Sunday, December 31, 2006

Happy new year from t.s.f.

What on earth has happened to the sceptical futuryst? Some kind of explanation is in order. The customary end of semester timecrunch (in this case, late November-early December), followed by two weeks in Vietnam, a few rounds with a post-trip stomach bug, and a family expedition to the Big Island (which concluded today) have left me with little time for posting my ruminations online. I apologise to my loyal readership (sorry Mum) and assure you that t.s.f. will be back in the new year. I have not been entirely idle, and plan to post about relevant events of the last month as time, energy and interest levels permit.

I am also about to embark, in two days' time, on a two-week research trip with HRCFS colleague Jake Dunagan, as we work towards our futures audio tour for Honolulu's Chinatown (about which project, more here). We'll be visiting New York, Washington D.C., St Louis, San Francisco and Los Angeles, to research outstanding examples of audio tour production, and visit various mainland Chinatowns. If anyone has suggestions for worthwhile (relevant) things to do, or would like to meet up with us during that time, I'll be corresponding by email as often as possible.

Finally, let me offer you all a treat for the holiday season by advising that you see Borat as soon as possible. Sacha Baron Cohen is a comic genius.

Oh, one more thing -- happy new year celebrations to all, for this most future-oriented of annual festivities. (Don't try to tell me you didn't foresee that January 1 hangover...)

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Barbershop futures revisited, part II

/Continued from a previous post.../

There are many well travelled, cosmopolitan, and highly informed people operating in the futures field, but few can claim to have experienced such systematic first-hand exposure to the many views about the future held across different lifestyles, cultures and geographies, as Maya van Leemput. Her post-doctoral project "Agence Future" consisted of riding around the world (on a recumbent bicycle) conducting in-depth interviews on camera, with some 400 people in 20 countries, over a 30-month period. The common thread of discussion was their attitudes and understandings regarding the future(s). I was delighted when my post "Barbershop Futures" about futures-related conversation elicited a detailed response from her, which I posted under "Barbershop Futures Revisited, part I". Here, then, is part II, being further reflections in light of thoughts Maya offered; not a literal response to her, perhaps, so much as another run at further developing a few of the same ideas.

As I suggested in the original piece, to find oneself talking futures with all sorts of people is one of the core aspects of this line of work. There may be nearly as many differing conceptions about what being a futurist means as there are people who label themselves that way (incidentally, a topic touched on in an earlier post, "The meming of futures"). Attempts to codify and generate consensus on the nature of the profession are many, but as they proliferate, paradoxically they seem to contribute as much to the diversity of the field as to its consolidation. The Association of Professional Futurists provides one take on what futuring is all about. Swinburne University's Strategic Foresight FAQ (especially from Q7 onwards) offers another. I think my favourite statement of what it means to work in this field is HRCFS founder Jim Dator's list of "attributes of a futurist", crowned with the wonderful notion of aiglatson -- yearning for the future -- which can serve as a kind of litmus test for one's readiness to embark on futuring Manoa-style. (If you haven't seen Dator's list, do check it out. It may be that if the intellectual jack-of-all-trades, Renaissance woman conception of the ideal futurist that he describes appeals to you, then you have the holistic sensibility, not to mention the kind of grandiose transdisciplinary aspirations, that ought to serve you well.)

Regardless of the details of one's philosophy or outlook, it is surely an inescapable characteristic of being a futurist that one finds oneself constantly in conversation with all sorts of people about the future, whatever that means to them. Typically they have plenty to say, and as Maya points out, when a chord is struck, folks may unexpectedly open up on all kinds of big themes on the nature of life, the universe, and everything.

Accordingly, one of the necessary (but not, I hasten to add, sufficient) steps to becoming a futurist is simply to declare this early in each conversation with a new person. I don't like being -- or at any rate being seen as -- monomaniacal, but part of the "getting to know you" process typically involves discussing what you do for a living. Put a stake in the ground as a futurist, and you can have a conversation with virtually anyone about their conception of the future. If this is something you enjoy, you'll be delighted to find it's one of the key parts of the job. And I want to suggest that there's a give and take here; the trick to communicating about futures lies not only in finding new ways to describe the field, ways to articulate it that are meaningful and useful to others. It is also about the reciprocal process of gradually mapping in your own mind how your particular interlocutor, as well as people in general, conceptualise it. Consequently, an increasingly fine-tuned awareness of the nuances and variations in attitudes, by psychological, temperamental, professional, cultural, and other dimensions, is to my way of thinking a crucial aspect of developing as a futurist, and an important part of what one takes incrementally and osmotically from the body of conversational data. (Of course, if I'm really not in the mood for a detailed discussion, I find that simply telling people I'm a graduate student in political science is a good way to keep the conversation short.)

In the course of having these conversations, you steadily accumulate a kind of expertise on how lots of different people think about the future. But there is an art to conversation, and as the previous paragraph suggests, both give and take are involved. One part is listening and understanding, probing for comprehension of an aspect of someone's world view that has in many cases never been explicitly or carefully considered by them before. The other is a sort of advocacy for more rigorous, detailed, rich, systematic, creative, well considered kind of thinking about futures. Maya referred to Wendell Bell's mention of the role of advocacy in futures. But I sense that at levels both general and specific there's a balance to be struck with the former process -- inquiry. Although the relative importance of the two is bound to vary according to circumstances, I don't think one can advocate effectively without sensitive inquiry.

Someone recently sent me an article (Andrea Shapiro, "Applying Lessons from Public Health to Organizational Change", The Systems Thinker, September 2003) which usefully nailed the distinction between these two as follows:

In The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook (Currency/Doubleday, 1994), Richard Ross and Charlotte Roberts describe the value of both advocacy and inquiry. To them, advocacy involves expressing a certain position convincingly, forcefully, and clearly; it requires presenting your own assumptions, distinguishing between data and opinion, and articulating the logic and reasoning behind your conclusions. In contrast, inquiry means seeking to understand another's position by listening well and reflecting back what you heard, as well as seeking to understand the data and reasoning behind their conclusions and avoiding imposing your own interpretation on them.

Maya describes the animation and engagement that result when people warm to their future theme. I share her delight in being able to draw that out. At the same time, my original post alluded to the confusions or preconceptions that we futurists often encounter. These are not mutually exclusive; for instance, my experience with Wally the barber had elements of both. While eager to talk about the future, he was somewhat confounded at first by the idea that I wasn't thinking of it principally as a predictive endeavour.

I have found that plural or alternative futures thinking requires a sort of big-picture paradigm shift that some people don't quite grasp right away. Resistance to the plural view of futures is not incompatible with enthusiasm for "studying the future". I've been struggling with the question of what it is psychologically, educationally, developmentally or temperamentally (to name a few possible factors) that makes the difference between people "getting" futures or not -- and I'd love to hear readers' thoughts on this issue. I'm also currently going through some fascinating material on the psychology of counterfactual thinking (see this post for some remarks on counterfactuality, and expect more on that topic to appear here at the sceptical futuryst). Indeed, many of the thoughts presented here revolve around exploring more effective ways to communicate foresight, alternative futures, and long-termism (three interrelated but analytically separable modes of thinking).

But here's the bottom line, if there is one: inquiry and advocacy are both required in the futures communication process. After the quote above, the author continues;"Balancing advocacy and inquiry is especially important when dealing with apathy or resistance." It has been my observation that alternative futures thinking can be useful and engaging for pretty much anyone. However, apathy and resistance are not uncommon, so being able to deal with them in conversation is essential.

It was my own sense that I'd failed to communicate futures to full effect in terms interesting and relevant to a hairdresser which prompted the original piece. And Maya pointed out that I might have tried moving beyond framing the field in terms of its possible economic value to the barber's business to describe the field's big picture relevance. I take her point and agree completely. Yet the tension will likely to remain between, on the one hand, encouraging a future orientation to do better (or cheaper, or for longer) what we already do; and on the other hand, using conversation about futures to move beyond today's problems, and dream big, and construct idiosyncratic or dissenting visions of the individual, family, community, and planet. In the former case, inquiry trumps advocacy, as futures thinking is brought into the service of existing priorities, and its revolutionary potential to transform thought and action is defused to that extent. In the latter case, advocacy can trump inquiry, and if you push its transformative potential too far on a party unwilling to entertain that, they shut it out; increased resistance or apathy (varieties of the same syndrome -- denial of responsibility?) may ensue.

Hazardous and difficult though it may be, one thing is for sure in all this: we need to keep working on the Great Futures Conversation. Thanks to Maya, and to Wally, for the impetus to continue evolving these ideas.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Death of a President

Every narrative film is, in a sense, a thought experiment. Every plot is a "what if". The way the characters behave and interact, the decisions they make, the consequences that ensue, and the backdrop against which it all occurs, are strands which together comprise a hypothesis about how things would or could unfold if x, y, and z were the case. They are in that sense elements of a theory about how the world works, although very few films explicitly set out to explore specific futures in a plausible way.

