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We provide story-based strategic communications, advertising, graphic design and media production services to green and socially responsible businesses, nonprofits, foundations and grassroots activist organizations.

Our approach is grounded in a visual and narrative analysis of change - the recognition that we all understand the world and our role in it through the experience of stories, place, and community.

Story-Based Strategy

If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea…

- Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Memes

The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.

― Muriel Rukeyser

Change Agents

You cannot buy the revolution. You cannot make the revolution. You can only be the revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere.

― Ursula K. Le Guin

What If? Methodologies for Discovering New Narratives to End the Hypnosis of Normality

"The old is dying and the new cannot be born." - Antonio Gramsci

The latest 'serial killer' has left multiple teens dead, and it's not human, it's a website. According to its owner a cleaning robot “committed suicide”. Fitting Chickens with virtual reality headsets qualifies for the free range label (USDA has yet to define the meaning). Over a hundred people are dead after eating chicken infected with the anti-biotic resistant superbug campylobacter found now in "up to 80 per cent of raw chicken". The newest art trend is photographs of popular suicide locations...

 

America's daily narrative has descended into madness, as one famous spy-turned-novelist John le Carré puts it: "America has entered one of its periods of historical madness, but this is the worst I can remember: worse than McCarthyism, worse than the Bay of Pigs and in the long term potentially more disastrous than the Vietnam War."

Science fiction graphic novels depicted this future, which is eerily similar to the graphic novel "Transmetropolitan" from the year 2000 written by Warren Ellis. In the story investigative journalist Spider Jerusalem takes on the power structure in a world where the 99% are divided into the 'old scum' and the 'new scum': "...the old scum descend from their gentrified apartments to gather garbage with which to run their Makers cheaply, just fifteen minutes ahead of the street cleaners."

Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired magazine recently left his editorial position to become the CEO at 3D Robotics. His new book Makers documents the 'next industrial revolution' of 3D printing, where every home will eventually have a 'maker'. Already people can run their 3D assemblers by recycling garbage. Robots will not be in every home by decades end, but people will be renting them..

Ian Yeoman is a futurist with an interest in tourism, and Michelle Mars is a sexologist at the University of Wellington's Victoria Management School in New Zealand. In their paper for the journal Futures entitled "Robots, Men and Sex Tourism" they envision a future where "robotic prostitutes are the solution to the sex industry's most glaring problems, such as human trafficking, human degradation and the spread of sexually transmitted infections." Already "bar coded condoms track where you have sex". The robots that took away factory jobs are monstrous looking compared to the ‘attractive’ – ‘lifelike in every way’ - androids being churned out in China, so it's only a matter time the robotic experts predict before the robot steals sex-worker jobs.

Are such stories and predictions destined to become our future?

Changing our future means changing the story we all tell ourselves about the future. The daily stories that get shared across much of the western world have evolved into a global media machine that has become less and less interested in making new stories. Even banal pop culture has fallen into a cyclical regurgitating trend from which author Ewan Morrison (echoing Marx and the postmodernists) sees no foreseeable exit. Morrison traveled to the year 2043 to see for himself and looked in on the future of media in America for The Guardian: 

"As I looked around and saw remakes, prequels, sequels and the continuation of characters and franchises from my own era, retro-styled in perfect pastiche, it alarmed me to discover that no new culture had been created at all... Had there been some kind of cataclysm that had turned all eyes back with nostalgia to safer times? Or some manufactured form of amnesia among the masses to make them consume exactly the same thing cyclically without realising it? Was this really the outcome of the digital revolution? The absolute lack of authors, musicians and filmmakers producing new content came as a shock as I was rather fond of the outdated ideas of 'innovation' and 'invention' and the idea that history was going somewhere rather than in circles... It was explained to me that after several decades of getting 'content' (see 'culture') for free, the populace could not even imagine paying for new characters or new stories and that the media monopolies found it too financially risky to invest in the creation of fiction that had no track record..." 

