Monday, September 29, 2008

Before getting ink, get pixels

Previz -- Tattoo project
Image: Loïc Zimmermann, via CGSociety (also here)

Yesterday I came across a fascinating example of visualisation, or multimedia-enabled forethought, applied in an unusual domain: illustrating the body.

French CG artist Loïc Zimmermann (a.k.a. e338) explains:

I've been thinking of having a tattoo for years and years now. Obviously I wanted to draw it by myself and I recently felt like I was ready for that.

As soon as i found a crazy guy capable (technicaly) of doing something really precise, I started the design process.
...
Since I wanted to do something really precise regarding the anatomy, I felt I could use a little help in order to be as close as possible to the reality.

My work at the moment consists in doing characters for a videoGame company, Quantic Dream, and to do so, after the casting is done, we use 3D scanners of the faces as a guideline for the modelling process.

I asked my fella Thierry, character supervisor there, if we could manage a scan session of my body and he said yeah ( I told you he's cool right?).

Patches from Zimmermann's body scan

A wireframe topology overlaid on the assembled scan

The ZBrush (digital sculpting software) version

The tattoo design, laid flat
Above images: Loic Zimmermann, via CGSociety (see also here)

A rendered digital version of the artist's body...

...with the tattoo added
[See also this version, and a closeup here]

Zimmermann has written about the whole process in a series of posts since mid-02007...

The work in progress, "après 11h de torture"
Photo via Loïc Zimmermann's blog

...announcing in March this year that this, his first tattoo, was complete.

After more than 39 hours of work... done.
Photo via Loïc Zimmerman's blog

First things first: this is a shockingly great piece of artwork. Quite a few comments at his blog are to the effect that "I never wanted a tattoo, now I do". I see where they're coming from.

Second, Zimmermann's is a really interesting, innovative use of 3D modelling. Whether you happen to be interested in tattoo art or not, this process for visually thinking out a high-stakes personal decision represents a mode of engaging possibility that until recently was unavailable. A number of online sources [e.g.1, e.g.2] seem to be labouring under the misconception that this is a brilliant new turnkey program "invented" to enable the tattoo-envying masses to look before they leap. Unless the misconception is mine, at this point it's more in the nature of an extremely labour intensive artistic and personal investment on Zimmermann's part, done for his own purposes. But it does also strike me as the kind of application idea that may well become available before too long (if in a somewhat crappy, attenuated form) to Joe and Jane Internet, using multi-angle webcam shots and user-uploaded designs.

In recent months, we've come across a few interesting instances of wearable foresight aids -- the old suit, the empathy belly, and the alertness enhancing device. We've also seen a concept design for sanitising a dystopian future with a less distressing appearance. Here is a contrasting example of prosthetic foresight, not to be worn on the body but to imagine its transformation; an ingenious and rather lovely artist's hack of 3D modelling tools, powerfully envisioning a future state for Zimmermann to contemplate during his 40-odd hours under the tattooist's needle.

The tattoo has apparently delivered on its promise. This month he made a start on part deux.

(via Yoso tattoo studio)

Update (11FEB10): I wrote in Sept '08: "it does also strike me as the kind of application idea that may well become available before too long (if in a somewhat crappy, attenuated form) to Joe and Jane Internet, using multi-angle webcam shots and user-uploaded designs."

Now the Internet says: "Have you ever wondered what a tattoo or multiple tattoos might look like on you? Why not try it out virtually before you really get it done! You can use pre-loaded pictures and body art or upload your own. Another way to try it before you buy it, and it's all for under $10 for a whole year." Link (Thanks Sarah!)

Related posts:
> Facing future
> Fatigue, irritability, and much, much more!

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.

Indeed.

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.)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Comedy ahead of its time

Screenshot of The Onion, 22 June 02056

Parody newspaper The Onion has a sterling back-issue (fore-issue?) online dated 02056, satirising future tropes left and right. It came out (in June 02005) before this blog got started, but even if you've seen it before, it's worth revisiting [link]...

  • Democratic Middle Eastern Union Votes To Invade U.S.

  • Final Installment of Frogger Trilogy poised to sweep Oscars

  • Leather-Clad Nomads Seize Power In Australia

  • Remainder of Ross Ice Shelf Now in Smithsonian Freezer

  • Opinion™ - We Need A Fourth Law of Robotics: Stop Fingering My Wife

Priceless.

