Futurecrafting in Cornwall with FoAM Earth

The future is in short supply at the moment, particularly in a country with so many things changing – it is a constant surprise that there are so few ideas about where we could be headed. At the smaller scales too, at FoAM Kernow, in common with many organisations there is a feeling we tend to be so fixated on the current problems (do we need to invoice for that project, have we replied to this important email, have we reached an agreement on the next steps for this other project), that we miss the long view. Why are we doing this? What are we doing it for? Do we know if this is the right approach? These seem difficult to answer when stuck in short term thinking.

One of the central parts of FoAM’s research for some time has been future preparedness. Through a series of projects Maja and Nik have been building up a collection of methods that allow an individual or organisation to picture itself in a future under a range of conditions called scenarios. Scenarios are designed to be extremes, or caricatures of the possible – if you can describe them well enough, you can envisage how you or your organisation would adapt to them. The goal is to reach a point where change is something that can be reasoned about in advance, rather than reacted to as it happens.

Our initial question was (as FoAM Kernow): “What do we want to be doing? ” broken down a bit more specifically into these points:

  1. What would be choose to do?
  2. What makes a FoAM Kernow project?
  3. What are our selection criteria & success criteria?
  4. How to say no?
  5. How to back out of projects where contributions are less relevant?
  6. What is our role as collaborators?
  7. What is the nature of our collaborations?

After this we went through a series of exercises to build up a comprehensive list of things both internal and external that could cause changes to our organisation. These were quite diverse, but we seemed to focus on external things a bit more than internal ones e.g.: inaccessibility of lab equipment, the rise in nostalgia as a form of solutionism, and that more people are active in politics than there used to be.

The aim is to figure out two significant ‘critical uncertainties’ (interestingly, these are not necessarily the most essential ones, but the most uncertain) which we can use to build our scenarios from. We ended up with these:

The way are living is DOOMED! ⟷ The status quo is FINE!Continuous learning & exploring the new ⟷ doing what you know. same old.

The first uncertainty defines the amount to which our society has the capacity to deal with the many big problems currently facing it. The second one we took to have meaning both internally and externally – society being more or less progressive and open to new ideas, as well as the requirement that we would need to learn new things, or whether our existing skill set is sufficient.

The next thing we did was to draw them as two axes and split them into four scenarios which represent the extremes of these uncertainties. We were then able to describe the world and our place in it by focusing on each one in turn, importantly giving them names which really helped give them character. This part was really fun, as they really are caricatures, and resulted in quite a lot of laughter – even (or especially) when describing what might be quite uncomfortable futures.

Poundland [the way we live is fine, we only do what we know]

This is a world where everything works out fine without any new knowledge needed. It’s hopeful in that we dodge some bullets, but a lot of top down control needs to be exerted for this world to operate, so it’s restrictive in a conservative, traditional way.

“Stasis reigns in Poundland. While class inequality is as bad as it always was, there isn’t much questioning authority. Most people defer decisions to the powers that be. The ruling class is conservative, praising traditional values. Critical education has made way for edutainment and propaganda. Hard Brexit happens seamlessly, the borders are locked down, society surveilled. There are a lot less people in Poundland than there were in the UK. Climate change is not as bad as people thought in the 2010s. A new ice age has arrived and we’re coping. With appropriate urgency, solutions can be found to maintain reasonably comfortable lifestyles.

On the surface, FoAM is doing everything right, yet has not much visible power. We receive government funding to start a new university for applied sciences and technologies, focusing on mitigating effects of the Ice Age. Beneath this benign face, we are guerrilla teachers. Using workshops and other forms of adult education, we prepare our students to think for themselves. With the university as a front, we are hiding in plain sight.”

To a certain extent this seems to be a world that is close to the vision of groups like those behind Vote Leave – a future where the UK is a “Singapore on the shores of Europe”, deregulated to the point where we can kickstart our economy and closeted workforce into higher productivity. It’s a bit like the future described in this book (reading of which was a bit of a follow up for this scenario):

Britannia Unchained: Global Lessons for Growth and Prosperity is a political book written by several British Conservative Party MPs.
Britannia Unchained: Global Lessons for Growth and Prosperity is a political book written by several British Conservative Party MPs.

