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Fear is a lack of imagination

Fear is a lack of imagination

Elizabeth Kolbert created an evocative image in a recent New Yorker editorial: she described the auto executives in Washington as men with explosives strapped to their chests, bringing nothing to the table but the promise that if forced to suffer, they won’t suffer alone.

Imagine, instead, that an auto executive had come to Washington armed with a vision – such as a new line of ultraefficient cars leveraging carbon-fiber technology a la Amory Lovins.

We are having a crisis – the Econaclypse, the Great Decession, call it what you will – and like the Great Depression it will define an entire generation. But it really is a crisis of imagination, not of economics. Wendell Berry:

We are involved now in a profound failure of imagination. Most of us cannot imagine the wheat beyond the bread, or the farmer beyond the wheat, or the farm beyond the farmer, or the history beyond the farm. Most people cannot imagine the forest and the forest economy that produced their houses and furniture and paper, or the landscapes, the streams and the weather that fill their pitchers and bathtubs and swimmingpools with water. Most people appear to assume that when they have paid their money for these things they have entirely met their obligations. An excerpt from “In the Presence of Fear” by Wendell Berry

This is important, so I’m going to say it again: We are in a crisis because too many people have lacked a certain kind of imagination. We all know that everything exists in an ecosystem, but it’s possible to pretend that it doesn’t, or that the system will be able to suck up whatever abuse you happen to do to it. The people who made the sub-prime epidemic happen did not imagine that they were destroying the ecosystem of credit. The people who made gas guzzlers did not imagine that they were destroying the ecosystem of energy evolution.

Now, however, those connections have been made clear. Now the thing we cannot afford is for people to strap on their unimagination like bodybelts of explosives and demand that the unimagined consequences of their destructive actions be allowed to continue. What they are failing to see is that their terrorist demand – for life not to change – is impossible. And what they are failing to imagine is that change can create a better life, both for them and the entire ecosystem they live in.

This is why serious games such as World Without Oil and Superstruct are such an important development. These games get at the root of the problem: they encourage imagination and the massive building and sharing of future visions. They put our collective intelligence to work on figuring out what’s happening, what’s possible and what’s fair. And they open-source this vision so that anyone can understand and participate. Wouldn’t it be grand if the legacy of our current economic crisis is not survival, but leadership in imagining how we can all make the future better? Photo by brndnprkns via Flickr.

Revolution is in the air

Revolution: it's in the air

The world’s energy system is at a crossroads. Current global trends in energy supply and consumption are patently unsustainable – environmentally, economically, socially. But that can – and must – be altered; there’s still time to change the road we’re on. It is not an exaggeration to claim that the future of human prosperity depends on how successfully we tackle the two central energy challenges facing us today: securing the supply of reliable and affordable energy; and effecting a rapid transformation to a low-carbon, efficient and environmentally benign system of energy supply. What is needed is nothing short of an energy revolution. - World Energy Outlook 2008, IEA

Following up my earlier post, the IEA report came out on November 12, and the message is crystal clear: one way or another, we are about to have a revolution. We can choose a green energy revolution, or we can sleepwalk into a brown revolution of climatic cataclysms and energy shortages, of which the World Without Oil game is just the beginning. Energy Revolution Graphic by Ken Eklund

The World Without Oil idea of using an “alternate reality” to help us grapple with real-world problems resonated with a lot of people, starting on the day we announced the game. Now projects inspired by WWO are beginning to pop into public view. Here are four… more to come:

EARTH 2100 by ABC News. Leap ahead in time to the year 2015 (or 2050), and bear witness to the concatenating catastrophes in climate, energy, and water, based on science forecasts… A contest to support a two-hour report airing this fall.

Cassie's got good reasons to worry

Cassie, or should I say, Cassandra

SCORCHED, a TV drama for TCN Nine in Australia. It’s 2012, and Cassie’s worried: there are eight weeks of water left in Bourne, Australia… A game to support a drama series, airing this fall.

BLACK CLOUD, an alternate reality learning experience focusing on pollution and air quality, by a UC Berkeley team, running now. A game funded by the MacArthur Foundation’s digital learning initiative (and the least apocalyptic of the four).

