Last week, I gave a talk at Playful, an annual conference organised by Mudlark, tasked with investigating "playfulness in all its forms ... in design processes, creative methodologies or the final product."
At Superflux, we don't usually do games stuff. Instead, Jon and I thought it might be a good idea to explore some of the relevant tangents from my prior talks at Global Design Forum and Improving Reality. We were interested in showcasing a range of work that explored the creation of alternative futures (much like 'world-building' in games), holding a space for emergence, novelty and surprise. While many of these projects might appear audacious and ridiculously ambitious, they can serve as touch points for our current hopes and anxieities. Such work can help engineer ideas, practices, and values to meet the challenges and dilemmas of our uncertain times, and help us navigate risk. Here's the final talk.
Hello. I grew up in India in the late 1970s, when the country was busy doing nationwide “voluntary” vasectomies as a way to control the population explosion. At that time, only seven cities in the entire country received television broadcast. We didn't have a television at home until I was about 8 and neither me or my friends even know what a games console might have been. Within this context, I didnt have the opportunity to get into gaming in the way we now understand it. Nevertheless, I loved to play.
I was busy playing in the magical lands of what were arguably the worlds earliest speculative fiction and mythological faerie stories.
Blown away by fantastical comic books featuring flying celestial animals fighting battles with mere mortals.
And elaborate renderings of solar powered anti-gravitational flying machines.
So when Greg asked me talk at Playful, I thought that, since I am not a "gamer", I’d explore the idea of faerie stories, and see how thinking about these stories can help us engage more playfully with the world around us.
Also, partly because I recently read this essay ‘On Fairy Stories’ by J.R.R. Tolkien; an exemplary early analysis of speculative fiction. For Tolkein, fairy stories are not just about fairies, elves, fays, trolls or dragons, but they are stories about the 'Faerie', or the worlds in which fairies exist. These worlds contains many things besides elves, dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants or dragons: they contain the seas and sun and the moon, the sky and the earth. They are full of beautiful enchanting experiences as well as dark, foreboding visions.
Most importantly, faeire stories are about ‘fantasy’ – fantasy which creates rich, imaginative, alternate worlds, full of magic. By doing so, such stories allow the reader to review their own world from an alternative perspective. Growing up, the fantastical worlds of flying machines and solar power airships created that inexplicable magic of the faeire for me.
In fact, Tolkein further explores the idea of fantasy as the most essential element of imagination, something to be nurtured and encouraged. Instead, we have come to think of fantasy as 'fantasizing' which quite often translates as being delusional. Also, as he is quick to point out, there is no reason for children to like fairy stories more then adults, its like so many other things – where adults decide what children 'might like' and what goes in the nursery. And so, the freedom to suspend disbelief, create make-believe worlds and indulge in fantasy is also left behind in the nurseries.
We become conditioned to putting things into distinct categories such as politics, technology, nature, culture – when our modern lives are full of hybrids. Bruno Latour: "All of culture and all of nature get churned up again every day. Yet no one seems to find this troubling." Latour used the way stories are positioned in newspapers to trace the complexity of our modern lives. Similarly, I’d like show the strange and weird nature of our modern world by talking you though just a few tweets from my twitter stream.
This is a tweet from Peter Diamindis, calling for college students to do internship in his new venture: Planetary Resources, a company whose mission is to mine natural resources from asteroids. It sounds like something straight out of a 1960s SF novel, but it's happening now. Actually when they announced this few months ago, our newspapers were busy trailing the newst series of Strictly Come Dancing.
The Green Building and Design magazine tweeted recently about Spaceport America opening to the public. This may look like a film set, but it's where Branson’s spaceships will live. 500 people have already paid the £125,000 ticket price to experience five minutes of weightlessness and views of earth only seen by astronauts’.
Jon Ardern recently tweeted this job ad from the University of Sheffield:
In fact, the person who lands the job will probably be involved in 'uploading' bee brains to flying robots, as tweeted by Olivia Solon. The universities of Sheffield and Sussex are working on a project called ‘Green Brain’, prototyping robots to mechanically pollinate crops. Bingo! Colony collapse disaster, engineered away.
On the topic of hacking biology, here’s a tweet from the DIYbio lab Biocurious in San Francisco. Here, they are advertising their biohacking classes for six year olds.
I’d like to play a small clip from a video which I am sure you all remember well, but which exemplifies the ways in which we fail to recognise the minor (and major) miracles of the modern world. (The full clip is entertaining enough, but I played the bit from 4 mins 30 secs.)
