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Future-making
Alex Steffen, 8 Apr 06

This is a rather unfinished piece which I've been tinkering with for a while, and am unlikely to have the time to return to in a prolonged way for several weeks. I thought it might at least prove interesting as a spur for conversation, so I'm posting it as is. I'm eager to hear your ideas on the subject.
-Alex

If we want to change the world, one of the most powerful things we can do is show how the future could be better. One of the most exciting forces for change these days is the speed with which people are making and sharing tools for doing just that.

Many of us are so enmeshed in using existing tools of many-to-many communication, from email and blogs to graphic design programs and photo- and music-sharing, that we've lost a bit of our sense of wonder about them, even though they're only becoming more powerful, more accessible and more widely-spread with each passing week. With these existing tools it is now relatively easy to create websites, magazines, radio stations, films -- nearly any form of cultural expression -- and with increasingly sophisticated advocacy networks and better, more open models of intellectual property emerging, it is easier and easier to get the word out about what you're doing. Craft and experience still matter, chance still favors the prepared, and the demands on our attention drives an overall move towards the eye-grabbing, the witty and the viral, but the point remains: it has probably never been easier to do cultural activism.

We are becoming, as ally Mark Frauenfelder likes to put it, a culture of makers. Increasingly, we have it within our reach to become a movement of future-makers.

What are the available tools for making better futures?

Film, Video and Machinima

Obviously, the proliferation of video tools, from cheap DV cameras to editors to video-capable mobile phones is changing our relationship with moving images. The impacts are already massive, from the rise of participatory video to the explosion of regional film industries to the potential for new forms of visual activism.

New forms of video story-telling are also emerging, like machinima in which film makers use digitally-created characters and environments to tell stories. We spoke earlier, for instance, of The French Democracy, a machinima-produced film about last year's riots in France, but that was really just an early example: more and more people are getting involved in collaborative digital filmmaking, and it's getting easier to mix the virtual and real.

This bloom of new tools, approaches and techniques offers amazing opportunities to tell new kinds of stories about the future. There's even an explosion of outlets for such work.

Design and Prototyping

Newly-designed objects are powerful stimulants to the imagination. Because things are tactile and sensual, actually holding proposed bits of the future in your hands can give you a sharp presentiment of what that future might be like. Making something that belongs in the future you hope to see is, as ally Bruce Sterling wrote, a "propaganda of the deed."

Such deeds are falling more and more within our power. Fabricators are creating wild new opportunities to prototype cheaply and quickly and actually create objects that act as sort of conceptual bridges to imagined futures. In graphic design, image manipulation applications are giving us more power to mess around with visual portrayals of the future and practice evidencing change.

Games
Play changes the mind. Through play, we feel and experience and respond to new aspects of the world. Like art, play speaks to that part of us "which is a gift, and not an acquisition." Because play is so powerful, games can open new visions of the possible to us in ways other art forms cannot.

Games already exert powerful if often unexamined influences in realms of our public debate we rarely give them credit for affecting, but more and more, game designers are choosing to make games which challenge us to play at building a better future.

Serious games now allow players to explore what it might be like to engage in non-violent revolution, public health responses to terror or epidemics, refugee aid work, peacekeeping, regional planning, public diplomacy, geopolitics, even climate crisis response and planetary management ala Bucky Fuller.

Can we push the boundaries of gameplay even farther into worldchanging arenas? It would seem that we're on the verge of an explosion in game-making technologies. Some parts of the gaming community are moving towards open-source worldbuilding tools. Other tools are beginning to converge. Architects are already using virtual displays of urban space as a design tool. Computer modeling of the planet and its natural systems, of its atmosphere, of epidemics and economies and evolutionary processes are becoming almost too common to comment on. Games themselves are even being hacked into forms of criticism

Scenaric Thinking, Framing and Visualizations

Telling meaningful and revealing stories about the future is both important, and an art form in itself -- and access to the tools of that trade is more widely and freely available than ever. Jamais has written eloquently of the potential inherent in the spread of open source scenario planning tools. At the same time, learning how to use language to better frame the decisions a set of futures presents us is essential. There, too, access to tools is proliferating. Finally, better and better tools for visualizing data are coming out, allowing us to create ways for people to experience massive amounts of data emotionally.

