The Future of Everything
Among Southern California architects, futurist / filmmaker Réne Daalder is a cult-hero. Part of it has to do with his unrelenting enthusiasm for the future of technology. Part of it has to do with his enthusiasm for the role of architecture in this future. Most of it has to do with his ability to integrate seemingly fictional accounts of as yet unrealized scientific and technological applications into the reality of our near future existence. Early 2007 will see the launch of a new website, SpaceCollective.org, which calls itself an emergent society of forward thinking terrestrials. This project, conceived by Rene Daalder in collaboration with Internet designer Folkert Gorter and editor Aaron Ohlmann, is an attempt at universal broadcasting. Space Collective will broadcast to the universe, beaming to outer space a month-by-month digital time capsule of human civilization. Volume met up with Rene and Folkert at LAX to talk about the future of everything.
JI: How did the Space Collective project start?
RD: A few years ago I was asked by an Internet company if I could make some sort of story-driven website, based on a narrative that could play out online. So I came back to them with a concept inspired by the Golden Disk Carl Sagan created for the Voyager space probes, which are now leaving the solar system. The disk contains a time capsule about life on Earth in 1977, but the project was heavily censored by the powers that be, who omitted any indication of human genitals and rejected the Beatles’ offer to include their song Here Comes the Sun for fear of alien copyright infringement, and members of the United Nations fought over which country was entitled to contribute the longest speech. In my story I hypothesized that the time capsule also contained a secret contribution by Sagan’s friend Timothy Leary, the controversial ‘60s LSD guru and futurist who supposedly downloaded his brain for the edification of alien civilizations that might one day intercept the time capsule. The consensus about my proposal was that it would make for a great movie rather than an Internet project, but at the time I was focusing on documentary filmmaking and was not very interested in making another feature film. As far as I’m concerned, the vitality of traditional feature films has been seriously diminished lately because younger generations, who have grown up with the non-linearity and interactivity of the web, gaming, and so on, are turning away from the linear content of movies, so movies are becoming an ever bigger gamble at the box office.
I realized that this is ridiculous in a day and age when you can actually start things off by first establishing an online community and then make a movie for its members instead of taking a shot in the dark with a completely unpredictable audience. So my idea was to turn the model around, to create a website that has an intrinsic value of its own and follow it with a movie made for the appreciative audience already established. Around that time I met Folkert, a very interesting Internet designer. What makes him unique is that he’s one of the few designers around who has worked exclusively online instead of starting out in print media.
I have always been impressed with how popular thinkers from the ‘60s embraced TV, like Carl Sagan’s Cosmos which together with Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek defined the space age or Marshall McLuhan who introduced the revolutionary notion that media shapes human activity and Timothy Leary who reinvented himself from psychedelic pioneer to ‘stand up philosopher’ on TV. They were all maverick thinkers who helped articulate the future by adopting a pop culture vernacular.
The idea was to use the online platform to do something similar for our times in a radically different interactive medium. We looked at all the social networking sites and observed that no matter how well they functioned, ultimately they were just attempts to corral as many people as possible without adding any particular value to the online experience. That’s when we started to think about a site that would provide the right context to harness the intelligence that resides on the web.
It seemed to us that the best idea was to create enough of our own content to frame the project’s ambition and set the bar as high as possible while employing pop culture strategies like those used by the media-savvy thinkers of the ‘60s I mentioned. Our initial metaphor was to use the Internet to create updates of Carl Sagan’s time capsule on board of Voyager and by the end of each month beam them into space.
When we started to develop Space Collective at the beginning of 2006 the Internet was making a big shift from a primarily text-based to a video-based medium, giving a whole new life to short-form video content. We took that as our jumping off point.
FG: The primary feature of the Time Capsules we are creating is a monthly ‘episode’ – a 3-minute video clip produced by Space Collective, functioning as a lead-in for the transmission. The video is accompanied by a selection of encyclopedia-style information, references, links and illustrations provided by the Space Collective staff, framing the various issues of the month.
