Worldbuilding

A History of the Future in 100 Objects

If you aren't already familiar with Adrian Hon, you should be. This game designer and entrepreneur is one of the creators of the hit fitness game Zombies, Run! but that's on top of being a neuroscientist, a newspaper columnist, a TED speaker, and one of my co-podcasters on The Cultures. (More on that soon!)

I had the pleasure of helping to edit Adrian's latest project, A History of the Future in 100 Objects. It is by turns inspiring, frightening, thought-provoking, and touching. And its vision of the future is so clear and convincing that ever since I've read it, I see news articles daily in which his predictions are close to coming true, and sooner than I ever would have thought. Naturally, I asked Adrian if he'd do a Q&A over here at DeusXM to tell all of you a little more about this fascinating project.

For readers who don't know much about the project yet, can you talk a little bit about what History of the Future in 100 Objects is, and how it came about?

 My direct inspiration for the book was "A History of the World in 100 Objects", a radio series produced by the British Museum and BBC Radio 4. It told the story of human history, from 40,000 years ago to the present day, through a hundred objects chosen from the British Museum's collection, with each object being presented in a 10 minute radio programme.

Shortly through the series, I realised that this format would be perfect for exploring the future, as it could ground futuristic concepts in a tangible physical object. I've always been interested in the future ever since I was very young, reading science fiction by Clarke and Asimov, and I've continued that interest through school and university, where I studied neuroscience, and into my ten years of experience as a game designer and CEO.

 I knew people in the publishing industry so I definitely had the route of shopping the idea to an agent or a publisher, but I'm on the record as saying that I think authors should explore self-publishing more (I wrote a blog post called "The Death of Publishers" about which the head of Macmillan said "I disagree with everything he says but you should still read it") — so I decided that it would be more interesting to self-publish.

However, I still wanted to know if people thought the idea was good, so I went to Kickstarter in early 2011 to raise $2500 for a short print run and to pay for various bits and pieces. I raised almost double that amount and crucially established that people wanted to read such a book. Naively, I thought I could write the whole thing in a year. Of course, it turned out that writing 100 short stories while having a very demanding day job *and* also writing a column for The Telegraph was not easy, so it ended up taking two and a half years instead... 

The History is well-grounded in real and developing technology and the ways that people have adapted to new technology in the past. Did you have multiple views of the future fighting for supremacy, or was it really one clear vision to describe?

The book presents a single coherent world, but just like in our world, there's great variability between different places and between different people. That meant that I had a lot of flexibility in exploring different kinds of futures in different countries, or ultimately, planets and habitats. Still, it probably would've been much easier if I had fewer objects to write about!

 What do you think is the wildest prediction you're making? The safest?

The wildest: Probably 'Cepheid Variable', which is a story about AI communication with aliens via a Cepheid Variable star whose pulse-period has been modified by neutrinos. There's a lot in that story and I don't seriously think it would actually happen — but it's certainly a lot of fun to think about, plus it let me explore some ideas about conspiracy theories and the future of programming!

The safest: There are several very safe objects! One of the safest is '50% Unemployment', where I talk about the future of work. It's very clear to many thinkers and economists that the increasing rate of automation will eliminate a huge number of full-time, permanent jobs. It says a lot about our culture that this is not a cause for rejoicing.

Is there anything you really believed before you started writing, but that you changed your mind on during the process as you did further research?

About the objects or about the process of writing? I did quite a bit of reading about energy usage, and realised that it's going to take an awful lot longer to transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy. It took us about a hundred years to go from wood and coal to oil, and it may take another hundred years to diversify beyond that. Thankfully that process is well underway right now, but the problem is that we're still going to see significant global warming anyway.

This was an enormous project, and took you over two years to complete. What's next for you as an independent creator? Do you have more to say about the future, or have you said everything you needed to say right now?

I have plenty more to say about the future and I'm looking forward to saying it in a more straightforward way! But I don't anticipate that being my next major project. I still have a reasonable amount of work I need to do on publicising the book, and then I want to take a break. I have a lot of ideas for non-writing projects that I want to think about, many of which are addressed in the book in various ways. I'm certain I'll return to writing properly at some point though.


The complete History is available on Amazon and Gumroad, but you can also read excerpts right now for free.


