This artifact is a work of speculative fiction, design, and curation, taking the audience into an alternate timeline in which the discovery of the climate-changing effects of carbon dioxide by Guy Stewart Callendar were understood and taken seriously, particularly by America. Instead of decades of denial and delay, driven by business interests and the psychological difficulty of making costly investments to prevent a far off and difficult to conceive of calamity, America framed the climate disaster as already present, requiring urgent remedy. The nation sprung into action in a style reminiscent of our idealized memories of mass mobilization during the world wars, instituting a green draft, national service, and aggressive curtailing of polluting industry. 100 years later (an alternate 2060) the imaginary Guy Steward Callendar Memorial Museum of the Climate hosts a small exhibition of the vibrant propaganda that drove citizen engagement in this mobilization.
Five posters explore varied elements of this mobilization. Citizens are encouraged to enlist in national environmental service, to labor to build carbon fixing soil, to leave oil in the ground, to report smoke and emissions to authorities, and to organize their neighborhoods. These collective and productive actions are meant to contrast with the many ways we are told to respond to climate change by altering our individual consumption (changing our light bulbs, eating less meat, driving less). Note also that they posters do not frame their demands as acts of prevention, but rather containment, cleanup, protection and prohibition.
In its self-skepticism and political disengagement, science has allowed climate change to be defined by a vocabulary that enables inaction. This artifact shows us an alternate approach, and asks us whether the window for such a mobilization has passed or may still be possible, through a Green New Deal or other dynamic acts of big government.
If you’d like to see the conversation taking place around these images online, check out my Twitter post.
I’ve been looking at a lot of World War propaganda posters. Incredible how many of them fit with modern degrowth/environmental values, like recycling and patriotically growing one’s own food. Those would almost be appropriate today without any tweaks. I’ve also been thinking about how much propaganda needs a specific caricature of an enemy, like Hitler, and whether an enemy makes sense in mobilizing against the climate disaster. I would certainly like to throw the board of Exxon Mobile in prison for crimes against humanity, but I don’t know if that works from a mobilization standpoint here.
The challenge will be making sure this piece teases out the essential scientific issue of how climate change is framed—mobilizing for recovery from a past disaster or victory against a present enemy versus preventing some future bad. I’m debating how much the posters themselves should articulate this difference versus using labels, etc.
Every day we might encounter media urging us to “stop climate change.” However, this negative proposal has been show to not be motivating to people, and creates a notion that climate change is still this far off thing that we should only be worried about in an abstract way. The truth is climate change has already happened. Our earth is already irretrievably alien from its formation of even a hundred years ago. Climate change was an event that began when the oil meteor of the industrial revolution crashed into the planet, and it’s been picking up pace as the fire spreads ever since. What we need to do is to mobilize to put out the fire and stabilize the planet before the damage gets worse.
My proposal is to engage with this problem of negative framing (stop climate change) versus positive framing (stabilize the planet so we can live a better life) by creating speculative propaganda from a world in which climate change had been treated with a different narrative. I’ll create a series of slogan posters, as through preserved in a museum commemorating this alternate history climate mobilization. Each piece will have a card explaining their origin and meaning, and the decisions by scientists and experts that fed into that propaganda that failed to achieve traction in our own timeline.
This was in some ways the hardest set of artifacts to find and define, though going in I thought it would be the easiest.
Trust Me, I’m an Artist was a series of projects and symposiums funded by the EU to use art to explore the ethics of biomedicine. They had a number of interesting works that would be relevant to this discussion, but one that stuck out for me is this performance/discussion titled “Be-Wildering,” which explored categorization of species and which species are allowed into which ecosystems—including the ecosystem of the scientific lab.
The Live Creature and Ethereal Things: Physics in Culture is a collection of images and texts that explores the human culture behind the science of physics, particularly the culture of people working at large scientific installations like CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. We often think of physics as either esoteric or emerging from unfeeling observations of unliving interactions. This book attempts to flip that to show how physics is a cultural product coming out of human spaces with their own personalities and politics.
Finally, this is not a specific artifact, but I’d love to have a discussion about The New Aesthetic, a curation of aesthetics that emerge from tech and the new ways of science and experiencing brought into the world by science and technology. It’s curated by James Bridle, and was much discussed a few years ago. Some of The New Aesthetic is glitch art, some surveillance imagery, some revels in the uncanny valleys of facial recognition or neural net machine learning. Many of these posts emerge from work that is at the point where scientific knowledge is just about to get absorbed and instrumentalized by capitalism.
