Showing posts with label storytelling. Show all posts
Showing posts with label storytelling. Show all posts

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Apocalypse for one

Image via.

"If the world ended tomorrow, would you be happy with how you've lived your life?" 

A recent program by British hypnotist and television personality Derren Brown recently made this question the basis for an immersive experience created to convince one individual that the end of the world as we know it had arrived.

Twenty-one year-old self-confessed layabout Steven Brosnan was, unbeknownst to him, selected from among thousands of candidates, primed over several weeks for the outlandish scenario about to unfold, and then thrust into a calculatedly harrowing experience designed to teach him to really value his life. The whole thing was then broadcast on national television in the UK as a two-part special.

A consummate showman, Brown has created a number of ingenious made-for-TV experiments before. Three in particular were previously recommended to me with great enthusiasm - The Heist, The System, and Derren Brown Plays Russian Roulette Live - by my friend Jane McGonigal, a designer of what (a few years ago were called) alternate reality games. ARGs are (were?) a class of interactive role-play to which the nifty transmedia narrative stunt at hand bears more than a passing resemblance.

Derren Brown: Apocalypse designs a complex experiential arc around just one person. So evidently a key challenge was identifying the right candidate; someone who, as Brown says: "...currently leads a self-centered existence, and who takes his life, his friends, his family and material comforts all for granted. I'm hoping he'll be able to learn from the meticulously crafted experience I'm going to put him through. And by taking everything away from him, I hope to make him recognise the value of what he has."

The elaborate setup involved getting his entire family to play along, hacking their smartphones and doctoring media feeds to make the signs of impending disaster increasingly frequent, and then finally transitioning the subject into a fully immersive situation which he didn't know was hypothetical. Therefore throughout, amid all the actors and family members involved, he's the only one who doesn't realise he's on camera. Think Orson Welles's 1938 War of the Worlds radio play meets The Truman Show.

I won't describe the whole program blow by blow. If the description appeals, you'll be well entertained and should check it out yourself (video embedded below). Also, my thoughts shared after the break will contain spoilers and may not make complete sense if you haven't seen Apocalypse.

Now, futures as a field, I'd say, shares with education as a whole a common presumption at their heart that virtual experience can be as valuable as real. (Unfortunately, only a small proportion of education encounters are designed for maximum experiential impact. The same could be said of foresight.) Yet, even when carried out according to the most uninspired and dull-as-dishwater of conventions -- chalk-and-talk in the classroom; ploddingly written scenarios in the futures world -- both implicitly have an underlying faith in simulation (or for futures, simulacrum). Put another way, that article of faith is that you can learn from a situation that is constructed, that's not entirely real.

Such is Brown's basic supposition here, too, the plan being to simulate global catastrophe as "teachable moment" for Steven. The idea is that someone's life can be transformed by an encounter that, even though faked or engineered, presents as real to them, and so produces genuine revelation. And that's just what happens, or what seems to happen, in Apocalypse. We might say Brown's goal is to create an experiential learning journey (here, it's explicitly modeled on The Wizard of Oz, a classic "hero's journey" as in Joseph Campbell's mythic/archetypal Jungian framework). It's a thoroughly ingenious concept for a television narrative, and entertaining as all get out to watch. Yet I've also had a creeping sense that it's not entirely successful in the execution, and I've been trying to figure out why that is.

The reason I'm writing about this is because, as a designer of experiential scenarios, I'm keen to learn from these rare examples how to construct better immersions into hypothetical narrative situations, in order to make the practice more effective. What makes experiential scenarios tick, and how might they be improved? (To be clear, then; anything that seems critical about what I say here is part of an attempt to work with these thoughts as a practitioner, rather than gratuitous sniping from the safety of my armchair.)

I found parts of the show, especially the first half, very moving. The setup with the gradual introduction of ersatz news feeds into Steven's bubble, and the staging of a segue into apocalyptic territory is brilliant. For me, one of the best moments comes when the program makers reproduce during a bus ride their (clearly Orson Welles-inspired) radio-based dislocation into catastrophe, and then it ups the experiential ante magnificently.

However, after the apocalyptic bit of the story kicks in, it becomes increasingly difficult to believe. You might find it all terrifyingly realistic; I wanted to, but simply didn't. You might object that it's not our (as audience) credulity that matters. Yet it does, I think. When a hypothetical strains belief, it simultaneously becomes harder to believe that anyone else could buy it, either. The specifics of the apocalyptic narrative and experience that Steven is expected and appears to buy into get exceptionally silly. Without going into detail, having already warned about spoilers, one word really makes the point: zombies. An inspired Truman Show-esque first half morphs into a less convincing knockoff of 28 Days Later or The Walking Dead.

Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that some controversy arose in the UK over the central character of Steve, who was accused of being an actor complicit in the whole deal. These are claims that Brown has denied and debunked, but doubts may remain; based neither on Steve's half-finished acting website profile, nor on his amusing physical resemblance to an actor from a noodle commercial -- but rather on the internal merits and coherence of the program itself.

I won't go into the performances of the questionable actors by whom Steven is surrounded, or some of his reactions which, at times, even if real, felt even less credible. (Perhaps I'm just not a very experienced viewer of reality TV -- and if I watched more of it I'd realise that real people in reality actually behave like the way I consider bad actors act.) As it happens, I'm less interested in establishing the truth here as such than I am in understanding what's at stake for the program in its believability. You see, for the viewer of Apocalypse, its emotional and intellectual impact rely on an authentic deception. We are invited to empathise with Steve, for whom life as he knew it is ostensibly over. If it turned out that Steve were just another actor, there would cease to be anything truly novel or worthwhile about watching him go through this exercise: we've already seen our share of (more highly produced and impressive) end-of-the-world diversions. So the interest here turns entirely on Steven's being unwittingly drawn into a simulated catastrophe, which means it is significant only to the extent that he experiences as real something which is not.

Brown knows this, and makes that very point in his own defence: pretending to all this with an actor at the centre of it would be pointless. Well, yes and no. There's room for a cogent sceptical view here that a sufficiently cynical TV producer could benefit greatly from persuading an audience of millions that they were really putting an unwitting man on the street through armageddon's onset, while in fact orchestrating the whole thing with an insider-actor. This, the sceptic might argue, would obviate the investment risk should a carefully selected actual dupe clue into the subterfuge and suddenly ruin a presumably expensive and logistically elaborate end-of-the-world simulation-for-one. So the question comes to rest on Brown's insistence on his own integrity as an artist.

