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MaSAI Warriors

Peter Lunenfeld

As more and more people wire themselves in to the net and upload their work, the cultural as opposed to technical implications of the open source movement will be felt. When large groups of users are able to access powerful universal simulators, you develop what I call “massively synchronous applications of the imagination,” or MaSAI for short. The realm of the imagination encompasses but is not limited to those projects that can be monetized, so MaSAI is less “problem solving” than “situation enabling.”

An additional benefit of MaSAI is that it offers us the capacity to counter the influence of public relations, the privatized, corporate controlled manipulation of information. P.R. can be seen as an improvement on royal edicts, of course, and the propaganda of totalitarian regimes (both of which have the hard power of the state behind them), but its soft power is pretty formidable when it achieves the diffusion the TV afforded it in the second half of the 20th century. If the individual’s “private relations” are to be of any counterbalancing effect, they need to be brought together and aggregated even more rigorously to fight off unelected, often unaccountable, corporate interests. As private intersts fund more of their own research and consolidate their tactics to bury contrary evidence, open source networks can contribute a countervailing force, obviously in terms of distribution of research, but also in terms of its creation. Open source cultural initiatives offer communities some sort of autonomy of information collection, analysis, curation, and distribution. Add in to that the distributed computing power itself and open source simulation and social modeling become not only possibl, but essential.

Open source cultural production challenges more than government and corporate centralization, it also serves to empower the citizenry. The more states and corporations grow, the more individuals need to be able to communicate with others in their own communities and across the globe, if they hope to have any say in their own lives. One of the products of the mega-state is the generation of mega-quantities of information. Few individuals have the capacity to move through this data, much less fully understand it. But in networks they can serve as a counterbalance to the “official” take on the information.

We can, in fact, use these culture machines recursively, deploying them to analyze ourselves, MaSAI in the service of looking at our own intelligence and imagination. Computers are the best devices we have ever created to generate and evaluate probabilities. They are ideally suited to develop simulations of potential outcomes, they are scenario builders. In a world where image, sound, and even interactivity become central to argumentation, the computer’s ever more sophisticated visualization technologies become key. Brilliantly visualized, compellingly argued, interactive simulation of the future should be seen by others, and even more importantly, critiqued and amended by others. If the simulation remains static, it is simply not contemporary.

This way of thinking and working looks back to one of the guiding principles of modernist design, which was that its practitioners might be able to serve as conduits and refiners of complex information about social, aesthetic and scientific systems for mass audiences, thereby adding to the realm of knowledge and democracy. In the 1930s a remarkable polymath named Otto Neurath exploded into the realm of design. Neurath, trained as a mathematician, was obsessed with universalizing knowledge, and worked as a philosopher of science, a sociologist, and an economist. His strongest impact by far, however, came with his desire to create modes by which to convey large bodies of information to diverse audiences. He felt that the 20th century was generating huge quantities of data that an educated citizenry needed to deal with, but did not always (or even often) have the capacity to understand.

Neurath’s innovation was the isotype, which stands for the International System of Typographic Picture Education, and which we now recognize as those ubiquitous silhouettes indicating men’s and women’s rooms by means of abstracted figures. Little description is needed to invoke the almost hieroglyphic feel of isotypes: road signs, warning labels, high voltage indicators. Neurath was using the emergent mass media technologies of his era, and created early signposts to the figuration of information itself. His seriousness about the importance of the social sphere translated into a remarkably durable visual iconography. The challenge for contemporary makers and thinkers is to take this kind of social positivism and link it to contemporary networked environments to create a social media that goes beyond sociability into the realms of the useful.

seti @ home

SETI@home is a scientific experiment that uses Internet-connected computers in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). see:

additional informatin is on Wikipedia:

Image at left is a file from the Wikimedia Commons. SETI@HOME is licensed under the GPL. {{free screenshot|license=GNU General Public License}} {{GPL}}

For information on the use of this image click here.

For a higher resolution version of the image click here.

As local and global networks proliferate and intermingle, the web of computer-enabled scenarios will grow ever denser and more interconnected. This will lead to a truly new “new thing” in the world, one capable of contributing to the discussion and development of its own future. Brenda Laurel once noted that, “Creating interactive simulations of complex systems is one of the most highly leveraged goals we can achieve with our burgeoning technological power…Good simulations will not only help us learn about systems, they may help us evaluate policies and form political goals.” If we creatively misuse scenario planning as a means to guide craft visualizations -- often interactive, immersive, or augmented – it can inspire us to go back out into our own communities or dig deeper into our own creative practices to transform the vision deficit into a surplus futurity. Corporations and governments harness their control over scale – capital and power – to generate their scenarios. This new century brings new problems, as is always the case, but we would be foolish indeed to not take advantage of peer to peer networking, file-sharing, and massively scaled distributed computing to develop countervailing forces, from a truly populist scenario building capacity to as yet unimaginable visualizations of change.