Related posts:
> Satire's layers
> I read the news today, oh boy
> Tomorrow's headlines

(via Noise Between Stations)

Found: Redux

A U.S. bumper sticker in 02018
An element of "Found" from
Wired 16.10* slideshow

In the latest issue of Wired, Found is back; owing, it would seem, to popular demand.

The magazine has also decided henceforth to use a "wisdom of crowds" approach to generating content for the feature.

For the past six years, Wired magazine's Found page has presented our best guess at what lies over the horizon, from touchscreen windshields to organ farming. Turns out, this little exercise in futurism is one of your favorite pages (as we learned recently when it took a short sabbatical). So we've decided to turn Found over to our readers — what do you think our world will look like in 10, 20, or 100 years?

Each month, we'll propose a scenario. Then it's up you: Sketch out your vision, then go to wired.com/wired/found to upload your ideas, see other submissions, and vote for your favorites. We'll use the best suggestions as inspiration for a future Found page (giving full credit to the creators, of course).

Turning to readers for ideas rather than killing the feature for want of internally generated ones is, in my view, a very positive move, and probably overdue.

Still, I find the first assignment a little disappointing: "Imagine the future of the McDonald's Happy Meal."

Not to be a wet blanket, but this is not a "scenario". It's an open ended brand-based brainstorming task. No problem there, necessarily, but it's liable to be more interesting to that particular company than to anyone else. (And why McDonald's? I'd have thought that such a comprehensively culture-jammed entity would be better avoided, to reduce the odds of barrage of clichés. Now, granted; I used McDonald's myself just recently in a scenario to illustrate possible changes in the food system over the next decade. I did however select it freely from among a wide variety of possible approaches.)

Why am I making a point of this? Because in my experience pitching the design brief at the right level of abstraction makes a lot of difference to the quality of what people produce, especially across the set of submissions. The trick is to find enabling constraints, such that the hard edges set down are walls for the imagination to push off from, not tight lines to colour between. Ask the right question, and the variety of responses generated in parallel should be illuminating in its own right, yielding a crop of alternative images of possible futures, not just fodder for an "official" interpretation later. You want the variations in response to be meaningful and interesting. So permit variation along interesting dimensions: different futures for an established brand are likely to start cute, and get boring fast (except, as I've said, for the owners of the brand); on the other hand, variations on what comprises a meal is an incredibly rich site of human diversity. Think of all the wildly differing cultural responses to that problem: now, applying that kind of anthropological thinking over time is key to the art of futuring. Helping other people do that is also an art.

So what? Well, for a future artifact design task, unless this is an exercise in product placement, in which case brand is all important, I'd suggest that the Happy Meal assignment both underspecifies and overspecifies at the same time. Solution to the latter problem: a looser (less constrained) subject, more open to an interesting multiplicity of interpretations (e.g., the future of fast food; or lunch; or snacking; or ways to spend five dollars). Solution to the former problem: a more specific timeframe (e.g., a meal in 02019, as in the warmup task for Superstruct) or hint about the type of scenario (e.g., fast food in a post-Singularity world).

Also, the display format for entries (squashed into a box inset at the bottom) does not display readers' contributions to their best advantage. How about them getting their own page, collectively if not individually? Should the new strategy for generating contributions prove successful, I would expect that to change.

Still, meanwhile we can welcome this encouraging sign that Wired realises where some of its best ideas are likely to come from in future.

Related posts:
> Is Found really lost?
> Future-jamming 101

(via Metafilter)

* 16.09 on the header seems to be a typo, the October edition is 16.10.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Play money

#6 Soylent Corp.
Headquarters: New York, N.Y. | Industry: Processed & Packaged Goods
CEO: William R. Simonson | Est. 2007 sales: $157.1 billion
"Exclusive provider of U.S. government synthetic-food rations. [...] Rumors abound regarding composition of the tasty, brightly colored wafers; Soylent Corp. describes them as "a miracle food of high-energy plankton," but critics claim they might be made of something less appetizing."
[Forbes | IMDB]

U.S. business magazine Forbes ("The Capitalist Tool") is famous for lists such as the annual "Forbes 400" which ranks America's wealthiest 400 individuals.

