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At a recent Annenberg Research Park Colloquium session at the University of Southern California, UCLA’s Design | Media Arts professor Peter Lunenfeld said that his graduate media design students, given the task of depicting the future, could only show apocalypse. “If you’re working with students who have the ability to render worlds, and they can’t imagine that world, we’re in trouble,” he argued, adding that while students may harbor personal utopias, social visions of the future are invariably dystopian. Lunenfeld dubs this “the vision deficit,” and argued passionately for educators to find ways to help students create a new imaginary, one that isn’t driven by fear and disaster.

We need to take seriously the significance of a vision of the future, not so much with regard to fantastic scenarios – the stuff of science fiction, which as we know, does play an important role in envisioning the future – but instead in terms of tangible, real-world realities. Why? Because when we talk about “the future” these days, we’re no longer thinking about a long, gently winding road disappearing into a distant horizon, but instead a window (or screen?) pushed up close against our noses. The temporal horizon has shrunk, and the future, as Bruce Sterling said recently at Reboot, is really about a transition happening right now. That transition centers on the shift of power as technologies become pervasive and increasingly portable, and at its most powerful, it’s a transition that can best be furthered through a tactics of technology, when people take their tools and use – or misuse – them to suit specific, and often urgent, needs.


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Where do we see a tactics of technology? I see it all around me in Los Angeles, a city divided with regard to technology access, literacy, power and privilege. Examples? Here’s one: Mobile Voices is a participatory storytelling platform based on mobile phones that lets users take pictures and record audio with their phone, tag these with descriptions, and send them to a Web site (http://vozmob.net/). The users of Mobile Voices are low wage immigrant workers who are part of the Institute of Popular Education of Southern California (IDEPSCA), a nonprofit organization serving low-income Latino immigrants. IDEPSCA partnered with researchers and grad students at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication in an intensive participatory research and design process dedicated to finding out what tech needs these workers might have. Working together, they came up with a way for this group – so often talked about in the media but lacking an easy way to speak publicly for themselves – to have a voice. Using the often overlooked multimedia messaging service on most phones, even inexpensive ones, participants upload images and voice-over commentary, creating their own news, poetry, and critical analysis. In this way, the group found a way to mobilize an existing tool toward more expressive and potentially political ends with attention to the specific needs of the community of users.

Take Action Games is another LA-based initiative representative of a tactics of technology. The design collective best known for Darfur Is Dying, the award-winning serious game that raised awareness about Darfur in 2006, Take Action Games is currently working on a new project titled In the Balance: The Death Penalty Game, which examines the plight of youths subject to the “school-to-prison pipeline.” The project incorporates visceral documentary footage of a group of rural teenagers sentenced to life imprisonment into a multi-player game exploring the criminal justice system as it pertains to disenfranchised youths. The project is led by Susana Ruiz, who is a first-year student in the Media Arts + Practice Ph.D. program at USC, and her partner Ashley York, and reimagines the video game as a powerful and productive force for social change.


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The Healthy City Project also deploys basic technologies tactically, working to support a better future. Using data analysis and GIS mapping techniques, the HealthyCity.org Web site (http://healthycity.org/) provides access to important information, including social services and demographic details, that can be mobilized by LA citizens who, in the past, lacked easy access to this information. Data traditionally analyzed by professionals can now be examined by communities, who are able to visualize and coordinate this material based on their own needs. This resource takes advantage of GIS mapping technology, but the brilliance of the initiative is not the tool but how it’s deployed, and toward what end.

These projects are alike in that they meld tools and needs; they represent the power of situational technologies, ones that strike a balance between needs and possibilities, refusing to fetishize technology in favor of letting users determine uses and creative desire.


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And what about the future? As Sterling says, it’s now. And the vision deficit? Maybe it’s better to think less about a vision of the future and to think about a haptics – something embodied, performed, enacted, and brought into being through use. It’s mobile storytelling. It’s gaming for social change. It’s mapping your city according to your needs. It’s a tactics of technology, when users claim the tools as their own.

Posted by NMC on August 11, 2009
Tags: ideas

Total comments on this page: 11

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Bryan Alexander on paragraph 2:

Interesting to compare that one group of students’ apocalyptic predilections to the utopian drive dana boyd summons in her talk.

August 23, 2009 8:00 am

[...] Tactics and haptics and a future that’s now by Holly Willis, director of academic programs at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Multimedia Literacy “We need to take seriously the significance of a vision of the future, not so much with regard to fantastic scenarios – the stuff of science fiction, which as we know, does play an important role in envisioning the future – but instead in terms of tangible, real-world realities. Why? Because when we talk about “the future” these days, we’re no longer thinking about a long, gently winding road disappearing into a distant horizon, but instead a window (or screen?) pushed up close against our noses. The temporal horizon has shrunk, and the future, as Bruce Sterling said recently at Reboot, is really about a transition happening right now.”   Leave a Reply [...]