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Tier 4: How to Monetize Live Events

There's no question that immersing your audience in a live event brings tremendous weight and power to the experience. A good event turns up the narrative volume, and can convert your quietly contented fans into enthusiastic evangelists. But live events, at least as they're traditionally played out, don't have an ROI, because in your traditional ARG and marketing structures, they're free. I simply can't build out an events tier if I can't justify the expense by showing how it will generate revenue later. 

Fortunately, you don't have to look far to get an idea of how to turn events into an income source, not just a drain. Is there an ongoing transmedia narrative out there right now using ticketed events as a staple of their strategy? Why yes, yes there is. World Wrestling Entertainment does this. When you buy a ticket, you're not just buying a ticket to a sporting event; you're gaining admission to the latest episode of an ongoing serial drama.

Going by that example, secret to monetizing live events -- at least for now -- is clothing your event in the skin of something to which the audience is already accustomed to buying tickets: sporting events, concerts, plays, conventions, circuses, carnivals, dance performances, probably a hundred other things I can't think of right now.

If I were to build out an events element for Felicity, as with the film tier, I'd have some serious logistical issues if I tried to include the main characters. There would be a tremendous risk that the stories would fall into a million conflicts of continuity and weaken the whole as a result.

But this could be a tremendous opportunity for world-building slightly to the side of the main plot. Surely the audience would be interested in parting with some cash in order to spend an evening mingling with the magic underground, disguised as a carnival or maybe a roving casino night (since I've not yet written that part of the story, the specifics are still a bit hazy). It's a place that Felicity and Lindsay go in the story proper, and a center of power in the story world. The ability to go there in person would have very significant resonance for fans of other tiers. Ideally, the show would be structured on multiple levels so that novices unfamiliar with the earlier tiers would find it amazing and fun, too, and be thereby encouraged to try the other tiers, as well.

In my mind, I see this as a touring show: Something that travels between cities over a season. I don't think I'd want each show to be entirely unique, as with the WWE example; there's a value in letting your audience talk about their experiences, and in making room for first-timers to receive advice on how to get a better experience from those who have gone already, as with shows like Sleep No More. But perhaps there is room for a slowly-evolving plot specific to just this show.

This would be better as a delayed tier, added on much later. If nothing else, it would be a ludicrous waste of money to build it out unless Tier 1, at a minimum, is already a raving success. And I'd definitely need a lot of help to make this one a reality, given my involvement with traveling theater began and ended in high school. Presumably the ideal partner would be a touring theater company.

But I think this could be something really amazing, if I got the chance to make it. For Felicity, this is the moon I'm shooting for.


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Felicity and Social Media

Continuing on from yesterday's assessment of the resources I have for free: words aren't my only skill. I also have mad technical skills! Or moderate ones, anyway. I'm fluent in social media tools, I know my way around a domain registrar and I've spent time with a host or two in my day. I'm no web designer, but I know about templates and can fumble my way around a CSS file if need be. I can set up a MySQL instance or a wiki. In a pinch I can write code or modify someone else's, but I'm not very good at it and I don't enjoy it, so making my own iOS app (for example) is probably not a winning strategy. (There are more things I can do, too, but we'll wait on that for next time.)

All of this adds up to a logical conclusion: It would be easy for me to make a web and social media component of Felicity. So I should do it, right? Well... maybe. It's complicated.

Let's take a little bit of a tangent here and I'll finally tell you what Felicity is about! This is the story of the Luckiest Girl in the World -- Literally: Felicity Stone. It's also about her very much less lucky friend Lindsay Mallory. It's been knocking around in my head long enough that I know the theme: It's about coming to terms with the fact that the world is fundamentally unfair. Also: luck-eaters, Hollywood, technomagicians, dark conspiracies, the Ancient Order of Turtles

You guys, I cannot tell you how much I love this world I'm building. Finding a real thing and giving it a secret, magical underbelly is mad fun. Telling you about it right now, though, is one of the most terrifying things I've ever done. But hey, that's the creative life, isn't it?

So! Back to structure: The obvious thing to do would be make social media presences for Felicity and Lindsay. There are problems with this, though -- lots and lots and lots of problems. Oh, good heavens, the problems, let me list them.