But here we come to a problem for the audience's experience of the show, one which is built-in, and unavoidable: Derren Brown, the "man behind the curtain", is fundamentally questionable. By no means am I saying I don't like him, or that his work isn't vastly entertaining, thought-provoking and insightful. I do. It is. I'm simply pointing out that a large part of the show's very premise, and part of the basis for our interest in watching it, consists in his charismatic persona and cultivated talent for understanding people and creating situations that play on their foibles. He's a master persuader, hypnotist and manipulator. No pejorative connotation intended; that's his schtick, and it's why we watch. But if Brown is being straight with us, the audience, then he is indeed deceiving Steven monumentally. On the other hand, if Steven's colluding with him (as I - and apparently others - had occasion to suspect), then Brown is deceiving us, his audience. Either way, there's a tangled web, and our charming host is right in the middle of it. Such ambiguity is at the very heart of his profession as an illusionist and mentalist, and shows up in all the situations that he creates. Little wonder, then, that some people question his veracity.

To continue the line of thought above for a moment more: if he were discovered to have been pretending, Derren Brown could still have a workable artistic alibi -- that the joke was deliberately, all along, on all of us, the audience. Maybe there's a meta-point in the offing here around our own susceptibility, but there's a trust we place in him, despite his own "untrustworthiness" which is the premise of our interest -- and if it were betrayed it would be a real pity. Especially amid all the fakery, the grain of truth still matters. 

All of this reminded me of another exquisitely ambiguous viewing experience, Exit Through the Gift Shop, the outstanding film about street art genius Banksy. It presents as documentary but leaves you (or at any rate, left me) wondering whether the central character, Mister Brainwash, was fabricated. He's such an outrageous character, and his commercial success as depicted in the doco such damning evidence of the cynical commercialisation of art, that it all seems too perfectly perverse to be true. A couple of years after watching it, I still find myself on the fence about Exit Through the Gift Shop's documentary status. And that's actually something I absolutely love about it -- and in some ways perhaps I'd prefer not to know the truth -- because it so effectively acts out one of the key questions it raises, regarding the importance of authenticity or truth as a value in the art world.

Now, as irritatingly and gleefully postmodern as some might like to get here, rejoicing - or wallowing - in the unknowability of the truth of it all, let me prepare to draw a conclusion: Exit succeeds because of its ambiguity, where Apocalypse falters. Let's be fair: if the show succeeds, it's despite any doubts about Derren Brown's and his subject Steven's veracity, not because of them. Audience doubt about Brown's truthfulness puts a dent in Apocalypse as an experiential scenario. To the extent that people doubt the authenticity of the deception, so to speak, to that extent the exercise is not quite working.

So much for questions of plausibility, ambiguity and fakery. Now I want to come at this from another angle.

Here's what Brown says about the motivation for staging an apocalypse for his victim. "In an effort to help Steven realise the value of the things he has, like his family, home and friends, I took them all away from him by creating the end of the world, through a deadly meteor strike."

But of course, there's a simpler way to end the world.

By sheer coincidence, just hours after viewing Apocalypse and then having a big group of friends over for dinner, I was revisiting the 1999 classic Fight Club, a testosterone- and irony-fuelled film essentially about living to the full. I hadn't watched it for maybe ten years. (If you haven't seen it, please do; but there are no spoilers below.)

A sequence about halfway through exemplifies the perversely life-affirming spirit of the movie, when the two lead actors, Brad Pitt and Edward Norton, conduct what they call a "human sacrifice", whereby the life of a Korean convenience-store owner is threatened, as an existential goodwill intervention. At gunpoint, the hapless shopkeeper is told, "Raymond, you're going to die". He's asked what he wanted to be in life before settling for quik-e-mart drudgery. The answer: a vet. Holding a gun to the poor man's head, Pitt takes his drivers' licence away, telling him, "I know where you live. If you're not on your way to becoming a veterinarian in six weeks, you will be dead." They let him go.  What was the point of that, demands an exasperated Norton. Replies Pitt: "Tomorrow will be the most beautiful day of Raymond K. Hessel's life. His breakfast will taste better than any meal you and I have ever tasted."

Here again, almost word for word, is the question behind Apocalypse (quoted at the top). There's a climactic confrontation later on between the two leads, when Pitt's trickster says to Norton's sceptic: "If you were to die right now, how would you feel about your life?"

My point is simply this -- and thanks, Fight Club, for the reminder: the whole planet need not be jeopardised in order for a person to experience a revelation about their life. If a single moment of staring into the abyss can be used to reactivate a sense of purpose and direction, there's more than one way to get at it.

I'm not for a moment suggesting (however compelling a TV show it might have made) that Derren Brown could or should have made a program based on directly threatening the life of a subject. But from an experience design standpoint, there's a curious quality of using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut in Apocalypse. Of course the grandiosity of the simulated experience is all by itself a large part of the point, in terms of televisual entertainment.
But in fact, what I think Brown and his team are doing most effectively here, with this complex exercise in forcing suspension of disbelief, is to dramatise vividly the fact and extent of the constructedness of mediated reality, or  -- if this makes it any clearer -- the mediatedness of our experience of wider systemic realities. Few of us are in a position to register first-hand most big-picture world news stuff, be it economic crisis or volcanic eruption or political upheaval. Almost all comes to us second-hand, through a handful of vectors (devices, sources, individuals) cross-cutting our sensorium. No, this isn't a new thought. But the show is a kind of masterclass in the partiality and manipulability of the tiny straw through which we get to receive only a fraction of a far bigger reality. 

And recognition of the excessiveness inherent in making widespread crisis, rather than personal mortality, the focal point for a "revaluing life" experiment also led to something else I'd sensed was missing from the show. The serendipitous encounter with Fight Club's counterexample helped clarify for me what that something was. 

Brown apparently went to the trouble of spending a couple of months convincing a listless but suggestible young man that his world could end, then went ahead and made that subjective experience "happen". Apart from Brown's skill and showmanship, the other reason to watch this specific program is this: apocalyptic anxiety is a real phenomenon. Not only is there a mounting array of planetary threats - climate change, loss of biodiversity, the ascent of superbugs, the ever-present nuclear spectre, etc - at the time this show was broadcast, the Mayan calendar transition was looming just weeks away at the end of 02012. (It passed by without incident the week before I caught the show on YouTube.)