Back in December, Forbes published for the first time a suprisingly playful, and deeply geeky feature on "The Forbes Fictional 15" [article], a sort of alternate reality rich-list topped by Scrooge McDuck. It was accompanied by a ranking of "The 25 Largest Fictional Companies" [slideshow], in which a hodgepodge of sci-fi and fantasy corporate creations from literature, cinema and cartoons vie for the top spot. Just like in real life!

It came as a surprise to find so deadly serious a subject as money treated with almost cavalier levity by these guys.

Then, on second thought, it struck me as stunningly appropriate that fictional corporations -- the explicitly made-up counterparts to those astonishing artificial entities that comprise some of the most significant protagonists in the fantastical otherworld of the global economy -- be given the league-table treatment. Finance is a game, after all.

#1 Combine Honnete Ober Advancer Mercantiles (CHOAM)
Pharmaceuticals giant featured in Dune.

#4 MomCorp
Intra-solar conglomerate featured in Futurama.

#10 Tyrell Corp.
Maker of highly realistic androids, featured in Blade Runner.

#14 Umbrella Corp.
Shadowy London-based pharmaceutical company featured in Resident Evil.

#20 Cyberdyne Systems Corp.
Defence contractor featured in The Terminator.

#25 Spacely Space Sprockets
Cosmo Spacely's sprocket manufacturing concern, featured in The Jetsons.

Incidentally, the (entirely serious) 02008 Forbes 400 was published yesterday, and the total net worth of the 400 amounted to $1.57 trillion. According to my calculations using figures from the World Bank ["GDP 2007" pdf], that's more than the aggregate 02007 Gross Domestic Product of two thirds of the world's countries -- all but 61 of 185, or to say it another way, every economy from Croatia on down -- put together.

I think I prefer the fictional list.

(via Noise is Information)

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

If you want to live you will obey


This morning I took part in a mini-ARG (alternate reality game) called "Eagle Eye: Free Fall", part of a viral promotional strategy for an upcoming movie whose tagline, "If you want to live you will obey", says about as much as needs to be said about its tone of high-stakes intrigue.

All you need is a telephone, a web-connected computer, and ten spare minutes to play. It drew me in right away. So, if you have those things, stop reading this and do it now (although I'm afraid it's probably set up for U.S. customers only; hope I'm wrong about that).

As usual, it's not the specific content so much as the potential of the medium which grabs me. This particular "game", which could more accurately be thought of as a moderately interactive multimedia show, seems to have garnered the approval of the ARG community, and considering its brevity, "Eagle Eye Freefall" does deliver the goods. The coolest part is the simultaneity of Internet and telephone interactivity. Things happen unexpectedly and yet right on cue, which generates a thrilling sense that's hard to describe, but to me it's something like resonance, synchronicity or immersively "being there". Similar to a feeling conjured at certain moments in an urban audio walk.

The repeatability, hence scalability (because of automation) of this immersive-yet-personal mode of storytelling, and particularly the way it railroads the player into pre-scripted behaviour, also made me think of a novel I read a week or two ago, Daemon by Leinad Zeraus (a.k.a. Daniel Suarez). The premise is that a computer game-designing genius unleashes a mind-bogglingly sophisticated bot (automated software program) when he dies, activating a fiendish plan with far-reaching consequences. Suarez elaborated on the real-life concerns behind his Crichtonesque fiction in a recent Seminar About Long-term Thinking for The Long Now Foundation [mp3, 35.9Mb].

Something about this automated ARG performance, and the way it recruits and requires one's cooperation, lends additional plausibility to the chilling , if far-fetched, vision Suarez lays out.

By the way, did I mention the game is really fun? Check it out.

Related posts:
> Humans have 23 years to go
> London's burning

(Thanks Simeon!)

Friday, September 12, 2008

In memoriam

A priest pays tribute to Dirk Diggler (Eddie Adams) at his memorial service, 11 March 02025
[Image via coquedesign2000's Flickr photostream]

On 11 March, Jake Dunagan and I staged one of four experiential scenarios set in the year 02025 for the annual South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) festival in Austin, Texas. A trio of fellow future-mongers, Jamais Cascio (Open the Future), Wayne Pethrick (Pitney Bowes), and panel coordinator Michele Bowman (Global Foresight Associates), each devised and presented their own immersive fragment of a different 02025 in the same session. Thus was the audience for "Futurists' Sandbox" serially bombarded with a quartet of alternative futures exploring possible directions for social networking technology.