RD: In the process of making these 3-minute episodes I was pleasantly surprised how well the short form lends itself to making broad strokes observations that extrapolate the past and the present into what we call the future of everything.
Here is the narration of the video that starts off the series:
VOICE-OVER: Scientific evidence suggests that when the Earth was born, four and a half billion years ago, life rained down onto its surface in the form of bacteria from the skies. These micro-organisms proliferated for ages until evolution prompted them to spread from the sea to the land. There they networked into ever more complex life forms, which over long periods of time gave rise to us. What would come to be known as the world emerged in fact from the same microbial master plan that spawned all life on planet Earth. After colonizing the planet for billions of years, the migrant bacteria from space decided that the time had come to share their grand evolutionary scheme with the larger universe from which they hailed. As their spokesman they recruited a charismatic astronomer who devised a PR strategy that would carry their legacy back to the stars. His name was Carl Sagan:
SAGAN: We are made of star stuff. The cosmos is also within us. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself!
VOICE-OVER: In 1977, two Voyager spacecraft were launched on an epic journey to the stars. Onboard they carry a Golden Disk, assembled by Sagan, which contains an inspired record of life on our planet for the edification of our neighbors in space.
30 years later the Voyager mission continues to chug along at the far reaches of our solar system – it’s message falling ever further behind the times as things on earth are changing at an exponential rate. Now, beyond the limitations of time and space, lies a third realm, populated by a vast network of connected individuals, linked together in an ever-expanding global consciousness.
This is the realm of Space Collective – an emergent society of forward thinking terrestrials, participating in the ongoing evolution of our species.
In February of 2007, the members of Space Collective will commemorate Voyager’s 30th anniversary with the first in a series of monthly updates of Voyager’s Golden Disk – to be beamed into space at the speed of light, from your computer to the stars.
FG: In addition to the episodes and related meta-text, the additional contents of the monthly Payload are generated both by the site’s registered members and Space Collective’s writers, curators and designers, providing the front page with a blend of public and ‘native’ content, feeding into the site’s continuously updated information and entertainment digest, loosely inspired by Sagan’s time capsule.
JI: The idea of the Golden Disk seems historic because it meant that a group of people decided it was important to represent human civilization and they then made the effort to collect information about civilization and send it out to the universe. Do you think a similar perspective on today’s global situation triggers interest in Space Collective? Is there a generational moment where there’s a sense of reflection and comprehension about what a global condition could be?
RD: I think you’re right, we’re tapping into a community of young people who are eager to help us show how something way
cooler could exist in our own lifetimes than what’s happening on this planet today. There is a profound sense of awareness that things are about to change in a big way. The old models seem to be falling apart left and right and there’s a great deal of eagerness to look into all sorts of viable scenarios for large scale transformation. The Internet has become a metaphor for unencumbered evolutionary potential, allowing people to see evolution at work as technology accelerates at an exponential rate. If we look today at Sagan’s time capsule, for example, it is striking to see how out of date it has become in just 3 decades.
JI: So the reason why Space Collective beams monthly updated information is that things are changing so fast. How do you send it out into the universe?
FG: The ‘Payload’ grows until sealed at the last second of the month, stored and prepared for uplink: the system takes a snapshot of the database and encrypts it into a digital archive (using a technique similar to zip compression) which is then transmitted to a radio telescope facility for upload.
RD: Today we can beam messages into space and bridge the distance that took Voyager 30 years in less than 15 hours, so, who knows, when an alien civilization will find the Golden Disk, they may also come across our updates to keep them current.
But the main value of creating these time capsules may be our own sense of reflection. As Carl Sagan said, ‘Okay, we’ll send this message in a bottle into space and hope that in a billion years someone may intercept it, and if not, then at least we had the chance here on Earth to look at ourselves through the eyes of a higher intelligence.’ That we may be able to communicate with a higher intelligence or extraterrestrial scientists or whatever turns out to be a very inspiring notion. It allows us here on earth to guess at their advanced outlook, prompting us to aspire to levels of existence that we have not yet attained but with a bit of luck maybe some day will.