Mapping

GIS and other geospatial tools play their part as well, from the simple revolutions unfolding around GoogleEarth mash-ups to scenaric mapping and visualizations of future land-use patterns. Maps of course are cultural artifacts, but they are also tools of explanation, illumination, even persuasion.

And the fact that mapping the world and its systems is getting easier and easier means that it is also getting easier and easier to map various futures for that world and its systems. For example, the FloodMaps project (which generates basic maps showing what coastal areas will be submerged as climate change raises the sea level) is a simple, powerful bit of futurism -- and its impact is largely cultural: I'd bet 99% of FloodMaps users are making no practical, direct decisions based on the maps it generates. Instead, they are using it to alter their conceptions of the future and what it holds. That's powerful.

Smart Places and Spatial Interventions

Not all the tools are virtual. We live in places, and the rise of technologies which overlay place with information are combining with wireless technologies to create new possibilities for creating immersive landscapes and weaving the future into the very fabric of the places we live.

Worldchanging contributor Regine Debatty is in my opinion the sharpest observer of the cultural impacts of this phenomenon, rather than do a link-list, I'll just suggest you put her personal blog We Make Money Not Art on your feed-list now.

What's Next?

I could go on, but the point, I trust, is made and I'm out of time.

Here's what I'm interested in learning about:

What other new tools for future-making are out there or are possible?

How will these tools converge and inform one another? What will the resulting hybrids look like? What new creative possibilities will they present?

Who's messing around with these to portray worldchanging futures?

What NGOs or other groups which are actively engaged in working on big problems have caught on to future-making tools, and how are they using them?

How will newly-made futures change activism and advocacy?

How can we best facilitate the use of these tools to tell stories and present visions that matter?

(The image above is from The Imaginary Foundation -- they have a lot of cool stuff: check them out.)

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Comments

You can only build a better future in the present. You have to see the future you imagine in the work beneath your hands.

As the poet Diane Di Prima wrote:
THE ONLY WAR THAT MATTERS IS THE WAR AGAINST
THE IMAGINATION
THE ONLY WAR THAT MATTERS IS THE WAR AGAINST
THE IMAGINATION
THE ONLY WAR THAT MATTERS IS THE WAR AGAINST
THE IMAGINATION

"Rant"


Posted by: gmoke on 8 Apr 06

i very much like this article, i am so happy to see many people
empowering themself to produce culture, everybody is art ist, doing their own movies, writing their own stories, recording their own sounds .... and doing it together in groups, either local
or over the internet... and with podcasts and free movie portals, blog directories... there are meeting places to share the own imagination with the others ... i never tried
http://secondlife.com ... but i guess this kind of environment is a combination of all exisiting media forms and can therefore serve as a multimedia meeting place with enormous possibilities to involve onself in the creation of a reality which confronts oneself with the own conceptions and the next ones

there is gianteous potential if ecologic, socially fair AND economic viable AND ethical ... practicable sollutions meet together in a free designable environment ... fiction and real melts ... dream and awake flow together

great times we are living in


Posted by: andreas buechel on 9 Apr 06

WorldChanging itself is obviously a great example of the tools Alex is talking about. It's a meme spreader and idea accelerator. It plays the critical role of helping readers envision a bright green future and then making them aware of ideas and tools that will help us get there. I view it as providing high level information and broad coverage of available tools.

My idea is to create a platform, in the form of a wiki, that can provide deep, specific information to help us achieve our environmental and social goals.