The worthiest and most immersive successor to World Without Oil looks to be SUPERSTRUCT, put on by Kathi Vian, Jamais Cascio and WWO’s own Jane McGonigal and funded by the Ten-Year Team at the Institute For The Future. Jump ahead to September 2019 (two months before Blade Runner, heh) when a supercomputer crunches the data and announces that unless radical changes are made, human civilization has got only 23 more years to live. Holy Doomsday Clock! Gamestart is set for September 22, but you can get in game now on the practice blog.

You're in the story

You're in the story

What began as a marketing tool has now become a lot more useful: playing with alternate realities can solve real problems.” The writer is Anne Wollenberg, her article’s in The Guardian, and she’s talking about the genre started by the World Without Oil game. Read the article; it’s really excellent and lays out pretty clearly the potential that these collaborative games have to save the world. (And let’s shout out to WWO player RockLobster, quoted in the article! Woo!)

As a result of our current concatenation of calamities, future thinking and what-if scenarios have suddenly become the thing to do. Witness a CNN Special titled “We Were Warned: Out of Gas,” sent my way by alert WWO fan Diane. The behind-the-scenes commentary, however, is more interesting and real to me than the Hollywood-style cinematic premise. The revolution will not be telescripted; it’s already begun. Video scene from Kalwithoutoil.

“When exactly was it that the U.S. became a can’t-do society? It wasn’t at the very beginning when 13 ragamuffin colonies went to war against the world’s mightiest empire. It wasn’t during World War II when Japan and Nazi Germany had to be fought simultaneously. It wasn’t in the postwar period that gave us the Marshall Plan and a robust G.I. Bill and the interstate highway system and the space program and the civil rights movement and the women’s movement and the greatest society the world had ever known.

“When was it? Now we can’t even lift New Orleans off its knees.”

When indeed? From an Op-Ed piece by Bob Herbert, sent my way by WWO friend Cathy. Herbert is referring to Al Gore’s challenge for the U.S. to get 100% of our electricity from clean sources in ten years – or put another way, to begin to catch up to the sort of energy independence that Brazil enjoys right now and Sweden will have in a few years.

Can-do power

Can-do power

Herbert is anticipating howls of protest about the “cost” of Gore’s plan – and sure enough, everyone with a stake in the present energy system is screaming “impossible.” But Cathy also alerted me to this: Texas Approves a $4.93 Billion Wind-Power Project (Midwest wind power is a key element in Gore’s plan).

As Cathy notes, “I favor decentralized power (or shall I call it democratic power ;) , like roof mounted solar and wind – so there isn’t a need for the transmission line – but at least it is wind.” True that – as talked about at length in World Without Oil. It’s not perfect – but: is it a sign of the return of the can-do nation? Photo by jurvetson via Flickr.

"You Know It's Not Good For You. You'll Cut Back Someday."Alert reader Cathy sent me the link to this article by Damien Cave which begins: “Higher fuel prices are forcing cities across the country to cut public services, limit driving by employees and expand public transportation in what has become a sprawling movement to conserve energy.” The article goes on to cite that 90% of 132 cities surveyed are altering operations in response to higher fuel costs. This forced cutback in public services was a big item in the WWO game: almost every service a city offers consumes fuel, and cities draw up their budgets in advance, so sudden increases catch them flatfooted (as we’re seeing now).

But the article goes on to quote the mayors at the conference: “some of them also acknowledged that higher gasoline prices could eventually make their cities bigger, better and richer.” The mayors are reporting transit use is up, the movement to resettle pedestrian-friendly downtown is accelerating, and new interest in bike lanes.

In Newsweek, Robert J Samuelson acknowledges that the equivalent of Peak Oil is here – demand has outstripped supply – and quotes economist Jeffrey Rubin of CIBC World Markets as saying that this will help U.S. manufacturing: no longer can jobs go overseas with such impunity. Relocalization works for manufacturing as well as food. Indeed, I’ve already read of a case where IKEA moved a manufacturing plant to the U.S. for this reason – it was cheaper to build bookcases here than to ship them in from elsewhere.