In the same way that the potency of Orson Welles's radio show, a year before World War II began, channeled and amplified a generalised anxiety in the zeitgeist, Derren Brown: Apocalypse attracted record numbers of viewers because, I think, there was (is) actual and, at some level, valid worry about apocalyptic scenarios. Such power as it had, then, both at the audience (TV-viewership-of-millions) level and at the subject (sucking-Steven-into-the-story) level, draws on real, existential issues and concerns animating our culture at the moment. However, this potent cultural energy is skilfully marshaled only to be squandered; it's used to augment the Oz-like mastermind/puppeteer persona of Brown, but as an engagement with actual and worthwhile issues, either for the audience or for the one-man eye of the storm, it's hard to think of how it could possibly have been more superficial. (In case you've forgotten: zombies.)

So there's a sadly missed opportunity to address a worthy value, a counterpart at the wider social scale to the value of an individual life fully lived. If it were just a matter of making someone appreciate their parents more, or go back to school to become a veterinarian, then a bit of clear and present danger -- say, a few seconds at gunpoint, or even just a good talking to -- may be all that's needed.

By the way, I suspect the two problems I've tried to puzzle out above are related; the implausibility of the scenario in watching it, and its failure to engage in the real issues that bring resonance to apocalypse. They seem to be two sides of the same coin. 

Maybe I'm overthinking a work of pure entertainment. But then I think about the fact that entertainers have a capacity - and to that extent at least a potential obligation - to inform and enlighten, just as those who primarily inform and enlighten ought also to find ways to entertain and engage while they're at it. The mutual exclusivity of those modes is stupid.

There's an unfortunately missed opportunity here, is all.

When I mulled over this stuff around the ethics of deception in experiential scenarios for my PhD a few years ago, I wrote (p. 270), "when it comes to human intentions and perceptions, paradoxically, there are some issues you may not be able to get a clear look at without an element of deliberate, carefully engineered misdirection." After looking into it I ended up saying (p. 286):
[T]he value of enabling someone genuinely to contemplate a compelling alternative future universe -- if perhaps only for a moment or two -- may be profound. Everyone can recount instances in their own life where sudden, contingent insights have led to momentous changes in direction. The value of these interventions and futures perspectives should not necessarily be sought in their enabling a particular or permanent future orientation (although those are conceivable outcomes). Even small glimpses of other worlds may make the effort worthwhile. It is not usually necessary to go to the lengths suggested here, but ontologically pointed strategies are available, and are sometimes needed. As Whitehead reminds us, it is the business of the future to be dangerous -- which makes it our business to be able, at certain times, to conjure with that danger in order to navigate it more wisely.

The point was (and I still believe this) that deception can be a useful tool in enabling certain types of  experiential learning that may be hard or even impossible to get at in other ways. But it's to be used judiciously; downsides and upsides weighed against one another. Serious learning can come from a comparatively minor deception, but a trivial lesson from a major shock (or risk) isn't defensible.

Consider that audience outrage would surely have been universal had the show been about simply threatening Steven's own life personally to cause him to value it more highly (although that's presumably a worthy cause), and yet by contrast the excess of appearing to end the world just for him probably seems okay, even though the selected narrative mechanisms (meteors and zombies) studiously avoid saying anything about the terrifyingly genuine and varied prospects of anthropogenic apocalypse.

Intriguing ethical calculus.

Don't get me wrong. Derren Brown: Apocalypse is a hell of a show, and it plays on ontologically and ethically unstable ground that's often a hallmark of truly interesting art. In his recent (fantastic, highly recommended) book on art forgery, Jonathon Keats writes:
The far side of legitimacy is not necessarily illicit. To act on our anxieties, art must break mores. In some cases, those mores may be enforced by law, yet the full range of human behavior is beyond the imagination of legislators and judges, whose work is essentially reactive. Artists can experiment with possibilities outside our current reality.
Keats is writing on forged artwork, but the parallel's instructive: Brown's experiment with a simulated truth is in principle precisely what makes possible the expansion of layabout Steve's reality. Perhaps, zombies aside, this is the kind of experiential wakeup call that could benefit a great many more of us.

Related posts:

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

How to make Stone Soup

A traveller comes to a small village. Producing a large pot, and a stone, he asks the village folk for some water with which to make stone soup. The reception is sceptical. Stone soup? But someone brings the water, and the stranger sets about making a fire for the pot. Word spreads. A crowd gathers. Soon the stone is bubbling away in water. The unlikely cook asks, might someone be willing to spare a dash of salt or pepper for flavour? The villagers, now intensely curious -- the soup is nearly ready -- scrounge for a sprig of this, a scrap of that, and slice of something else. All go into the pot; simple garnish for this absurd meal being coaxed from a stone. Yet before long, everyone has eaten their fill, and they can but wonder at the stone that has somehow managed to feed them all.


Storytelling, in all its forms, has been a central interest of mine for a long time. More recently it has become clear to me that it's the fundamental and age-old artform at the heart of futures practice. But this post is about something else.

On moving back to Australia from the US late last year, I'd been thinking about running a regular event, built around the sharing of stories from personal experience. I asked around, and didn't hear of anything already going on in Melbourne quite like that.

The seed had been planted by the example of some friends in San Francisco. They have been running something called Fireside Storytelling every month for about eight years. I'd also attended its younger, lewder cousin, Bawdy Storytelling, as well as Porchlight, a series similar to Fireside. All are enjoyable and popular events; an evening's theatre founded on a participatory ethos and community atmosphere.

The month after settling into my current apartment, I was finally established enough to make things happen. Intending first to try it out at my place after work on a Thursday, I figured people would be hungry, and that the gathering could feel awkwardly stagey if stories were the only component. So I folded a potluck dinner into the invitation too, thinking that ingredient could drop away after one or two rounds, and we might then look at scaling up to a more professional performance-type affair at a real venue.

The first night was themed 'Far From Home'. Almost everyone has a travel story they enjoy sharing -- the makings of a nice, novice-storyteller-friendly start to the experiment. A dozen people came, and five or six of us shared stories. It was a wonderful evening, more than enough encouragement to do it again. The home setting and potluck dinner (mostly vegetarian for maximum shareability) worked beautifully, and so they stayed. We've now held this event six months in a row, and it has been terrific every time.

This is Stone Soup. It is a community potluck and storytelling evening: bring a dish, and, if you like, a story to share inspired by a given theme.

Between a dozen and 20 people attend. Twenty seems sort of a practical upper limit due to the size of my kitchen table. It might go well with smaller or much larger numbers; we'll find out at some stage.

Stone Soup deliberately does not work or feel like the usual informal sharing of stories at a dinner party, or down at the pub. Nor is it as formal as an evening's theatre. It is a mixture; light-touch ritual. The storyteller stands at the head of the table, so is 'on stage' a little bit. The dynamic's on a borderline between that of a gathering of friends and one of strangers. As the host and primary guest-wrangler, I'll already know most -- but not all -- of those around the table. Because of an invitation only and word-of-mouth approach to filling seats, some of the participants always know each other too. So there's a baseline of familiarity, and also a getting-to-know-you element, bridging towards each other.