I am a longtime moviegoer and sometime filmmaker, and have for years been especially interested in the way the future is depicted in film (at one point co-writing an article on the subject). This medium is our most powerful mechanism for broadcasting pre-imagined scenarios. It's far more vivid, detailed and accessible -- to audience members, not to producers -- than literature. There's a case to be made for comics, or, to use Will Eisner's term, "sequential art"; but that's a topic for another time. The point here is simply that the way film, or more accurately, audio-visual scenarios (let's not exclude television), provide a reference point for future-oriented discourse is important, from a futurist's perspective.

On Thursday night I saw Death of a President, a feature-length film which ingeniously uses documentary technique to imagine the assassination of US President George W. Bush -- next year -- by a sniper in Chicago. Despite mixed reviews, in the US, at least -- for two different aggregations of critics' responses check out Rotten Tomatoes (33% positive reviews) and Metacritic (average score 49/100) -- I found it quite effective and very interesting, and, appropriately, difficult to pin down ideologically. I say appropriately because a truly effective scenario laid out in this way ought not to be a partisan matter, and although it will inevitably reflect or embody a theory about how (some specific aspect of) the world works, it must ring true in its reflection of different participants' perspectives on the events, whatever they might be. We may return to the critical reception of the film as the subject of a future post, but for the time being, let's take a look at the medium -- which we'll call the future documentary; documentary film as artifact from the future.

D.O.A.P. is not unprecedented as a future documentary. The first such feature that I recall coming across was made by a London-based company named Wall To Wall, and screened by the BBC. It was called Smallpox 2002: Silent Weapon (02002), the story of a devastating international terrorist attack perpetrated with the smallpox virus. The filmmakers were eerie in their timing -- while the film was being made (from February '01 through January '02) both 9/11 and the US anthrax attacks occurred. Its impact on the viewer had a lot to do with the documentary approach to fictional material: the story was put together in a highly plausible news-doco style, and narrated as if the viewer were now in 02003, looking back on a global tragedy, counting tens of millions of lives lost, that had unfolded late in '02. The friend who alerted me to the existence of this film had stumbled across it that year on cable TV in Serbia, and had watched in horror, transfixed, until it sank in that this had to be merely a hypothetical storyline. The director, Daniel Percival, later made Dirty War (02004) for British television, a topical drama about a nuclear device being detonated in central London.

The director of Death of a President, Gabriel Range, has himself made two other films using a similar format, The Day Britain Stopped (02003) and The Man Who Broke Britain (02004). Both were made through the same production house as Smallpox 2002, but neither, for obvious reasons, was fated to make a major international impact. And although there has been a recent spate of British film and TV productions using documentary to depict futures (including the excellent BBC series If... referred to in a recent post at this very blog), it goes back further than that.

English director Mick Jackson made the 01984 film Threads, and in 01988, the TV drama series A Very British Coup, also a politically themed "what if" (though the latter was not, I think, in documentary format -- I haven't seen that one). Earlier still, perhaps the founding exploration of a future scenario in documentary format, is The War Game (01965), by maverick documentarist Peter Watkins, which used the newsreel-style documentary footage of the era to present a chilling vision of what a nuclear attack on Great Britain might be like. Although, like Smallpox 2002, it was produced for the BBC, the film was banned from British television -- ostensibly (according to the director's own account) on the grounds of artistic failure. The ban was not lifted for some twenty years, and Watkins relates an intriguing, even scandalous, story about the intensely political fate of this film. Yet it is, emphatically, anything but an artistic failure: it is an underappreciated landmark in filmmaking, which still packs an emotional punch after forty years. In fact it won an Academy Award in 1967 for Best Documentary Feature. What was that? Yes, Best Documentary Feature: a fictional film about a hypothetical nuclear attack.

Now, I have written in this setting about what I see as a need for futurists to design and communicate scenarios in more engaging ways. Examples include the immersive futures workshops designed for "Hawaii 2050"; the idea of gaming alternative futures; and the futures audio tours currently in pre-production. In this vein, the future documentary genre can be used to render hypothetical scenarios more vivid, and I suspect (though it would take more research to prove) that the quality of conversation which ensues makes it a valuable exercise. But we can reasonably contemplate why the documentary format invites a particular, and particularly useful, kind of discussion.

Today the Hollywood camera can virtually venture anywhere, a question of "visual access" which seems relevant here. Consider these four shots: into a soldier's body in Three Kings, the life's journey of a round from factory to firing in Lord of War; Ed Norton's fear-addled brain from the inside out as a gun is pointed at him in the opening sequence of Fight Club; and through the air, faster than a speeding bullet in The Matrix. All these are examples of recent, innovative film techniques which readily spring to mind and which communicate the bodily violence wrought by guns. (All are also widely recognised as excellent movies, and I share that view.)

Death of a President is a much less violent film than any of the four mentioned above. Its story does revolve around a shooting, but it doesn't dwell on the act itself, and certainly could not be said to fetishise gun violence -- which is merely a vector for telling another story, about how such an event can be used opportunistically to advance domestic and international political agendas. While there is a certain amount of dramatic mileage squeezed out of the lead-up to Bush being shot, from a filmmaking point of view it's necessary scene-setting that shows how and why such a consequential security breach could have been allowed to occur. The moment of the crime itself, when it comes, is all handheld, shaky camerawork, deliberately chaotic and close to being visually incomprehensible. The most interesting part of the film comes afterwards, when the plot thickens with a series of suspects being examined, and a sort of documentary whodunit unfolds.

Now, John Gaeta, the man behind the Matrix special effects, has spoken of that movie's "bullet time" effect as heralding a new development in filmmaking, the "virtual camera". But every narrative film -- where, courtesy of actors trained to ignore the camera in the room, we're privy to the most private parts of characters' lives -- is, in a sense, shot with a virtual camera. It's like the omniscient narrator of a novel, who can guide us at will inside thoughts and motivations of characters who would, if they were real people, be at a loss to explain themselves. In other words, these devices enable a type of intimacy which in turn makes it possible to tell the story. And both types of storytelling require our complicity, in agreeing to the invisibility of the storyteller. The bargain is that, when the ploy works, we get to see deeper inside the human condition. Though at one level it's a bigger lie, the payoff in terms of human truth can also be bigger.

Unlike most fictional narratives, Death of a President is not meant to be a novelistic meditation on the human condition. It may all be fiction, but virtual cameras are eschewed in favour of virtual realism. In choosing to present this story as a documentary about an unexpected event, by contrast with a "scripted" drama where the camera can be anywhere, the filmmaker's materials are limited to ex post facto piecing together of "fragments", carefully crafted -- interviews, security camera footage, TV news reports, file tapes, and the like. The paradox that arises here is that the fictional documentary ("mockumentary", as in Rob Reiner's seminal comedy This Is Spinal Tap) is, in relation to the story it tells, simultaneously more real -- because presented with the familiar audio-visual conventions, including limitations, attendant on presenting "real" stories -- and less real -- because it's more self-evidently constructed and the seams are harder to ignore. The way I read it, the film asks us to engage with the question of the plausibility and the possible consequences of something like this happening, by presenting it as "real". (How would it feel to see this documentary presented as fact in two years' time?) If the same story were given the Hollywood treatment, and an actor -- say, George Clooney -- were playing George Bush, it's easy to imagine that it would risk either mythologising or trivialising the possibility of presidential assassination. And while I don't think this is necessarily the most important, interesting or relevant topic about which we could be asking "what if?"; as a well-made instance of the future documentary genre, it's not a bad example of how that question can usefully be posed.

These films also invite us to recognise, by their skilful use of documentary conventions that appear to frame their content as factual, that every narrator has a position vis-à-vis the tale she tells. As the masterful Swedish writer, Sven Lindqvist, confesses: "Even in the most authentic documentary there is always a fictional person – the person telling the story. I have never created a more fictional character than the researching 'I' in my doctorate, a self that begins in pretended ignorance and then slowly arrives at knowledge, not at all in the fitful, chancy way I myself arrived at it, but step by step, proof by proof, according to the rules." (Exterminate All The Brutes, 01992, p. 104) If we accept this invitation, we should discuss scenarios -- and indeed, any films, novels, political events, products, or anything else worthy of public attention -- in light of a full and frank recognition of our personal investments in them. What's much more interesting than a filmmaker's take on the material is the ecology of opinion that greets it. The great director Billy Wilder said: "If people see a picture of mine and then sit down and talk about it for 15 minutes, that is a very fine reward, I think." There was much more than fifteen minutes' worth of top notch conversational fodder in Death of a President. Maybe films like this should be judged more for the quality of the discussion they inspire than for the viewing experience itself.