As Louis CK says, everything is amazing and nobody is happy. It seems that successful adulthood is all about normalising the fantastic. Building on from what Latour and Louis CK are trying to talk about, a writer called Ventakesh Rao recently used the term “manufactured normalcy” to describe this phenomenon. The idea being that we have a psychological predisposition to believe that we’re in a static and dull continuous present – consider the experience of flying. According to Rao, we change our mental models and behaviors the minimum amount necessary to work productively with the results of any change.
This kind of conditioning has been explored in some of the most popular science fiction works. In his dissertation, Tobias Revell references Brave New World and Farhenheit 451 as fictional examples where the authorities has remove fantasy out of fear of the psychological freedoms which it enables. Fiction allows us to compare alternative scenarios and our own world, and by removing this, you can effectively 'numb' a population to other possibilities.
Take this real world example, where the Chinese government banned all fictional time travel media, including the popular time travel TV show, Palace. A statement from the Chinese government explains that "characters travelling back in time "lack positive thoughts and meaning" and that a program's portrayal of time travel can "casually make up myths, have monstrous and weird plots, use absurd tactics, and even promote feudalism, superstition, fatalism and reincarnation."
It's not just totalitarianism regimes that are a problem; our own lives are full of things that create a numbing effect. As Tolkien’s good friend C.S. Lewis said:
So, how can we effectively engage with the world and all this weird stuff that is happening? Obviously we cant live our lives in a constant state of slack-jawed amazement, with tears of joyful terror rolling down our faces. Jon, Justin and I were discussing how we at Superflux explore playful engagement, which, according to Justin, could be seen as a positive alternative to the cynical manipulation of 'gamification'. For us, the key question is howto find new and exciting ways in which we can weaponise playful engagement.
One of the ways we do this is by using what we call design futurescaping; a toolbox of methods including speculative design, with which we can create imaginative projections of alternate presents and possible futures. Design Futurescaping channels multiple voices to create hybrid, humane alternatives to the deterministic, ‘business-as-usual’ consensus future. I’d like to show some examples of work from several people who exemplify this approach, starting with one example from our own studio.
For a project called Power of 8, I pull out an open call, inviting people to engage in create their own visions of optimistic futures, however fantastical they might be, as an alternative to passively consuming other people’s agendas.
Over several workshops, eight of us attempted to build a optimistic vision of our collective futures.
Though it was our hope to create something optimistic, what emerged was perhaps a little more problematic – a haunted alternate ecosystem of strange machines and modified nature called Acres Green. A sort of Tolkien-esque fictional world for our modern times.
One of the key features of Acres Green was the combination of people’s ingenuity and technological aspirations. Worried about the disappearing bees, the citizens worked with biotechnologists to develop a new kind of bee that would help pollinate our crops.
We imagined idyllic scenarios of people using these bees to grow food in their gardens, and children who kept synthetic bees as glowing pets.
For the final exhibition, visitors could come in, explore Acres Green, have discussions and leave comments and reactions.
Another example of this kind of collaborative 'future-making' is a project called Upper Toronto, by Tim Maly and Jacob Skimmer. Tim and Jacob are working with people to build a new city in the sky above Toronto. When it is completed – they think it'll take about 75 years – all the residents of 'lower' Toronto will be relocated to their new homes in the sky.
The authors of the project agree that this is clearly a terrible idea. According to Tim: "It is never OK to force millions of people to move, but what it lets us do is have a conversation with people about what kind of city they'd like to live in, if we could start fresh."
They have been running a series of public consultations with as many different communities as they can get time with, partly to get those people to think differently about the future and the city, and partly to teach themselves about their needs. Here, Tim and Jacob are mirroring how real development happens, but as a theatre piece, freeing people up to think a little more imaginatively about the issues at stake.
Moving from public-facing, bottom-up projects, to those that are more explicitly political in nature, in a project titled 88.7, Tobias Revell zooms into one possible event from our not-so-distant future – the early 2040s, when an ex-Soviet, nuclear-powered Arktika class icebreaker (traditionally used for expeditions to the Arctic) is recommissioned to host a barely-legal experiment in global finance.
He imagines how this ship of highly qualified traders circles the Arctic ocean at 88.7 degrees latitude, a 24-hour circumnavigation which brings the ship into constant contact with trading zones throughout the world.
This chart showing the movements and trading patterns of the Arktika over a one-week period. In Tobias' scenario, the sheer volume of trade made possible by this new kind of deregulated mobile trading triggers decades of power shifts throughout the financially-developed world, forging a new world order of sovereign currency collapse, Chinese dissolution, and more besides.
In a similar vein, Sascha Pohpleff’s project ‘The Golden Institute’ imagines an alternate past that could have led to a different present. The Golden Institute for Energy is a think tank located in Golden, Colorado from an alternative reality where Jimmy Carter won the 1980 US presidential election, further pursuing his much-discussed environmental policies.