JI: What elements will people find at the website?
FG: Upon arrival at SpaceCollective.org, visitors are presented with an overview of ‘this month’s payload’. This page is essentially a portal to the various areas of the site, featuring the best content from each section as selected by Space Collective’s team of curators, providing the front page with a blend of public and ‘native’ content.
The ‘public’ areas of the site contain contributions in various forms by Space Collective’s members. When they register, new members get access to their ‘Personal Payload’ – a private area of Space Collective created for them, into which they can transfer personal information, post ideas, upload artifacts, connect with other members and upload anything they find worthy of inclusion in the monthly Payload. In addition to representing one’s digital identity, these Personal Payloads function as ‘blogs’ where members write about their ideas and engage in what is called The Global Brainstorm, a rich-media discussion forum where conversations can be started or joined, and can upload audio clips, music, pictures, video or text to the various platforms for public ‘offerings’ and inclusion in the monthly Payload.
RD: Of course we will link to many other websites as well. In fact, if you were to make a daily snapshot of all 6 billion pages on the Internet, aliens would have a perfect picture of what’s happening on this planet and how it’s evolving on a moment by moment basis. They would have access to a large percentage of all human knowledge as well. A lot has been put online by millions of people, without any leaders, ideology or financial considerations, which indicates how effectively a large group of people can spontaneously rise to an occasion.
Let’s think for a moment about academia in the age of Google. What else is academia but an elegant old-style search engine? Professors have been leading young people by the hand to library shelves full of books where treasures of human wisdom awaited them. But in the age of the online search many of these books are becoming instantly accessible as Google will get them to you in seconds, cross referencing humongous databases that are not limited to library material but include the all-important information generated daily on the web as well. The impact of this phenomenon will be increasingly felt by traditional learning institutions. It has already bred an entire generation of different non-linear thinkers. In a recent study even the medical world conceded that Google’s search results in many instances matched or exceeded their own diagnostic abilities.
It is undeniable that by now the writing is on the wall for almost every established institution around. Newspapers are hurting because, besides the numerous readers deserting them, they have lost half of their advertising revenue to the Internet. Hollywood is faced with impending changes in its distribution model that will force them to overhaul the industry. Record companies are desperately trying to reinvent themselves in order to stay in the game. The same will be true for politics. With the Internet in place, it seems almost inevitable that completely different ways for people to connect with the issues they care about will end up replacing today’s version of representative democracy.
Then there is the next incarnation of our online lives, a glimpse of which can now be seen in the virtual community Second Life, where a whole web-based economy has sprung up around the sale of virtual real estate and residents are designing and building their own environments in which they can live out their fantasies. An infinite number of human connections are now being made beyond geographic limitations, including business transactions, shared experiences in online games, and romantic opportunities that successfully carry over from the web into the physical world. This is not to say that the virtual world itself is by definition non-physical. Real time interaction through erotic devices can be triggered across the network and the simple notion of being ‘poked’ by someone on the social networking site Facebook stirs near-physical excitement in some of the community’s members. The efficiencies of the virtual realm are even more stunning when we compare the flow of its online traffic with the daily grind of being stuck in endless traffic jams in the physical world.
These commutes no longer make sense. People can interact in real time with anyone anywhere. The plausible notion that today all automobile traffic could be easily cut makes car pooling on congested freeways seem as outmoded as operator-switched party lines in the days of the hand-cranked telephone. But instead of acting upon these developments, we are completely missing out on an opportunity that right now could eliminate serious air pollution, wars over fossil fuels, and massive amounts of down time.
Arguments like these typically make up the content of Space Collective’s 3-minute movies because we are looking at the situation through the lens of an alien intelligence, without getting bogged down with real world inertia. And the space metaphor is not the only way of gaining another perspective on these terrestrial issues. The other obvious vantage point is the fluent digital mindset that prevails in cyberspace where social experimentation is constantly going on. The Internet and the larger digital realm of computer intelligence with which it connects provide us with the blueprint for the future far beyond where the physical world is able to follow.