Now, there's a kicker in all of this, so stay with me just a moment more. The film grabs attention with its premise of the sitting President being killed. Few supposedly secular phenomena come closer to being sacrosanct in America than the office of Commander-In-Chief. But the future documentary format, which appears to have thrived on British screens in the past few years, has apparently not been so popular in the United States. (It's pretty much unthinkable that this British-made film, though set in the US and featuring American actors, could have been financed and made by Americans... but if any readers of this blog would like to draw comparable examples of US-made future documentaries to my attention, that would be very illuminating). The twist here is that Death of a President has been banned by two large American cinema chains: echoes of The War Game in Britain, forty years ago. There's surely no clearer signal that a political film needs to be seen than when it gets banned; a lesson which, one might think, ought not to be lost on fans of the First Amendment. I've suggested that if films can be likened to thought experiments, some very useful results can be expected from future documentaries like these, which are presented as artifacts from their respective possible futures -- so long as we are prepared to entertain an open conversation about the scenarios they propose. When we're refused the chance to see them, it lends a degree of urgency to finding out what all the fuss is about... so look for a screening near you, sit back and watch Death of a President, and then let's have a nice chat.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Meditations on spam

I've been called many things in my life -- but never, until today, "Emmett I. Zoratoric". The origin of this novel appellation is none other than a spam attack that appears to have kicked in about 10pm last night, the first being an "automated delivery failure" message to Emmettizoratoric (who??) at I'd say that ordinarily, a pretty small percentage of unwanted email makes it through to my actual inbox, but I counted over thirty messages that did so between yesterday evening and this afternoon -- like so many electronic wetbacks slipping across the digital Rio Grande -- and on closer inspection, found more than ten times that many again in my spambox, apprehended by the border guards of spam filtration. That makes close to 400 messages sent out illegitimately over about 14 hours, ostensibly from users of emails operated under my domain name; and those are just the ones I know about because of the automatic replies they generated.

For the last half day, phantom cyber-assholes have been taking liberties with the good name of and pestering people as far afield as Brazil, Japan, and somewhere Arabic-speaking. So, first things first: when I pester people, I do it under my own name. If any human being that is reading this happened to receive some message from Emmett I. Zoratoric, Elijah W. N. Tuneful, or anyone other than me claiming to be affiliated with this website, please delete and disregard. Someone's phishing and I personally have nothing to do with it. In any case, though, I'm sorry it happened. (Desculpe. Gomennasai. Aasef!)

It does make me wonder, though, what the hell is going on with spam. At whom are these messages really directed? Usually you can infer something about the target audience of, say, a TV show, from the sports cars, game consoles or incontinence treatments peddled in the ad breaks. Perhaps we can deduce something about the imagined recipients of spam messages from their content. Actual examples of typical subject headings currently residing in my email account include: "We cure any disease!"; "casino on net"; and "Permanent Male Enlarger + Bonus!!!" They conjure a picture of some kind of gambling-addicted, disease-ridden, financially distraught male wrestling with chronic insecurities about all things penis-related.

Clearly they've got me pegged (I wish I were kidding). But you, like me, would have to be mad, in addition to some or all of those other things, to instigate any kind of financial transaction on the strength of these unsolicited messages. And yet this is apparently the optimistic conclusion most of them are driving at. I do of course understand that, even if I don't bite at these remarkably stupid opportunities, the transaction costs are zero to send out millions of messages promoting this or that dubious product or service, so even a vanishingly small response rate from the most desperate or credulous recipients can make it worthwhile for the shadowy entrepreneurs behind the curtain. Even so, it's sometimes hard to believe that this is what real people do with the prodigious powers that technology puts at their disposal. Let me venture an alternative explanation. True artificial intelligence may still be decades away, but artificial stupidity is thriving: this is what self-aware computers with a juvenile sense of humour surreptitiously do with their spare processing power in 02006.

At any rate, believe it or not I do occasionally derive pleasure from the absurdity of some of these messages. Like the proverbial thousand monkeys at the thousand typewriters, from time to time there do emerge, if not Shakespearean masterpieces, fragments of poetry with a degree of offbeat literary appeal. Currently I find in my spam filter, for instance, no less than six separate exhortations to try "VkAGRA for LESS" (from my good friends Gittan Manos, Rhosyn Carmody, Buffy Seidell, Moriah Bruner, Agrafena Hagel, and of course Borghild Puglisi.) The body text of one is, I kid you not, an astonishing ode to Viagra itself (unintentionally, judging from the nonsense populating most others):

circulated about this particular planet.
Gentlemen-this way if you please

It's Viagra time -- roll up, roll up! Let's get the party on this particular planet started!

But the names are probably my favourite thing about spam. Here are a few harvested from my current crop:

Cadwalader Soller
Edvige Mapes
Jamaal Orozco
Happy Labrecque
Yaromira Scherer
Alaric Beaudreau
Isaac Alvarez
Haruko Weigel
Mattithyahu Samaniego
Keeleigh Legrand

I really don't know anything about the technology behind spam, and I doubt these are the names of real people (if they are, Cadwalader and co., please accept my apologies). Either way, there is, seen from a certain angle, a clue here about the burgeoning diversity in our world, the intermingling and recombination of cultures and ideas that is somehow emblematic of contemporary globalisation processes. Some of these names, given the cultural combinations they imply, would have been unthinkable a generation or two ago. Now, it's hard to tell whether they're real or not. It reminded me of anthropologist Grant McCracken's online work-in-progress, Plenitude 2.0: "The world will always fill with difference, no potentiality of being can remain unfulfilled, all that can be imagined must someday be. There is no box."

I'm no lover of spam. But, from a certain angle it affords an interesting window on what's going on in our culture -- a modest index of some of what's changing (modes of communication; increasing sophistication of automated processes; commercial opportunities everywhere and anywhere) and what's staying pretty much the same (worries about health, sex, and money).

It was reported yesterday that last month (October 02006), the size of the web surpassed the 100 million websites mark, compared to just 18,000 in August 01995 (one month after my own first encounter with the web, at the home of a family friend, on holiday in England). The number of people and machine participants in this global, hyperdimensional orgy of pointless communications continues to balloon. And with that comes exponentially increased potential for both highly productive and utterly stupid encounters between people; and between people and machines; and between machines themselves. Already, every day there must be literally billions of unnoticed interactions between automatically generated email messages and automatically activated spam filters. Our machines are talking to each other. And soon, inshallah, a whole lot more robots will be fighting each other on our behalf too! From a Guardian report last week: "By 2015, the US Department of Defense plans that one third of its fighting strength will be composed of robots, part of a $127bn (£68bn) project known as Future Combat Systems (FCS), a transformation that is part of the largest technology project in American history." (Sorry, this is simply too mindbogglingly stupid and depressing for me to comment further at the moment.)

As for the future of spam -- now there's a space to watch. As long as we're talking about people being responsible for the epidemic (rather than bored artilects), it's fervently to be hoped that an effective legislation regime could raise the spammers' risks to the point where they look for more traditional ways to irritate people. But TV advertising, billboards and garden variety spam look utterly benign in comparison to an idea Jamais Cascio wrote up last month:

The same logic could apply to molecular manufacturing spam, but MM-spam could take myriad new forms. Advertising messages etched into whatever objects get made by a nanofac. Code that tells the nanofac to use all available nanotoner to continuously print out small, mobile commercial-shouting bots. Hacks that instruct a nanofac to embed into the hardware of any new nanofac it makes commands to add commercials on whatever the new nanofac makes. I'm sure I'm only scratching the surface here, and that far more insidious and hard-to-root-out forms of nanospam are on the horizon.
Forget home-printed assault rifles and field-produced drones. Forget gray, green and red goo. The real danger we will face in the time of molecular manufacturing is spam.

From here on in, I think I'll stop complaining about my petty email troubles and start thinking harder about the insidious futures of spam. Go ahead, call me Emmett and spam me silly.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Barbershop futures revisited, part I

A colleague of mine, an exceedingly perceptive, forthright and charming futurist from Belgium, Dr Maya van Leemput, recently emailed me in response to a post put up in August, "Barbershop Futures"...

I was asked to write about futures thinking for a project here ... that wants to address the general apathy that the organisers believe might underlie the local success of the extreme right.

A wrap in two lines: 2017 is a cultural project in Antwerp, Belgium, with free performances and events in public spaces of the city, playing with the idea that art can save the world. It publishes an old style printed 'Paper of the Future' that tries to give its readers some food for thought about local and global futures.

[T]his organisation wants to encourage people to think for themselves and preferably "a bit further than their noses are long" (a Flemish expression I didn't want to keep from you). So I wrote one introductory piece for their Future Tabloid already and now they've decided to keep up the effort after the elections too and want me to contribute regularly.

When they asked me this I had been reading your blog for a while and thought of an "open letter to a colleague" in response to your Barbershop futures post. Something that would let me be personal and professional at the same time. What do you say?

