Friday, September 14, 2007

The Last Mimzy: Connecting to Future Environments

Yesterday my wife was in a funk after reading Der Spiegel -- Germany's version of Time or Newsweek magazine. She was legitimately worried about the future of our world and there was nothing I could say that would banish the fears that so many articles on military interventionism, weapons buildup, terrorism, police-state security techniques, climate change, biodiversity extinction, nuclear reactor building and other horror stories force our psyches to well up.

We looked at pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope in The Universe: 365 Days by Nemiroff and Bonnell to gain some perspective. Then we sang Monty Python's "The Universe Song" from The Meaning of Life, and that helped just a bit (here are the lyrics in case you have forgotten:


"Whenever life gets you down, Mrs. Brown, and things seem hard
or tough.
and people are stupid, obnoxious or daft,
and you feel that you've had quite enouuuuuuuuugh...

member that your standing on a planet that's evolving,
and revolving at nine hundred miles an hour...
That's orbiting at ninety miles a second, so it's reckoned,
the sun that is the source of all our power.
The sun and you and me, and all the stars that we can see,
are moving at a million miles a day.
in an outer spiral-arm at forty thousand miles an hour
of the galaxy we call the Milky Way.

Our galaxy itself contains a hundred billion stars,
it's a hundred thousand lightyears side to side.
It bulges in the middle, sixteen thousand lightyears thick,
but out by us it's just three thousand lightyears wide.
We're thirty thousand lightyears from galactic central point,
we go 'round every two hundred million years.
And our galaxy is only one of millions of billions,
in this amazing and expanding universe.

The universe itself keeps on expanding and expanding,
in all of the directions it can whiz.
As fast as it can go, that's the speed of light you know;
twelve million miles a minute, that's the fastest speed there is.
So remember when your feeling very small and insecure,
how amazingly unlikely is your birth,
and pray that there's intelligent life somewhere up in space,
'cause there's bugger-all down here on earth!"

That kind of cheered us up for about 10 minutes, and then we listened to Harry Nilsson's heart wrenching version of John Lennon's song "Isolation":

"People say we got it made don't they know we're so afriad
we're afraid to be alone, everbody got to have a home

Just a boy and a little girl
trying to change the whole wide world

All the world is a little town
everybody trying to put us down

I don't expect you to understand
after you caused so much pain
But the again you're not to blame
your just a human, a victim of the insane

We're afraid of everyone, afraid of the sun

The Sun will never disappear
but the world my not have many years

Again we found some comfort in the perpective that we are just mere humans, victims of the insane, and it is fear that makes us make such big mistakes, and isolation that keeps us from using our collective intelligence to make things better.

And Lennon was right: we are afraid of the sun. Afraid of the Urspring of all life on earth. Afraid of the ultimate source of energy that, if properly utilized, could get us safely out of this fossil fuel and nuclear fuel melodrama that taints our would-be, could-be technotopia. (He was wrong, of course, that the Sun will never disappear, but one can take poetic liscence with the term "never" when the time line is on the order of billions of years...)

Still, the songs and the photo tour of the universe weren't enough to improve our psychology. What we needed was an immersion experience in an environment that could stimulate more of our senses and stitch the inputs together into a narrative that would create a feeling of lasting hope.

Thus we found ourselves at the Cinemaxx in Essen in an otherwise completely empty theatre watching the afternoon kidee matinee of "Mimzy, Meine Freunde aus der Zukunft" (English title: "The Last Mimzy").

The premise of the film is that both environmental and cultural schadestoffe (pollutants)are threatening the future of the human race and the only solution is for the people of the 22nd century (or was it later?) to send probes and time-travel communication technology to the early 21st century to get a sample of unadulterated DNA (assumedly mitochondrial as well as nucleus-borne) from a little girl to help heal our distant descendants.

Somehow the film acted as a release trigger for many pent up and frustrated emotions. In the simplicity and innocence of the two child protagonists and their willingness to go out of their way to help unseen future generations we found reason for hope -- hope that maybe the little things we do can have a profound positive effect on the future, and certainly hope that if such a beautiful film embracing cosmic perspectives can be made and released, we are not so alone here today.

In effect the film gave us both a universal perspective and banished our feelings of isolation.

Properly constructed story environments can do that; this is the magic of the film medium.

But when we got back and started thinking about constructing our Environmental ARG (Alternate Reality Game) for connecting the people of today to the possible future environments our children and grandchildren will have to inhabit, we found that the "Mimzy Concept" (people from degraded futures reaching back in time to warn us and seek our help) actually turns out to be the premise of one of the first "serious alternate reality games". Apparently there is a (fictional?) company called "Temporalkinephonics" that (in the game?) is run by former MIT grad students who have invented a type of telephone that spontaneously started receiving "calls" from the future.

The premise of the game, as stated in the "Tomorrow Calling Elevator Pitch" by Jim Wolff and Andrew Sides is that we can further develop Turner and
Morrison's experience (2005)
of creating an ARG as a pedagogic tool (see Suit Keen Renovator: alternate reality design, ACM International Conference Proceeding Series; Vol. 123 Proceedings of the second Australasian conference on Interactive entertainment). Tomorrow Calling uses the fictional idea of people from a degraded 2085 world environment trying to contact people in the present to actually help avert climate change and loss of biodiversity and environmental services in the "real world". People can actually "play their way to solutions".

As Wolff and Sides (2007) point out, movies (like The Last Mimzy -- and this would apply to Monty Python's Meaning of Life and songs by our favorite artists) may be great at providing some perspective and emotional discharge, but they are passive experiences and cannot really engage us in meaningful problem solving.

What is needed are experiences where we get to BE the little girl who receives a Mimzy from the future, or to be Mrs. Brown taken on a tour of the vast universe. Instead of living vicariously through a linear narrative depicting the lives of our heroes, we need to become the heroes -- safely and in a controllable environment, however filled with adventure and challenge -- and try out our collective critical thinking skills for problem solving.

Wolf and Sides, with their temporalkinephonics "Tomorrow Calling" narrative, may just be creating such an experience. They hope that the ARG will encourage a greater use of digital earth and data visualization technologies and put them into more common use. The onus then is placed on the rest of us to develop even more such ARGs, and incorporate the Data Visualization tools that Hans Rosling's Gapminder Organization has developed and is making available to the public.

To end this blog, you should know that while the works of art andfiction we treated ourselves to helped give us the courage to face the day, Sybille and I ended the evening by watching the following "real" movie of Hans Rosling demonstrating gapminder technologies. The fact that the REAL DATA shows hopeful future trends, and that it can be seen so dynamically through his animations, is what gave us the real hope that let us sleep peacefully last night.

I encourage you to watch it here:

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