The problems in society identified in this book seem pretty good – but the unshakable belief in the free market pushes issues like human rights, health, quality of life and the environment into irrelevancies with only passing mentions – the assumption (as in this scenario) that these things will ‘somehow just be fixed’, so prosperity can continue.

Silicon Wharf [the way we live is fine, with a thirst for knowledge]

Silicon Wharf is a progressive, shiny future where everything is solvable by big investment in new knowledge. It’s a world of expensive institutional buildings with odd angled walls, carpet tiles and people wearing lanyards, it’s a very EU future vision – and seems mildly nostalgic and quaint, perhaps because it is a world reliant on abundance of many things.

“The Silicon Wharf is ruled by technocrats (both in government and corporate sector), with rationality and logic as the dominant virtues. It is a node in a globalised network of excellence, where the “best minds” work on technological solutions to climate change. There is a lot of funding for (blue sky) research, as long as the results are presented as innovative products and services that can be scaled up to produce social and/or environmental impact (e.g. carbon sequestration into diamonds for the luxury market). There are mega infrastructure projects under way, championed by China. Brexit has been cancelled and Cornwall has become a key player in the Europe of Regions. The world is increasingly open and there is much cross- border exchange (of knowledge, people, stuff).

The FoAM network has expanded to hundreds of studios and has formed its own NoE (Network of Excellence). The network works on long-term technology research and development and disruptive education. We focus on technologies that are relevant, accessible, tangible and open source. The knowledge we gain through R&D we pass on to anyone who is interested, in workshops and other p2p educational formats. We teach people to make things that can solve their immediate issues, and teach them to teach each other. We get to engage in interesting translation and dissemination activities, which take us out to different contexts, regions and cultures. We’re therefore continuously learning and expanding our horizons.”

Life in this world seems quite easy but somehow dangerous too – just imagine the amount of administration we’d be doing, there are lots of spreadsheets here! The general openness to new learning would make this an exciting place though, with lots of travel possible, due to new innovation excellence in transportation technology.

IRK (Independent Republic of Kernow) [the way we live is doomed, with a thirst for knowledge]

This is in some ways a collapse scenario, nothing has worked out but there is still a thirst for new ways – and because acceptance that the old ways are broken are unavoidable, there are opportunities to attempt much bigger alterations and experiments.

“The Independent Republic of Kernow is a good place to live in highly uncertain times. Urban centres have become danger zones of poverty, disease and violence, so the predominantly rural IRK receives many urban emigrants and refugees. While there is a low life-expectancy in IRK, life is filled with buzzing experimentation and excitement. People dare to take risks, knowing that their survival depends on learning from failure. There are different political and economic experiments (including UBI, a new tithe system, etc.). As the NHS collapsed, new forms of Medical Citizen Science are on the rise. A plethora of infrastructure projects appear and disappear. Hybrid land-sea infrastructure is the most experimented with, as IRK has become a seasonal island. New Dawn traders deploy their sail ships to bring in goods from further afield, but most of the produce is locally sourced (short-chain economies, including initiatives like New Lina, End of The World Garden…). There isn’t much leisure or time to rest, so burnout has become a plague. Some burnt-out people created Circles of Stability, where they tell each other fables of bygone stable lifestyles. While these circles often promote hopeless nostalgia, most of the world has moved to new myths: biomimetic stories of humans becoming social-insects.