For example, if ecotourism is a good idea, we can have a travel wiki documenting thousands of ecotourism sites. If celebrities are powerful role models, we can track each and every celebrity who takes world changing actions. If contests motivate the creation of new technologies and businesses, then we can list all relevant contests on a set of wiki pages. If companies with great cultures can help other organizations learn how to create fun, effective work places, then we should document each superior corporate culture. If product labeling programs such as Energy Star or Fair Trade, are confusing, then we can explain all the various labeling programs in one, easy to read wiki

You get the idea, and I'm sure there are better examples too -- such as listing all socially/ environmentally beneficial mapping mash ups. That would be cool.

I've started the bare bones elements of this project at wikiforgood.org. I encourage you to add any content you feel is relevant. And if you want to help get this project further off the ground, you can e-mail me at rberr5@yahoo.com.

Wikipedia has over 1 million articles, and working on an ecyclopedia can't be nearly as exciting as working on building a brighter future!


Posted by: Rob Berridge on 9 Apr 06

Not to criticise, simply wanting to expand on the thinking - is 'tools' too restrictive a term? Not sure what else to suggest, perhaps others can comment? It includes paradigms too, which applying these tools can help shift..


Posted by: Flannel Flower on 9 Apr 06

You know, there is flipside, the development of new tools, of better tools is rather distracting. Let's face it, until the tools become as special as pencils are to the masses of mankind, we cannot truely start to innovate.

Innovation, worldchanging, happens by taking that pencil outside the box and drawing a picture that inspires hearts.

We need our tools to be unintrusive, none-invasive. so that we can use them as an extension of ourselfs and draw instead of trying to draw.


Posted by: Papilionoidea on 9 Apr 06

One of, if not the single most important tool needed for future-making is pervasive wireless computing. Not just internet access, but access to information so that whoever wishes to participate in future-making has adequate informational resources to do so. Having access to collarborative enablers will also be important, and increasingly available as networks and storage become cheaper and more widely available.

As important as tools are to future-making, removal of certain cultural barriers are critical. EVERY HUMAN BEING should be able to see themselves as valuable participants in future-making; it is simply not acceptable that future-making is reserved to the upper decile of societies. We should not be forced to leave the making of our own futures in the hands of groups like The Aspen Institute or the PNAC or pick another group of highly-educated and wealthy people who watch out for each other and not for the fate of everyman.


Posted by: Rayne on 9 Apr 06

One kind of future-making is the sharing of ideas. Speaking to that kind of future-making, we cannot overlook the power of the arts (visual, music, literature), to imagine and envision a future we have not yet lived, a future which is realistic (i.e. not Star Wars), which explores the wonder that the greening mainstream society can really be. Yes we have Callenbach's Ecotopia, but how do we get there from here? What will it be like to live through the transition? And how will we cope with issues which transcend a single utopian city, for example a drastically warming world?

Bill McKibben broadcast a call for the artists (http://www.grist.org/comments/soapbox/2005/04/21/mckibben-imagine/); I would second that call, but add to it: not merely the horror of what we face, but how do we solve it? What will the solutions look like to mainstream lives? I've tried my hand at envisioning it, and I invite others to do the same.

Another kind of future-making is in the hands-on doing of it. Over the past 20-30 yrs we've had an environmental movement which focused on bringing to our attention the environmenal and social ills of society. Now, I believe, the time has come for a generation of future-makers who are both hands-on and forward looking: can-do, positive, walking-the-talk, leading the exploration into new lifestyles with the example of their own lives. We see some of these in the reports of the eco-bloggers, who are experimenting with alternative building, back-to-the-land concepts, alternative communities, etc. Relish them, adapt them, weave them together in your own life, and cast about for more.

Yes, the web is a powerful tool for sharing ideas. But human-to-human contact becomes so poignant amid a world where so much is done through mass-production and virtual reality. Have a great green idea? Share it with a friend, and together bring it to life. Through positive action there is a clean, fresh feeling; the inner spirit rejoices in purpose and achievement. And through positive action the world is left one step better.


Posted by: Joanne Poyourow on 9 Apr 06

1. We can model and explore complex, feedback-driven, counterintuitive systems. We can begin to shape policy from something other than models in our minds. We can link these models to other tools Alex cites, such as games, to help people better understand how long-term and unexpected consequences of decisions can be.

