Archives for February 2011

Creative Futures

[Now updated with learning outcomes]

A while back, I tweeted that I’d love to teach a course based on Long Now principles.  Inspired by people like Stewart Brand, Jane McGonigal, and Stuart Candy, I decided to do it.  Below is a draft of a proposal for an undergraduate Honors course, some version of which I’ll teach next fall.  I’m particularly interested in bringing archival science and digital preservation–disciplines of the cultural record with notoriously long time horizons–to bear on the content and method of the class.

The idea of creating a start-up manual for civilization comes from Stewart Brand’s The Clock of the Long Now.  Other suggestions for readings and projects much appreciated!


Creative Futures

The most important question we must ask ourselves is, “Are we being good ancestors?”

~ Jonas Salk


We need to start playing with the future.

~Jane McGonigal


In 1960, the city of Detroit was an international symbol of American prosperity and ingenuity, a bustling metropolis whose automobile industry was known the world over.  Fast forward to 2010: many of the Motor City’s once opulent skyscrapers have been razed, the doors of its grand hotels shuttered, its stores and residential areas vacated, and its assembly lines shut down.  For researcher Stuart Candy, Detroit represents a particularly dramatic example of the consequences of “failed foresight”: the failure to adopt future-aware thinking and to act in a way that benefits not only ourselves, but also those who come after us.

This course is an introduction to the theory and practice of long-term thinking in the service of art, design, preservation, communication, and civic engagement. Our aim is to learn how to use the present as a space in which to incubate the future—the future as imagined, represented, created, and invoked by poets, artists, scholars, gamers, scientists, the media, the public, and (of course) ourselves.  Over the course of the semester, we will incrementally expand our time horizons, drawing inspiration in part from the Long Now Foundation, which seeks to furnish tools and methods for reckoning with “deep time,” time measured in intervals of hundreds or even thousands of years. The Rosetta Disk—a latter day Rosetta Stone three inches in diameter containing a microscopically etched archive of over 1500 languages—is intended as a proof of concept for the Foundation’s 10,000-Year Library.

The course has been developed with a range of applications and industries in mind, from the formulation of better public policy to the design of next-generation products and services to the creation of immersive worlds for science fiction and film (consider, for example, the constructed language of the Na’Vi and the flora and fauna of Pandora in James Cameron’s Avatar). Students will have the opportunity to stage their own prospective scenarios, drawing on the techniques of speculative design (or “design fiction”), which involve the mocking up or prototyping of artifacts that embody our ideas about the future.  The syllabus also includes examples of Massively Multiplayer Foresight Games–notably World Without Oil and Superstruct–which function as platforms for developing what Jane McGonigal calls “future world-making skills.”  Other class projects may include a time capsule, a message to posterity, and a start-up manual for civilization.

Learning Outcomes

At the end of the semester, students should be able to:

• recognize the ethical, political, and societal stakes of long-term thinking
• understand how science, technology, and the arts are increasing humanity’s communicational range across time
• apply time theory in the areas of art, design, communication, preservation, and civic engagement
• demonstrate and evaluate the methods of speculative design
• provide examples of projects, initiatives, and institutions that practice and promote future-aware thinking
• appreciate the potential of games as spaces in which to collectively imagine and create the future
• implement future world-making skills
• offer historical and cross-cultural perspectives on social constructions of time
• identify potential techniques for extending and transforming the temporal frameworks of institutions and organizations
• discuss the principal challenges of and approaches to digital preservation

Possible Readings and Topics:

Theory and Method

  • Stewart Brand, Clock Of The Long Now: Time And Responsibility
  • Gregory Benford, Deep Time: How Humanity Communicates Across Millennia
  • Stuart Candy on Experiential Scenarios, Found Futures, and Design Fiction
  • Jim Dator’s Laws of the Future and the Four Generic Futures
  • Richard Grusin, Premediation
  • Colin Martindale, The Clockwork Muse: The Predictability of Artistic Change
  • Bruce Mau, Massive Change
  • Barbara Adam, Timewatch: The Social Analysis of Time
  • Alfred Gell, The Anthropology of Time: Cultural Constructions of Temporal Maps and Images

Art & Culture

  • Massively Multiplayer Foresight Games and Alternate Reality Games
  • World Without Oil
  • Superstruct
  • Evoke
  • Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World
  • Constructed and Imaginary Languages (e.g., Future English)
  • Capturing Avatar”: feature-length documentary of the making of James Cameron’s 2009 science fiction film, Avatar
  • Wired Magazine’s Artifacts from the Future (series)
  • Bruce Sterling on Design Fiction
  • Andrew Bennett on the culture of posterity

Science and Technology

  • Peter Ward, Future Evolution: An Illuminated History of Life to Come
  • Alan Weisman, The World Without Us
  • 10,000 Year Warning: Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), U. S. Department of Energy

Preservation and Provenance

  • Jeremy John, Digital Lives / Personal Digital Archives for the 21st Century: An Initial Synthesis
  • David Lowenthal, “Material Preservation and its Alternatives”
  • Linked Data and the Semantic Web
  • Preserving Virtual Worlds Final Report. Jerome McDonough, Robert Oldendorf (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign); Matthew Kirschenbaum, Kari Kraus, Doug Reside, Rachel Donahue (University of Maryland); Andrew Phelps and Christopher Egert (Rochester Institute of Technology); Henry Lowood and Susan Rojo (Stanford University)
  • The EU Provenance Project
  • W3C Provenance Report
  • Bruce Sterling on “spimes”
  • The 50,000 Year View: The KEO Project