It's interesting to me how Stone Soup seems at once both new and old. The breaking of bread together and sharing of stories speaks to instincts at least as ancient as humanity itself. We've found also that it touches on something quite contemporary, a lack or even a longing many of us feel; for connection to those around us by startlingly simple and direct means. Although this event is by no means unique in doing that, it does seem to do it in a unique way. A variety of people have taken part so far, and all remark on how different it feels from the rest of their social calendar. Even my most socially active friends and dinner hosts find Stone Soup intriguing and, somewhat to my continuing surprise, novel.

It is a pleasure to listen to other people's stories, and a different kind of pleasure to tell one's own. Sharing like this, it seems we ennoble and elevate one another. In particular, there's a species of focused attention that is striking to experience as an audience member -- and especially as a storyteller. Having done a little bit of stage acting, and quite a lot of public speaking, I find Stone Soup significantly different from both scripted performance and intellectual improvisation. It's intimate, empathic, communal, and personal. Aspects of the storyteller's personality are telegraphed with startling clarity to the room; ways of thinking and feeling, their presence, amplified. On the other side, there's also a sense of rediscovering your own story in the telling, with reactions revealing things as comical or strange in a way you may not have recognised before.

A couple of participants (Kaila Colbin, Julian Waters-Lynch) have written about what taking part has taught them. As the name suggests, Stone Soup is not hard to make, yet the results are highly gratifying.


What follows are principles that have emerged from the experiment so far:

Anyone can tell a story, but no one has to. We've thought about making it "everyone brings a story". That'd be a fine event too. But sometimes you just want to listen. This way accommodates differential levels of comfort, energy, and extroversion, and makes sharing a story an option rather than an obligation. It also tends to awaken on the part of passive listeners a desire to 'pay it forward' by sharing a story at future events.

> There's a theme. This is provided in advance, with the invitation, say 2 or 3 weeks ahead, so people can be thinking a bit about stories they might share. The theme lends a cohesion to the evening, pointing it in a different direction each time, so it's worthwhile to keep coming back. Even if someone decides not to share a story, their thinking about the theme in advance lends a certain alignment, and to the actual procession of stories the delight of now complementary, now mutually resonant interpretations - "I never would have thought about that angle". Our themes so far have been 'Far from home', 'That was when I realised', 'Three', 'Mystery', 'Magic', and 'Unfinished Business'.

Half-prepare, half-improvise. In almost every case, I have had no idea what stories people were planning to tell, just whether they have something ready to go or not. Lining up the first batch of storytellers in advance, generally as they arrive, helps it run smoothly, so as the host I know we have at least the beginnings of a program. The first storyteller is especially important to set a tone. The break after the first half is a good time for people to serve themselves seconds or switch to dessert. Once people are relaxed, have had some wine, have heard a few stories and begun to get a sense of the theme, then the other half takes care of itself.

> Stories come from personal experience. This is a very accommodating principle. One person brought a poem. Another read out some love letters she'd received via Facebook. One distributed props he'd created especially for the occasion. For the evening 'Three', a trio of attendees jammed together during the break on musical instruments they'd brought along. Stories can be any length, but around ten minutes seems a good time to aim for.

> One storyteller at a time. At Stone Soup in Melbourne, I invite storytellers to a 'stage', standing at the end of the table. By design, this sounds a mildly formal note against a congenially informal backdrop. I introduce storytellers by their full name, and we applaud to welcome them to the stage as well as to thank them for their story. I'm told it's slightly intimidating -- but only slightly; and usefully so, as it makes the telling of a story just enough of an accomplishment. Stories delivered while seated at the table are great too, and we've done some of that as well. It has a nice informal air, but the inevitable backchat and ensuing conversation tends to spin focus away from the storyteller's moment, which is paramount. The other day we had a double act - one storyteller, accompanied by a first-timer who turned out to be an absolutely mesmerising violin player. But the focus of the room was not in doubt for a single moment.

> New blood is important. We aim for a third to one half new people each time. This is part of what gives the creation of group intimacy its significance. Each month we send invitations out to the growing list of previous attendees who have expressed interest in coming back. The fastest RSVPs get the seats, and all have the option to bring along any guest who hasn't come before. This growth of our little circle means demand is quickly coming to outstrip supply of seats at the table. This is good. Supply exceeding demand makes the event more special - and sooner or later may motivate people to run Stone Soup events themselves. Friends in Christchurch, Sydney, San Francisco and Chicago already have plans in the works.

> Participation rules. Stone Soup is people (cf. Soylent Green). It is more than the sum of its parts -- but it does need parts. As I've said once or twice during an expectant silence around the table in the improvisational phase: for the soup to work, you have to put something in the pot. As a host this means being willing, not to dominate, but certainly to share yourself: open up the space, and then if necessary, set an example. I'm far from being the best storyteller to have taken the stage at Stone Soup, but I am learning a lot by running it, and the willingness to share my own delights, embarrassments, and reflections has proven altogether broadening.

> The best stories are the most generous. It's not necessarily the event-driven fireworks of a death-defying experience that make for a compelling story. A moment in the midst of everyday life, experienced in a certain way, sets itself apart as extraordinary and powerful revelation. Related evocatively, it can become that for the audience too. The best story is in the telling, and the best telling is in the revealing. So the most important ingredient for any storyteller to bring, I've come to suspect, is generosity. As a storyteller, if facing a choice between two possible stories, the one that shows more of myself -- though possibly more uncomfortable to tell -- is the more meaningful.

So there's one way to make Stone Soup, subject to change, of course, as we experiment and learn.


'Stone Soup', an old European folktale, has always appealed to me. It's about a situation where the whole amounts to more than the sum of its parts. It's a parable of community. It is also, I now think, a trickster story* -- a trick of the most wonderful variety, the scam for the greater good. It is in that sense a tribute to the commons. The stone is of course a pretext for bringing other elements together -- a MacGuffin -- and the substance of the story, the magical synergy that transcends additive arithmetic, as of our eponymous event, is in the way it elicits a willingness to contribute and to commune.

And Stone Soup has led me to think more deeply about storytelling. Thankfully, and contrary to my earlier concern and impression, I no longer think of it as a dying art. But it has in short order, historically, become a latent one: we're more passive than ever before in the face of narrative artforms professionalised and commoditised in the space of just a couple of generations. Don't get me wrong -- I am myself an avid lifelong consumer of such products. But at the same time we owe it to ourselves, I think, to tell our own stories, to develop this most basic of human capacities, and thereby to connect more closely with the people in our lives.

