Postcards from the Future: Behind the Scenes at Wondrous Strange #notenoughscifi

Imagine letting your community dream wildly of the world to come.

Imagine collaborating on a future history spanning millennia.

Imagine turning public space into something that was wondrous and strange.

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As part of our time-travel themed festival of weirdness, storytelling, art and science at Ann Arbor District Library, we asked visitors to write postcards from the future.

We collected over 80 tales stretching from 2018 to the year 5000.

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Wondrous Strange at Ann Arbor District Libraries

I’m just back from a week delivering training and community engagement for Ann Arbor District Libraries, an acclaimed public library service in Michigan, USA.

The micro-residency culminated in an all-ages half-day event called “Wondrous Strange”, blending play, history, prophecy, technology, art, craft, science fiction, time travel, and storytelling.

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Wondrous Strange was an opportunity for the Ann Arbor community to venture into an imagined world blending fact and fiction, and to create their own shared stories and experiences stretching from recorded history into the distant future.

More on my Michigan visit soon, but for now here’s a short video from last Sunday’s session.

#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. Read more

Artists Ettamodern & Scribbletronics visit University of Southern Queensland

As part of this week’s Astronomy Festival at the University of Southern Queensland, we’re joined by Melbourne artists Wendy Catling and Peter Miller, aka Ettamodern and Scribbletronics.

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Wendy is an artist, designer and teacher who employs light to create works on paper and fabric – particularly blueprint-style ‘cyanotypes’. Her prints are held in the collections of Warrnambool Art Gallery, the Australian National Gallery, and private owners.

Peter is a composer, sound designer, and audio-visual artist whose work includes sound design for films The Ring and Rango and additional design for Mad Max: Fury Road, as well as a sound installation in the Qantas first-class lounges in Sydney and Melbourne.

I’ve previously worked with Ettamodern and Scribbletronics on the Time Travel Detectives roleplay, which was built around two of Peter’s digital artworks. This children’s event blended steampunk adventure, optical illusions, and tablet technology to help kids explore Australia’s past and the scientific method.

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On this visit, Wendy and Peter will join USQ staff, students, and the wider community to explore new opportunities to work at the meeting point of art, science, and community engagement. Find out more at the University of Southern Queensland’s website.

#NotEnoughScifi: John M. Ford & the Funny Business / Coda

We come to the final instalment of this series on the forgotten but brilliant science fiction writer John M. Ford.

Over the last few posts, we’ve looked at how he made nifty comedy out of the Star Trek franchise, and how his interest in games allowed him to lend nuance to the usual goodies-vs-baddies-in-space shenanigans when he was playing in other people’s universes.

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We also thought about why thinking science-fictionally matters when we try to find new ways of doing things for our communities, our organisations, ourselves. And we considered how good ideas move between the world on the page and the world beyond it.

I wanted to end by coming back to Ford’s actual life in Minneapolis. Read more

#NotEnoughScifi: John M. Ford & the Funny Business / Part 3

I started reading obscure author John M. Ford’s Star Trek books recently and I was blown away by how good they are.

I mentioned this online and other Ford fans started coming out of the woodwork:

Then I picked up a rulebook for a roleplaying game – GURPS Infinite Worlds – to research a time-travel-themed event I’m working on with a client.

Of course, whose name did I find among the co-authors?

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Ford wasn’t just a novelist or poet – he also worked on role-playing games, devising scenarios and background material that other people could use to play out their own stories.

The past couple of years I’ve been working on ways to use such games for professional development, so I was pretty excited to have Ford come back into my life so soon.

Not only did he work on Infinite Worlds – a time-travel/parallel universe setting which, as the title suggests, can encompass almost any other scenario or genre – but he created an award-winning caper for the game Paranoia, and a manual for people who wanted to play as the traditionally villainous Klingons in the Star Trek game.

And here’s where we come back round to Ford’s novels, and to the making of fun and brilliant things in the cracks and spaces of big-money enterprises.

Here is where we talk about The Final Reflection.

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#NotEnoughScifi: John M. Ford & the Funny Business / Part 2

Life is messy. The structures and services we design need to reflect that.

Creative responses to the world resist programming and procedure. You have to be flexible when you seek to address the challenges of this uncertain, unpredictable existence.

And if you’re going to plan and scheme a better future, that process should be intellectually stimulating, exciting: fun, even. Because if a vision of the future doesn’t engage, convince, and inspire, how are you going to make it work?

Let’s talk about Star Trek.

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#NotEnoughScifi: John M. Ford & the Funny Business / Part 1

I’ve been thinking about where we go next.

It’s a big part of my job, which essentially has two sides.

One of them is connecting and coaching people to bring their own bright ideas to fruition: finding resources, partners, and opportunities for them to realise marvellous initiatives.

Another part is scouting out the unmarked territory, the unknown spaces beyond service models and strategic visions, the opportunities we hadn’t even considered yet.

That includes using speculative fiction, sci-fi, and fantasy as a way of thinking about how things could be different…and what comes next.

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Cheese, Drugs, and Moonshots: A Science March special for @kylastephan

Kyla Stephan who writes the marvellous Library Ghost blog knitted me a hat for today’s Science March in Brisbane.

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There are rightly some questions to be asked about the march organisers’ approach to diversity and inclusion, but I also thought it was important to show up and be counted in the name of all people who are curious about the world and revise their beliefs in the face of evidence.

In return for my hat, I had to find Kyla an interesting science story.

So here are a few words about drug dosage and cheesy moonshots.