1. Social media for main characters is time-intensive. This approach would require me to put in a lot of hours acting as Felicity and Lindsay online. But there will be periods where I simply won't have the time to do that -- there are periods now where I can hardly even be myself on social media. As fun as it might be to do, if I committed to doing it right, I'd probably have to turn away paying client work. Nobody would be more surprised than me to see Felicity make enough money to give up client work! On the flip side, I'm absolutely unwilling to compromise on audience experience and say "Well, sometimes if I'm busy they just won't be online." That is a lousy, lousy way to treat the people who love you. Sooo... yeah, we need something that will be less of a time sink.

2. It creates a barrier to entry. A social media presence would need to reflect evolution over time to remain interesting. But that means that new readers and participants won't be able to just jump in any time; they'd have a lot of catching up to do first. I want barrier to entry to be as low as possible, in order to reach the maximum amount of readers possible.

3. It takes away value from the core story instead of adding to it. Any social media presence for these characters would necessarily exist in the spaces between chapters, or would overlap with those chapters. Or to frame it another way... with this approach, I'm taking out parts of the story from the middle and giving them away for free when I could be selling them; I'm creating redundancy that negates the need to buy the chapters at all; or I'm creating filler content for social media that is boring and doesn't further the story. All of these options suck.

That means I need to find another way to use my mad web skillz to my advantage. My requirements: Not too time-intensive; plausibly not responsive in real time; not terribly expensive or technically complex to deploy (registering a few dozen domain names adds up); building out a part of the world that overlaps with the books enough to seem linked, but not so much that both aren't adding meaningful layers to the same story. Even better if I can provide a group identity for my audience and create an easy way to deploy a challenge/reward structure. 

My solution: I think I'm going to set up a presence for the Turtles, and induct my audience into that noble and ancient fraternity. The Turtles are a secretive and illustrious group whose behind-the-scenes actions underpin a fair shake of the action in the story -- so this means that the audience will get to affect the things that happen to Felicity and Lindsay even without talking to the luck-addled pair directly.

Also, I've been holding out on you a little bit: Madame Zee is in this story, and her already-intermittent online presence will grow to reflect the goings-on of Felicity. So there's that, too.


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Changed and Changing

As you may recall, one of the reward levels for my Shiva's Mother Kickstarter was a bespoke short story. The deal was this: I'd write a short story of up to a thousand words per my backer's general requirements, and they'd be free to use it however made them happy. I was frankly astonished that any of them sold -- and in fact all four of them did, in the end.

The first of these stories I wrote is Changed And Changing, for Lucas J.W. Johnson's transmedia project Azrael's Stop -- he asked if I could play in his world for a little while, and I was of course delighted to do so. It was a bit of a stretch for me to write as I do precious little pure fantasy -- I was concerned the result if I tried would be a little trite -- but I am actually quite pleased with how it came out.

Now Lucas has put it out into the world for your entertainment. Thanks to Lucas for supporting my art and for sharing the result!

Please do read it and let me know what you think -- and then be sure to poke around Azrael's Stop a little more!  


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Creative Spotlight: Lucas J.W. Johnson

Keep your eyes on Lucas J.W. Johnson, ladies and gents. You might have seen him around the Twittersphere as @floerianthebard. Or you might know him under his Silverstring Media banner. You might have run into him at any one of several conferences! If you don't know him, now is your alert that he should be on your radar. Lucas is a just lovely combination of ambitious and eager to improve his craft. And boy howdy does he have a lot of stuff on his plate these days!

For starters, Lucas has been doing a really interesting series of interviews with creators from David Varela to Chuck Wendig to Brian Clark (and yes, I admit, even me.) That's not all he does to build community and share knowledge, either. Lucas is also the organizer of the brand-new enclave in Canada, the Transmedia Vancouver Meetup.

Even beyond community involvement, Lucas checks the boxes for doing the work, too. One of his projects is The Time Tribe, a multiplatform project that is almost certainly going to be a big hit with fans of Harry Potter and Percy Jackson. 

And if that's not enough to wow you, Lucas has recently relaunched his indie transmedia project Azrael's Stop, after a breathtakingly honest post-mortem and hiatus. Lucas has shown an exceptional dedication to sharing what he's learned with the community, even when it doesn't particularly benefit him. We are all the better for having him among us.

I expect great things, you guys. Great things. Stay tuned.


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