The documentary in its entirety.
(via Dangerous Minds)
The documentary in its entirety.
(via Dangerous Minds)
Scientists believe that an ecological experiment by Charles Darwin and Joseph Hooker might hold the key to the colonisation of Mars.
Ascension was an arid island, buffeted by dry trade winds from southern Africa. Devoid of trees at the time of Darwin and Hooker’s visits, the little rain that did fall quickly evaporated away. Its existence depends entirely on what geologists call the mid-Atlantic ridge. This is a chain of underwater volcanoes formed as the ocean is wrenched apart.
Egged on by Darwin, in 1847 Hooker advised the Royal Navy to set in motion an elaborate plan. With the help of Kew Gardens – where Hooker’s father was director – shipments of trees were to be sent to Ascension.
The idea was breathtakingly simple. Trees would capture more rain, reduce evaporation and create rich, loamy soils. The “cinder” would become a garden.
So, beginning in 1850 and continuing year after year, ships started to come. Each deposited a motley assortment of plants from botanical gardens in Europe, South Africa and Argentina.
Soon, on the highest peak at 859m (2,817ft), great changes were afoot. By the late 1870s, eucalyptus, Norfolk Island pine, bamboo, and banana had all run riot.
Dr Wilkinson describes the vegetation of “Green Mountain” – as the highest peak is now known – as a “cloud forest”. The trees capture sea mist, creating a damp oasis amid the aridity.
Francis Spufford has had a long-standing interest in technology and its social significance. Among other things, he has edited (with Jenny Uglow) the really cool anthology Cultural Babbage, a selection of essays on old technologies and their intersection with culture, politics and society, and has written Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin, an affectionate look at past British technological achievements.
Red Plenty is a different animal though. It’s not really history and not really fiction. It reads like a hybrid of both and it really works. Following a number of historical and fictitious characters, Red Plenty reads much like an episodic novel, with loosely linked chapters providing a worm’s-eye view of the implementation of scientific principles in everyday life in the Soviet Union, from the 50s to the late 70s. In that sense it is more a work of social rather than intellectual history, which succeeds in showing very econonomicaly why state-initiated and ran programmes of social reform and improvement fail. Yes, Spufford takes as his subject Soviet Russia, a very prominently intrusive regime, but parallels are effortlessly drawn with western, capitalist, societies.
Inasmuch as initial impetus for the project stemmed from a very real ideological antagonism, its end is one of energy and innovation that exhausted itself in the futility of that antagonism. At the height of the Cold War, one-upmanship, particularly military and industrial, was the name of the game (Sputnik etc). In the race for cultural and ideological sovereignity there’s no scope for the improvement of everyday life. Sound familiar?
Where Norbert Wiener believed that a cybernetic social theory would benefit from and would lead towards a more liberal, less rigid system, where feedback would freely bounce among different social strata, both the Soviet government and industrial management opposed such a loose framework and emphasised, for different reasons, the need for a controlled top-down structure. For Khrushchev, communism could only work as a tightly ran machine. The apparatus had to be centrally controlled, not allowing for the possibility that input could be generated by other levels. Many of the advantages of cybernetics therefore crumbled on ideological grounds. There can be no room for accomodation in a goal-oriented, top-down system, where everything connects and reflects on anything else, in an infinite regression. Factory managers would not be able to hide their inneficiency, while bureaucrats would have to work more in order to cover for failures and bad planning.
Spufford discusses the tension between the necessity for state control and the idealism of cyberneticians by focussing on what are essentialy vignettes, scenes from the lives of people (both fictional and historical), scientists, appparatchiks, politicians etc, interspersed with factual historical introductions that provide the necessary political, social and historical background for each of the book’s several units. Some of the chapters give the sense of descritions inspired by photographs, static and detailed. Village squares, landscapes, factories, offices, all become the canvas on which the futility of the endeavour becomes painfully clear, where everyday life intersects with the seeming abstractions of science, with the weight of political struggle.
I’m not going to discuss whether fictional representation is more or less ligitimate or biased than a strictly traditional historical study in this context. Red Plenty is not an accusatory, judgemental rant; rather, it gives off a sense of disappointment that an experiment such as this had to fail, while it provides a framework for considering the very possibility that such a bold move could ever succeed.