The driving force for this vision of literature in 2043 has already overtaken the music industry here now. The entire music industry is “falling in reverse” which happens to also be the name of a chart toping “post-hardcore” band. Ronnie Radke the bands founder blends catchy formulaic elements from pretty much every previous music genre – hair metal, hard rock, screamo, dup step, rap, pop choruses, metalcore and more. If you’ve ever been to Disney World and seen one of their all-star music reviews that combine every form of music into one dance routine, well that’s the general idea.

Radke takes a lot of hate for his transmodernist mashups which devoted fans of each genre see as sacrilegious, but which he argues is honoring the tradition of each musical style. Furthermore Radke formed the band while in prison serving time for connection to heroin, street crime and murder in Las Vegas (the city with a rep for being the world’s biggest culture vulture). For well over a year in prison Radke worked on his alchemical musical formulas and so literally went from the cell to stardom, dancing alone with the icons of Empire.

If Radke reflects today’s “futureless future” vision, then what does a futureless future look like in over a hundred years? Something like Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium, where the 99% live on an impoverished polluted Earth and the 1% live in Beverly Hills villas in space. “I don’t think the film is speculative science fiction and is so much more a metaphor for today,” explains Blomkamp. The future never changes.

And this future, like it or not, gets echoed in daily events and becomes manifested through the options presented by our environments, both physical and cultural. For example, the 'Great Firewall' proposed to protect UK web surfers is echoed in the new web filter installed at the British Library, which has censored Hamlet for being 'too violent'.

To an observer stuck in this narrative there appears “no way out”. We’re all trapped in these existing “destination narratives” about our future. While “origin narratives” get routinely challenged by various religious and secular institutions the destination narratives around progress and our future have become so embedded (and dystopian) as to become ubiquitous. Science fiction’s legendary writers who explored anarchist and anti-statism themes like Ursula K. Leguin, John Brunner and Philip K. Dick were all very critical of an endless futureless capitalism, but still ended up reinforcing and reifying existing power relations within some of their narratives. 

Infrastructure Fiction – What If?

The way out of this homogenized futureless story of the future has perplexed futurists and policy folks interested in challenging these existing dominate business-as-usual narratives. Paul Graham Raven, a researcher in Infrastructure Futures at the University of Sheffield, believes that “Infrastructure Fiction” (IF) and “design fiction” are methodologies for “discovering” new futures.

“There's a subtle difference between those who started with an idea and generated a world around it which would make it possible, and those who started with a set of problematic assumptions about the world and created an idea to solve them. This is a tension I see a lot of in the nascent discipline of science fiction prototyping; the term has been popularized by Brian David Johnson of Intel in his book of the same title (Johnson, 2010), which makes a case for the writing of science fiction narratives as a method for extrapolating the consequences and implications of new ideas, technologies or phenomena. Bruce Sterling talks about design fiction as being diegetic prototypes, as ‘stories that tell worlds’: the object or product or service in the foreground implies the social, political, economic and technological dimensions of the storyworld in which it must be assumed to exist, and it is this implication of diegesis that does the ‘work’ of design fiction.”  

Anab Jain, in her keynote talk at the futurist conference Next13 “Here Be Dragons” in Berlin overviews design fiction type projects and new “wild card” narratives (edge cases) disrupting the future that are appearing daily, such as the ability to download 3D printable weapons – not just handguns – but grenades and drones at DEFCAD also known as “The Island of Misfit Objects.”

The emerging number of experimental networks and projects that could be categorized as infrastructure fiction and design fiction is dizzying. The underlying theme in all these manifested group thought experiments is a science fiction perspective on what’s possible and even what’s reality.

Infrastructure fiction thus synthesizes some of the best concepts from futurist scenario planning, such as the “possibility spaces” that new ‘what-if?’ scenarios can create when a target audience adopts those stories.