August 25, 2009 3:33 am
Bruce Sommerville on paragraph 8:

I disagree with the fundamental thesis of this essay. The use of technology merely to support minute-by-minute social change is merely to perpetuate the ‘higgledy-piggledy’ laissez-faire planlessness that has brought our world to the brink of multiple disasters. Perhaps the apocalyptic vision of students is their response to the dark real-world problems that confront the planet, and that have come upon us unexpectedly out of the future. As long as there is a lack of long-term vision and planning for the future, the future will continue to present every generation with unanticipated dilemmas. I say present students with a coherent and bright vision of a new civilisation of the future, give them the skills to create it, and inspire them to achieve it.

August 27, 2009 10:54 pm
Alan Levine on paragraph 8:

Bruce- I did not see the “fundamental thesis” here focusing on minutia of daily status messaging. Holly is suggesting we need more than the vision of the future and skills to create it– she is on that third part of how to inspire them– by making it relevant, real, something students can touch (and change).

September 2, 2009 10:06 am
Shelley McLaughlin :

I appreciate the overall message here – that we must position students to better understand the relevance of learning (especially in Higher Ed) through the use and application of social technologies. For example, service-learning and PBL.
The skills and behaviors necessary – to live in the present – are innate. I think Holly is urging us to turn off the technology and get in touch with those skills.
As Holly wrote, “it’s not the tool but how it’s deployed.” Deployment requires us to plan in a way that is untethered by course objectives and institutional directives. Deployment requires a sense of humor, humility and inquiry. We can only “claim” tools that we have played with and tried in the field. This is what I see as the biggest roadblock to technology integration and application.

For each of the pieces shared in this symposium, I’m inspired to keep “playing” and, most important, to keep learning with my students.

September 8, 2009 11:31 am
Peter Whitehouse on whole page :

Hi, Our Intergenerational School (www.tisonline.org) is thinking of submitting a proposal with an ecological modeling and a digital cities social networking folks. As a school we think multiage thinking and valuing about ecology, particularly water, can be powerful pedagogically and wish to enhance this by using computer models and digital social networks. Do you have any advice for the proposal? I think global weirding/climate change are issues we really need to find hope for the future. How IT help here?. We would plan to run it like a consultation workshop.

Thanks Peter

September 9, 2009 6:11 am
Anne-Marie Armstrong on paragraph 4:

This is a good program that needs to be expanded. Also, It is a good means to allow different groups to mingle and share. our society needs such groupings where one-to-one can work even when there are economic and geographic differences.

October 26, 2009 1:51 pm
Anne-Marie Armstrong on paragraph 6:

The Environmental Working Group is similar and provides data nationally. For example, would you like to know how many uranium mines are near your home? Or ??

October 26, 2009 1:56 pm
Anne-Marie Armstrong on paragraph 6:

The Environmental Working Group is providing similar data nationally. ttp://www.ewg.org/

October 26, 2009 1:57 pm
Suzanne Aurilio on paragraph 8:

“The use of technology merely to support minute-by-minute social change is merely to perpetuate the ‘higgledy-piggledy’ laissez-faire planlessness that has brought our world to the brink of multiple disasters.”

I get what Bruce is identifying here and it resonates with me too. It may be a frame of reference that takes a broader or different view, perhaps one that takes history into account as well.

The views that come to mind for me come through seeing the issues in terms of late-capitalism and consumerism. I just can’t ignore the outcomes and implications of these systems on our personal and civic lives. I lived in Europe for most of the 90s and my view is most definitely influenced by that experience.

Laissez-faire planlessness means letting the market and profit-making write, direct and star in the entire show. Policy is what enables sustained and broad changes in a social system such as education, if we indeed want it to remain a publicly available social system. I’m not sure we do. As an example voters in California don’t want to pay more taxes, yet want their children to have a decent education.

One way to frame the topic is to view it through a historical lens. Historically the American education system has functioned with much of the same aimlessless as it does today. It has responded to social trends, bogus research promoted by an elite, often white, male few, and by the loudest pundits. It’s always been ideologically driven and politically motivated.
The dismal fact that our poorest communities have the crappiest schools after 100 years of public education should be evidence of this. We don’t really want everyone to be equally free and capable of achieving the same things.
I’ll take a slightly different tact than Bruce’s by saying that one-up-programs are all we CAN do, at this point. For people who care, they’re psychically vital. They make us feel like we’re affecting change and we are. It’s just not the breadth and depth of social we’re told we should aspire to.

Finally, I personally need the sobering, social and political discourses of critics abroad as well as their personal accounts of a life that is different than ours.

Would love to hear from others.

October 28, 2009 1:44 pm
check from google on paragraph -1:

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September 3, 2014 2:03 am
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