FoAM has moved into the Eden Project. We are issuing our own currency (FoAMcoin) and are part of several trade networks (incl. the well established Feral Business Network). The main dome is a productive garden where we grow food and medicine for our collaborators and wider network (in collaboration with other horticulturalists and farmers in the area). What we can’t use ourselves, we barter for other goods. One of the domes is converted into the warehouse for New Dawn traders, another is devoted to agritech experiments and another is focusing on our communication infrastructure projects, such as waterproof mesh networks. We’re trading produce, but primarily we exchange skills. We aim to cultivate a skill-ecosystem that includes a wide range of people with diverse knowledge, talents and skills. We travel more, using slow modes of transport. Some of us stay in Eden, while others opt for journeyer lifestyles with no fixed studio and no desk (work). FoAM thrives in this trans-local republic, and even though we know we might die soon, we’ll die happy and fulfilled.”

So, appropriately IRK is the opposite of Poundland, life has the potential to be good but generally short – whereas in Poundland stability was rigidly enforced and life seemed hard. When we were discussing this scenario there was a lot of laughter and general surprise that this would be the best one in a lot of ways, even though everything is doomed.

Swamp.ac.uk [the way we live is doomed, we only do what we know]

The last scenario is, by all rights the worst one possible – there is no desire or drive for learning new things, so everything is irretrievably broken. However, one of the significant things that happens when futurecrafting is finding that what you thought were the worst case scenarios have features of them that are still interesting and desirable. This is the scenario of escapism, VR and games – it also has the best parties. As scenarios are extremes, they are not going to happen – but they do give indications of situations that we might recognise in future so we can connect with these desirable outcomes, even if they are a result of an overall situation we might not wish for.

“The way humans live is doomed, and we have accepted it. It’s too late to change anything anyway. We’re living in a Trump-inspired world, in what is left of the UK. There is no funding for research, no electric car subsidies, but regional funding and (corrupt) local philanthropy is growing. It’s all about who you know. Universities are small, focusing on keeping the local population occupied (some dedicated to spreading ‘the word’ of the regional philanthropic magnates). Brexit is still in (perpetual) negotiation, leading to additional economic, social and political paralysis and fragmentation. A sense of powerlessness and inequality permeates everything, leading to a simmering, low level civil war. In their despair people turn to escapism and nostalgia. VR games and end of the world parties are plentiful, with people crowding together ‘to go out with a bang’.

FoAM has realised that the only way to survive in this world is to build a stable institution ourselves, to become one of the power players (in loose alignment with local rulers). We abandoned our individual passions; instead, all our energy goes into collective endeavours. Our institute is known for developing high quality and transparent technologies. Our biggest department focuses on techniques and technologies for maintenance and repair of crumbling infrastructure for everyday life. Our other line of work is less known in the mainstream, but hugely popular with the escapist underground; we organise exorbitant crypto-parties and citizen science game-fests (VirusCraft became hugely popular, funding most of our non-profit programmes). Accesslab is our public outreach programme, helping people make sense of the nonsense they’re faced with every day. Seemingly dealing with short term issues, we’re actually teaching (subversive) long-term thinking.”

It seems that the only hope in this world would be to somehow nurture a shift to a more IRK like situation, attempting to show in small ways some way out of the powerlessness. The significance of AccessLab in this world is interesting, as it would be increasingly important here to connect a science starved of funding with the reality of the situation to keep it relevant, as well as making it useful for providing potential new avenues.

Of course we live in neither the worst or best of all possible worlds, but thinking of the extremes helps us to be prepared for moves in the middle ground; combinations of these futures are more likely. We can now use these scenarios to plan projects, for each potential new thread of investigation we can consider how many of these scenarios would it work under, and the more the better.

We’ve had quite a lot of success over the past couple of years with really popular projects we’ve nurtured into existence ourselves, which seem to strike a chord and get a lot of attention – Sonic Kayaks, AccessLab and midimutant for example. These scenarios are a new tool for us to continuously gauge the relevance of what we are doing, and provide hints for how to make an idea useful regardless of how the future pans out.

Technology after Collapse

The philosophy underlying contemporary ‘seamless’ technology production seems to be one of endless energy, bountiful resources and waste being someone else’s problem. Naive working assumptions of some form are a requirement when designing for the future, but do we believe in these enough now to make them useful? Flashy ‘aspirational’ tech videos of ever thinning devices disappearing into the ‘cloud’ seem to be less common than they once were, so perhaps not.