Samuelson can’t see past the current infrastructure, unfortunately, but the Economist can. In their most recent issue, entitled “The Future of Energy,” the editors cite this “failure of imagination” as the key to our problem with energy. They put forward instead ideas for “a world where, at one level, things will have changed beyond recognition, but at another will have stayed comfortably the same, and may even have got better.”

What patently doesn’t work is to cling to a wasteful system that’s loaded with problems and is incontrovertibly beginning the decline of its useful life. To quote the out-of-game “addiction” teaser for World Without Oil: “You know that it’s bad for you. You’ll cut back someday.” More drilling and more wars are the addict’s groping for one more fix: they solve nothing and don’t change the fundamental forces at work.

by Education Week“Games that center on realistic problems can help develop many important skills, ranging from teamwork to problem-solving to understanding relevant content,” says Eric Klopfer, the director of the Teacher Education Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the author of the book Augmented Learning. “In many ways, these games are more scalable and classroom-friendly than other video games, in that they don’t require special technologies or even extensive training. World Without Oil is a great example of how this could be possible.” Nice article about Alternate Reality Games in Education by Katie Ash. Reminder: you can find WWO lesson plans for high school teachers at http://worldwithoutoil.org/teach

at the New Yorker Conference \If you want to get a solid picture of what World Without Oil signified to the world, listen to WWO’s participation architect, Jane McGonigal, at the New Yorker conference earlier this month, “Stories from the Near Future.”

What Jane’s saying is that games have turned a corner from Escapism to Engagement (not just WWO, but it’s perhaps the most potent example) and… well, she tells it way better than I do, so check out the vid.

photo by Michallon via FlickrThanks, John Thackara, for alerting me to the City Eco Lab being planned for November, in st. Etienne, France. City Eco Lab are “design steps to a one-planet economy”: by demonstrating a full range of projects that rethink a city’s consumption of fuel, food, energy, water, etc., CEL moves the focus beyond an individual’s choices to the systems that citizens depend on for their livelihood. It’s a really great idea and one that should be extended to cities in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Is it possible, however, that an oil crisis will strike St. Etienne even as the City Eco Lab gets underway? And citizens of St. Etienne will be phoning in reports live as the crisis progresses? It’s certainly possible, given the current state of fuel protests spreading like wildfire across Europe. And it’s possible in a WWO sense too (and maybe you can help). Stay tuned.  Photo of St. Etienne tram by Michallon via Flickr

Here they are again: real-life headlines that look as though they come right out of World Without Oil. I don’t want to see headlines like these. The question is: is the WWO game helping people adjust to the new economic reality they describe? And – is the game helping to create other realities as well?

Recent Headlines Ripped from WWO

photo by Lex in the City, via Flickr. Thanks Lex!An article by John Wilen in the Business section today talks about how airlines are slowing down to save fuel. Meanwhile, Gary Richards, our local reporter on commute and traffic, advises his readers to stop whining about fuel prices and slow down – by his calculation, dropping one’s speed from 75 to 60 mph is like paying 30 cents less per gallon at the pump.

These articles bring out another finding of the World Without Oil game – that oil = speed. Americans consume an inordinate amount of oil largely because we don’t like to wait – for the bus or the train, for example, or for that cool new weight machine we ordered online. 747s fly everywhere loaded with cargo that could be sent vastly more efficiently by boat or train.

But of course, paradoxically, we also don’t like to be forced to rush all the bloody time. WWO people were quick to pick up on this silver lining to the dark cloud. Here, listen as Avantgame explains it in a phone call from Berkeley – recorded during Week 17 of the Oil Crisis of 2007. Or download the MP3:

The Upside to Slowing Down, by Avantgame

Photo by Lex in the City via Flickr.

Character icons from the WWO game.The World Without Oil game centered on a website (www.worldwithoutoil.org, now archived here) which gathered all the in-game ideas and expressions of the players. In the fiction of the game, the website had been put together by eight (eventually, 14) ordinary citizens who had reason to believe the oil crisis was coming. They called themselves the 8TSOC (8 To Save Our Country).