Together, the five of us had sketched out four very different settings to ensure maximum diversity in the ideas we would present. Jake and I chose to breathe life into the one dubbed "mobilisation", which resembled the generic image of the future that we usually call "discipline" at Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies. Back in March, Jake posted a detailed description of the scenario and its theatrical translation at the HRCFS blog, in two segments, and the quotations below are his:

Combining our concern with expanding IP [intellectual property] rights and their impact on expression and freedom, we decided to integrate elements of the aesthetic economy, IP expansion, and surveillance culture--thus creating a disturbing totalitarian corporate-state.
...
[W]e chose to tell the story of the locked-down Dream Society through a eulogy for Eddie Adams, aka Dirk Diggler from P.T. Anderson's film Boogie Nights [i.e., the central character played by Mark Wahlberg].

Our experiential scenario, a memorial service for pornstar-turned-copyfighter Dirk Diggler, was advertised at SXSW with "in-world" flyers...
[Photo: Stuart Candy]

...dated 02025.
[Design: Eliot Frick]

There was no indication in the SXSW festival materials that our group would be 'performing' scenes from our scenarios, and, after some debate, we decided not to preface the panel with an explanation of the method. This was a risky choice, and with access to the active twitterati and audience members commenting live on the SXSW Meebo chatrooms, we could see that the reaction to the panel was mixed, but passionate. Still, for what might be risked in subverting audience expectation, we feel this performative, immersive technique is much more effective at engaging the audience at both emotional and intellectual levels—creating an unusual, thought-provoking and memorable event.

For those who haven't seen Boogie Nights (01997), the movie chronicles, with documentary plausibility, the rags-to-riches story of a surburban LA busboy whose astonishing endowment in the trouser department leads him to become a 01970s porn icon. Our scenario picked up Diggler's tale where the movie leaves off in the mid-80s, with the protagonist battling alcoholism and impotence. In our hands, his career then weathers a fallow period, during which he sells the rights to the image and likeness of his famous 13-inch member to a dildo company. Years later, in the 01990s, thanks to Viagra he revives his flagging fortunes and re-enters the porn movie business. Things seem to be going swimmingly, until the early 2010s when the long-anticipated technology of teledildonics (virtual sex) comes of age, and his attempt to market the virtual experience of sex with the enviably well-hung Dirk Diggler runs aground. These entrepreneurial efforts are met with a lawsuit by Disney, the company which (in our *hypothetical scenario*) has, via a series of mergers and acquisitions, come into possession of property in his penis. The case drags on for years, eventually finding its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Diggler/Adams fights it with everything he's got. Ultimately, he loses the case, as the court's expansionist reading of the rights he signed away for dildoes in a moment of weakness are deemed also to cover the haptic experience of sex with the "Diggler" character, as well as revenue from his post-contract comeback catalogue of pornographic performances. Eddie Adams, dispossessed of his very manhood by the ubiquitous corporate surveillance and lockdown of intellectual property, dies in 02025, beaten but unbowed. He is a hero of the embattled "copyfight" movement in an America where market logic has come to infuse every social transaction.

It was a lot to try to convey all this experientially in 15 minutes (one quarter of the hour-long session), but we figured it as an interesting twist on a story and character that many in the audience would recognise. By no means was it the stand-and-deliver panel discussion format that many had expected.

So, when people entered the auditorium, they were greeted by sombre organ music, a suitably reverential arrangement of ELO's "Living Thing", from the Boogie Nights soundtrack (arranged and prerecorded by our talented friend John Maus). This was the first element of immersion in our memorial service for Eddie Adams, to be followed by impassioned eulogies by his priest (me), lawyer (Jake), and erstwhile co-star, Rollergirl (the incomparable Sandy Stone, who lives in Austin and graciously agreed to be involved).

The presentation was six months ago yesterday, and this post is long overdue (mea culpa). One reason for that is I'd been hoping, at first, for some video of the panel to surface, since the material shot on an ancient Hi-8 camera by our friends at the back of the hall didn't turn out. We do however have components from the slideshow we produced to accompany the Diggler eulogies, to provide a little more flavour...




