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Extra Curricular

by Holly Willis

The Diagetic Prototype

“I want an app like Tinder that we can use to end genocide,” said Luis Moreno Ocampo, former first prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), in fall 2019. The Argentine lawyer was visiting the University of Southern California from Harvard, where he was a Senior Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. He was in town to coteach a class with USC professor and documentary filmmaker Ted Braun, perhaps best known for his 2007 film Darfur Now, on the ways in which storytelling can affect our understanding of political issues. 

I first met Ocampo in 2008 when I interviewed him in connection with The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court, a feature-length documentary by Pamela Yates about the ICC and its attempts to bring global attention to human rights and crimes against humanity. At once extremely serious and charmingly gregarious, Ocampo at that point understood very well how important media is to his objective. He said during our interview, “We all know that images and videos and pictures change the behavior of people. The Crimean War [1853–56] was the first war when pictures were printed by a newspaper in London. Ever since then, we’ve had the pictures in the paper, and this has an impact on how people understand wars. Basically, as a global prosecutor, I need to serve a global community, and I need a global tool to do that. Video is that tool.”

Ocampo’s understanding of the growing relevance of video—he was speaking three years after YouTube launched—was prescient, and his more recent turn to social media is also very wise. His idea for the app is simple: How can we use the algorithms that so effectively separate us from one another to instead mobilize global ethical action across time and space, culture and geography, nation and class? To begin to answer this question, he and Braun taught a graduate seminar on the power of cinema.

“The class is part of a larger initiative to explore the moral responsibility practitioners of the cinematic arts have to the problems of the world,” explains Braun, who teaches in the John Wells Division of Writing for Screen & Television and holds the Joseph Campbell Endowed Chair in Cinematic Ethics. “It engages some of the most fundamental questions of identity, social responsibility, legal systems and the moral inflection of technology and the arts. Just as print technology facilitated a three-century-long process that led to the creation of the nation-state and the many institutions that protect the lives of citizens, we plan to use new technologies to create a new system of global protection—but much faster.”

In addition to the class, we also hosted a research lab that began meeting in January 2020. Our mandate from the beginning was to create an interdisciplinary working group composed of students and faculty to think in new ways about solutions to global problems. Our goal was ambitious: How can we empower people to respond effectively in situations in which there is no one in charge? In other words, when global inequity occurs—as in a genocide, international terrorism, coup d’état or even a pandemic—how can those most affected and disempowered be protected despite the lack of governance? 

Because we were situated within a school of filmmaking, we decided to create a diegetic prototype, a concept developed by David Kirby in his 2010 essay “The Future is Now: Diegetic Prototypes and the Role of Popular Films in Generating Real-world Technological Development” and later developed in greater detail in his book Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema. The term refers to a “performative artefact” or designed object that demonstrates a possible future scenario. Kirby writes: “I introduce the term ’diegetic prototypes’ to account for the ways in which cinematic depictions of future technologies demonstrate to large public audiences a technology’s need, viability and benevolence.” He continues, “Entertainment producers create diegetic prototypes by influencing dialogue, plot rationalizations, character interactions and narrative structure.”

The diegetic prototype has been used by many designers, perhaps most notably Julian Bleecker, who has eloquently advocated for the entanglement of science, fiction and fact, showing how stories in general, and visual stories in particular, can do more to shape the future than science and technology. Our diegetic prototype, designed by the brilliant Interactive Media & Games MFA student Francesca Palamara, was based on the radically ethical actions in 1943 of the network of Danish and Swedish people who saved 98 percent of the Jewish community living in Denmark from the Nazis. We combined that historical moment with an imaginary mobile app that functions more like Waze than Tinder. The idea was to imagine how we might increase the simplicity of use and ease of ethical action. The focus on a real case from the past helped us to focus our efforts and to analyze the feasibility and the limits of the new technologies with regard to specific challenges, such as confidentiality and the role of nations. 

The project will continue in the coming year, as will Ocampo and Braun’s seminar. Ocampo’s main question remains utterly relevant: How can we reverse the power of marketing algorithms that were developed for divisiveness and individuation to instead operate in support of connection and collectivity? Stories, speculative design and diegetic prototypes suggest opportunities for creativity and possibility as we reimagine these basic technical infrastructures for good instead of evil.

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