by Tom Atlee
(Note: This article was compiled from
bits and pieces written between 1997-2007 and majorly overhauled
in March 2007.)
Imagineering embraces any use of imaginative narrative
to realize, create, or catalyze in real life the potentials we
It often involves complete stories, in any form. But it can
also involve one or more story elements -- metaphors, images,
themes, perspectives, conflicts, problems, questions, goals, knowledge,
possibilities, and imagined characters, situations, plots, events,
resolutions, dialogue, etc.
Imagineers use these story elements consciously to inspire and
guide people to reshape their consciousness, their lives, and
their social and physical circumstances.
(Note: I had thought I'd coined the term back
in 1988 when I first used it, but I've since learned that Disney
uses the word differently to refer to the creation of realistic
theme parks. I want to make the distinction clear: I'm talking
about using imagination to create and reshape the theme park
we call real life.)
Although imagineering comes in many forms, I have my favorite.
Most often when I speak of imagineering, I am referring to the
use of fiction -- including a kind of visionary "journalism"
("reporting back from the future") -- to empower people
to actually live out -- or into -- a particular story, vision,
Here are a few of my favorite examples:
- Edward Abby's novel The
Monkeywrench Gang has been credited with birthing
EarthFirst! as a self-organized movement, with readers just
doing what the characters in the book do and then going on to
create more ways to "monkeywrench" on behalf of nature.
- Federal office building bomber Timothy McVeigh and a number
of race war promoters have apparently been inspired by white
supremicist William Pierce's novel The
- Some tax protesters dressed themselves up as V from the movie
for Vendetta to demonstrate
in Washington, DC.
- Hundreds of communards have been inspired to build utopian
communities based on B. F. Skinner's novelWalden
Two, although the communities that survived
have shifted from Skinner's original model.
Some imagineering pieces do not notably impact reality -- perhaps
they emerge before their time or are suppressed or systematically
panned -- but they are clearly designed to inspire people to live
- The 1987 movie
Amazing Grace and Chuck depicts
a 12-year-old little league pitcher, Chuck, who stops playing
baseball when he learns about nuclear weapons. A major basketball
player, Amazing Grace, joins him, followed by other major sports
figures, precipitating a crisis in response to which Chuck goes
publicly silent -- and millions of other kids join him in a
spontaneous, rapidly spreading and ultimately successful international
children's uprising for nuclear disarmament.
- In 1981 Ernest Callenbach followed up his famous 1975 novel
with a prequel, Ecotopia
Emerging, which gives a very believable and
do-able blueprint for how an independent eco-secessionist movement
might emerge, tucked in amongst eerily familiar "news stories".
Imagineering with role models and local experiments
Imagineering can start with a real-life activity specifically
crafted to inspire imitation. Lately such intentional efforts
to generate mimicry have been successfully using the web and video
-- specifically YouTube
-- to spread their memes.
Choirs -- Ordinary citizens gathering to publicly sing 5-15
minute litanies of complaints -- poginant mixtures of serious
and hilarious -- about their lives, their societies, and life
in general. Complaints choirs have been popping up all over
the world, dancing and deadpanning. You can watch videos
of several of them -- each uniquely reflective of their
- The Free
Hugs campaign -- in which people walk city streets with
signs saying "Free Hugs" and hug anyone who comes
up to them -- has triggered a number of responses, like this
-- as well as other videoed free hug initiatives around
the world including Venezuela
again, and Tokyo
- The Great Silent Grandmother
Gathering started out as a children's story for adults and
became an international movement for Mothers Day vigils.
In broader imagineering visions, a number of eco-futurists have
painted vivid pictures of societal scenarios we could live into,
making once unimaginably better worlds seem siddenly possible.
Here are just a few:
Imagineering for Networking
Imagineering can also be used to provide a narrative infrastructure
to support network-based organizing. In 1988 I did a participatory
imagineering experiment at a Green Gathering: With a few friends,
I created a small journal called The Ecotopian Grapevine Gazette
(EGG), which contained news articles about neat things that hadn't
happened yet -- but which we wanted to have happen -- written
AS IF they had happened. At the end
of each article, we put a contact name people could contact if
they wanted to join together to make that story a reality.
Amazing to me in 1988, there was little response to the EGG at
the Green Gathering, and until 2008 the idea hadn't taken off
with anyone I've mentioned it to in the intervening years. However,
I have a feeling that the time is ripening for this approach --
imagining a desired future event,
phenomenon, book, activity, organization, community, etc., and
then writing about it as if it has already happened, and providing
contact information for those who want to make it happen
-- perhaps in the form of a participatory online journal (or even
a "classifieds" kind of service like CraigsList),
possibly linked into virtual practice spaces like Second
Life, personal networking sites like Zaadz,
meetup gatherings, videos
A Crisis Averted, funding networks like PledgePage.org,
and make-a-difference online communities like Omidyar.Net,
as well as the general blogging world, etc. It would be fabulous
if the vast networking database called WISEREarth
would include an imagineering function where people could imagine
organizations they'd like to see, and be helped to find each other
to make it happen.
The latest breakthrough in this is the
new imagineering faux-Google news website which announces
positive news you can click on to help it happen. Although it
isn't yet participatory, it is exactly the kind of thing I imagine
becoming participtory. Having the folks at WISEREarth
pick up on this and work with the folks at fugue.com would be
a brilliant leap forward.
Imagineering has three elements -- story, vision, and guidance.
A story tends to be more powerful than
data and ideas partly because we can place ourselves in it vicariously
and sense our own reactions and roles, real and potential. It
is almost like we are practicing for a different future. Vision
adds to the power because it points us in a direction and paints
a picture of possibility. We can only create what we can imagine.
This pulls us into the creative tension between "what is"
and "what could be", inspiring us to action. Imagineering
combines story and vision, infusing them with guidance
that gives people what they need to make the story a reality
-- motivations and rationales, role models, compelling drama,
realistic situations, appropriate values struggles, all the necessary
instructions and precautions -- and sometimes even resources and
compatriots -- to help their beloved product of imagination blossom
in the world around them.
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