Beth took another sip of mint tea and shuddered as she recalled the events of the past few months. February in the north of England usually brings snow and plummeting temperatures. But this February, Beth noticed people on the university campus were wearing t-shirts, shorts and sandals. Soon after the February heatwave, the emerald green spring landscape was replaced with acres of brown desiccated grass. The soil turned to rubble. On her social media feed, Beth saw images of extreme weather were also tagged and liked. Beth realised that flooding, gales, even earthquakes were happening everywhere. These were no longer distant events happening in other parts of the world. Earth was facing an ecological cataclysm.
Beth had seen news reports about a world leaders crisis meeting at the United Nations headquarters. At the meeting, world leaders had approved an international space exploration project to find another hospitable planet. Soon afterwards, The Indago, an unmanned craft found Terra Two using a powerful telescope. In a few weeks, The Lumen spaceship would be launched and sent to Terra Two. Upon their arrival the crew would develop a gateway for rescue ships from Earth.
Terra Two Research
Beth was thrilled when she was asked to join the United Nations funded Terra Two research project. Beth enjoyed working within a development team on a simulation called Interdependence. The Lumen crew would interact with Interdependence on their journey towards Terra Two so they could learn from the ecological crisis on Earth and explore new ideas for harmonious living.
Sula, a new member of the Terra Two project asked Beth how Interdependence worked.
“The entry point is simple – a user chooses an everyday object or activity. After making their choice they connect the object or activity to a series of digital threads. Each thread forms a much larger web of interdependent relationships.” Beth said.
Sula looked puzzled, so Beth gave an example to make this clearer.
“Imagine your starting point was a sheet of paper. You connect the paper to a series of other threads such as sunlight, water, rain, trees, loggers, timber merchants, lorries, roads, packaging, factories and so on.”
“But how is Interdependence different from computer games or other simulations? asked Sula.
“The Interdependence team felt bored with computer games that are about individual gain such as getting more stuff: points, tokens, or other digital trinkets.”
So how does that work?
“Each user joins a team and their purpose is to connect with other teams. After creating links around their chosen objects and activities, teams deposit their strands in a shared vault. The vault then displays the ecological factors arising from an object or activity, either as an image or in written form.”
The Interdependence team decided to launch an online beta test of the simulation and gain feedback from the public to help refine it. The next day Beth got a call from Adyant, the main programmer on the team.
“Have you logged on yet and seen the comments about Interdependence?” asked Adyant.
“Why” said Beth.
“One anonymous post says humans thrive on competition and another calls the design team deluded hippy socialists. One user Steph01 claims the simulation is boring and asks why would people care about collecting digital threads?
Beth realised Steph01 had a point. Digital threads were too abstract for users to care about. Beth decided to rework Interdependence into a series of engaging stories.
Beth posted an urgent message on her online social networks asking writers to come forward and get involved. Despite having little time to develop their ideas, a small team of writers transformed Interdependence. Now users entered Interdependence at walking pace, strolling through a simulated forest of alder, aspen, ash, elm, maple and oak trees. As they approached a tree, each branch unraveled into a scroll telling a specific story. When the user touched other branches from that tree, more scrolls unfolded telling other stories and so on. There were stories about the life of the tree, birds who nested there, micro-organisms, the loggers and paper merchants who made products made from the tree, the truck drivers who drove timber to vast warehouses and so on. Each tree held thousands of stories. And the user could walk around and touch other trees, or plants in the forest and they would also unfold, revealing their stories. The forest was a huge, interconnected, branching narrative.
Expanding the idea of human language translation programmes, Adyant also developed a unique way of interacting with Interdependence. Adyant created a programme that collected data about the movement of the wind through leaves, rye grass, bracken, fern and dogwood. The programme then transposed the movement of the wind into the sound of the human voice so users could communicate with the landscape.
When the project was complete, a reporter came to interview the team and asked Beth why the crew of Terra Two would be using this simulation.
“By interacting with Interdependence, the Lumen crew will make connections between the ecological crisis facing Earth and divisive binary ways of thinking in which humans are considered separate and superior to other forms of life. Human beings are not separate from the natural world; we are immersed within it. We are sustained by the more-than-human-world.” said Beth.
Sula and Adyant also explained how climate change and extinction showed we had forgotten our interconnections with the more-than-human-world. Earth was no longer hospitable. The Interdependence team created the simulation to highlight how Terra Two was an opportunity to establish a new value system, one not based on economic value or technological ingenuity regardless of the costs to the interdependent web of life, but on the sustainability of resources.
The idea of Terra Two fascinates and disturbs me. What would drive humans to live there? And what lessons could the inhabitants of Terra Two learn from twenty-first century humans living on Earth? The idea of Terra Two also draws on my long-standing fondness for science fiction. My fascination with both science and fiction (and of course science fiction) comes from an eclectic range of sources and interests including Buddhism, Taoism, the work of cultural anthropologist David Abram (2011,2007, 1997) and novelists such as William Gibson and Ursula Le Guin. For instance, The Peripheral (2014) by William Gibson offers a compelling vision of a mutation that results in a new life living on a North Pacific gyre produced from plastic waste. This apocalyptic story also relates to current intellectual fashions and current concerns about the more-than-human world and unfettered use of non-renewable sources.
Mostly this story was an experiment on my part in writing beyond the confines of my usual theoretical and methodological comfort zone. Mark Freeman (2016) makes useful connections between writing and interpretative insight. According to Freeman “…insight is neither a pure construction, a making, nor pure discovery… Rather it is a finding-through-making” (2016:145). Apocalyptic stories are not just personal, they are relational because they are bound up with society and culture, with others. So these stories attempt to give meaning to our experiences on Earth in the twenty-first century through a socio-cultural framework of shared understanding, through considering lessons learnt, and the formation of new ways of living on Terra Two.
Abram, D. (2011) Becoming Animal. New York: Vintage.
Abram, D. (2007) Earth in Eclipse. ReVision 29 (4), pp 10-22.
Abram, D. (1997) The Spell of The Sensuous. New York: Vintage.
Freeman, M. (2016) Why Narrative Matters: Philosophy, Method, Theory, Storyworlds: A Journal of Narrative Studies, 8 (1), pp. 137-152.
Heidegger, M. (2010) Being and Time, trans. Joan Stambaugh. Albany: State University of New York.
Gibson, W. (2014) The Peripheral. London: Viking-Penguin.
Turkle, S. (2011) Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other. New York: Basic Books.
Melanie Chan completed a PhD on Representations of Virtual Reality, at Leeds Metropolitan University in 2007. She is now Senior Lecturer on the BA Hons Media, Communication Cultures programme at Leeds Beckett University. Her research interests include virtual reality, mobile media and digital culture. She has also published a monograph Virtual Reality: Representations in Contemporary Media (Bloomsbury, 2014) and ‘Environmentalism and The Animated Landscape in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke’ as part of the edited collection The Animated Landscape (Bloomsbury, 2015). Other published work includes the chapter ‘Place, Play and Privacy: Exploring Location-Based Applications and Spatial Experience’ In Digital Futures and the City of Today (Intellect, 2016). Her work aims to contribute to critical perspectives on contemporary media especially in relation to embodiment and technologically mediated experience.