2. We can do. I wholehearted agree with Joanne Poyourow. Make an energy-efficient building. Create a community organic garden. Start a neighborhood after-school program. Share what you're doing - hold it out as one more example. There's incredible power in the actual, operating, positive example.

"Anything that exists is possible."


Posted by: David Foley on 10 Apr 06

I never thought anyone would care about that semi-tutorial on mixing video with machinima. Unfortunately, the people for whom I wrote it - a group of very low-budget filmmakers - is battling the effects of internet video piracy. As more people can simply download a movie, or go into Second Life and watch it there (you can actually get paid for watching "Brokeback Mountain" inside that virtual space), the more it adversely impacts the independents.

The tools may be simpler, lower-cost, and more available, but access to the minds of consumers remains closed. People give their attention to the very corporations they despise to the detriment of those they should be encouraging.

I would stress that we all need to see that there is a middle ground where we all benefit. If we don't get it right, then when the tools for fabricating objects becomes available, we'll have learned nothing and have to live with the consequences of our own selfishness.


Posted by: csven on 10 Apr 06

Great comments, everyone. Inspiring, even. Thank you.

I particularly like what you have to say Joanne. I wholeheartedly agree that the arts are poorly understood as a major vehicle for world-changing. I agree even more that we need to start making stuff happen on the ground, providing, as it were, the threat of a good example.

I agree as well that we need to protect the ability of independent creators to make good work, and that we need to broaden the creative franchise by keeping tools, ideas and access free and getting them into the hands of more people. It's all part of a whole, isn't it?

I agree as well with Gmoke, and would respond: The only revolution that matters is the transformation of the imagination.

Can we deeply and fully imagine a totally sustainable world that's exciting, dynamic and compelling enough to want to fight for?

If we can't, do we really think there's any chance such a world will come into existance on its own?

Optimism is a political act. The imagination is a tool. Public dreaming can literally change what is possible, in that it changes what people believe is realistic and transforms culture and politics.

Of course, not all dreams are created equal, and dreams can go wrong on us. We have to attend to our craft as dreamers because (as Delmore Schwartz said) in dreams begin responsibility.

What should we dream together?


Posted by: Alex Steffen on 10 Apr 06

For any activity I reckon the integral framework by Ken Wilber is a helpful model for checking whether or not you're addressing all of the important aspects at the right levels (eg consider the environment and society from a individual and a societal perspective).

More important to me is Wilber's explanation, drawing on Spiral Dynamics research, of progress (movement) along holons in a spiral, meaning that subsequent stages include earlier stages. Therefore we create bigger hurdles if we reject the approaches that we disagree with (eg 'fundamentalist' outlooks or strict power regimes) because we all as individuals and societies move through those important phases and hold elements of them so criticising/rejecting other positions will hold people or societies back from moving through the levels. Instead we should accept that those seemingly differing perspectives of problems and solutions each form a valid and essential part of an all-encompassing solution.


Posted by: Flannel Flower on 10 Apr 06

"I agree as well that we need to protect the ability of independent creators to make good work, and that we need to broaden the creative franchise by keeping tools, ideas and access free and getting them into the hands of more people. It's all part of a whole, isn't it?"

That "whole" involves more than tools, ideas and access. I've tried filmmaking. I've worked on videogame mods. I spent a few years in ceramics. I now design products. One important common ingrediant in all those activities is Time. And in today's world, lack of time is an important issue. People who make time to use the tools are probably sacrificing something: time with the children, time at work and more pay, time to socialize, time to help the needy, aso.

The thing is, in the U.S. at least, the arts are largely ignored; we don't really think of art as having "value". On 60 Minutes last night, Andy Rooney pointed out how our education system continues to focus on math and reading and continues to ignore the arts. What we're teaching our children adversely impacts how they will regard the arts. How we respond to piracy has a similar influence. We've created an Entitlement Culture; a Takers Market. I consider that a problem.

