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WC Retro: Future-Making

By Alex Steffen, posted on April 8, 2006.

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.

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.

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.


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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