Above: some nostalgic shots from Rollergirl's Polaroid archive
[Images: Captured
from Boogie Nights by Stuart Candy, composited by Matthew Jensen]

An automated copyright protection system prevents unauthorised / unpaid glimpses of the Diggler jewels
[Image: Stuart Candy, captured from
Boogie Nights]

Copyfight Protesters turn out in droves supporting the Adams/Diggler bid to ressert rights to his famous appendage
[Round placards design: Melissa Jordan, Pinkergreen
Found image: Stuart Candy | Compositing: Eliot Frick]

Outside the Supreme Court, Eddie Adams reflects on the judges' decision
[Found image: Stuart Candy, via Caroline Bonarde Ucci's Flickr photostream
Aged by Melissa Jordan, Pinkergreen]

Eddie Adams, copyfight hero, at the sunset of his life
[Image captured from Shooter by Stuart Candy
Aged by Melissa Jordan, Pinkergreen]

The other three presentations were wildly different, both from ours and from each other.

Wayne's was a slick corporate presentation by Datapoints.net, a shadowy, all-seeing data aggregation enterprise (with a real website that you can find here):

Screenshot from Datapoints.net, a successful personal data aggregation and marketing site in 02025
[Design: Wayne Pethrick]

Michele's took the form of a charity auction benefiting the "Make A Friend Foundation" (for kids who can't afford to join Facebook), featuring a number of coveted future products and services on which attendees could bid.




Some of the items under the charity auctioneer's hammer of Michele Bowman in 02025
[Designs by Pinkergreen | Images via FringeHog]

Finally, Jamais staged an other-worldly ultimatum from a hive-mind called "The Chorus". The question for audience members: will you join, or will you opt out?

Screenshot from "The Chorus"
[Performed by Jamais Cascio
Audio available in full [mp3, 6.4Mb) here, via Open the Future]

Looking back six months later, what Jamais wrote at Open the Future on the day of the show still resonates:

The futurists' panel was... weird.

No, scratch that. It was freaking bizarre.

Indeed it was. From my point of view, that's partly because of the frenzied preparation which took up the entire time from flying into Austin until going onstage. Combined with which, of course, the content was somewhat surreal (twenty-four hours before the panel, our shopping list included dry ice, a 13-inch dildo, and a priest's outfit). Also, more poignantly, although we had decided long beforehand on the memorial setting for this experiential scenario, in the previous week both Jake and I had been obliged to attend funeral services in the wake of real bereavements.

Life's ironies can be pretty extraordinary.

In any case, thanks are due to all who made this possible, including our hosts in Austin; our talented designer friends who helped bring the story to life; guest star Sandy Stone (for her compelling portrayal of Rollergirl, at ridiculously short notice); and of course our fellow futurist panelists who boldly agreed to immerse the audience in these four 02025s, FoundFutures guerrilla-style.

It made for an experience that I, for one, won't ever forget.

Related posts:
> Experiential scenarios on video
> Found futures
> More found futures
> McChinatown

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Future-jamming 101

Poster design by Media/Continuation group
Students from Introduction to Political Science 110 and Beginning Digital Imaging 400
University of Hawai'i at Manoa, Spring 02008

Design and installation: Media/Continuation | Photo: Claire Schulmeister

A text-heavy entry, this one, but the need to document my recent experience teaching futures and design has been hounding me of late, so I wanted to get something out there before the dissertation commitments nipping at my heels sink their teeth in.

In the leadup to last semester (Spring 02008) I was invited to teach an introductory political science course at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, where I’m doing my PhD in the same department.

I inquired about whether there was anything in particular I needed to include, or avoid, and the answer was no: I would have free rein to shape the syllabus my own way.

Irresistible.

So I set myself the goal of constructing the most interesting course possible. I wanted to engage students in the exploration and expression of ideas, in a politically relevant way (broadly construed), and to do it through an alternative futures lens.

After personal introductions done via freestyle rap (which I can commend to teachers as embarrassing but effective), the first substantive task we undertook was to survey everyone’s understanding of "politics". The parade of notions about traditional institutions and processes engaged in the conventional exercise of power was not at all unexpected. But the agenda was to bust open the notion that politics happens only, or even primarily, on the campaign trail and the voting booth.