JI: So in that sense, you’re saying that the Internet doesn’t help support what the real world is, but that the Internet has become the operating system for the real world.
RD: Exactly, and in the case of Space Collective we use all the information available online to help people see the forest for the trees, opening people up to new perspectives. There are many people with the desire to change the world, but they have been conditioned to think it is an almost impossible ambition. Yet, other than overcoming tradition and the built-in resistance against it, change is not difficult to achieve at all. Historically, when people truly wanted something to be changed, they managed to change it right there and then. We talked about the Internet generation and how their perspective has changed because of all the information they absorb.
Now you can say that we still live in a world that doesn’t abide by their rules and that may be true, but they are certainly rewiring their brain in preparation for a profoundly different moment in time.
JI: A growing collective consciousness of a new set of values.
RD: Yes. It’s like the Berlin Wall a few years before it fell. People were still firmly convinced they were victims of Russian oppression. If you visited these Eastern European countries four or five years before the Iron Curtain came down you could sense that things were already very different from how people perceived them. You couldn’t help but feel that if they just said, ‘Stop, enough!’ it would be over and one day it indeed proved to be as simple as that.
JI: You’re saying that people’s reality is focused more on what’s going on online and that now the material world is something that only begins to approximate the online world. The collective sentiments, thoughts exchanged, and ideas enacted online mean that we no longer have the impediments physical barriers produce.
RD: The theme of people migrating into the digital realm and the changing dynamic between these digerati and the real world has always been very much on my mind. This started many years ago when Rem Koolhaas came to LA for the first time and we were working on a scenario called Hollywood Tower in which the film industry was going to be taken over by computer-generated actors. So the story was about this big revolt of the flesh and blood acting community against the studios. Ironically, in light of the tremendous popularity of computer animated films, it may yet come to that!
I later worked at the New York Institute of Technology Computer Graphics Lab. This is where the early CGI medium was invented, ILM, Pixar, Silicon Graphics Computers, all of that came out of there. At the time we were working on texture mapping, morphing, flocking, all sorts of key software inventions that would give us the first simulation programs and the notion of virtual reality long before the advent of CG movies. These eventually become very important for much more immersive online games and the sophisticated parallel worlds foreshadowed by Second Life.
More recently I’ve been working on a project called Strawberry Fields based on the rights to 40 Beatles songs I own with my financial partners. It takes place in an entirely virtual world where the population no longer bothers to leave their domestic living machines until they rediscover the physical world. What happens in the story is that people make matches in the online gaming environment as they go through adventures together and during the course of these adventures they get to know each other quite well. An adventure’s a very good way to get along with somebody. Plus the game knows a lot about you as well so its artificial intelligence can help you evaluate partner compatibility. Let’s say there’s compatibility, let’s say that the game advises you and your virtual partner to meet in the real world. That physical encounter then becomes an extension of the game, a pay off, if you will, for what you have learned about each other online.
JI: So the Strawberry Fields project suggests that the online environment is not necessarily an end goal. There is a moment when, because of your interaction with the digital world, the way in which you see the physical world is conceptually changed and that engagement with the physical world could actually benefit, if not be based upon, the experience of being immersed in an online environment.
RD: Right, it’s a constant interaction, wherein the Internet essentially takes the lead. But what most people today see as a basic extension of their phone lines is in fact emerging as a massive computer utility where immense communities of users are interacting with an omni-present data stream. This utility is made up of infinite amounts of distributed intelligence residing n invisible computers spanning the globe. This is the domain to which the world’s institutions, its vast archives of information and entertainment as well as the ‘inhabited’ virtual worlds of the future will relocate. It will no longer be just the operating system for the physical world, it will be the intelligent infrastructure on which the physical world is built. For the sake of argument, imagine an all-encompassing simulation of the physical world which will allow us to adopt a much more dynamic relationship with reality, to the point where the old manmade world will begin to release its relentless rigidity and be inspired by the full immersion of the fluid virtual experience.