I said go for it. Here's the open letter, unedited:

Dear Stuart,

Compliments on your blog, motivating stuff.

I can relate to your barbershop futures experience. I like the image of the hairdresser that doesn't need a futurist and the futurist that needs a hairdresser (take this literally, I see your 12-months uncut style in my mind's eye). Your discussion of "the misunderstanding that my interest in the future meant I would be willing or able to forecast" and your thoughts on the usefulness of futures thinking were helpful. I'm confronted with the same misunderstandings and like your conclusion: "As to many of the things that matter to us, we can do something about them. The something (or various alternative somethings) we can do, and why and how, and to what possible ends -- identifying and acting upon these is, to my mind, the purpose of futures thinking."

I have been holding futures conversations with the hairdresser on principle since 02000. I say 'the' hairdresser, but actually there were more than a few: in Antwerp, Brussels, London, Antigua, and like you, in San Francisco. The first time I hadn't planned it, it just happened. It was in my home town in Belgium and when Vincent, who had his shop in a hip and happening street in the centre of town, heard that I study 'what and how people think about the future', he was unstoppable. "So have you heard? You must have heard?" he asked in a complicit tone. "You must know what I mean. It's really important, we're heading for a big change, people are changing, more and more people know, we're moving on to the next level, the energy in Antwerp will turn around soon." He went on to explain the history of the cosmos, the human psyche and the world, in true new age spirit mixing 101 mystic, spiritual, religious and scientific beliefs. The reason he told me this, he said, was that I was in a position to spread the word, people would listen to me more than to him. This particular hairdresser certainly felt he could use a futurist. He wanted me to go out and tell the truth (his truth) about the future.

Advocacy, Wendell Bell sees it as a task of futures studies. How many study the future to explicitly proclaim one and only one future, the true future? There are some. Most futurists advocate futures thinking itself however, I guess that's where I am too.

The kinds of goals you were pursuing with your hairdresser when trying to work out a view of future possibilities in relation with his business, are probably among the most widely accepted and applied objectives of our trade. To take one set of (often economically oriented and as such pre-defined) goals and search for the various ways in which these could be achieved or challenged often makes sense even to those with an otherwise short-range outlook. The survival, growth or decline of economic units (whether they are charming small businesses like Wally's or large corporations) mostly concern questions of change within an otherwise unchanging framework.

You remark that "futures can indeed be helpful, for almost anyone, in clarifying where they may be able to make a difference, and where they are less likely to do so." So in that case, does the hairdresser really not need a futurist? He lives in a neighbourhood (the changing nature of which, by the way, might affect his business). He might have children. He lives in a world that is threatened by human greed. He is part of a nation the leaders of which are trying very hard to determine what the future for everyone on earth will be like, regardless of what futures people might choose for themselves. Does Wally think the fact that the same shampoos he buys in bulk to wash your elegant locks, are being sold in single-use packaging in third world countries, affects the future? And actually, does he give a damn?

I guess you'll be off to the hairdresser again at some point. If the conversation turns to futures, I'm curious to read about it again and hope you can steer it beyond the barbershop perspective. As you suggest, futures thinking is relevant to almost anyone. I see it as part of our job to help people experience this for themselves. Maybe it will turn out to be impossible to escape from being "the proverbial hammer that is constantly looking for a nail to strike" after all.

When futurists start asking difficult questions back, that's when things get interesting. It's certainly a kick. I ask my hairdressers about personal, local and global futures, best-case and worst-case scenarios, expectations and interpretations. We talk about what's needed for an ideal to come nearer and what can be done to avoid the worst. We talk about who's responsible for getting what done, about the means and the paths. Sometimes I draw a complete blank but a lot of the time, people get into telling me all about their hopes and fears as if I'm not some unusual stranger but an old mate that they can confide their secret ambitions to. I recommend it.

I've got carried away thinking about the barbershop and futures conversations and haven't even got round to addressing the matter of the crystal-ball and prediction. That's for next time: I'll get back to you.

It's a pleasure to receive such a thoughtful, extended response to a post. Thank you, Maya! Although I doubt I'll do justice to every point made here, there are a few thoughts I can offer by way of a reply.

/To be continued.../

Monday, October 23, 2006

The intimation of catastrophe, part II

/Continued from previous post.../

An article about invasive species and customs inspection in the Honolulu Weekly from August this year had a sidebar (not included in the online version, as far as I can tell) in which one of the interviewees noted that, if Hawaii's import lines were to be cut off, there would be sufficient stockpiles of food and other supplies to last eleven days. I'm in no position to verify or challenge such a figure, though it seems to embody a number of dubious "other things being equal"-style assumptions... but it strikes me as rather obvious that Hawaii is perhaps uniquely susceptible to this kind of severe disruption. And it certainly begs the question, what sorts of things might we expect to happen around day twelve?

This is most isolated island chain in the world, living at United States levels of energy consumption many times that even of Europe (let alone Asia or Africa); some 1.3 million residents and seven million visitors per year, all of whom arrive and leave by plane. Almost everything eaten here is imported. Over 90% of electricity in the islands is generated by the burning of oil. We mustn't elide the enormous differences between an earthquake and, say, a global oil crisis. But neither should we pass over this important opportunity to consider the extent to which the Hawaiian lifestyle in the early twenty-first century resembles a socio-ecological time bomb.

Since arriving here to live in August 02005, I have heard a number of people refer to Hawaii as a sort of social laboratory (e.g. for ethnic intermingling), a microcosm of broader patterns (e.g. in the development and destruction of native flora and fauna), and -- less chirpily but no less accurately, perhaps -- a canary in the coalmine of global history. The earthquake here last week provided an opportunity, for those willing to make out its unpleasant contours, to consider the prospect of having the power go out, and planes grounded, for some time. A day's disruption was what we got. How might it feel for that to stretch out to a week? Or two? Hawaii's isolation may make it more transparently vulnerable to a disruption of routine than the continents, but its fragility is ultimately no different in kind from that of the planet as a whole, wherever on it you may live. And nothing brings that lesson home like the sensation of the world shifting beneath your feet.

The other earthquake that has happened while I've been within trembling distance, occurred one morning in June, as I slept peacefully over a faultline in San Francisco. Thinking long-term means gradually awakening to tectonic forces, glacial grumblings well beneath the pitch of ordinary hearing -- the slow stuff. (In this case, though, it was me that was too slow, and I failed to awaken at all when it happened.) I completely missed that gentle tremor, that reminder of the fragility of all that seems so solid. But when it comes to mind, I wonder how often the thoughts of the average denizen of that beautiful city turn to the imminence -- geologically speaking -- of the thundering collapse of everything they know? Hard to measure, I guess, but interesting to contemplate.

I think of the aerial view as my plane left San Francisco, the brittle exoskeleton of the city draped over a rolling sculpture. The hills of Marin County receding in late afternoon sun, ripples pinched neatly into a velvet handkerchief. Those colossal bridges across the bay, which sent a thrill through me every time I crossed, with their sheer scale and engineering audacity, look like matchstick models from the air. From up there it's easy, disturbingly easy, to picture them carelessly torn asunder by the hiccup of a sleeping giant.

And I think back to when I emerged, bags in hand, from the subway, blinking in the crisp morning air of Market Street on 8 May, to start my summer's work with The Long Now Foundation. One of the first things I noticed was a MUNI bus rolling by, bearing a 72-hour earthquake awareness billboard, with a slogan to the effect that San Franciscans ought to be prepared for The Big One at any time. It's all borrowed time, spend it how you will. (That was not the slogan, but it could have been.) I don't think headquartering the Long Now Foundation in a city on a precipice is necessarily a fatal irony; it's a valuable one. Life on a fault line simply crystallises the mortal predicament.

Living on an island in the middle of nowhere with almost all its energy eggs in one basket -- oil importation -- should also make us think twice.

What happened last Sunday in Hawaii was an opportunity to reflect on the underappreciated truism that the unexpected can crop up at any time. It didn't bite us hard this time, but we saw the flash of teeth and perhaps had some intimation of what a real catastrophe could be like.

The last thing I want to be accused of is harbouring morbid expectations and spreading gloomy premonitions. But there are some things we simply don't pay enough attention to, and this is one of the big ones. So, let me spell it out. The following ought to be self-evident, yet apparently is not: in a matter of just a few centuries of history, modern society has denatured its urban members, and made us, for the most part, incapable of supporting ourselves outside a highly elaborate and interconnected agricultural, industrial, and now informational framework of relations. To make it personal: had Magoo's kitchen not come to the rescue with a piping hot cheese-steak sandwich, I might have been able to set about stockpiling cans of this and that, like the queuing multitude at the Star Market... but if push came to shove, would I be able to grow my own stuff? Tricky to do; with neither land, nor farming experience, nor opportunity to plan/t in advance.

