#NotEnoughSciFi – Hope and Holodecks Revisited

This week in Michigan, I’m leading a series of talks, workshops, and pilot sessions on immersive play and live-action experiences in libraries and other community settings.

To tie in with these sessions, I’ve written a little piece about Hope and Holodecks – incorporating Blade Runner, Star Trek, Captain America….and Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion.

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Look, I think one day we’ll get holodecks.

That was what Star Trek: The Next Generation called the interactive, fully immersive spaces where crew members could conjure ultrarealistic, AI-driven virtual experiences of play, sport, storytelling, historical research, or even technical experimentation.

I think one day they’ll arrive.

I think that whatever the library becomes or is replaced by in the future will look a lot like the holodeck. Instead of summoning information in containers like books or web pages, it will feel like an immersive, flowing sensory and social experience.

It won’t be libraries or other knowledge institutions that develop them, though – it costs too much money.

What’s interesting about how Star Trek imagines that experience is not the pseudoscientific technology behind it. It’s how fluent all the characters are in its use.

They walk into that magic space, summon a story or game or simulation, and tailor it to their requirements.

That social and emotional literacy in immersive, open-ended experience is where libraries have a vital part to play.

After all, you always went into the shelfy library of yore with that freedom. You chose the book from the shelf. You read it and interpreted it as you saw fit. Librarians are not teachers or preachers. They curate this kind of free, unpredictable experience – providing support and infrastructure, but letting the reader – now the user – find their own journeys and destinations in the realm of knowledge and culture.

You can see the long road to holodeck literacy in a more recent Hollywood blockbuster. Captain America: Civil War set Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man against his fellow heroes when he found out that an ally of Captain America was involved in his parents’ death.

Near the opening of the film, you see Iron Man in a holographic virtual environment, rewatching the last time his teenaged self saw his mother and father. (Never mind the fantasy tech, the Hollywood youthifying of Downey Jr. is pretty impressive in its own right).

Iron Man admits that his expensive self-created therapy session was not a success. He could build the tech for a superrealistic virtual experience but not develop the social and emotional skills to use it for his own healing. The whole movie that follows is built on the fact that he has not come to terms with his loss.

Imagine information experience as a healing tool. It’s only one aspect, but what possibilities there are in this space!

As health workers increasingly develop the skills of information professionals, and information professionals find themselves addressing community priorities like improved health and wellbeing, the mission of the librarian converges with those of the therapist, social worker, or health practitioner.

Occupational therapists now define themselves as using occupation to help their clients with “all activities that they want, need, or have to do”. That’s not so far from the facilitating role of a librarian, especially when those occupational needs, duties, and desires might involve access to information.

In 2014 movie The Skeleton Twins, a man helps his sister to cope with her distress at an out-of-control life by choosing a song from her music library and encouraging her to join him in a wicked lip-sync performance.

Bringing someone back from rumination and despair with an old song and a bit of play sits precisely at this junction of librarianship, wellbeing, and love.

When new mothers share parenting hints and tips on Facebook and other social media platforms, when they debate the science of vaccination and the arguments of the antivax movement, this, too, sits at the place where healthcare, loving families, and information experience meet. (That’s the research focus of my University of Southern Queensland colleague Dr Kate Davis).

Even more recently than Captain America or The Skeleton Twins, Hollywood sneaks an example of great, world-saving librarianship into the latest blockbuster.

Blade Runner 2049 has as its hero K, an artificial human or “replicant” who has been given implanted memories to ensure emotional stability. He knows that his childhood recollections are confected, but he cherishes them nonetheless.

blade-runner-2049

In one scene, he meets Stelline, the Memory Maker, who devises replicant memories in a fully immersive, holodeck-like environment.

The movie’s plot, and its interrogation of the boundaries between a human who is born and one who is manufactured, turns on the question of whether one of K’s memories was a fiction or an authentic memory transplanted from another.

The custodianship and sharing of authentic memory is the key to redemption, not just for an individual but for an entire fallen society. Categorising a memory – an information experience – as fiction or non-fiction, and determining its true owner, is vital. An act of emotional librarianship resolves the tension between the “artificial” and “natural” worlds.

This is why the values of a knowledge institution matter – and why the existence of such institutions matters, even if they will not be the funders or inventors of fancy immersive virtual technology: because they determine how we will manage a sphere of knowledge that increasingly expands into spaces of intimacy, into total surveillance, into extensive and enduring records of even our most ordinary actions and transactions.

Chris Bourg of MIT Libraries reminds us that preparing librarians for the future is not about playing prophet, but ensuring that our values are fit for the challenges ahead, some of which are hard to foresee. (I thank, in turn, the great Donna Lanclos for reminding me of Chris Bourg’s comments).

How do we make those preparations?

In my practice, we work with librarians, healthcare practitioners, scholars, and other professionals to play games that elicit their values and test what it means to implement those values within the protected environment of a roleplay.

Something like Library Island  may not look much like the holodeck, but it aspires to the social and emotional aspects of such a space. It is an open-ended, interactive space of participant-led play and storytelling. It scaffolds and supports participants to make believe in a way which reveals their values and suggests future opportunities for development.

Our activities might use Post-its more than holographic projectors, and that might seem pretty low-fi, but remember that even the humble Post-It note is a technological miracle; it’s just that the technology in question is chemistry, not electronics.

Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion reminds us of that.

This is why I urge you to pursue playful activities at work, especially those which are unpredictable.

The level of technology at your disposal is not important.

Encourage curiosity, build comfort and confidence for your community in unstructured spaces – not just shelves and stacks, but places of performance, movement, expression, and experience.

That’s not just the business of children’s play, or makerspaces, but every programme, offer, process, and activity which interacts with the unpredictable world around us.

Our job as knowledge workers is not necessarily to build the science-fiction technology of the future, but to nurture our communities so that they meet whatever the future offers with good health, hope, and resilience.

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