As I was beginning to gather materials to make my pilot wave experiment happen, I went back to review some of the research to learn how these results were done in a lab. When I did, however, I found an article on how recent studies have shown that the original fluid dynamics experiments that influenced this project based their findings on statistical noise and bad methodology.
The article came out just last week! Bad timing in a way, but on the other hand it seems that they’ve proven that I wouldn’t be able to get the results I wanted anyways even with a lab setup. This seems like a big blow to pilot wave theory. I’m not sure it fully disposes of it as a metaphorical interpretation for some quantum behavior, but it definitely shuts down the macro-scale experiments that were lending interesting credence to the theory.
Now I’m trying to figure out where to go from here, and hopefully we can discuss these options tomorrow:
- I could drop the pilot wave stuff entirely and do some other experiment.
- I could continue on with the experiment, which was already going to be technically challenging, and do it knowing that it was barking up the wrong tree.
- I could take a more speculative approach and craft an artifact that engaged with an alternative reality in which pilot wave theory worked and was the accepted interpretation.
- Something else!
Frustrating setback, but I suppose I’m glad I didn’t waste more of my time on something that fell into the “crisis of reproducibility.”
The standard, Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum physics argues that light and similar entities are both particles and waves at the same time, until taking a measurement collapses the wave function. The classic example is the double slit experiment, which found that light shone through two slits would create an interference pattern on the other side (like a wave), but could also be measured as single photons passing through one slit or the other (like a particle). Quantum particles have all kinds of other strange properties that seem to defy conventional relativistic physics. This has all sorts of confusing and counterintuitive implications for the nature of reality, which our culture has spent the last 100 years digesting.
But there was another interpretation which failed to gain favor in the 1920s, but which mathematically accounts for the same results with much less quantum weirdness. This theory is called Pilot Wave Theory, which I’ve had a passing interest in for a while. Pilot Wave Theory argues that light and co are particles skipping along the surface of a superfluid, and their unpredictable behavior is due to the disturbance of their path by the waves created by their own bounces—like the so called ‘pilot waves” that spread out in front of a moving ship.
Pilot wave theory never got much credit once the Copenhagen Interpretation became scientific orthodoxy, and in terms of the funky math quantum physics was exploring the results were the same. In recent years however scientists have renewed some interesting in Pilot Wave Theory by performing experiments that mimic the supposedly exceptional behavior of the quantum realm on a macro scale by simulating pilot wave behavior with droplets of oil bouncing on a vibrating liquid. Various set-ups have recreated the double slit experiment, demonstrated quantum entanglement, and so forth—all in forms that can be seen with more or less the naked eye.
For this project I’d like to see how close I can get to recreating these efforts myself with some kitchen-level physics—specifically the double-slit experiment. The basic idea would be to blast a droplet of oil at a double-slit set-up and try to observe the interference pattern on the water created by the pilot wave even as the droplet itself passes through a single slit. I think the tricky part will be to get our surface fluid vibrating or heated in the right way to simulate “superfluidity.” For the artifact I’ll document the process and if things go well try to bring in a rig to demonstrate these effects in class.
Wolchover, Natalie. “Fluid Tests Hint at Concrete Quantum Reality.” Quanta Magazine, June 24, 2014. https://www.quantamagazine.org/fluid-experiments-support-deterministic-pilot-wave-quantum-theory-20140624/
Yves Couder and Emmanuel Fort. “Single-Particle Diffraction and Interference at a Macroscopic Scale.” Phys. Rev. Lett. 97, 154101 – Published 13 October 2006. https://journals.aps.org/prl/abstract/10.1103/PhysRevLett.97.154101
I found this assignment an interesting challenge because it required me to distinguish between “DIY science” and “DIY technology” or other sorts of amateur crafts/renovation. I was browsing r/DIY and realized that, while there were plenty of cool projects, few of them were efforts to generate or confirm knowledge, and thus didn’t count as “science.”
First, I found a very cool video from NOVA on PBS about a small home experiment we can do to reveal the passage of subatomic particles scattered through our world by cosmic rays hitting our atmosphere. It’s an easy to assemble set up, but it shows some of the most subtle forces in the universe via a nuanced understanding of physics and chemistry. I think these sorts of experiments that help everyday people confirm with their own eyes the claims of science are a great example of DIY science.
