Exploring Object-Oriented Futures at Emerge 2012

I’m finally getting to sit down and write a belated recap of personal observations from the Emerge 2012 event held at Arizona State University earlier this month. I felt lucky to sneak a chance to attend, though it came in the middle of a multi-project crunch, hence the delay. There has been some benefit in looking at the event and interactions in the rear view mirror—a lot of the discussions and experience I’ve taken away are of the foundational type, going deep into the roots of what I do professionally, as practice and as guiding philosophy.

The workshop I spent two days in, Design Science (expertly led by Gretchen Gano, David McConville and Ned Gardiner), presented an interesting opportunity to examine what it means to shift perspective on systems problems—in this case, looking at the universe from the outside in. Using a terrific visualization “dome” from The Eluminati, and visual media created by Worldviews Network and NOAA, we spent time considering both the literal and figurative meaning of shifting perspective on systems challenges as a precursor to stepping through stages of a Design Science approach inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s work. While this was an intriguing exercise by itself, for me it re-opened wider questions about the usefulness of experiences and, more importantly, objects as the starting point for constructing and investigating possible futures.

This was a great segue into the work that was going on in other sessions, involving approaches such as Brian David Johnson’s Science Fiction Prototyping method to development of gaming as a narrative platform for exploring the future to two variants on design fiction, Stuart Candy and Jake Dunagan working with the object of a mysterious glyph (see the video below) as the center of one exploration, and Julian Bleecker and Nick Foster’s session examining the role of the quotidian convenience store product as a point of departure for possible near futures.

Jake Dunagan and Stuart Candy’s “The People Who Vanished”.

With a member of Shell’s GameChangers team in my session, the issue of moving beyond the 2x2 scenario structure to other anchors for future narrative development was central point of early discussion within our group. For me, (and I stress this is a personal point of view) in some ways, the use of the traditional scenario matrix defines the playing field for the participant, as well as the rules of play, and asks him or her to provide some variation within. By building around an object, we start with a central artifact and ask participants to develop the context, and in many ways define the relevant affordances of a particular future they describe. In a straightforward way, one session’s exercise did just this—through an archaeology of the future workshop run by Daniel Erasmus and David Conz that started with a randomly shaped object, for which the holder would construct a narrative about the future. A simple, but incredibly accessible process, this practice literally put the creative synthesis in the hand of each participant.  

What’s important here, to my mind, is the object as entry point, not as the terminal point. As Bruce Sterling said in his opening talk at Emerge, “It’s the world that matters in design fiction, not the gadget.” By starting with the object, or the gadget, in some ways we quickly take the focus off of that object and place it more on populating the world around it, rather than creating a world in which our object of choice (whether it’s a product or some irritant we hope to overcome) fits just so, which I think is the unconscious tendency when starting with the universe first, then placing the object we desire within it. It’s something we are familiar with from the play of our younger years—a toy car, a doll, a stick for a sword all give us the jumping off point for a larger adventure and help us imagine the world in which we want them, and ourselves, to exist. To paraphrase Anab Jain from Jonathan Resnick’s recent paper on materialization of the speculative (PDF download), objects help people enter a world by being both immediate and tangible.

In the end, what matters is having new tools and approaches available to us to shift perspective and try a new way “in” to insight or epiphany, not to let the traditional approaches institutionalize our perspectives on the future. Emerge saw a fresh range of methods entertained, and so engaged a multidisciplinary mix of artists, engineers, writers, coders, film makers, game designers, biologists—forming a third culture, if you will—in the pursuit of imagining new solutions to our systemic challenges. In doing this, the event, its organizers and participants took an important step forward toward opening the door for these fields and others to engage with and add to practices of strategic foresight and design, taking down some unnecessary walls along the way.

See more pictures from the event here

PS—I suspect this will get even more interesting once I’ve digested Ian Bogost’s “Alien Phenomenology,” just out this month.