The way we set about doing that was by considering the whole of our discursive lives -- the "mental commons", to use the phrase of an Adbusters article I set early on (reproduced here); or "mental real estate", in the words of a Hollywood screenwriter -- as politically charged: the stories told or not told, the ideas promoted or occluded, the interests privileged or marginalised. (For those with a theoretical bent, I was drawing on the politics of aesthetics of Jacques Rancière: thinking of the "political" as redistribution of the sensible, i.e. of the perceptual order.)

Together with art instructor Scott Groeniger, who miraculously was scheduled to teach an introductory class in digital imaging in the same timeslot (Tuesday and Thursday mornings), a couple of buildings over, I put together a plan for "Future Jamming 101" which would enable his art students and my politics students to put their heads together and actually intervene in their mental environment, in their own way. (Scott and I had been talking for a few months about a potential collaboration, ever since we’d met when some of his artwork was featured in the same 02007 exhibition as FoundFutures: Chinatown, at Honolulu gallery The Arts at Marks Garage.)

A few aspects of the class were deliberately experimental and may be worth recording for others to build upon. And, since I had asked my students to conclude their semester with a brief "Reflections" paper looking at the approach they had taken in their culminating group projects, and evaluating what they had learned from that process, I figured I ought to do likewise. So here, slightly belated -- the whole summer has passed by now -- are my Reflections on the exercise we undertook together. I've tried to include details here which may assist other instructors to formulate a comparable exercise, so my apologies are due to the general readership, to the extent that such details are less than exhilarating.

The purpose of our "future jamming" project was to teach students futures thinking, in an active, hands-on manner, such that they would have an opportunity not only to master the basics of alternative futures, but also to apply them in a satisfying, and hopefully impactful, way.

It seemed sensible to do this by having them do something like what Jake Dunagan and I had done quite a few times – bring futures thinking and designers together to manifest possible scenarios.

We borrowed the term "future jamming" from Australia-based futurist Jose Ramos (a coinage parallel to "culture jamming"), whose energetic advocacy of the radicalisation of foresight communication -- in conversations a few years ago, as well as in print meanwhile -- has stayed with me. The trick here was, it seemed to me, to scale up the approach Jake and I had developed in collaborating with designers on our series of "FoundFutures" experiential scenario projects (e.g., postcards, Chinatown, South by Southwest, and most recently the Wattis Gallery).

The steps for the project panned out as follows. (These seem slightly more distinct in retrospect than they were at the time.)
> forming groups and selecting topics
> generating scenarios
> devising and producing artifacts expressing those scenarios
> installing materials and recording responses
> evaluating the projects

With about 20 students in each class, the joint sessions would be jam-packed, as neither of our assigned classrooms was big enough to accommodate everyone comfortably, and so we didn't want to risk having an untried format eat up too many weeks. We settled on a schedule which had our two groups meeting for the two sessions in the week before spring break, developing their ideas over that break, and then meeting and working together for the three weeks (six sessions) to follow. Each politics class was 75 minutes long. Scott’s classes ended at the same time as ours, but started more than an hour earlier, which was extremely helpful in production week -- students needed all the time they could get.

Session 1: Briefing. The purpose, aspirations, and timeline of our future-jamming project were set out. This included an introduction to the four generic images of the future [Dator], culture jamming and future jamming, and showcasing similar projects to kickstart thinking around possible approaches.

Session 2: Forming teams. Facilitated by the instructors, students brainstormed a long list domains of interest (futures of "X"), and we used a voting process to whittle it down to two: Energy and Media. The joint group was then split in two, and individuals were assigned more or less at random (with sensitivity to arts/politics representation in each) to one of four sub-groups within their domain; eight groups altogether. So, everyone ended up in a small team of four or five, assigned to a domain (energy or media), and a generic future for that domain (continuation, collapse, discipline or transformation: the "four generic images of the future"). The time horizon for scenarios was put at approximately 30 years.