Let me invite you to try making Stone Soup for yourself. And then, please; come back and share your story.

Related posts:
> The act of imagination
> Future food for thought
> The MacGuffin Library

* This is Lewis Hyde's influence: having read Trickster Makes This World and The Gift back to back last year, these two wonderful books continue to rework how I see things.

Thanks to Julian Waters-Lynch and Rolf von Behrens in particular for their encouragement and involvement in getting this event up and running. Cheers to Fireside Storytelling and especially Tim Pratt for the inspiration. Stone Soup snapshot at header courtesy of Erick Mitsak.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Alternative afterlives

The cover of Sum (U.S. edition)

While in London last week, I was given a new book which came with a glowing recommendation: Sum by David Eagleman. I got through it in a few short train journeys, and it's an astonishing read.

Written mostly in the second person ("You find yourself in a great padded compound...") like a choose-your-own adventure or role playing gamebook, it consists of forty short stories or thought experiments -- the genre is neither one nor the other, but both -- each embodying a different cosmic dénouement. That is, in the same way that storytellers sometimes propose a series of alternative endings for a narrative, this collection does that for life itself, by offering alternative afterlives. If this concept strikes you as self-important, dull, or contrived, as an experience, it was none of those things for me, and indeed such a misapprehension provides all the more reason to get hold of a copy. Also, if (like me) you are fascinated by Matters of Ultimate Concern but left cold by most traditional, religious and institutional responses to such mysteries, it is an outstanding read, by turns funny and moving, playful and profound, and important without being self-important.

I'll leave it to you to find examples, if you want them, so I can focus here on the approach and tone of the book. It's highly original, and yet reminiscent of such diverse sources as the magical-realist thought experiments of Jorge Luis Borges, the now-light, now-dark cosmic wit of Neil Gaiman or Douglas Adams, and the philosophical vision, schematic-yet-personal, of Jim Carse's Finite and Infinite Games. In the stories there are shades of The Twilight Zone, The Truman Show, The Matrix, and more -- but I fear that merely to list such references does a disservice to the author, perhaps through too many comparisons conveying an impression of work that is excessively referential and diffuse, when in fact it has a beautiful, focused sense of its own agenda and voice. What Sum has in common with the above may be certain of its themes, and especially its willingness to engage in imaginative, big-picture speculation with a sensibility that encompasses or synthesises both the ironic and the romantic, both good humour and deep seriousness.

In intent, perhaps most of all the book reminded me of the late, great psychonaut Terence McKenna, many of whose theories (Timewave Zero, psychedelic mushrooms as alien intelligences, etc) appear to have been designed not necessarily to convince his audience of their truth as such, but rather to prove how outlandish the various ideas are that it is not only possible, but also (given how little we truly know about the universe) plausible to believe. As John Lennon put it, "Reality leaves a lot to the imagination."

And I learned today (via a blog entry at Amazon) that this is a theme which Eagleman -- a neuroscientist -- intends to take up in his next book, Why I Am A Possibilian. The notion of Possibilism (Possibilitarianism?) seems to me to provide an amusing and much-needed counter-meme to the narrow faux certainty of Singularitarianism, and I shall look forward to the follow up with great interest.

Meanwhile, I urge regular readers of this blog -- in all likelihood, veteran Possibilians themselves -- to seek out Sum wherever you can find it. Like any well-wrought set of future scenarios, each story (hypothetical outcome) can be read as entirely consistent with what is known, or believed, about the past and present so far, while simply positing different next steps. And, like the artful exploration of alternative futures, the juxtaposition of these many alternative afterlives evokes a sense of possibility space in multiple dimensions which makes it far more than merely the sum of its parts.

Related posts:
> Kurzweil's dangerous idea
> On the scalability of small opportunities

(Thanks, Brian!)

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Thoughts about feelies

"Feelies" from Deadline, Infocom, 01982 | Images via Infocom Gallery

Here's a rather wonderful example of creating in-story artifacts to help augment immersion in a narrative. Worldbuilders, take note.

In the 01980s, computer software publisher Infocom produced works of interactive fiction, avoiding the primitive graphics of the day in favour of a text-based interface with a relatively sophisticated parser (grammar interpretation engine), enabling users to type in more complex, speechlike instructions. Says Wikipedia, an authority on such geeky arcana, "Whereas most game developers sold their games mainly in software stores, Infocom also distributed their games via bookstores." We also learn that "Three components proved key to Infocom's success: marketing strategy, rich storytelling and feelies."

Wait a minute -- feelies?

It seems that one of the most distinctive and clever elements of Infocom's narrative strategy was to include fragments of the game world -- that is, props from within the story's universe -- inside the box with each game. A presentation by USC GamePipe Labs instructor Victor LaCour on the history of early videogames gives some examples (slide #25): these "feelies" included such objects as the protagonist's diary (Planetfall), the menu of an in-game restaurant (Ballyhoo), and a scratch-n-sniff card (Leather Goddesses of Phobos). In addition to upping the tangibility ante for the narrative world, they would also serve as an elegant form of copy protection (a disincentive for software pirates) since certain puzzles in the game could not be solved without those items.

A detailed history of the rise and fall of Infocom was produced in 02000 by some MIT students (appropriately enough, since the company was an MIT spinoff to begin with), and although it doesn't mention feelies by that name, the paper captures a sense of the games' successful storytelling strategy in this era of early computer-based entertainment (p. 21):

The attraction of Infocom games was multi-faceted. At times, the games could bring the simple pleasure of reading a light, fast-paced novel, whose course could be affected by the reader. Other times, the games provided the intellectual satisfaction of solving a complicated logic puzzle. Without an image of the protagonist, players could identify with the main character and even imagining [sic] themselves in the role. A typical Infocom game allowed the user to feel as though he or she were living the life of a police detective, medieval hero, or space ranger.
Infocom’s games were extremely well written, and they provided uses [sic] with hours of enjoyment. But to claim this was the only reason for the success of their games is to tell only half of the story. The other half of the story lies in just how Infocom got people to buy their games in the first place: Infocom’s unique publishing and marketing strategies were crucial factors in the success of their games.