Like the game itself, the 8TSOC characters were fiction but just barely. WWO’s gamemasters (“puppetmasters”) played them, but for the most part they were alternate realities of who we are (or might have been). Like the game itself, they come across as pretty real.

So it’s fascinating, a year later, to read these characters’ Manifestos – the characters’ thoughts as the reality of the oil crisis loomed larger and larger. Take a moment and check them out.

(To learn who in real life played each character, go here and scroll down to Puppetmasters.)

I’m reprinting here a letter to the editor of the San Jose Mercury News, April 22, 2008.

In 50 years the oceans will be stripped clean, yet we keep fishing. Species extinction is the fastest in world history, yet the rain forests burn. Our oil supply peaked, yet we drive SUVs. The world’s food supply collapsed, yet we idle on ethanol. It’s terrifying to see the zombied indifference around me. So what dreams will I be allowed to have? My future won’t resemble anything the world has ever seen let alone prepared for. This is the world that’s been left to my generation. I wish I wasn’t going to live long enough to see it, but I’m afraid I will, and I’m afraid I don’t know what to do. Daniel Dixson, San Jose.

The WWO Lesson Plans have only been out for a week or two, but some early-adopter teachers are already putting them to use in their high school classrooms. . . and industrious students are blogging, commenting, and posting videos like this one and this one. Cool!

WWO Lesson Plans
Or almost complete, anyway – finishing touches this week. Teachers, have at it! Your comments welcome.

Energy Alternatives 2025Here’s a chart showing the energy alternatives for the U.S. moving forward to the year 2025, plotted by their effect on energy security (horizontal) and climate effect (vertical), as well as by scale of effect (size of circle). So: options that move us up and right from center improve our situation over business-as-usual, and those which move us left and down from center produce more negative effects than business-as-usual. Two things of note: (1) advancing our auto efficiency standards to 30 mpg is the clear winner in every respect, yet seems rarely talked about, and (2) why does the chart not include raising the tax on fuels to stimulate efficiency across the board, as most other oil-importing countries of the world have done?

Continuing a theme I started in January – is the WWO scenario coming true, but slowly? In the news today: retail sales sink as consumers wrestle with rising fuel and food prices; GM announces gas-guzzler incentives to try to move stock in the face of an industrywide slump; major airline shakeup brewing, in the wake of plunging share prices due to skyrocketing fuel prices; and the foreclosure crisis in suburbs continues. These are all headlines pulled right out of the events in last year’s World Without Oil oil crisis scenario.

Also today, Congress approved an economy boost package of $152 billion. Compare that dollar figure with the estimated economy drag of last year’s oil price hikes – $150 billion, as reported earlier here. In other words, the  boost is calibrated to counter the  damage being done by last year’s oil prices. What will happen this year? Sooner or later, we’re going to stop being able to spend our way out of the problem, and will need to address the underlying causes.

Summerfield, Texas, 020XXOver at the sceptical futuryst, futures researcher Stuart Candy is posting a new WWO photo series, and he and Jake Dunagan mull over what characterizes an image that gives us the long view. It’s fun to envision things that will work better in the future (ref the futuristic duds in Back To The Future, if anyone remembers that old movie), but more useful perhaps to foresee what won’t work out so well (Los Angeles, 2017, if anyone remembers that old movie). And one of the ideas driving World Without Oil was indeed the idea that the future, like the present, is never anyone’s idea; it’s what happened while we were making other plans.

Your crisis and oil crisis go hand-in-handA bit of feel-good ephemera from the Prelinger Library in San Francisco.

Article by Bob Keefe begins as follows: “Federal and state energy officials are planning a major investment in new technologies in an attempt to make Hawaii the nation’s first state to get the vast majority of its energy from renewable sources. U.S. Department of Energy officials are expected to announce the unprecedented plan Monday, just before the opening of a U.S.-sponsored international summit on climate change in Hawaii.” If serious, this would be a sea change indeed: as WWO players might remember, Hawaii gets 90% of its energy from petroleum, and thus is on the end of the whip (or is the canary in the coal mine, pick your metaphor) when it comes to oil price increases and shortages. So, yeah, it’s the logical first choice to play Lindsay Lohan and check herself into rehab for oil addiction.