Attendant upon this whole arrangement, then, are certain risks, and, though they may make their presence felt only every so often, it is on those few occasions that we really ought to revisit this historical bargain we've somehow struck, asking how well it serves us. If we're feeling particularly bold, we might also ask this question from the standpoint of other species, or indeed of future generations. But I'm not sure we'd like the answers.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The intimation of catastrophe, part I

It is Sunday morning. Just after 7am, I wake up with a start, and a slight sense of panic, to the sound of my room's door shuddering loudly against the jamb. Over perhaps ten seconds, a series of thoughts presents itself. Gales of wind, whistling down Manoa Valley, must be blasting through the open window and shaking the door... but no, the air in the room is still. Someone, then, is banging their fist to wake me up. A big Saturday night party carrying over to Sunday morning? But the other, typically more studious residents of my unit have never, as far as I know, done anything so outlandish (or interesting) as getting drunk and harrassing their neighbours. And more to the point, this sound is not that made by a person knocking on wood. Its source seems more structural. So perhaps someone's clomping hurriedly down the hallway outside? But that can't be right either -- that hall is made of solid concrete, and however energetic, no flat-footed march or frenzied dash could cause the doorway to shake...

Wow. It's a goddamn earthquake.

I leap out of bed, throw on last night's clothes as the room keeps tremoring slightly, and I head out onto the 12th floor lanai, the open air walkway, where a number of pyjama-clad lost souls -- fellow quake victims -- are staring out over the valley with a certain glazed expression mixing puzzlement and concern, which, were I looking at my own face, I might find I also share. Although still almost as asleep as awake, I head to the building's elevator and ride from here, the top floor, down to the lobby. I want to get outside and walk around, give myself a chance to process what has happened. I don't sense any more tremors, and I'm not exactly worried. Just, you know, shaken.

Outside it's raining, and cloudy grey, for the long haul. I'm in a tee shirt, and it's not cold, but the rain is moderately heavy as I wander north across campus and turn left down Maile Way. There's virtually no one around, and no sound except the rain, and a distant car alarm triggered by the quake. I walk down past Saunders Hall, where I work at the futures center, and notice one of the elevators is frozen open on the ground floor, lights out. The whole place is eerily quiet, then as the rain picks up intensity and I shelter under the awning at the top of the steps of the Queen Lili'uokalani Center -- I notice that there are no lights on in any of the buildings.

Back at my hall of residence, Hale Manoa, perhaps a hundred people are chattering in the lobby (many of them still in pyjamas) and all the lights are gone, like the soul of the building had departed. Ah, and elevators aren't working any more either, hence the milling crowd. (Mixed reaction -- lucky the elevator got me to the ground floor before the power went out, deeply stupid that I even tried using it.) I chat with some friends for a few minutes -- talking about our surprised reactions, not yet thinking about the consequences this event could have for the rest of the day. Then I climb the eleven flights of stairs to my room, check my email (although the power's out, the answering machine isn't glowing at me and the fan isn't working, my laptop has a charged battery) and decide to get some more sleep.

Some hours later, I go out foraging. Need food. Maybe Volcano Joe's, a pizza place across the street, will be open. No such luck. But, bumping into some good friends who are out in their van and facing the same situation, I suggest we head down to the stores on University Avenue. Since nothing else seems to be working, maybe the pub is open.

It's bizarre: down here all the traffic lights are out, and many of the smaller stores which would be doing at least a light trade on a Sunday early afternoon are shuttered and dark. The supermarket around the corner is working, but the queues are stretching down the block. Are people stocking up in case the blackout isn't resolved -- or perhaps the cashiers are just working more slowly, having to record and calculate all the purchases by hand?

Now, personally -- if no one's getting hurt -- I enjoy a bit of chaos, a sense of routine disrupted. When everything is put on hold due to extraordinary circumstances, a degree of heightened awareness sets in, people attend to different things. They have to think differently, if only a little bit, because the complacency of the reflex action is temporarily out of commission. So our conversation at Magoo's, the local dive sports-bar, revolves in part around the challenges of getting food. The kitchen there gradually runs out of key ingredients and the menu becomes shorter and shorter. A gas-powered generator is able to keep a few essential lights on, with occasional interruptions that are met with cheers from the patrons, and the classic-rock jukebox imparts a festive mood; but when evening arrives, the lights on the streets and highway are still out, and cops are still waving through traffic with flares and whistles at the busy intersection of King St and University Avenue.

Down at Waikiki, one part of the city that with its intensive tourist presence seems likely to be a priority for the electricity to be restored early on, lighting remains minimal at 9pm. Apart from the larger hotels, hardly anything is open, and there are entire blocks where you can barely see someone standing a few feet in front of you. It is surreal. People seem not to be enjoying themselves too much down here, and while the ABC Stores (a chain selling mostly postcards and other tourist crap) are doing a roaring trade, this esplanade is suddenly out of its element, and feels neither quite like a public space (the way a park does) nor a private one (like a mall). It's in limbo; as if no one knows what to make of it or what to do here.

The idea of a riot, or of looting or generalised havoc, does not seem so implausible with the lights out. Possibilities, both grim and heartening, open up in your mind's eye when business as usual is put aside.

In point of fact, by the time I get back to my place, the power's on and the day's events are already taking on the odd quality of a waking dream. Although, I later learn, there were some greater disruptions (landslides, buildings evacuated) nearer the epicentre of the quake on Hawaii Island; as a friend of mine put it, the worst result for most people was spending part of the day in the 18th century. No harm done, apparently.

But it's interesting how the effects of an unexpected disruption dawn on you gradually. It's like there are layers of routine, expectation, and reliance, and you don't tend to comprehend the impact on all of them at once. Perhaps the measure of one's dependence on something can be realised in the cumulative layers of irritation, disappointment and despair that are peeled back after it is taken away, and how deep you have to dig into all that is a function of time spent without it.

Fortunately, this time Hawaii just scratched the surface. But I think there's much more to see.

/To be continued.../

Monday, October 09, 2006

If women ruled the world

"Men should be barred from public office for 100 years in every part of the world. ... It would be a much kinder, gentler, more intelligently run world. The men have had millions of years where we've been running things. We've screwed it up hopelessly. Let's give it to the women."
~Ted Turner,, 20 September 02006.

Last month, media magnate turned philanthropist Ted Turner addressed a gathering in New York on the Iraq war, and various other themes of contemporary politics. And, as one account noted; "When asked about the possibility that the next U.N. secretary general might be a woman, Turner went a step further, advocating that men should be barred from public office for a hundred years in every part of the world."

I don't know how serious he thought he was being, but let's dwell on this a moment. As a potential solution, Turner's suggestion has a startling blunt elegance -- and undeniable poetic justice -- about it. Whether it would resolve as many of our present problems as could be desired is another matter. I'd like to think so, but it seems to me that the territorial parochialism, and attendant aggression, that we see in the behaviour of people claiming to represent the interests of nation-states, may be inherent to that system, regardless of which sex is in charge. Many women who have succeeded in politics have been accused of adopting, if not outdoing, some of the most Machiavellian strategies and militaristic postures of their male counterparts (Margaret Thatcher, anyone?). A powerful argument elaborated by many feminist theorists of international relations is of course that the state is inherently "gendered", the implication being that if enough women were in charge, states wouldn't be as divisive, chauvinistic and exploitative as they are -- and perhaps they would cease to exist in their current form altogether.

It's a topic of very great interest, but I'm not aware of very much serious futures work having been done on the matter. There was an excellent BBC television series of a couple of years ago, entitled "If...", each episode of which offered topical scenarios set in the next few decades, using a combination of documentary and narrative techniques (fictional narrative interspersed with interviews featuring contemporary commentators and decision makers). One edition imagined how things might be "If... Women Ruled the World". But where else can we find scenarios envisioning a radical feminisation of global politics? I'd be grateful to hear from others better informed than me.

Contemplation of this kind of sweeping structural reform is the bread and butter of the distinctive approach to alternative futures taught at the "Manoa School" for over three decades now. In Jim Dator's graduate class on Political Systems Design, teaching this astonishingly underexamined process is based around students having to address, through structural change, some of the major problems with governments today:

we will consider six of the many complaints levied against all existing governments: that they are bureaucratic, placing the convenience of the governors over the needs of the governed; that they too nationalistic, privileging the nation-state over both smaller and larger units; that they are undemocratic, thwarting participation of some, while favoring other, groups and individuals; that they are repressive, using and causing both direct and structural violence; that they are patriarchal, insisting on a gender binary and within that binary privileging men and masculinity (particularly violence), while ignoring or marginalizing the mobility of gender as well as the participation and perspectives of women; and that they are unfuturistic, basically discounting the future and concerning themselves with at best immediate and in many instances past, and almost always comparatively trivial problems.