According to the company's marketing director, Mike Dornbrook (quoted in an Infocom FAQ -- thanks, Internet Archive -- cited by the MIT paper, pp. 23-24, FN 32-33), the story behind the feelies runs as follows:

The first exotic package was for Deadline (the third game, after Zork I and II). It was created because Marc Blank couldn't fit all the information he wanted to include into the 80K game size. Marc and the ad agency, Giardini/Russel (G/R), co-created the police dossier which included photos, interrogation reports, lab reports and pills found near the body. [See images at the top of this post.] The result was phenomenally successful, and Infocom decided to make all subsequent packages truly special (a big benefit was the reduction in piracy, which was rampant at the time).

The first 16 packages were done in collaboration with G/R.
We were spending a fortune on package design ($60,000 each on average in 1984 - just for design!), so we eventually decided to bring it in-house. I hired an Art Director, Carl Genatossio, a writer, a typesetting/layout person, and someone to manage all () "feelies" in the packages.
An unsung heroine of Infocom was our Production Manager, Angela Crews. She was responsible for acquiring the scratch-n-sniff cards, ancient Zorkmid coins, glow-in-the-dark stones, etc. which made the packages so distinctive. It was often an incredibly difficult task.

As for who oversaw all of this, again, there were many responsible.
I would estimate that each Infocom package had 1.5 man-years of effort invested in its creation.

For those curious not only to read about, but also to see, some marvellous feelies (actually feeling them online is however, technologically, still a bit of a stretch), the miraculously still-kicking Infocom Gallery (last updated in 02004) comes to the rescue with an archive of the company's releases that contains game descriptions and images of the artifacts included with each. It jumps out at me that two of Infocom's games were worked on by the brilliant British humorist Douglas Adams; the first being an adaptation of his famous Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, feelies for which include a microscopic space fleet: order for the demolition of Arthur Dent's house:

...and a parallel order for the demolition of planet Earth:

The other Adams game is the intriguing Bureaucracy, which sounds like Kafka meets Monty Python:

When the bank refuses to acknowledge your change-of-address form, you'll find yourself entangled in a series of bureaucratic mishaps that take you from the feeding trough of a greedy llama to the lofty branches of a tree deep in the Zalagasan jungle.

This could be the most fun anyone will ever have with a tale of bureaucratic hell (outside of Gilliam's Brazil, perhaps). Accompanying feelies included a letter from your new employer, Happitec:

...and a copy of Popular Paranoia magazine:

Now, while the purposes may be different, I trust the creative parallels between feelies on the one hand, and "evidencing", reality prototyping, and future artifact creation on the other, are obvious. All are about concretely manifesting the paraphernalia of an otherwise imaginary, absent world, the better to inhabit it -- or at least to meet it on its own terms -- for a while.

There's much more in the Infocom back catalogue that we could explore here, but already it becomes clear how these games might have garnered a loyal following, and there's something inescapably sad that they seem to have died such a sudden death. As the Douglas Adams website puts it:

[G]raphics games came along and the computer using portion of the human race forgot all about 500,000 years of language evolution and went straight back to the electronic equivalent of banging rocks together - the point'n'click game. Infocom and most of its competitors went to the wall - signaling the arrival of the post-literate society.

(It makes me pleased to have been able to attend the Long Now's Funeral for Analog Television last week in Berkeley -- the passing of our once-cherished media should not simply go unnoticed.)

However, the Adams site goes on to note that with the Internet, "People have learned to type again and are taking an interest in interacting, via their computers, with other people and with content." Moreover, a dead genre turns out not to be entirely dead, but rather to have retired to remote corners of the Web like this (Infocom games still playable online include the Hitchhiker's Guide).

Even if the golden age of "interactive fiction" has passed, and its feelies are now the glorious preserve of only the most committed boffins, I can't shake the feeling that feelies have a future, too. It's curious that seeking antecedents to the future artifacts meme takes us down an overgrown path into the not-too-distant past, there to find that feelies -- tangible auxiliaries to a cutting-edge storytelling technology, concessions to meatspace -- may have a transreality staying power that as a practice, seems timeless, compared to the wonderfully quaint electronic games they were created merely to supplement.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Object-oriented futuring

Designer and researcher Julian Bleecker of The Near Future Laboratory and Nokia is currently airing some interesting ideas under the title "Design Fiction" (a Bruce Sterling coinage that t.s.f. readers may recall previously seeing here and here). In the past month this has included variant presentations at Design Engaged in Montreal, Shift08 in Lisbon, and most recently, Moving Movie Industry in Amsterdam -- the last of which I discovered via Sterling's twitter feed.

Bleecker's Design Fiction slideshow, from the Shift08 version of his presentation, appears below.

(Those interested may compare it to the earlier version given at Design Engaged.)

The general burden of his argument (quoting from the introduction -- see Slideshow Transcript, Slide 2) is that design can be considered or used

as a kind of story-telling practice, crafting material visions of different kinds of possible worlds and through those visions doing more than presenting an inert, lifeless object. Rather, design can turn ideas into material, but also insert that material into a larger setting with broader social contexts and consequences, and through that create a compelling story about a possible future. In this way, the design object becomes an important property of the world. And its [sic] this notion of a property in a larger narrative-based context that I will ultimately highlight in this talk. A prop, to borrow from film and theater production — that helps move a story forward.

In his presentation Bleecker references the work of David A. Kirby, a lecturer in Science Communication at the University of Manchester, who offers a very interesting way of framing the real-life usefulness of sci-fi movie props:

for Hollywood technical advisors cinematic depictions of future technologies are actually "diegetic prototypes" that demonstrate to large public audiences a technology's need, benevolence, and viability. I show how diegetic prototypes have a major rhetorical advantage over true prototypes: in the diegesis these technologies exist as "real" objects that function properly and which people actually use.

[From Kirby's forthcoming paper, "Screening Technology: Technical Advisors, Diegetic Prototypes, and the Cinematic Creation of the Future", quoted at Material Beliefs blog, 21 May 02007.]

The notion of diegetic (in-world) prototypes rhymes with much of the thinking at this blog around communicating alternative futures, and in particular the importance of diegetic integrity as expressed in our experiential scenario mantra, Don't break the universe.

I agree completely with Bleecker about the use of design "to create a compelling story about a possible future". Storytelling through concept design can be so effective that in fact to provide a literal narrative set in the future to go with it may actually be unnecessary, if the in-world design elements properly invite immersion in their own right. Such was the case with architect Bryan Boyer's provocative thesis project of redesigning the U.S. Capitol building.