The price of oil surged over $100 a barrel today. That’s not really news, since it’s been hovering near there for weeks. A report questions OPEC’s ability to meet the world’s long-term demand for oil. That’s not really news, since various reports have been doing that for years, except that this report comes from OPEC itself. And airlines are pulling out the stops to save fuel, even to the point of lightening drink carts (how long before they start doing away with drink carts altogether?), because fuel costs have risen from one-quarter of airline operating costs to one-third in less than a year. The high fuel prices are starting to pull airlines into bankruptcy.

I can go on, citing growing violence in Nigeria, record unanticipated petroleum stock depletion in the US, unexpectedly high oil demand in China – but WWO players already get the point. It’s like the World Without Oil scenario is coming true, but slowly, slowly, so as not to wake the frog dozing uneasily in its overwarm bath.

From the Vint Technology update event, via MindBlizzard: “Yesterday’s speaker was Adjiedj Bakas, one of Europe’s Megatrendwatchers who gave us a view into the future. He adressed some 9 megatrends ranging from a ‘world without oil’ to a ‘shift in power’…. Which got me to thinking: if you buy one of these, does that come with any guarantee that you’ll be able to fuel it up if a crisis comes?

Today marks the end of the World Without Oil alternate reality –  32 weeks after the start of the oil crisis, April 30, 2007.  You can relive that moment  in (alternate) time by going here. A good time, maybe, to plan your garden for next spring?

Looking for lift: Airlines cut growth targets to deal with rising fuel costs.” The article’s first sentence: “Several major airlines outlined plans Tuesday to slow their growth and cut costs to deal with higher fuel prices and the prospect of an economic slowdown that could hurt air travel.” And: “Huge demand for tiny car” – “Thousands of motorists want to be among the first owners of the fuel-sipping Smart car in the United States, demand that is racing past production capacity, Daimler AG executives said Tuesday.” In the San Jose Mercury News.

As reported in the Gonzaga U. paper today.

Dick Gordon, host of The StoryToday on The Story, the subject is “oil games.” It’s worth a listen: go here and click the “LISTEN HERE” icon at top right to grab the MP3.

The first segment of the radio show from American Public Media deals with a simulation called “Oil Shockwave” put on by SAFE (Securing America’s Future Energy) in early November. I think that WWO followers will find it very interesting – and eerily alarming in its familiarity. “We found that once the crisis has started, there’s not much that the government can do…” The second segment is all about World Without Oil, and it’s a good summary of what the game was all about. Featuring starring roles by Rocklobster and other players! Thanks to Cori Princell and host Dick Gordon of The Story, and to North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC where the show is produced.  And to bloggers like Annette in Anaheim who are already picking up on and amplifying the story.

AppRising logoGeoff Daily at AppRising has his way to prepare for an oil shock: broadband everywhere.

IPTV DTV logoIowa Public Television hosts a premier event for TV and video production, technical and education professionals, and this year they invited WWO Creative Director Ken Eklund to speak about crowd-sourced storytelling. Listen to the MP3, or go here and scroll down to Tuesday, Oct. 2, 9:30 am to view his snappy presentation.

Yours Truly appeared today on Your Call at KALW 91.7. The subject was purportedly, “do videogames have the power to change history?” but the other panelists and I never got around to answering that question. Best moment for the listeners: when host Sandip Roy gets one of us to admit that in actuality (s)he has never played a videogame.

Matt Arnold is the WWO fan who invented the term “historical pre-enactment” to describe what WWO does. Which is just brilliant on so many levels. In this post, he reveals that running such historical pre-enactments would be one of his dream jobs, and the Society for Creative Anachronism is a model for what us Serious ARGers could become.

It was the world's first serious alternate reality game, a cooperative pre-imagining of a global oil crisis. Over 1900 players collaborated in May 2007 to chronicle the oil crisis with their own personal blog posts, videos, images and voicemails. The game ended after simulating the first 32 weeks of the oil shock, but its effects continue, as game designers analyze its unique gameplay and we all watch the continuing drama with global oil prices and supply.
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