Back to Turner's proposal, then; it's hard to say to what extent a systematic change addressing just one of these six indicative problem areas, namely, patriarchy, would alleviate the others. I'm not sure that a pure reversal of the long-standing male domination of public space would meet what I regard as an urgent need to enhance mutual respect and cooperation between genders (as well as across other social fault lines). Substituting one variety of domination for another has not worked particularly well in the decolonised states of sub-Saharan Africa, for instance. But generally, given the gravity of our civilisational predicament, this kind of big-picture thinking is sorely needed, and specifically, in light of the starring role that men have played in bringing our "civilisation" to the brink of self-destruction, we need to ask if a less testosterone-driven global politics wouldn't bring about a good measure of positive change -- and who can doubt it? It's a shame, but no surprise, that billionaire philanthropists apparently find it easier to broach such essential and provocative questions than anyone actively involved in politics.

So, what if women ruled the world? I'd be very interested to hear what others have to say on this topic. Not merely an opportunity for some spectacularly politically incorrect standup comedy, this is truly a matter of paramount relevance to the quandary we find ourselves in the early twenty-first century. But there's also room to wonder, long before Turner's suggested female century neared its end, if we wouldn't have an entirely new set of representational issues to deal with... What if robots ruled the world?

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Towards a Sceptical Futuryst blogosophy, part IV

The best attitude for somebody who's a serious futurist is not pessimism or optimism, but just a deep sense of engagement. It has to mean something to you. You have to find aspects of it that can really compel your interest. You shouldn't get hung up on whether it's "good" or "bad", because those qualities can change their coloration quite rapidly as time continues to pass. What's good for us right now might not be good for us in 20 years; things we should be optimistic about now might not be such good news 50 years from now.
~Bruce Sterling, Massive Change Radio, December 02003

The optimist says the glass is half full. The pessimist says the glass is half empty. I say the glass is refillable.
~The Sceptical Futuryst

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Seeing Red

On Thursday evening, HRCFS colleague Jake Dunagan and I were privileged to help out at the opening of a powerful and innovative new art exhibition, Seeing Red, in Honolulu's Chinatown.


This quote from Woodrow Wilson emblazons the literature explaining the purpose of Seeing Red, which is to provide graphic designers with a rare and much needed outlet for their political passions and social concerns. Three talented young designers, friends of ours affiliated with Wall to Wall Studios here in Honolulu (Jesse Arneson, Chris Thomas, and Julia Zimmerman) conceived and curated the project, and as they describe it; folks in the graphic design profession are constantly being called upon to use their skills to communicate other people's messages, many of them formulated with nothing more profound in mind than simple commercial promotion. So why not invite designers to use those same skills to raise public awareness about issues deserving wider or closer attention; the things that make them angry? Hence the title.

The screenprinted posters designed for Seeing Red are simple, vivid and exceptionally striking, and all are black and red on a white background, lending strong aesthetic consistency despite enormous variation in styles and messages across the 35 contributions. Many Hawaiian artists are represented in the mix, as well as a number of internationally recognised designers, such as Milton Glaser, creator of the iconic "I love New York" logo. (The poster featured above, which so eloquently addresses the danger of mixing religion and politics, is "WARNING", by Chaz Maviyane-Davies in Harare, Zimbabwe.)

All proceeds from poster sales go to the artist's nominated charity, so the activist theme goes deeper than mere appearances. As the Seeing Red website states: "Our attempt is to create more than a dialogue. We are attempting to create a tangible method of bettering the world." In my view this project is a great example of conscientiously and usefully "marketing a way of thinking", as discussed at The Sceptical Futuryst in this earlier post.

There is also an exhibition of posters produced by sixth-grade students at a local school, using the same design parameters, and the chaotic energy of these youngsters at the opening on Thursday was stupendous. If you thought children, art, and politics wouldn't mix, there's another reason check out this show. Seeing Red will be at the Pegge Hopper Gallery in Honolulu until 26 October, before touring to Pittsburgh (and possibly other cities). You can contact the organisers, and make a donation to help cover their costs, through the project website.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

My first Burn

Back in Honolulu, it's hard to describe the Burning Man experience in a way that doesn't seem slightly unhinged -- although it all makes perfect sense when you're there.

After amassing a long list of items to buy for the expedition, and plenty of friendly but puzzling advice from people I knew, who for various reasons were taking a break this year, I gathered everything I could manage during a busy afternoon of shopping in San Francisco -- items included ski goggles, hat, baby wipes, dust masks, and copious quantities of beef jerky and sports bars. I then found that my ride plans to get out to Black Rock City had fallen through, so resorted to that wondrous staple of early 21st century networking, Craigslist, to find someone to take me to the event. I took a phone call at about 11:30pm on Tuesday evening, a day and a half after arriving in town, and the fellow on the line said he was planning to leave in an hour's time, drive through the night, and set up camp at the playa on Wednesday morning. Sorted.

Mark, the guy who had responded to my ad on Craigslist, rolled up at about 1am in a blue sedan, and a trailer, both groaning with provisions, in contrast to which my two backpacks seemed absurdly minimalist. He was a Bay Area native and an entrepreneur between projects (which, a friend back in Honolulu astutely remarked, is San Francisco's answer to LA's ubiquitous unemployed actors). We made our way through the night toward Reno, and after sunrise, beyond into the Nevada desert, and the road-trip provided a good opportunity to exchange stories about our lives, and for Mark to entertain himself by asking me what I expected of the event, knowing that however well researched, my expectations could be but two dimensional sketches that were bound to be shredded by the blooming, buzzing confusion of the experience itself. (I noticed a gleam in the eye of almost any regular participant, or Burner, who discovered a Burning Man virgin in their midst.) As a four-time Burner, he took a certain pride in being prepared for any eventuality that might befall him in the desert, and was pleased to maintain the highest possible level of hedonism in the face of an extremely inhospitable environment. He also brought extras of pretty much everything, which was an unqualified blessing, because -- there's no two ways about it -- like most first timers, I was underprepared.

What can prepare you for Burning Man? I've been wondering about that, and although there are answers I could give, my conclusion is that if you could fully prepare for it, by definition, it wouldn't be as thoroughly worthwhile as it is. The scale and energy of the whole thing are so stupendous that, if they don't take you by surprise the first time, you're probably clinically dead.

That, it turns out, points to one of the signature themes underlying the event. Not indulgence, exactly, but joyful, artistic excess -- a half-million dollar wooden sculpture that looks like an architectural-scale Billy Idol hairstyle -- why the hell not? Three hundred cars, golf buggies, go-karts, school buses, and sailboats made up to look like pirate ships, dragons, UFOs, giant illuminated turtles, etc, most of them pounding out music, while cruising around a giant dustbowl? Naturally. 40,000 people celebrating life in a desert environment where ordinarily, no life survives? Now there's something you have to see to believe.

It's difficult to put in words, but if you combined a pagan feast; the Las Vegas strip; Disneyland reimagined by Dalí; Amsterdam; Woodstock; Mad Max; and the biggest rave you can imagine, you'd still be nowhere near it, but you would at least enjoyed the challenge of trying to mentally blend all that together. The day and night contrast sharply, not just in temperature (one's too hot, the other too cold) but in tone -- there's a shift from carnival to dance party, and each mode has its charms. Sleep, for me a necessary evil, was an agenda item which some participants appeared to find the wherewithal to forego for the duration.

I first heard about the phenomenon -- and it is a phenomenon -- two or three years ago from a splendid book called Breaking Open the Head (mentioned in this earlier post). The author, Daniel Pinchbeck, gives a great description, including the following observations: "Black Rock City is the psychedelic vision made visceral. [...] The event is a highly evolved, brilliantly organized follow-up to the Be-Ins and Happenings of the 1960s." (p. 81) Pinchbeck does well in his account, which I recommend highly, to capture the energy and intensity of the experience, but no number of written descriptions, photo essays or documentaries could possibly substitute for being there. Even so, it's an interesting challenge to try to cram into language the richness of it all. Burning Man is a spirited, as well as spiritual, celebration of life in all its variety and strangeness, with dazzling displays of artwork in every possible medium, ranging from the unmissably huge to the very understated, and shot through with experimentalism, irony, humour and surrealism.

There may be other places where you can awaken to your neighbours hula-hooping naked atop an enormous RV and singing "The Star Spangled Banner"; where you can watch hand puppets doing beatboxing and singing hip-hop; where you can breakfast for free on freshly shucked oysters beneath a canopy in the desert sun; where you can find a thousand pingpong balls with coloured lights inside them, arranged in 3D spokes so you lie underneath in the dark and have rainbow patterns shower onto your retina; where a serpent as long as 30 people spurts out synchronised bursts of flame; where 1,000 fire dancers put on a half-hour show followed by the ignition of a giant neon-lit effigy of a man, out of whose fiercely burning carcass emerge whistling dervishes of dust created by the heat... but if there are such places, I don't know about them.