What are the physics of highly compressed cheese and why does it matter?

My favourite science show-off moment was at a conference on Science and Storytelling at the University of Cardiff some years ago.

I was interested in how medics and health workers used storytelling in science, and one of my favourite projects was by an information scientist called Harold Thimbleby (PDF download).

He pointed out that in Europe, about 120,000 hospital deaths per year are caused by drug calculation errors – that’s more people than die in car accidents.

Not all of those errors can be blamed on the staff, however. The automatic pumps which dispense drugs through IVs etc are often difficult to program, and although they look like calculators, they are not.

An example:

A “simple” drug calculation is: how many mL/hr should an infusion pump be set to in order to give a patient 5250mg of fluorouracil over 4 days at a concentration of 45.57 mg/mL?

The simplest correct calculation using a basic calculator is: [AC][MRC][MRC]4 × 24 [MPLUS][AC]5250 ÷ 45.57 ÷[MRC] =

After getting all those key presses right, you then have to go through another round of button presses on the pump, without making any mistakes. All as just one task in your busy day at the hospital.

Professor Thimbleby developed a prototype smartphone app which asked you what the drug calculation was, and the type of pump you were using, and then guided you through the key presses step by step.

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This reduced human error and created opportunities for the user to check and double check throughout the process.

What has all that got to do with a moon made of cheese?

Almost offhandedly, during his talk, Professor Thimbleby spoke of the certainty with which we know the moon isn’t made of cheese. He compared this scientific certainty to the world of storytelling, where we can still indulge that fantasy.

Even without visiting the moon, we can tell it isn’t made of cheese because of its albedo – the fraction of solar energy which it reflects back into space.

Different materials have different reflectivity: for example, ice and snow have a high albedo and cause most of the sunlight hitting them to reflect back into space.

We can work out the albedo of cheese and observe the brightness of the moon to confirm that it is, sadly, not made from dairy products.

But – but but but – what if the moon were made of cheese? How could we indulge that fantasy while maintaining the rigour of critical and scientific thinking?

Do we need to imagine a cheese-moon which is the same size or the same mass?

If the latter, the moon would have to be a lot larger. Nocturnal animals and the science of astronomy would be affected by the larger moon in our sky, with its much higher albedo.

What’s more, a moon sized piece of cheese would be denser and hotter at its centre owing to gravitational compression.

Would there be volcanos of molten cheese? At extreme high pressures, does cheese maintain its integrity, or break down into its component parts? Would the massive internal pressure cause it to explode?

I love that scientists can begin to explore these hypothetical situations without even having to leave the comfort of their armchair – or in our case, the post-march pub.

I love that there is a happy borderland where science and science fiction meet, and valuably so – because they are, ultimately, both spaces of wonder.

Professor Thimbleby made his cheesy digression and showed the value of thinking carefully and critically, reasoning from available evidence – but his work also demonstrates that you could save lives just by paying close attention to technology and human interaction.

He didn’t need to be in the ward to come up with a way to avoid deaths from drug miscalculation, and he didn’t need to land on the moon to work out what it was made of.

How cool is that? Read more

You’re Still Not Reading Enough Sci Fi, Supplemental

This is an addendum to my recent week exploring science fiction and fantasy that might help your community or organisation think about the future.

Sometimes these wayward dreams take the form of a caveat.

Blindsight, by Peter Watts, is a creepy and troubling space opera which follows a team of explorers dispatched to investigate an alien craft in the year 2082.

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Watts shows us a post-scarcity Earth which is suddenly threatened by vastly superior technology; he sends us out into space with a group of weird souls who have been granted talents which estrange them from humanity; and then, far from home, he forces them into a confrontation with creatures that are smarter and more adaptable than we.

Watts is known for dark explorations of the posthuman future, and for giving his stories endings which offer little reassurance, but Blindsight merits special mention for the way in which it leaves you doubting the value of all we hold dear in the human condition.

I came across Watts’ book after reading Steven Shaviro’s Discognition, a book which aims to conduct philosophy through the exploration of science fiction. At one point, Shaviro writes:

…the nonhuman entities with which we share the world – including, but not limited to, our tools – are active in their own right. They have their own powers, interests, and points of view. And if we engineer them, in various ways, they “engineer” us as well, nudging us to adapt to their demands. Automobiles, computers, and kidney dialysis machines were made to serve particular human needs; but in turn, they also induce human habits and behaviours to change. Nonhuman things must therefore be seen as…active agents with their own intentions and goals, and which affect one another, as well as affecting us…

Shaviro’s argument that we must begin to understand our behaviours and attitudes through the viewpoint of nonhuman actors – not just everyday tools but the robot, the alien, the artificial intelligence, the monster – is something I’ve also seen explored in the art education practice of Sean Justice and even the way farmers relate to their self-driving machines in the 21st century. We tried to capture some of these relationships in the State Library of Queensland’s Ozofarm Initiative, which invited local communities to devise their own sci-fi farming scenarios using small robots.

That’s a worthy goal with clear benefits for our digital future, but I don’t want to stray too far from Watts’ bleak vision. His book isn’t a Luddite take on our future, it’s a cool-headed refusal to bet on humanity’s own heroism.

Not only does Watts neatly sketch the potential for human conflict even in a world where our material and energy needs have been met, but Blindsight does a great job of challenging our faith in precisely the capacities for imagination and awareness which allow him to write such a compelling novel.

So anytime you need your hope for the future tempered with a healthy dose of scepticism, this thoughtful reality check is the book for you.