Whenever a philosophy starts to look shaky, there are huge opportunities to try different ideas. For example, what happens if we instead use collapse as a working assumption for design? A sudden global societal collapse may be as unlikely as fusion power coming along to ‘solve’ climate change – but as a working assumption it shines a different light on usability – for a future that will mostly likely be somewhere between these two extremes. It’s also a view that is shared by some areas of research (particularly military) and I suspect by quite a few internal corporate future planning departments.

This research direction was triggered by Amber who found a paper called “Unplanned Obsolescence: Hardware and Software After Collapse”, this quote is from one of the papers it cites:

“In our present world of virtually unlimited resources, at least from the consumer’s perspective, acquiring the newest piece of technology is often considered a desirable lifestyle choice (e.g., for early adopters). A future of collapse might see a different picture…”

Sustainable Interaction Design: Obsolescence in a Future of Collapse and Resource Scarcity, Christian Remy, Elaine M. Huang

For this weeks seminar at the Institute for Music and Media in Düsseldorf, Julian Rohrhuber and I wanted to explore this area a little with the students. This is something that has been present in FoAM Kernow’s work for a long time – partly as we work closely with environmental researchers so it’s hard to avoid, but it’s also inherited from the history of the FoAM network.

excavate
We started by discussing the great Atari video game burial of 1983 and the comparative durability of the technology used at this time in history compared to that of today. This was an important aspect of the What Remains, so we looked at how we recycled old cartridges to store new software on for that project.

The specific scenario of collapse used in this type of research is one where all electronics production has ceased, all logistic and communication channels are destroyed, damaged or restricted. This could be due to a global crash, or an area becoming cut off from the rest of the world. Each component in our devices has a lifetime, most of them less than 10 years. While its possible that we could salvage components and repair our devices, there is also the issue of the knowledge required – much of it currently restricted to specialist silos of expertise.

“Social networks or institutions of people interested in computer repair could be invaluable for sourcing parts and maintaining skills needed to keep computing alive until devices and power are no longer scarce.”

Unplanned Obsolescence: Hardware and Software After Collapse, Esther Jang, Matthew Johnson, Edward Burnell, Kurtis Heimerl

tangle
Quote from Radix’s Adventures in Tech #3: Tanglebots, assemble! by Fiona Campbell-Howes

The starting point for our Tanglebots workshop for example, is an e-waste scrapheap we search through for things to take apart and reuse. Sustainability issues like this are often better presented implicitly, to set the scene – which then leads to a more interesting situation than starting with identical ‘kits’. You get to explore internal parts of cheap toys like dissecting natural organisms, and this process fits well with the haphazard reality of building technology, and working with family groups leads to knowledge sharing of the kind that would be needed to keep skills alive after collapse.

For the practical part of our seminar we wanted to focus on internet infrastructure, although originally developed to be resilient to war situations – the current scale involved, with undersea cables and centralised servers makes it one of the weakest aspects of our societies infrastructure to collapse, along with mobile technology:

“Long distance networking and information sharing becomes difficult with the decay of Internet infrastructure. Therefore, it may be crucial to establish communication channels, file sharing practices, and communities before the breakdown of mobile computing.”

Unplanned Obsolescence: Hardware and Software After Collapse

Some of the problems involved include software updates – as these become more challenging users become more prone to malware and viruses as they can’t be protected as effectively by the software authors. How would we manage software distribution post-collapse?

morse-dat
Unknown signal, a composite morse/data packet combination.

Global data transmissions are happening all the time on short wave radio. Certain frequencies bounce from the ionosphere or micro-meteorite trails to cover the globe, and data ‘modes’ are used rather than voice as they can travel further at lower power. There is even a slow-scan TV data mode which is used by the International Space Station to transmit images to amateur radio operators around the world – and regular contacts are made with people on the ground using shortwave frequencies.

iss

We spent the afternoon scanning the airwaves using the websdr.org network (no radio hardware required). You can choose your global location and frequency band (and by extension the time of day too – as transmissions travel further in the night time). The web interface allows you to record sound as wav files, which we analysed using Audacity.