Black Rock City is a marvel. While it exists, it is the fourth largest city in the state of Nevada. It's a vast camp arranged in a near circle, as on a clock, with each "hour", from 2:00 around to 10:00, a dusty road radiating from the centre; crossed by eight concentric streets (this year, in keeping with the designated art theme; Anxious, Brave, Chance, Destiny, Eager, Fate, Guess, and Hope). The Esplanade is the inner circle, where most of the larger art camps and villages (collections of camps) can be found. In the middle is a vast alkali dustbowl called the playa, with The Man in the middle, and populated by an ever-changing array of odd, mostly mobile art installations to explore day or night. Every corner and every road is populated with tents, vehicles, shade structures, and other temporary edifices housing all kinds of bars, clubs, stalls, shows, and creatively dressed, or undressed, people doing interesting things to, for and with each other for the hell of it.

It is impressive that the whole thing has managed to reach the scale it has -- about 39,000 people this year -- and yet it's still managed largely invisibly. The actual provided infrastructure and list of enforceable rules are minimal, but highly effective, and rely heavily on the "orgware" of the participants; a solid commitment to the evolved culture, which has its reasons and works exceedingly well. It occurred to me that this would be impossible to implement, fully realised, from scratch; but it's because it has been evolving for 20 years, and a core of returning participants seeds a strong sense of continuity and obligation to do the right thing for the community, that the event is able to keep running. For instance; apart from coffee, tea and ice sold at the Center Camp, money does not change hands on the playa. I was shocked to learn that this actually works -- that the gift economy can be, at least for a while, a reality. I was no less shocked to find that, unlike every other fair, concert or similar community event I've ever attended, where copious amounts of garbage appear underfoot within hours, after a week of outrageous partying, there was hardly any "matter out of place" in evidence: the ideal of "pack it in, pack it out" actually functions amid all the apparent chaos. The notion of "radical self-reliance" which BM proudly manifests of course depends on lots of consumption in advance, since you need to bring everything with you; and the event could be -- and is, by some -- roundly criticised for its profligate use of resources (especially the gas used for the art cars and pyrotechnics). Having weighed those criticisms, though, it seems to me a petty complaint in light of the broader purpose of the event. What feast, party or other worthwhile human celebration is fundamentally "sustainable" in its own right. That this could not continue all year round is beside the point. It isn't intended to continue year round.

Now, the art theme this year, which played no small part in my getting organised to actually attend, was "The Future: Hope and Fear". My colleagues at HRCFS and I had talked about staging a guerrilla campaign to pluralise every singular instance of the term "future" -- making it "futures" -- under the team name "S-cargo", with a logo somehow involving a snail. Yeah, well we thought it would be clever. But our duties to "Hawaii 2050" won out, so that didn't happen, although I did inexplicably find myself having lots of conversations on the playa about studying futures, and what that meant, and didn't mean, and so forth. An interesting question asked more than once was whether I thought the gifting economy could provide a viable model for a future society, or an element thereof. This is a topic I'll surely return to at some stage, because it's a really interesting thought. My reaction at the time was, it would be great to think so, but practically the reason it can work is because it's temporary, and everyone's pretty much on holiday from their "ordinary" lives. Currency -- the medium of exchange, whatever it may be -- evolves independently in different societies because barter is simply too inefficient to get everyone what they want. Money's an indispensible middleman. I'm still thinking about it, though, because what really counts here is the contrast between a spirit of mainly selfish accumulation of wealth, which prevails where most of us live, most of the time, and the largely selfless habit of gifting, and "paying it forward " which prevails at Burning Man. Speaking to someone this morning about this remarkable aspect of the experience, she speculated that the bigger idea of BM, in which people establish experimental communities operating on different values, may well become more common as they grow tired of the exploitation of mainstream capitalist culture. I think she may be right.

Now, despite the art theme, which gave rise to some very cool stuff, it is the conceptual and community level at which the Burn was most interesting from a futurist perspective, rather than the details of the art per se: I don't have other years to compare, but my impression was that the chosen theme didn't make a huge difference to what people produced; it tended to provide a loose inspiration, or a final gloss. The event is therefore likely to be equally interesting in any other year, and I urge futurists who haven't been to make it a priority -- if you're interested in being exposed to other ways to be, Burning Man is an inspiring and overwhelmingly energetic place to do that.

And as I reflect on the experience., there are two other ideas that stand out for me more than the "Hope and Fear" of the official theme. The first is serendipity. There is no much going on, all the time, that a saner strategy than trying to dart between scheduled events is simply to go with the flow of whatever you might stumble upon. There's plenty I missed that I would have liked to see (a thick program of scheduled events I barely glanced at all week), but each person's experience there is uniquely their own, and embracing that is one of its pleasures. (This is also true of life generally, but a heightened awareness of that fact is among the interesting lessons Burning Man gave me.)

The second theme is impermanence. On the playa, almost everything is moving, albeit at different rates. Most people get around on bikes, which are extremely useful in view of the scale of the event, but when you're exploring you need to be careful to park your wheels near some kind of landmark that looks like it might be there for at least an hour or two. Impermanence also comes through at a broader level, though, and there is a palpable life cycle to the build up and winding down of each day and night, and of the Burn as a whole. Mark stayed on several more days to volunteer with the cleanup, so I had to hitchhike back to civilisation, and shortly after being picked up by three kind souls in an RV, we were each given a parting gift through the window by a fellow Burner: a small purple box containing some of the ashes from The Man, and the salutary inscription:

Ashes to ashes
dust to dust
The Man
Death is
the only

It boggles the mind to consider that this whole community springs forth in the wasteland of the playa each year, and that much of the art -- including vast installations representing thousands of hours of work -- are designed and produced specifically for the enjoyment of participants. And The Man himself is not the only ritual burning; many other artworks are also ceremonially sent off in the same way. The end of a particular art piece in this way is deliberately and appropriately celebrated with not a whimper, but a bang. For all we might say to bemoan the instant gratification ethos of disposable consumer culture, an equally insidious syndrome in our common experience is arguably a reluctance or inability to let go of things whose day is done. A life lived to the full is lived in recognition of its inevitable ending, and I liked the fact that there this was (implicitly) celebrated, eyes wide open, deepening rather than lessening the joy of the experience.

But overall, I think the best thing about this experience was that I used to feel sometimes like I was born too late, missing out on the major cultural shifts, experiments and innovations of the sixties and seventies. I don't feel that way quite so strongly anymore, because there is indeed a vibrant, growing group of cultural creatives looking for new ways to see, to express themselves, and develop in their lives and communities. It was inspiring and exciting to be a part of it in this case; and having completed what I now see as a reconnaissance mission, I'm looking forward to the chance to get back to the next incarnation of Black Rock City, and more fully engaging the Burning Man creed of active participation.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

"Hawaii 2050" kicks off

Last Saturday, 26 August saw the kickoff event for the state's futures-oriented public discussion process, "Hawaii 2050", at the Dole Ballrooms, Honolulu. About 530 participants from across the islands were in attendance. I am still recovering from the monster effort involved in staging four "futures rooms", which allowed participants to experience, about 130 at a time, two of the four scenes (from among countless possible futures), as a catalyst to further discussion about the possible, probable, and preferable paths that change could take in Hawaii between now and 02050. See this earlier post for more background. In each case, a colour name was attributed for logistical reasons (to put on people's nametags and room signage), not to imply anything about the contents of the scenarios, which were kept secret from participants until they stepped in the door. The photos below, taken by HRCFS graduate student Cyrus Camp, provide a little of the flavour of each.

In the "Orange" version of Hawaii circa 02050, two corporations -- "Aloha Nuclear and Water", and "Kobayashi Virtual Concern", vie for the Hawaiian Governorship in a political debate staged at the Dole Underwater Hotel and Casino.

For "Maroon" Hawaii, participants are cast as attendees at a compulsory -- like jury duty -- civic education program, in the Honolulu ahupua'a. At this "introductory session", presentations are made about the abundant and versatile hemp crop grown in this future Hawaii, and about the role of do-it-yourself biofuel in a renewable energy portfolio.

In the "Silver" scenario, a post-"peak oil" global economic collapse has led to the rise of a military-run society, overlaid with a puppet Hawaiian monarchy. Participants entering this scene are cast as refugees from smaller Pacific islands disappearing under rising oceans, and inducted as citizens and subjects of the so-called Democratic Kingdom of Hawai'i.

"Blue" Hawaii posits a sort of technological Singularity, after which the meaning and status of ordinary humanity is transformed. Here participants are a group of "premods" (PSEs -- persons sans enhancements; homo ludditis; naturals) being addressed by staff at MBED, the "Mind Body Enhancement Depot". They are offered a free technological upgrade paid for by the World Council in order to raise the GHI, or Global Happiness Index.