My second example is a bit niche, but I’d be interested to discuss if any “knowledge production” qualifies as science if that knowledge only applies to fleeting cultural events. My friend Terry runs a site where Magic: The Gathering players can rate new cards as fresh sets are released every few months. Terry then analyzes that data to determine which cards the community thinks are the best, and which cards are controversial. The math there can be rather complex. For me this ticks most of the DIY science boxes: it’s an individual layperson’s project, which gathers a ton of data and synthesizes it in a rigorous and transparent way to publish broader insights about a topic. That topic might only be of interest to MTG players prepping for next week’s pre-release tournaments, but that’s probably more people than have a lot of super-rare diseases.
My third example I don’t have a link for because it was shut down, but it’s such a good anecdote I have to share. Last May in Berlin I met an Iraqi makerspace organizer named Nawres Asif. He told me about an Iraqi makerspace that had rigged an Arduino Geiger counter to map street-level radiation levels left by the depleted uranium shells used by US forces in the 2003 invasion. As they walked around the city, the Arduino rig uploaded the Geiger reading to a Google Maps overlay, which allowed locals to see which areas had dangerous levels of ambient radiation. However, the local business community (not the US military, weirdly) complained that the map would drive off customers and workers from their shops (just because being around those shops might give them cancer), and the project was forcibly shut down. Mapping some aspect of the physical world is, I think, a tried and true scientific practice, and often the progenitor of more generalized insights into health or nature, as we have already read.
Hi all, today I’ll be showing my artifact, a small, scalable flash-card game to help the public and futurists grok the complexity of the Shared Socioeconomic Pathways and the sprawling, sometimes counterintuitive impacts of the global choices now being made.
The game features 30 cards and a sorting surface. Each card has on one side a location, year, and a demographic, economic or environmental datapoint. On the other side is the number/name/icon of the SSP scenario world that datapoint comes from. 30 cards is a small demonstration set; theoretically one could print countless cards for almost any datapoint in the SSP database: any country, any decade until 2100, many types of data, multiplied by the five SSP scenarios. For this first set I chose cards that I thought had counterintuitive implications, such as Japan’s population declining less in a sustainable future than in a more challenged future, or America’s GDP being greater in a sustainable future than in a future with increased inequality.
The matching surface shows the SSP chart space, with spots for the player to sort cards into each scenario. It’s there to provide a reference to how these scenarios relate and also to make it easier to sort sets of five in a sedoku-like process of uncertain elimination. It also helps you pile up many cards to see if you are more likely to get one scenario guess wrong than another.
To play, the player picks a card and reads the location, year and datapoint (with a comparison to the 2010 stat), and then has to guess which of the five SSP scenarios that datapoint comes from. That’s the core mechanic. They can then flip the card around to see if they are right, or place the card on the matching surface to remember their guess and go to another card. After guessing through the deck they can check each pile to see how accurate they were. If they like they can give themselves a score (one point for each correct guess) and compete with others.
The idea is that by encountering these projections divorced from the SSP scenarios and having to reason through likely patterns—and seeing the way our reasoning is wrong—we can develop a deeper knowledge and understanding of these possible futures.
Thanks all for talking out this project with me last week. It was very helpful to scope it out and find an interesting and interactive angle. I’m prepping for my prospectus defense this week so behind on everything, but here’s where I’m at:
-I’m putting the vignettes on hold for the moment (maybe will revisit this later in the semester), and will focus on asking the audience to match key stats from the dataset with the SSP future they come from.
-I’ve dug up some very interesting projections that show different countries’ GDP and population in 2060. The assumptions built into the models are complicated, and so these are sometimes unintuitive. The matching game will not be easy, and will give the audience a more nuanced understandings of these narratives—certainly I’ve learned things digging into this data.
-I haven’t bought the materials yet but I’ve blocked off time this weekend.
Thanks! Excited to discuss more today.
Since I am a sci-fi writer by trade and academic practice, I’ve propose for my artifact a set of vignettes that aim to add color and flesh to the statistical bones of the five Shared Socioeconomic Pathways scenarios and the SSP database.
The narratives of the SSP scenarios paint possible futures in broad strokes and provide demographic and economic projections to match, but they say little about the lived experience of being in that future. How do the SSP worlds look different? How do people in them act different? These are questions I’m interested in speculating about.
To frame this I propose a “Map of Possible 2050s.” The map will have library-card pockets attached to it, each pointing at a different city. The pockets will each have five cards in them. On one side of each card will be one of the vignettes, a paragraph or two long: a mini “scene” from one of the SSP futures. On the other side of the card will be a related data point, such as the projected population of a particular country in a particular SSP scenario on a card that describes a crowded street. I’ll pick out for locations, for a total of 20 vignettes.