A group project by three students at Columbia’s GSAPP—Yuval Borochov, Lisa Ekle, and Danil Nagy, under the guidance of professor Ed Keller—Protocol Architecture was pitched as a team that “investigates potentials for future design through the creation and analysis of hyper-fictional documents. These document sets create evidence for future scenarios that string together a specific history of political, social, and technological developments.” As such, Protocol’s work becomes less architectural than it is archival:
By focusing on the space of the document, we can avoid simplistic predictions of the future while creating a database of potential evidence which can be analyzed and interpreted by a wider audience of designers.
The resulting fictional archives—or “fabricated histories,” as the architects describe them—allowed the group to question “the role that fact and evidence plays in how we perceive our own history and our place as designers within it.”
If this isn’t a Borgesian idea, I don’t know what is: creating fictional future documents as archaeological/historical evidence for the design purposes of the present. As Manaugh observes, as fruitful or not this idea might be from an actual architectural standpoint, it offers wonderful possibilities for storytelling:
And that’s the rub: at the end of the day, most architecture students—unsurprisingly—think they have to take this stuff, put it all together, and produce something clearly definable as a building. But the research, in many cases, is more worthy of attention (and well worth the time it takes to produce it). In other words, the research—the preliminary material, the periphery, the narrative excess, the unwanted fringe—is very often most provocative before it becomes a building, when that inchoate mass of possible future projects, storylines, techniques, and more offers a million alternative directions in which we have yet to go.
I only say this here because it is extraordinarily exciting to see a project like this, that out-fictionalizes the contemporary novel and even puts much of Hollywood to shame—to realize, once again, that architecture students routinely trade in ideas that could reinvigorate the film industry and the publishing industry, which is all the more important if the world of private commissions and construction firms remains unresponsive or financially out of reach. The Nesin Map alone, given a screenwriter and a dialogue coach, could supply the plot of a film or a thousand comic books—and rogue concrete mixtures put to use by nefarious underground militaries in Baghdad is an idea that could be optioned right now for release in summer 2013. HBO should produce this immediately.
I mentioned Neal Stephenson’s new project, the Mongoliad in my last post but a couple more details were made available since. According to their Facebook page and their Wiki, the Mongoliad is going to be “primarily” an app based multimedia story in serialised form. Here’s the blurb from their wiki:
The Mongoliad is an experimental fiction project of the Subutai Corporation, scheduled for release in 2010. The corporation is an application company based in San Francisco and Seattle, whose chairman is speculative fiction author Neal Stephenson. Stephenson is the guiding force of the project, in which he is joined by colleagues including Greg Bear.
The work is intended to be distributed primarily as a series of applications (“apps”) for smartphones, which the Corporation views as a new model for publishing storytelling. At the project’s core is a narrative of adventure fiction following the exploits of a small group of fighters and mystics in medieval Europe around the time of the Mongol conquests. As well as speculative fiction authors Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Nicole Galland, Mark Teppo and others, collaborators include filmmakers, computer programmers, graphic artists, martial artists and combat choreographers, video game designers, and a professional editor. In a departure from conventional fiction, much of the content of The Mongoliad will be in forms other than text, not bound to any single medium and not in the service of the central narrative. Once the project develops momentum, the Corporation envisages fans of the work to contribute, expanding and enriching the narrative and the fictional universe in which it takes place.
In the telling of the Corporation’s president Jeremy Bornstein, the genesis of the project was in Stephenson’s dissatisfaction with the authenticity of the medieval sword fighting scenes he had written into his Baroque cycle of novels.Stephenson gathered a group of martial arts enthusiasts interested in studying historical European swordfighting, and this eventually resulted in some of the members of this group collaborating on a set of stories which would make use of accurate representations of these martial arts. The collaborators decided the project need not limit itself to traditional novel form, and began developing ideas on how to produce it in different media while retaining the caliber that would be expected of a new work by authors such as Stephenson or Bear.
An “alpha version” was demonstrated at the periodic application showcase SF App Show in San Francisco, California on May 25, 2010. The project is expected to go live sometime in 2010. Supported smartphones and platforms include the iPad, iPhone, Android, and Kindle.