Now, none of these was intended to be taken as either advocating or predicting a particular path; the aim was instead to promote a broadened sense of what the possibilities could be. From that perspective, this part of the event seems to have succeeded. People were highly engaged by the exercise, and responded energetically and thoughtfully to the ideas presented therein.

This article from Sunday's Honolulu Advertiser says some more about Saturday's program, and this piece by futurist Jamais Cascio (our guest presenter at last week's futures salon) provides a highly thoughtful response to the whole "Hawaii 2050" effort, as well as the Immersive Futures themselves. Details of the scenarios can be found here. All feedback on any aspect of this event, or the broader endeavour of which it is part, would be most welcome.

I will be out of action for the next few days, attending Burning Man for the first time, in Nevada, but there will be more on "Hawaii 2050" -- as well as Burning Man -- in postings to come. Thanks to all those who volunteered their time both in the leadup and on the day to make this event possible, but mahalo especially to my futures colleagues Jim Dator and Jake Dunagan for being absolutely terrific to work with on this ambitious experiment in making futures thinking more real.

Related posts:
> Immersive futures for Hawaii 2050
Experiential scenarios on video
The Futures of Everyday Life
> A history of experiential futures
> The Bird Cage

Friday, August 25, 2006

Honolulu Futures Salon: Jamais Cascio

This evening, HRCFS ran its sixth Futures Salon, hosted by Jackie Ward at the fabulous Ward's Rafters in Honolulu, with guest Jamais Cascio. Jamais, a futurist and scenario specialist based in the San Francisco Bay Area, presented and went on to lead a great discussion about the historical development of the scenario methodology in futures, the current state of play, and emerging varieties of immersive scenarios, including "artifacts from the future". Their crucial role in improving futures thinking, he suggested, lay in offering "provocation and evocation": encouraging us to think more deeply and creatively about our options. Rather than trying to predict the most likely future, they instead (at their best) describe plausible, compelling, internally coherent visions of, and stories leading from the present into, potential future worlds in which we could find ourselves. He offered some excellent insights into the "democratisation of futures", which is what he sees as the gradual supplanting (or supplementing) of broadcast-model "genius forecasting" with collaborative exploration.

An interesting method Jamais used to illustrate the useful application of this collaborative approach was a "futures mash-up", in which we each wrote down, on separate post-it notes, a trio of the next decade's possible trends, or events in the social, environmental, economic, political -- and yes, technological -- realms, then partnered with another participant to brainstorm on a fourth piece of paper some interesting possible consequences of matching any random pair. The future, he pointed out, is both exhilarating and frightening to consider, but, like the exercise, is best seen as a synthesis -- the result of what we do together.

All this is, not coincidentally, highly relevant to the "Hawaii 2050" kickoff happening in Honolulu on Saturday 26 August, where HRCFS is staging four alternative immersive futures, reflecting divergent possible paths for change in Hawaii, out to the year 02050, for participants to use as a basis for more meaningful discussion about decisions in the present day. At this event, Jamais (together with 500 of our closest friends) will have an opportunity to witness a Hawaiian take on the cutting edge of immersive future scenarios, as a provocation aimed at improving our collective futures conversation. More on this to come, but for now, mahalo nui loa to Jamais for joining us in Hawaii to share his ideas.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Barbershop futures

A couple of months ago, I got a haircut, for the first time in over a year. (Stay with me now, there's a perfectly good reason why I'm opening with that piece of pure trivia.)

The gentleman who did the deed, who introduced himself as Wally, was originally from Hong Kong, and having come to America as a young man, had spent the past 25 years cutting hair in San Francisco. He was, he hastened to add, still poor -- but he cheerfully told me about his ambitions, his life, and the likelihood that he would keep cutting hair for many years to come.

We got around to talking about what had brought me to the city, and the fact that I was a student of futures -- no, not the financial kind, but "the future" plural -- alternative possibilities.

Wally's eyes lit up. "You study the future!" he cried. "Tell me about the future!"

Now, while his response was uncommonly enthusiastic, the misunderstanding that my interest in the future meant I would be willing or able to forecast what would happen in the news the following day, or the appearance of the next customer to walk through the door, was not at all unusual. It happens to me all the time. People hear that I'm in futures and, depending on some combination of how credulous they are, and how silly I seem (maybe it's the hair?), frequently an assumption is made that I'm about to make an outrageous claim arising from some cursory crystal-ball based research. They don't know anything about me at that point, so the ridicule is at least pre-emptive (sheesh! at least give me a chance to show how ridiculous I am). There's often a dash of hope mixed in there with the ridicule, too, which is interesting, like there's a private wish that I'll be able to let them in on some secret to predicting the future, even if they're already 95% sure I'm full of shit.

In any event, Wally's interest was genuine, and I was able to explain that my work in the field is not in fact oriented toward predicting The Future, but rather toward helping people consider a range of possibilities relevant to their situation, and thus perhaps to choose more wisely between them. I told him that I and my colleagues work with governments, communities, businesses -- any group interested in thriving in conditions of change -- dealing with process more than content. This is because first, even the broad themes can vary hugely depending on the client or topic in question, and as for the "content" of the future itself -- well, it varies hugely depending on a whole lot of things.

Wally was insistent. How could any of this apply to his business? Ah. This certainly got me thinking. I knew, and still know, nothing about the hair industry. But I ventured that something could happen suddenly to affect the viability of his business. He pointed out that people had been cutting hair professionally for six thousand years, and they weren't likely to stop next week. Touché, Wally.

I ruminated, partly aloud, partly internally, about things that could affect Wally's modest barbershop on Van Ness Street. Fashions could change; people might decide to cut their own hair, or not to cut it at all. Shaved heads, do-it-yourself style, could develop a mass appeal. Military conscription might consign a proportion of his clientele to standard issue, regulation-length buzzcuts. A widespread health problem, such as a lice outbreak, could have the same effect. On a longer timescale, humans might evolve hairlessness -- or elect to disable our follicles through some kind of chemical or electronic therapy. Wally remained unperturbed.

I noticed that he had posted a sign advertising scalp and face massage -- here, then, an alternative business model. We agreed that if, perchance, circumstance should pose an unforeseen disruption to his hair-cutting activities, he'd always have the massage to fall back on.

I left, 45 minutes later, hair a couple of inches shorter than intended (the added toll of engaging your barber in a conversation he wants to prolong) not entirely sure that I had demonstrated to his satisfaction, or to my own, the strategic usefulness of futures thinking for those in the haircutting trade. But he had, apparently, been persuaded that it was worthwhile, interesting and -- importantly -- possible to think about alternative futures. It could open up new avenues of exploration; not all of them, thankfully, based on catastrophic lice infestations or burgeoning military engagements. (Damage control and risk management are merely among the more easily grasped practical applications of futures thinking.)

What this encounter made me realise was, really, two things. The first is that I need to be careful not to become the proverbial hammer looking everywhere for a nail to strike. What Wally really needed after 25 years of steady but unspectacular business was not a futurist, but maybe a bit of local advertising and a more realistic price schedule (charging just $12 a haircut, in San Francisco, no wonder he wasn't getting rich). The second realisation, in contrast, was that futures can indeed be helpful, for almost anyone, in clarifying where they may be able to make a difference, and where they are less likely to do so.

To explain: that occasional dismissive reaction to my chosen specialisation, which I described above, is one end of a spectrum, the "you can't predict the future" end. The other end of the spectrum is the "future is self evident" end. It's possible for people to believe both these things simultaneously, and what's more, to be right. If they believed the former today about the price of oil per barrel in 2020, I'd have to agree. But if they believed the latter about the likely fate of a drunk stumbling on to a busy highway, I'd be inclined to share that view also. There are lots of layers of change occurring simultaneously, and to make sense of them requires sensitivity to the relative momentum and internal dynamics of each. To me, this field is in large part about exploring the massive grey area between the white of complete predictability and the black of complete unpredictability -- which are both categories, I would argue, of phenomena for which one can refuse to take responsibility. No wonder people rely on them so much.

Most change does not occur at these extremes, however. There's a certain amount of regularity in how things operate, and persistence in the patterns of change they adopt, and a certain amount you can do to influence them one way or another. And you might as well act consistently with what you'd like to see happen. As Wally put it; "If you plant roses, it doesn't come up vegetables". This was his own rather beautiful and profound expression of the principle that as ye sow, so shall ye reap. (He was elaborating his karmic philosophy that if he ripped his customers off, he wouldn't be able to sleep so well at night; which was reassuring.)

As to many of the things that matter to us, we can do something about them. The something (or various alternative somethings) we can do, and why and how, and to what possible ends -- identifying and acting upon these is, to my mind, the purpose of futures thinking.

Maybe I should get my hair cut more often.

/Barbershop futures revisited/