Sessions 3 & 4: Building scenarios, devising artifacts. The students had two sessions to work with their groups to develop the content of their assigned scenario, with instructors’ troubleshooting as necessary. The main criteria for building these scenarios were that groups should find a story to tell that they themselves found interesting, and that might be ridiculous at first sight, but which would seem quite plausible on closer inspection (following Dator's second law [pdf]). Happily, we were able to access a large art production room with enough space and chairs for all eight groups to convene. By the end of the week they turned in a half-page narrative of their scenario, together with a shortlist of intended artifacts or experiential interventions which could express it. So, for example, the Media/Transformation group submitted the following:

Scenario

It is the year 2038. Multiple devices are no longer necessary for communication. Mobile communication and internet access is consolidated into a chip half the size of a dime that is implanted into the brain. This tiny chip is connected to the neural passages that allow all the senses to be fully integrated into the user’s communication experience. Our newest product has proven physically and mentally safe for several hundred users, and several new features have been added.

The chip was made in 2018 by Hans Fineman of Fineman Universal Corporation initially made as a prototype for the United States Armed Services to be used to communicate during warfare. By 2035 a consumer form of the chip is distributed in select countries and several companies by that time made compatible content available to subscribers.

Materials

A printed business card flyer with a url
A website with information


That's exactly what the group went on to do (whereas the plans of most others, especially the more ambitious ones, changed as time marched by).

Website promo card design: Media/Transformation | Photo: Stuart Candy

Sessions 5 & 6: Production. We moved our operation to a computer room in the art school, since the equipment was necessary for the graphic design of almost every artifact produced. Space was tight but energy high. During this phase, Scott in particular dealt with an astonishing variety of challenges as people sought to translate their ideas into tangible pieces.

Media/Collapse group's posters in production | Photo: Stuart Candy

Poster design: Media/Collapse

Session 7: Installation and recording. Students had resolved to do their installations largely on campus at UH-Manoa. Output ranged from a website selling brain-implanted communication devices (and promotional materials distributed to drive traffic there); to magnets affixed to cars’ gas-cap covers, reminders drivers about the phasing out of gasoline in 02038; to a candle-lit surfboard memorial for a dissident Hawaiian felled by Chinese occupiers. And so on. They were asked to document intensively so their efforts might be preserved for posterity.

Session 8: Conclude installation, group presentations and debriefing. Each group did a powerpoint presentation on their scenario and its manifestation. Everyone who had been steadily immersed in their own project finally had an opportunity to see what their counterparts, assigned to the other domain, or to the other three futures within their own domain, had been doing.

Installation of designs by Energy/Transformation group | Photo: Stuart Candy

Design: Energy/Transformation | Photo: Stuart Candy

Some lessons (not exhaustive):

1. Clear constraints enable creativity. The 22 undergraduates who wound up in my class were on the whole extremely gracious about not getting the standard introduction to politics that many of them had, reasonably enough, anticipated (especially in the midst of an upcoming U.S. presidential election). I wouldn’t change anything there, but I certainly would recommend making clear to students how an unorthodox task like this fits into whatever else they might be expecting. There were occasional complaints about insufficient instruction in the assignment, but I tried to be forthcoming about the reason for leaving so much to the groups’ discretion. It seems to me that for an exercise such as this, the guidelines for scenario-building and deadlines for each phase are best treated as clear and strict, to enable maximum innovation (and concomitant assuming of responsibility) within the degrees of freedom thereby laid down.

2. Randomly assigned groups are a crapshoot. Like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get. Some teams needed closer attention than others where, for instance, production skills were less well developed. So it goes.

3. Every installation strategy has its tradeoffs. I would love to see more output ranging beyond print artifacts. Since this was a digital imaging collaboration (rather than, say, a theatre class), output understandably leaned towards print and web. Even so, in previous FoundFutures outings we have found print posters and brochures to be (along with websites) the cheapest, easiest, media to use for future artifacts -- or at least the ones lying squarely on the path of least resistance. More varied and imaginative approaches are possible, but they may require more opportunity for planning than print and web production, which lend themselves to last-minute execution. Tradeoffs emerge. Easy installations are also easily undone (most posters in non-designated areas were immediately torn down; while some of those placed on bulletin boards remained for weeks). Highly visible and impactful setups may also be highly vulnerable (the Media/Collapse group's guerrilla "memorial" installed in the campus centre was short-lived; they were moved along unsympathetically by nearby staff). Permission can clear the way to more striking interventions, but it takes time, and risks a negative answer. Examples: Media/Discipline wanted to display an "official" instructional presentation about “redeeming media rations” in Hawaii, 02030) on flatscreen TVs in the campus centre; meanwhile, Media/Continuation had the marvellous idea of taking over a campus vending machine, or at least one or two of its slots, with their 02038 product, iDream pills (in rebranded tic-tac packets). These were both great concepts that didn’t eventuate: official clearance impossible in the short time available.