Pohflepp uses details models and imagery to take us through a journey of this alternate history. A model of The Golden Institute, which he imagines to be the earthbound equivalent of NASA, promising a future of national wealth through an abundance of energy. (This is an artist's impression of a geo-engineered cloud over Golden, Colorado.)
The State of Nevada was officially deemed a weather experimentation zone, where a range of ingenious ideas to harvest energy were tested. Here, for example, is a model of Lightning Harvester based on a Chevrolet El Camino.
This is a model of an induction loop-equipped Chuck's Cafe, prototype for an idea to make major modifications to the national infrastructure so that the freeways could be used as a power plants.
From more recent times, this is Eneropa, where Rem Koolhas and his team at OMA created a reconfigured map imagining a low carbon Europe in 2050 where regions are redefined by their energy source. Ireland and the western half of Britain become the "tidal states", while the eastern half forms part of the "isles of wind".
They also created images of these new regions. For instance on the top right corner you see Solaria - which is most of Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece. If it was windless in Britain but sunny in Spain, power could travel from them to us, and vice versa.
This sort of visual imagery of future / fictional / fantasy worlds is a popular way of playfully engaging with the anxieties of our present times. This famous project titled ‘Postcards From The Future' by Robert Graves and Didier Madoc-Jones creates surprising, contradictory images of what a flooded London might look like. Whilst these are clearly fictional provocations, they managed to create widespread political rage.
An article in the Guardian referred to this image of dense housing near Buckingham Palace as occupied by climate refugees; saying it would fuel further anxiety around immigration. In response, science fiction writer Bruce Sterling, referring to this as the Buckingham favela notes "how those indignant figures waxing all politically-correct over “montages.” were freaking out over race, rather than the prospect of London being seven meters underwater."
And this particular image was referred to as Asian peasants working in paddy fields in the shadow of Big Ben. In response Sterling comments: “Those aren’t immigrants or Asian peasants, but Britons reduced to Third World conditions. Looks like the viewers are having a bit of a time getting their heads around that lively possibility...”
Another brilliant project is The Hypothetical Development Organization, where Rob Walker and partners stick convincing renderings of imagined uses on abandoned buildings in an attempt to share with the public a fascinating potential future they have invented. For instance this unused building located in downtown New Orleans could be the home of a museum dedicated to the most important figure of our time: the self.
The entire façade would be mirrors. Mounted from the front of the building is a large 3-D sculptural representation of the “thumbs up” icon (one you use to “like" your status). The creators felt that if monuments honouring heroes of the Civil Rights movement, or of the Civil War form a kind of public inventory of what matters to a community, then surely it is time to memorialize abstract strangers approving the Self. You will "like" this museum!
In the project FoundFutures: Chinatown 2007 Stuart Candy, Jake Dunagan and Matt Jenson created the fictional future scenario of a bird flu epidemic with its 'ground zero' in Honolulu's Chinatown. In effect they were referencing the resilience of that particular community who historically suffered from two outbreaks of plague. One artefact created as part of the project is a memorial plaque from 2016 installed on a street corner. It is placed in memory of the residents of Chinatown who lost their lives to a fictional future epidemic. This exercise in 'guerrilla futures' looked at how such reverse archaeology might help people to better imagine the diversity of possible futures for their neighbourhood.
Finally, moving into territories a litlte more light-hearted, Allison Newmeyer and Stewart Hicks from Design with Company created a fantastical over the top absurd disneyland of livestock called Farmland World. Situated in America, it looks at the increasing distance between people and where the food they eat comes from. As they said in an interview with Geoff Manaugh: "The extreme demand for cheap food and the diversion of the pet economy distorts animals until they look more like utilitarian machines (bacon). Farmland World is part amusement park and part working farm designed to reunite disenfranchised Americans with the heartland."
Populated by robots, rides and representations, these entertainment places can be accessed via high speed train and visitors can enjoy a variety of fantasy farm experience packages. Inflatable mega-pigs act as robotic performers whilst real cows graze the fields in enclosures designed to look more like amphitheatres.
So, in conclusion, these projects explore many elements of the farie – the miraculous, the marvellous, the utopian, the dystopian and the improbable. Though they may at times appear to be highly adventurous in their premise and realisation, they can help us both - engage with the present from valuable new perspectives...
...And provide an opportunity to step away from the hackneyed monotony of our everyday lives, leaving us free to imagine and create possibilities of future worlds. So I guess, in many ways, this talk is a call to arms for all of us to actively engage in the creation of our own Faerie Stories for the 21st Century.