The key difference between these new concepts and traditional scenario planning is that scenario planning extrapolates the existing conditions of reality into the possibility space of the future, while design fiction creates minor or major alterations to reality as we currently understand it and builds the resulting ‘alternate universe’ into the future possibility space.

Thus take sustainability and infrastructure planning, for example, under traditional scenario planning this means clear cutting a place like Twyford Down for wind turbines after “saving it from development” is desirable green progress. Under infrastructure fiction, for example, a different scenario could emerge because sustainability can be imagined differently than big energy cap and trade deals and mega solar and wind power development. Not yet existing concepts for sustainability, like solar power ‘paint’ that doesn’t need panels, can be used in the future scenario as if they’re real, which leads to new mid and long range infrastructure development and planning decisions.

Such ‘not yet existing concepts’ are thus given a chance to manifest. SmartMeme utilized this science fictional thinking praxis when developing an ad campaign for the Environmental Health Strategy Center against toxic chemicals using a still theoretical method for making safe plastics from potato waste as if it was an existing program in Maine. This positive solutionary narrative and imagery engaged the imaginations of lawmakers and lead to investments into the program to make it real.

Thus infrastructure fiction, design fiction and science-fiction prototyping are really not “new ideas”, they’re just being applied today by masses of smart people with the ability to crowd source, crowd fund and barn raise their pie-in-the-sky group visions. In the book “Inventing Reality – Physics As Language” Bruce Gregory, the Senior Science Educator at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, explains that “physicists do not discover the physical world, rather, they invent a physical world – a story that closely fits the facts they create in experimental apparatus.” Today people are disobeying these traffic laws of the universe and discovering new stories, and new realities with new possibilities.

One narrative premise of IF – that the manifestation of the imaginary is not only possible but disruptive of an existing order – appears to have roots in the Archetypal Psychology pioneered by James Hillman in the 1970’s and explored in books like “Invisible Guests – The Development of Imaginal Dialogues” by psychologist Mary Watkins.

"The value and power of this imaginal reality has been severely circumscribed, and at times castrated, by the presuppositions of the modern scientific outlook which our developmental psychology shares... Indeed, one line of development suggested by literature, mythology, and religion is that imaginal figures become more released from the dominion of the self (i.e., more autonomous), more articulated, more differentiated through their multiplicity."

Anab Jain in her keynote shows a number of examples of IF, design fiction, and science fiction prototyping in action, like a project by Adam Harvey that employs the subversive application of makeup to confuse facial recognition algorithms, using them against themselves to play on their inherent dumbness. Through such work fashion blends not just with privacy activism, but helps instill a “new normal” that disrupts in this case the way makeup ‘should’ be applied (ways that by highlighting facial features aid facial recognition).

Jain describes the good and bad of the “new normal” as: “Technology is open source, patents are old fashioned, ideas are crowdsourced, people are products, innovation is subversive, and design stars are not worshipped.”

“So how do we interrupt this state hypnosis, or what Venkatesh Rao calls the Normality Field? Design for the New Normal works to cuts through established narratives by engaging with two broad areas of interest: uncloaking the 'strange now', (whether that is the edge cases I showed earlier, or the disruptive forces that are hidden behind comforting metaphors); and extrapolating current trends to present the sheer breadth, of, often unsettling, future possibilities that lie ahead of us…” 

“These projects bypass the established narratives about the present and future that create the hypnosis of normality, and in doing so, allow for an emotional connection with the raw weirdness of our times, opening up an array of possibilities. My hope is that this emotional connection to the unknown becomes a catalyst for us to engage with, and actually innovate in a way that is meaningful and desirable.” 

Wired magazine summed up Raven's lengthy “Introduction to Infrastructure Fiction” overview for Superflux. In his intro Raven explains what the goals of design fiction are, and how we can’t exit a narrative until we first understand how our built environment reinforces our thinking about what is real and possible.

