destiny is no longer in question

Above, two videos from NEXTgencode, "the industry leader in personal genetic life enhancement" [link > About Us].

These ads, and the website to which they point, were part of a promotional campaign for sci-fi writer Michael Crichton's 02006 novel Next.

A Wall Street Journal article at that time examined the hazards of hoax-like advertising material that manifests, so to speak, fragments of the in-scenario universe.

Fake videos are part of a broader trend in marketing involving the creation of pseudo events or phony organizations aimed at sparking buzz among fans. Among big marketers to take similar steps are Volkswagen AG's Audi brand and Walt Disney Co.'s ABC TV network.
ABC is still studying in the impact of its fake-marketing campaign [for TV series Lost].
Such efforts are known as "alternate reality games." They tantalize consumers with a mysterious story line, then ask them to explore more deeply.

To gauge the success of these marketing ploys, advertisers will typically examine consumer posts on blogs and elsewhere on the Web and see if they sound positive or negative, according to David Cohen, an executive at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Universal McCann.

~Jeffrey Trachtenberg and Brian Steinberg, "Believe It or Not, Fake Biotech Firm Is Key Marketing Ploy for Crichton Novel", Wall Street Journal, 16 November 02006

Online videos may still be relatively new, but Crichton has long used material of (if I may put it this way) ambiguous facticity to prop up the conceits of his science fiction. The first novel he published under his own name (The Andromeda Strain, 01969) was garnished with plausible, yet fabricated, scientific-looking footnotes. Back in high school, the first book of his I read (Jurassic Park, 01990) strove for and, I think, achieved terrific verisimilitude in the same way; using the false document technique.

So, I read Next sometime in the last year. The characters are thin, and the plot is less than convincing; it's certainly not his best work. I do, however, really like this playful use of quasi-documentary material to draw potential readers into a story which, like much of Crichton's fiction, although set in the present day, is predicated on the idea that cutting-edge technology is considerably more potent than you realise. In other words, the promotional medium matches the message, which is, as the book's blurb puts it, "The future is closer than you think." The brief moment when one is taken in by the video(s) or website -- if it happens this way for you -- thereby entertaining the reality of the fictitious premise, may be accompanied by a minor shock that such a thing could be possible, or already here (future-shock therapy).

Now, from a foresight communication perspective, there's a tricky balance to be struck in all this, which we face in designing experiential or immersive scenarios. The depiction of a near-term future may come across as more urgent, more frightening (for example), and more likely to be mistaken for actual fact, while being less responsive to intervention (since there's less time to do something about it); whereas a further-out scenario, in terms of timeline and plausibility, may allow more scope for action (i.e., avoid or pursue), yet could be less likely to seem salient, and hence to find or engage an audience. This dilemma may be of little concern where the primary goal is to entertain, but it's important for a futurist attempting to generate present-day traction for real problems and opportunities on (or over) the horizon. Only once have I been involved in experientially manifesting a scenario that could on closer inspection still be regarded as plausibly happening at that moment, as opposed to decades into the future; it gained attention, but as much for the strategy itself as for the issues it raised [link]. I've also seen scenaric possibilities that would be far more impactful in reality being dismissed or ignored altogether, where they are understood from the beginning as "art", or a mere "exercise".

In-scenario communication elements can draw criticism for their supposed deceptive qualities, even though often, as with this particular example, the dislocation isn't meant to last, and it's not at all difficult to debunk. From the WSJ article:

HarperCollins says the approach reflects Mr. Crichton's innovative style and is intended to be provocative and mysterious. "It's not about fooling people," says Kathy Schneider, associate publisher of the HarperCollins imprint. "It's about creating a playful add-on to the book."

Well, I guess the publisher would have to say that, even if it weren't the case. Another view, from Steve Bryant of The Hollywood Reporter [original; subscription required]:

Don't call HarperCollins' plan a hoax, though. That's ascribing too much narrative depth to a transparent scheme that isn't intended to fool the doggedly curious but to coddle the easily bemused. Rather, HarperCollins' plan is more of a "faux hoax," a mystery that winks at you. Subtle enough to be interesting and transparent enough to be followed, the videos gin up interest and eventual sales.

It all depends on how it's done; but such campaigns raise questions about to what degree, or for how long, an audience is "deceived", and also what ethical (or legal) consequences may flow from this. Jake Dunagan and I maintain that, in many cases, "it makes more sense to be surprised by a simulation than blindsided by reality" [see comments]. Still, both the "boy who cried wolf" syndrome (where people become inured to false alarms), and people's justifiably adverse reactions to the sense of having someone try to fool them, are hazards of working in this space.

The tagline "Your destiny is no longer in question", at the top of this post, is a semi-sinister figment of NEXTgencode's fictitious in-scenario website. It's one of several elements about the videos and site that satirically represent the intrusion of genetic science into our lives (with what combination of serious and jocular intent, it's hard to tell). And it's arguably more interesting for these -- what are they; future? alternate-reality? however you cut it, ambiguous -- artifacts to occupy a grey zone than to profess an earnest black-or-white adherence to either ideology or comedy. Not that they're brilliant, but from a public discourse perspective they are probably more effective and interesting (though much less profitable) than the book. Bryant again:

A clever Web hoax is the kind of ancillary content that can be even more useful and engaging than the original content itself.


The irony here is that Crichton, a veteran of these epistemological borderlands, has publicly emphasised the importance of being able to separate the two in the midst of our info-glutted media environment. In a 02003 speech which made an impression on me when I came across it online several years ago, he says:

The greatest challenge facing mankind is the challenge of distinguishing reality from fantasy, truth from propaganda. Perceiving the truth has always been a challenge to mankind, but in the information age (or as I think of it, the disinformation age) it takes on a special urgency and importance.

The original context has to do with certain claims of environmentalists which he characterises as ideologically driven and overblown (while others make much the same argument about his sceptical stance on climate change), but the epistemic challenge he points out remains valid and troubling.

Still, I disagree that it is the most important issue we face. Arguably its equal is the transformative power of our socio-technical process, coupled with our collective unwillingness to take responsibility for its possible outcomes. The melding of fact and fiction, the rigorous exercise of the imagination, the practise of futures studies, have much to offer here. And as alternate reality games, and massively multiplayer forecasting, continue to come into their own, I wonder if more of us will see some value in the deliberate -- not mischievous or pranksterish, but deliberate and temporary -- dimming of the too-bright border between fact and fiction. Where our "destiny" is always in question.

This is where the future lives.

[NEXTgencode videos and website]

Related posts:
> Don't break the universe
> Behold: a disturbing hole!

(Thanks for reminding me about this one, Matt.)

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