In order to figure out what a particular transmission is, there are some clues you can use. The first is the frequency used, which you can look up via this chart as there are rules for what frequencies can be used for. We also found these example data recordings which we used to figure out the type of transmission data based on listening.

Here are some example recordings we made:

The first one was a bit of an enigma for a while – it sounds like really slow badly tuned music. We figured out it was probably an RTTY text messaging protocol called JT65 – for low power, long range short text communication:

jt65

The second one is still unknown, but there are a few clues. It’s a periodic burst of high speed data transmitted on a frequency band (6765 to 7000 kHz) that includes ‘FAX’ modes. It’s likely that this is some kind of weather map – but it doesn’t sound quite like any of the examples I’ve heard.

The third recording is a collection of simultaneous morse transmissions on similar frequencies. They all seem to be machine generated, a lot of repetition – probably some kind of beacons. I’ve tried to decipher them below but no hidden messages unfortunately!

decoded

This seminar was a good crash course for us all, and a way to get a handle on the sheer amount of activity on these not too well known global communication channels. A lot of these concepts are making their way into technology we are building, for example the penelope pattern matrix where we are using wood construction and modular circuits that we can adapt for different uses.

Future radio directions could be to set up a packet radio server to host some websites, even on a very tiny range (perhaps simply transmitted/received over audio) so we wouldn’t need a licence.

Additional reading material:

Sonic Kayaks: musical instruments for marine exploration

Here is a bit of a writeup of the gubbins going into the sonic kayaks project. We only have a few weeks to go until the kayaks’ maiden voyages at the British Science Festival, so we are ramping things up, with a week of intense testing and production last week with Kirsty Kemp, Kaffe Matthews and Chris Yesson joining us at FoAM Kernow. You can read Amber’s report on the week here.

IMG_20160727_173525

setup-annotated

The heart of the system is the Raspberry Pi 2. This is connected to a USB GPS dongle, and running the sonic bike software we have used in many cities over the last couple of years. We have some crucial additions such as two water temperature sensors and a hydrophone. We have also switched all audio processing over to pure data, so we can do a lot more sound wise – such as sonify sensor data directly.

How to do this well has been a tricky part to get right. There is a trade off between constant irritating sound (in a wild environment this is more of a problem than a city, as we found out in the first workshop) and ‘overcooking’ the sound so it’s too complex to be able to tell what the sensors are actually reporting.

watertempsine

This is the current pd patch – I settled on cutting out the sound when there is no change in temperature, so you only hear anything when you are paddling through a temperature gradient. The pitch represents the current temperature, but it’s normalised to the running minimum and maximum the kayak has observed. This makes it much more sensitive, but it takes a few minutes to self calibrate at the start. Currently it ranges from 70 to 970 Hz, with a little frequency modulation at 90 Hz to make the lower end more audible.

Here it is on the water with our brand new multi-kayak compatible mounting system and 3D printed horn built in blender. The horrible sound right at the start is my rubbish phone.

In addition to this, we have the hydrophone, which is really the star of the show. Even with a preamp we’re having to boost it in pure data by 12 times to hear things, but what we do hear is both mysterious and revealing. It seems that boat sounds are really loud – you can hear engines for quite a long way, useful in expanding your kayak senses if they are behind you. We also heard snapping sounds from underwater creatures and further up the Penryn river you can hear chains clinking and there seems to be a general background sound that changes as you move around.

We still want to add a layer of additional sounds to this experience for the Swansea festival for people to search for out on the water. We are planning different areas so you can choose to paddle into or away from “sonic areas” comprising multiple GPS zones. We spent the last day with Kaffe testing some quick ideas out:

Looking at sea temperature and sensing the hidden underwater world, climate change is the big subject we keep coming back to, so we are looking for ways to approach this topic with our strange new instrument.