Now, in the West - right or wrong - we assign value by assigning a dollar value. And that, afaic, is the way we should compensate the artists who give up their time to create the things that make our culture what it is. Just because corporations have hijacked intellectual property laws doesn't mean all that work should be free; just that the laws need to be amended to reflect the will of the people and not the shareholders. As Lawrence Lessig has said, free doesn't always work, and I agree with him that the choice of how people access the work should be left up to the creator. So while I and Lessig and others might argue that sometimes the best path to success is to open source something (ala "The Idea Virus"), it's not our decision to make.

If we aren't careful, the culture we're so concerned about protecting and which we spend untold billions for arms to secure, won't be worth a damn. We'll be able to count and form sentences. Big deal.


Posted by: csven on 10 Apr 06

Alex....I wrote you an email this week about our machinima shorts that are taking on everything you describe here. Your timing is awesome; thank you for sharing your thoughts on future making.

We're shooting our first machinima piece in Second Life now, the short music video prequel to our series that integrates live action, machinima, animation and participatory video. Our goal is to spotlight the very best ideas in future scenario planning, AI and nanotech, sustainability and smart design in a FUN environment for kids.

The only way we will see positive change is if it is the most magnetic idea out in the marketplace. It's up to us to show the beauty of the creative process! People want to connect, integrate and grow together in healthy ways but they need to know how to do it. We cannot expect postive change in our society when we dedicate so much of our lives to making trash....thankfully there's also many leaders like the WC crew here that keep showing how we can do it. Thank you.


Posted by: evonne heyning on 10 Apr 06

Evonne said "People want to connect, integrate and grow together in healthy ways but they need to know how to do it." Absolutely. Right now people *want* to make a change, they want to take a wiser course, but as I said earlier, there aren't a whole lot of postive options presented. There is a profound shortage of well-publicised visions.

I have a quote from Thomas Berry: "It's all a question of story. We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story. We are in between stories. The old story, the account of how we fit into it, is no longer effective. Yet we have not learned the new story." (from The Dream of the Earth)

Alex asked "What should we dream together?" Well ... I think we should dream of the time of our children and grandchildren (...seven generations...). What do we dream life could be like then? And what does it take, now, to orient mainstream life so that we can make that mark?

The way I did it in my novel, was to look at the major issues we have before us (global warming, globalization, international disharmony, shaky economy, disconnect of spirit, etc). I looked at what experts in the fields projected would happen, and what experts in the fields said could be the possible outcomes. I (of course) opted for the more positive of those outcomes. And between these various visions (the vision of the solar power industry, the vision of the Elliott Wave market analysts, the vision of the Australian Permaculturists, the Natural Capitalism vision of Hawken/Lovins, the vision of sustainable agriculture folks, the poverty-ending vision of Sachs, the international solutions of Speth, many green visions combined) there are deep commonalities.

Joseph Campbell (The Power of Myth) pointed out that when we see these common threads from multiple sources, we have hit upon a deep truth. Therein lies the story, the dream, the hope for the future.


Posted by: Joanne Poyourow on 10 Apr 06

Lovely stuff. I've found a name that can be applied to the new story we want to tell. It's called World 5.0, and suggests we need a new operating system for our culture.


Posted by: Jim Prues on 17 Apr 06

I love it - Operating System! That is a fantastic way to see it! Changing lifestyles, paradigms, awareness ...the world... all seems a touch difficult and abstract. I know it's all words... but "changing the Operating System"... well it's practicaly something I can touch. A great way to comprehend the change within this tech-loving 21st Century! Thanks for the words!

I am currently creating a Time Conception Piece... calenders, diaries, wall charts, electronic organisers... they all just don't work for me. They don't inspire and for me productivity is one part organisation and 4 parts inspiration. Before I can communicate my dreams with the world, I need to begin to live my dream each day- I need to change my O.S. My time conception piece - crisened "Momento Vivere" will be a touch of the future I desire to see.. I can't wait till it's finished!


Posted by: Cati on 18 Apr 06



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