"Design fiction" sits at the intersection of storytelling and design. From a design point of view, it makes sense to recruit storytelling techniques to render a design more compelling. But the relationship can work in the other direction; indeed the point of film props is that they help tell the story. It seems useful to admit that from a designer's point of view, design fiction is principally a way of extending engagement with a design problem space, while for a futurist, by contrast, the same tools are regarded as a means to a larger end; namely, to help people (usually their clients) explore the various "worlds" (or contexts) in which they may find themselves several years or decades, or longer, from today.

The two are not mutually exclusive, but they are in tension. Not long ago, I oversaw a project in which our team was producing future-images -- say, two to ten years out, for argument's sake -- for a client developing a prototype application (details of which we won't go into here). The agreement was that we would use visual "artifacts from the future" to suggest how the world could eventually look to a user blessed with the functioning app. We found that, having iterated on the design once or twice, and upon delivering a completed scenario-exploring image, the client would (as hoped and expected) identify a range of second- and third- order design issues that had not been on the table until the initial image became available to "think with". One curious finding was that to evoke the social and personal impacts of a relatively distant-future application, at a general level of abstraction helpful to investors and project managers for instance, tended to require a certain suspension of disbelief; the use of an evocative artistic licence at the expense of literal "accuracy". Subsequent iterations, which the client requested to address more of the concrete, granular design and engineering issues, became less clear and impactful; though they were more useful for the day-to-day project implementation level, they were also somewhat more prosaic in their details.

So, design fictions (or diegetic prototypes) intended to advance technical implementation and those oriented to advancing systemic or social understanding are not quite the same species. In the case described above, we found ourselves doing what designers usually do (assuming a range of continuities to enable and elaborate a single preferred scenario for the product), rather than what we as futurists were more accustomed to doing (systematically exploring possible discontinuities in order to produce a more robust strategic stance).

For a futurist, or at any rate for me and my colleagues, future artifacts themselves are like so many forward-facing MacGuffins, heuristic devices carefully crafted to help tell engaging stories. They enable and animate deeper exploration of the various relationships and values at stake in a particular future scenario, and (I argue with monotonous regularity, from various angles, in this space) their value for that purpose is multiplied many times over when artifacts "from" different future worlds can be devised and explicitly brought into conversation with one another (as in our postcards intervention, among others). This blog contains abundant testimony to the process of futurists discovering that this exploratory function (traditionally abstract -- verbal, textual, and statistical) can be carried out much more effectively when an immersive, experiential, radically multimedia approach is adopted.

From the design side, too, the same connection is being made. For instance, Adaptive Path's Peter Merholz recently described the gradual integration of futures thinking into their company practice. Last month we learned about experience designer Nathan Shedroff's take on futures thinking. Similarly, Bleecker's Near Future Laboratory colleague Nicolas Nova has spotted the connection between their work and that of FoundFutures, our series of multimedia public art interventions to make alternative futures experientially available to people in their everyday lives ("guerrilla futures").

Yet despite these promising signs of mutual discovery and learning, there remains something of a disconnect between design and futures discourse. In part this arises from the fallacy of monofuturism (held not only by many designers, but plenty of others also, including some self-described futurists). I am referring to the fundamental yet distressingly widespread misconception that engaging the yet-to-be means trying to predict "the future" rather than exploring alternative futures. (See for example the slideshow from Nova's recent Design Engaged presentation; "inflated deflated future(s), or... why futurists fail to predict futures".†) To use Bleecker's imagery, it's my observation that almost all design tacitly assumes a single, linear future, and evinces nothing remotely like the complexity of Latour's manifold conception of imagined futures. (Gibson's "unevenly distributed" aphorism is often misused as a stand-in for a more multi-dimensional theory of how change happens -- i.e., the future is X, but not everyone catches on at the same time -- a mere variation on the monofuturist's theme).

To bridge this gap, as I picture it, would probably involve designers mastering the foundations of futures studies,∞ and collaborating with futurists in experientially manifesting genuinely diverging future scenarios, on an ongoing basis, both for instrumental design-improving purposes and for broader world-exploring ones. Futurists ought to learn as much as they can about design, too -- but let me be clear. Good storytelling is a necessary precondition for good design: with or without the involvement of designated "futurists", the rigorous elaboration of alternative futures is the sine qua non of meaningful choice.

As we've seen above, "design fiction" sits at the intersection of storytelling and design. Turning this theory object over in our contemplation, we see that not only can storytelling help designers (as suggested by the design fiction story in Sterling's 02006 collection, Visionary in Residence), but also, flipping it around, that design can be deployed in the service of stories addressing bigger topics, such as future scenarios for our industries, communities, cultures, and planet.

The values-laden, story-driven, aspirational design and pursuit of alternative futures among which we may choose more wisely is among the most urgent challenges we collectively face.

Related posts:
> Don't break the universe
> The MacGuffin Library
> Future-jamming 101
> Architectural time travel
> Findability features FoundFutures

† Nicolas Nova presentation via Overmorgen.
∞ If the existence of a field of study called futures is news to you, dear reader, then futurist and political science Prof Jim Dator's article "The future lies behind! Thirty years of teaching futures studies" may be a useful starting point.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Tombstone and the future of history

"The town too tough to die." That's the proud slogan of Tombstone, which perches in splendid isolation at the eastern fringe of the Sonoran desert, an hour's drive southeast of the city of Tucson, Arizona, and about 30 miles north of the Mexican border. I've come to Tucson for the weekend, and since my friend mysteriously failed to pick me up at the airport two days ago, I've had to improvise an alternative agenda. So it is that I find myself sharing a rental car with four other young travellers, hailing from Bermuda, Liverpool and Utrecht, all fellow denizens of a hostel a short walk from downtown Tucson. Unlike me, all are in their early twenties and in the midst of their respective trans-continental quests to "see America". Today, Tombstone is our chosen day-trip destination.

As no visitor to the area can fail to notice, this settlement, which some 1,600 souls call home, prides itself on being an icon of the Wild West. As a tourist attraction, it taps into that lucrative cultural reservoir of collective memory, part history and part myth, which has been immortalised -- or, to those inclined to emphasise the latter ingredient, generated -- by a thousand movies. The town's excellent name is perhaps one of the most effective imaginable evocations of hardbitten frontiersmen and devil-may-care gunslingers (possibly outdone only by the town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico -- although in point of fact that town was actually named after a radio show in the 1950s). Tombstone's real claim to fame, however, is that it was the site of the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral in 1881. Though the original event has long since passed, thankfully you can enjoy a re-enactment any time you care to visit: "Gunfight daily!" cry the billboards scattered en route.

