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.
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.
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.
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