This isn't so much about thinking outside the box, that most tired of innovation clichés; if anything, it's about thinking about the box, asking how and why the box constrains you. It might help to think of vignettes and infrastructure fictions as a type of theoretical model, albeit one that is almost entirely qualitative. The point is not to see whether they hold up to the tests of physics, or whether they can be evaluated against cost, resilience or feasibility; indeed, it is to be expected that most infrastructure fictions would fail at least one of these types of test. And therein lies the real point: failure is instructive, and the failures and flaws of imaginary systems at this sort of scale – not to mention the circumstances which might influence the likelihood or otherwise of that failure – are impossible to explore in reality.”

“Design fiction is a sandbox, a test-bed, a gedankenexperiment; it's the technological archaeology of imagined futures. If design fiction is a discourse both in and around start-up culture and bleeding-edge technologism, then infrastructure fiction (IF) can do the same thing for global sustainability, infrastructure policy and the iteration of appliance functionality. It can break the hypnosis; collapse the Someone Else's Problem field. It can make infrastructure legible – and once you can read a story, you can write it a new way.” 

SmartMeme Studios is exploring design fiction by utilizing a new role-playing game that provides a simple set of rules for a community, any type of community or organization, to explore their future called Kingdom created by Ben Robbins.

"One of the neat things about Kingdom is that, because the rules deal with the relationship between individuals and groups, regardless of how or why those people are a group, you can play any kind of community or organization you want. Want to play a star-spanning empire? A hospital trying to keep its doors open? The PTA of your local elementary school? Those all work."

We're using this as one more narrative strategy tool with organizations, making something that can be daunting both fun, illuminating and strategic. 

Universities are also exploring design fiction techniques. Dr Simon Egerton, the Deputy Head of School (Research) at the School of Information Technology in Monash University is exploring Intel’s “Science Fiction Prototyping", which he describes as "a process that gets you to think creatively and deeply into what your research can potentially lead to, we can actually build a reality into our research ideas."



Science fiction narrative techniques and role-playing games might seem like a counter-cultural approach to strategic planning, but such methods are being assimilated into the largest ad agencies on Madison Avenue. Ad Agency DDB is now using Dungeons & Dragons - the pencil and dice role-playing game from the 1970s - to help major brand clients understand and design user experiences (UX) for websites. “What we love about the map,” says a senior planner at DDB in their “Age of the Alchemist” video, “is that you take the same principles of building a dungeon and actually apply it to the classic logic map.” 

There is a certain sublime beauty to the idea that DDB's client websites for ExxonMobil and McDonalds might be actual D&D dungeon layouts from which to escape with your life. DDB is thus the Dungeon Master for those brands controlling a story that has imprisoned much of the planet in their narrative.

In politics as well there are established narratives about political parties, like the “progressive peace-loving" Democrats and “conservative war-mongering" Republicans in the US political system. Science fictional thinking allows one to see behind these illusory facades manipulating stereotypes and pitting one against the other, like in the artificially created “government shutdown” of 2013.

Americans it seems aren’t buying into such characterizations and a large percentage now see the ‘Donkey’ and ‘Elephant’ at the national level for what they truly are: fictional game pieces for big corporations. Over 40% of America identifies now as Independent, around 7-10% as Libertarian, the remaining minority are split between Dems and the GOP faithful, according to Gallup. After media stories started appearing in 2011 touting Independents as the largest voting block, Gallup and other pollsters changed their demographic graphs to show instead how the Independent’s “lean” which re-established the perception of two-party dominance.

Infrastructure fiction and design fiction is about what happens when we start thinking independently, end the ‘hypnosis of normality’, and find an exit to their endless monotonous futureless future. We can take control of our own stories, make our own realities, and chart our own futures...

This essay was first published in the 2013/2014 winter edition of STIR Magazine as "Ending the Hypnosis of Normality: Stories Dying to be Told" by James John Bell.

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