Probably like many others unfamiliar with these parts, what I know about the actual history of the colonisation of the West by European Americans could fit comfortably on the back of a postage stamp, and despite my passion for cinema, the western is surely the genre of American film with which I'm least familiar. Even so, the look and feel, the sensibility, or mythos invoked here is so familiar from culture (and yet so remote from my own experience) that in my mind it is the very essence of B-movie cliche: hard stares, bold moustaches, stray bullets, and dust.

Why did I come here? I have no satisfactory answer to that question. I don't know what to make of the fact that I am spending time and money in this bone-dry, baking hot place in the middle of nowhere. But while pondering that I'm put in mind of an interesting comparison. While I was studying at the University of Melbourne at the turn of the century, part of my family lived in Ballarat, Victoria, an hour and a half away; a town founded during southeast Australia's gold rush. Ballarat has a major tourist attraction named Sovereign Hill, a recreated 01860s gold mining settlement and so-called "living museum". There are certain historical and aesthetic similarities -- both places are recreated frontier towns in the New World (albeit on different continents, though you'd be hard-pressed to pick that from appearances only) and owe their existence to the mid-to-late 19th century mad dash of prospectors seeking precious metals. Both are filled with wooden buildings, have walls adorned with ersatz parchmenty official looking posters, and have horses regularly clopping past, carts and passengers in tow... But whereas Sovereign Hill is a paid-admission only, privately owned attraction in its own right, near but not integrated with the modern city of Ballarat with its 80,000 inhabitants or so, the town of Tombstone, which is a place where people actually live and work in the early 21st century, is itself the attraction. Here ordinary life overlaps with the historical streetscape that is maintained by dint of tight local regulations, and which has made it a nationally listed attraction since the 01960s. Sovereign Hill is at pains to provide some kind of sense of life in the era (it has a working mine set up, you can pan for gold, there are educational programs including a school in which children can experience the classroom of a bygone era, writing out lines with a quill and inkwell). In Tombstone, by contrast, there are no fences between the dusty street and the desert -- the centre of the original town is itself the attraction -- but as a result, modern life keeps intruding. There are Harley Davidson motorcycles parked everywhere. You have to pay to get into the OK Corral. Every store is jammed full of souvenirs. (Oddly, visiting the town, and commemorating -- or commodifying -- your visit for future reference are merged, so seeing all those souvenirs and witty posters through every doorway inevitably becomes one of the main recollections you take away.) It's a place where people live, but to seems to operate almost entirely at the level of appearances and legend, throwing back to the Hollywood-made mythos. This creates a kind of paradox: the real town of Tombstone contrives to deliver a far more crassly commercial and less authentic experience of history as it might have been than the thoroughly controlled simulacrum at Sovereign Hill.

So, the weekend we're here, as it happens, the United States marks Memorial Day, which is an opportunity to celebrate the sacrifice of servicemen in the country's growing list of wars. But it's "Wyatt Earp Days" in Tombstone. This makes it one of two occasions annually when people descend on Tombstone to stroll around dressed gloriously in 01880s style -- the other is the 26 October anniversary of the O.K. Corral showdown. It is impossible to say in most cases which of these elegantly dressed are locals pandering to tourists, and which are tourists indulging their own eccentric hobby. I overhear one woman, elaborately dressed in heavy dresses, gleefully declaring that "We came here once and keep coming back!" At first I'm puzzled as to what the attraction could be -- wandering around in an overheated costume for a weekend. However, my fellow hostellers can't resist having their photos taken with a dapper couple in Wild West regalia who turned out to be repeat visitors from Michigan, and I begin to see how this role play could be fun: authenticity might be much less of a concern than the thrill of participating in the illusion, like actors on the stage.

What a place to visit! But what must it be like to live here? Evidently there are certain costs to living in a museum. I meet a bright eyed young lady behind the counter at a wild west outfitter. She's perhaps 16 or 17 years old, wearing a black dress recalling Jody Foster in "Maverick". I ask her about what it's like to live here. She explains that she didn't grow up in this town, but is originally from California, and her mother had decamped here in pursuit of her dream home -- a 01904 Victorian. Clearly, for a young woman, though, it's almost unbearably boring. "I'd love a skyscraper here," she says wistfully. "Or a McDonald's, a drive-in theater... anything!" Earlier this year, it seems the streets were restored to their unpaved state by the Tombstone Restoration Committee, because the asphalt may have endangered its coveted designation as a National Historic District. It's an interesting situation when an American town reverts to stones and dust in search of authenticity. And it is not unanimously appreciated, either. One of our group spotted a flyer in one of the store windows alluding to this, evidently an ongoing dispute in the town -- should the dust stay, or should it go?

What keeps these streets dusty in 02006 is a myth that is too tough to die. We feed the myths with our attention. The poet Muriel Rukeyser once wrote, "The universe is made of stories, not of atoms." What then of the future of Tombstone? Well, if Rukeyser is right, then as long as its stories persist, it seems Tombstone's viability as a place to visit, its existence in our universe, is assured. The most recent contributions to this corpus of storytelling, as far as Tombstone is concerned, are the movies Wyatt Earp (1994, starring Kevin Costner) and Tombstone (1993, with Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer). As one storekeeper remarked to me, there was a major resurgence of tourist interest in the area after these films came out. In fact, many of the souvenir posters and t-shirts for sale here feature those stars' faces rather than the less recognisable ones of the town's real historical inhabitants.

I asked my travelling companions whether they could think of anything interesting or special going on in our own era that people might see fit to devote their lives to preserving in this fashion in 130 years' time. We couldn't think of anything offhand. (Maybe, with our emerging ironic postmodern sensibilities, the real story in the future will be the idea of people dressing up their bodies, and dressing down their streets, to "recreate" the surface layer of a long-gone past.) Perhaps Michael Crichton's 1973 sci-fi movie Westworld had the right idea: the tourist attraction of the future could be a theme park which faithfully recreates the favourite, most highly mythologised times and places in the popular imaginary -- history's greatest hits. In Crichton's story, a whole Wild West theme park is populated with human-looking robots that can, at least in theory, be safely exploited by the (human) guests who pay a premium to satiate their appetites for realistic brothels and gunfights.

I picture that young lady from the clothing store getting her wish: a skyscraper in Tombstone -- now that would be worth seeing! You could put the whole town's population inside, with a spectacular, towering view of the surrounding landscape, and let the tourists amuse themselves by tussling with robots in the dust below. If our stories shape our world, we should choose them wisely. There are surely some sacrifices associated with making a living off the past, and this shrine to a past that I suspect in many ways never really existed, though fascinating, raises a lot of questions. Among them: what might a settlement be like that evinced as much devotion to its futures as Tombstone, Arizona does to its history?