4. Under-documentation is a pitfall. Lots of photos don’t turn out, so when you're working in digital, there's no such thing as taking too many. If I did it all again, I’d want to devote more attention to helping students install and record their interventions. (That phase spilled over from the original intended single date, session seven, into the following class -- a time issue, on which see more below.) Not every group will be blessed with an experienced photographer, so it may even be worthwhile bringing in others to follow and document the groups’ work during installation (and, particularly, the encounters of unsuspecting members of the public with the artifacts). Not filming, photographing, interviewing, or actively promoting as much as we might have is a familiar problem from several FoundFutures projects, and in truth even with experience it hasn't become any easier to remedy by our own efforts, because the logistical pressure of performance always seems to push these to the background. Help would be great to have for this phase.

5. Time is always short. This isn’t all we did during the semester: there were 16 weeks, and the project I’ve outlined here took up just four of them. (The spring break didn’t in fact result in any progress. It’s not clear that anything much gets done outside of class time; certainly I would not want to count on it.) Overall, I think it could certainly have been spread out over a longer period, and the quality of the work would benefit from a slightly more leisurely pace. At a minumum, if I were to do it again I’d try for two weeks of production time rather than one. A lot begins to shift, and thus requires room to adapt, as you concretise a scenario’s abstractions.

6. It worked. The interaction of art/design-trained people and newbie futurists (who, despite their newness to the field, brought diverse experience in other areas to the table) generated the kind of energy that I'd hoped for, and that typically characterises creative interdisciplinary work. The end-semester feedback from students was extremely positive, and happily, suggested that our plans (of engaging them via hands-on expression of their ideas) had borne some fruit.

To anyone interested in knowing more, educators in particular, may I suggest taking a look at our class blog "alternativity" (which has been a public document from day one), and I'd be delighted to pass on the syllabus. Let's bring other voices to this ongoing conversation about making futures tangible via design.

Designs, installation and photo: Energy/Collapse

Website: Energy/Discipline

Gas cover magnet design: Energy/Discipline
See also Ka Leo [campus newspaper] report

Poster designs and installation: Media/Discipline | Photo: Stuart Candy

Poster design: Energy/Continuation

Production week in full swing | Photo: Stuart Candy

Thanks to all the students in my Intro to Political Science section; you were a pleasure to teach. A hearty cheers to Scott Groeniger, a willing and highly skilled collaborator, and his intrepid troupe of digital imagers; and also to Jim Dator for setting a fine example which informed so much of what I tried to do in the classroom.

Related posts:
> Design fiction is a fact
> Behold: a disturbing hole!
> Why the language of design must enter law and politics

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The compleat Wired future artifacts gallery, 02002

Below, find the first year of Wired magazine's innovative, though now defunct,* back-page feature "Found: artifacts from the future", which started in the February 02002 issue.

Since the online archive for "Found" goes back only as far as November 02004, at the time of posting I don't believe these tasty morsels are available anywhere else on the web.

Bon appétit.

[parking ticket] | Wired 10.02

[DNA drink] | Wired 10.03

[house seeds] | Wired 10.04

[safe-food menu] | Wired 10.05

[skin-graft bandages] | Wired 10.06

[bio-investigation report] | Wired 10.07

[therapy flowers] | Wired 10.08

[robot manual] | Wired 10.09

[personalised cereal] | Wired 10.10

[rebirths column] | Wired 10.11

[holographic xmas tree] | Wired 10.12


*Update (31/01/09): Just to be clear -- reports of the demise of the segment were later found to have been greatly exaggerated.

Related posts:
> Found 02003 | 02004 | 02005 | 02006 | 02007
> Hawai'i: The lost years
> FoundFutures (Chinatown) The Bird Cage | Green Dragon | McChinatown
> Found futures (Postcards from 02036)