I hope that they decide to expand the scope of application for the project because it could branch out in very interesting directions. Here’s a video of stephenson and Bear discussing the historical scope of the project.
I don’t know how many of you have read the ongoing comics series Unwritten (Vertigo), by Mike Carey and Peter Gross. The plot follows Tommy Taylor, whose father is the famous author of a series of fantasy books closely resembling the Harry Potter series. His father has based the eponymous young protagonist of his books on young Tommy himself, who now, after the sudden disappearance of his father, makes a living by attending conventions etc. After a few intriguing confrontations with some shadowy individuals, Toomy gets caught up in a conspiracy of sorts and realises that the world of fiction isn’t as fictional as it seems and/or that he might be a fictional character himself…The series interweaves myriad well known narratives from various genres, in a sense following the Borgesian idea that religion, philosophy etc are but branches of fantastic literature (or, rather post-modernistly, that stories are all we can have). It’s a story about stories, the intersection of reality and fiction, the role of narrative and the notion of identity, among other things.
Now, the interesting thing is this: When Tommy was a boy, his father, Wilson Taylor, taught him countless trivia concerning the actual geography of fictional events as they are described in works of fiction, from chivalric romances to the novels of Dickens and beyond. On which streets characters lived, in which cities the action took place etc, thereby giving them a semblance of reality by spatialising them. It seems that Wilson knew about the situation in which Tommy would find himself and taught him that as a means of protection.
I loved the idea when I started reading the comic, so imagine my surprise when I came across GoogleLitTrips. GoogleLitTrips is an educational resource that endeavours to teach students about literature by showing them the routes and travels undertaken by characters in famous road trip novels. It does this by taking advantage of certain features of Google Earth. At this stage, it offers a very limited number of such spatialised versions but it doesn’t take much to see how far this could go as an educational and creative tool. Yes, people have been going on literary tours and creating soundtracks for works of fiction for years, but this model could add various multimedia dimensions to the way we approach the act of writing and the act of reading literature itself. Obviously, I do not view this as a substitute for reading and writing but as a level of extension of the creative and experiential aspects of those processes.
For example, Neal Stephenson and Greg Bear have been collaborating on a project called Mongoliad that combines the freeform storytelling aspects of MMORPGs and the externalised, spatial aspects of GoogleLitTrips:
The Mongoliad is a rip-roaring adventure tale set 1241, a pivotal year in history, when Europe thought that the Mongol Horde was about to completely destroy their world. The Mongoliad is also the beginning of an experiment in storytelling, technology, and community-driven creativity.
Our story begins with a serial novel of sorts, which we will release over the course of about a year. Neal Stephenson created the world in which The Mongoliad is set, and presides benevolently over it. Our first set of stories is being written by Neal, Greg Bear, Nicole Galland, Mark Teppo, and a number of other authors; we’re also working closely with artists, fight choreographers & other martial artists, programmers, film-makers, game designers, and a bunch of other folks to produce an ongoing stream of nontextual, para-narrative, and extra-narrative stuff which we think brings the story to life in ways that are pleasingly unique, and which can’t be done in any single medium.
Very shortly, once The Mongoliad has developed some mass and momentum, we will be asking fans to join us in creating the rest of the world and telling new stories in it. That’s where the real experiment part comes in. We are building some pretty cool tech to make that easy and fun, and we hope lots of you will use it.
People will be able to get The Mongoliad over the web and via custom clients for mobile devices – we’re going to start out with iPad, iPhone, Android, and Kindle apps, and will probably do more in the not too distant future.
This platform could develop as an updated form of Second Life and MMORPGs, much like the one envisaged by Greg Egan in Zendegi or the platform that Neal Stephenson envisaged in Snow Crash.
Google and the CIA will be investing in a new company that monitorrs the web in real time in order to predetermine future trends.
The company is called Recorded Future, and it scours tens of thousands of websites, blogs and Twitter accounts to find the relationships between people, organizations, actions and incidents — both present and still-to-come. In a white paper, the company says its temporal analytics engine “goes beyond search” by “looking at the ‘invisible links’ between documents that talk about the same, or related, entities and events.”