In 2008, political activists / mischief-makers the Yes Men carried out a major stunt, producing and distributing 1.2 million copies of a ‘special edition’ of the New York Times. The Yes Men’s alternative NY Times perfectly replicated the design and layout of the original, but with a telling edit to the Times’ motto, from ‘All the news that’s fit to print’ to ‘All the news we hope to print’.
The content of the fake NY Times was as aspirational as the Yes Men’s motto suggested: front page headlines included ‘Iraq War Ends’, ‘Ex-Secretary Apologises for WMD Scare’, ‘Maximum Wage Law Succeeds’ and ‘Nation Sets Its Sights On Building Sane Economy’.
Along with the laudable attention to detail and the amount of planning evident in the stunt, one of the most interesting things about the NY Times Special Edition was when it happened. The special edition hit the streets on 12 November 2008, but the newspaper itself was dated 4 July 2009.
So the Yes Men were reporting from the future?
The NY Times Special Edition is a vivid example of a particular stream of Experiential Futures practice, in which news outlets briefly disconnect from their ongoing stream of updates from as-close-to-the-present-as-possible, and instead deliver a report from a moment somewhere in the future.
The Yes Men’s wildly aspirational, almost euphoric vision of 2009 made it clear that they were less concerned with making realistic future predictions than with prompting a call to action. Their dazzling alternative to the dismal futures currently being debated by politicians was at first glance absurd, but so richly detailed that readers couldn’t help asking themselves, ‘Why not?’
The other examples of newspapers reporting from the future come from cities that share a key trait with the Yes Men: an urgent need to imagine a better future, prompted by a disastrous situation in the present.
In 2013, two years after a massive earthquake devastated the city, Christchurch newspaper The Press produced an edition of the paper reporting from 2031. Articles covered New Zealand politics, city planning, the impacts of climate change, local Christchurch sports and arts, from the perspective of 20 years after the earthquake.
The aim of the exercise was to prompt Christchurch citizens to look beyond the recent disaster and to ‘Rally, protest, cheer, plant . . . do something that changes the future.’
Photo of Salon de Thé Facebook, Tunis, shared on Twitter by @WadhahJebri on February 16, 2011 and recirculated with the #16juin2014 hashtag.
But perhaps the most striking instance of this kind of future journalism took place in Tunisia in 2011. Following the Sidi Bouzid Revolt in January 2011 which ousted the president, the country experienced a national strike which halted economic activity, and the transition government swiftly lost the confidence and goodwill of the people.
A Tunisian ad agency, Memac Ogilvy Label Tunisia, embarked on a campaign to convince Tunisia’s media outlets to join together for one day to report the news from 2014, three years in the future.
‘We needed to find a way to encourage the people to get back to work and start rebuilding the country we had all fought for. … So we decided to show everyone how bright our future could be if we all started building it now. … During a whole day, the media acted as if it were June 16th 2014 and presented Tunisia as a prosperous, modern and democratic country. … The media content spread to social media via 16juin2014.com and people began to imagine wonderful futures and called everyone for action. #16juin2014 hashtag was n°1 top trend topic on Twitter all day long. At 6pm, the debate was everywhere on TV, radios, blogs… Getting back to work quickly became an act of resistance.’
When I visited the 16 Juin 2014 website (sadly no longer active), what struck me about the news being reported was how uneventful it was. The major news item was about a ‘shopping festival’, in the town of Kasserine, featuring appearances by several fashion VIPs. Compared with the ambitious targets set by the Yes Men in their headline stories, it seems slightly unambitious.
But then, given the turmoil that spread across the country just several months before these articles were written, perhaps ‘uneventful’ is ambitious enough.
Front page of La Presse on February 16, 2011.
NOTE: I want to interject here briefly to mention that I adapted this case study into a longer stand-alone article on rhizome.org. The Rhizome piece benefited greatly from the editorial contribution of Michael Conor, and it digs a little deeper into some of the underlying issue around this kind of activism. If you’re interested, please check it out.