SKULD is an opaque world simulation developed by the no-less fictional professor Norn. At NODE Festival, it prompted the audience for answers to a series of civilizational questions, and produced futures that were both absurd and too close for comfort.
The project hiding behind the obscure acronym SKULD is, in fiction, "a planetary emulator incorporating complex technical, social, and environmental datasets, developed by the honorable professor Norn and his devoted assistant Pyry Kettunen at the university of Oldenburg." In reality, it is a mechanical turk powered by two shadow workers, whose tasks consist in polling the audience with fictional prompts and loosely matching the obtained answers with a set of preestablished parameters, before building a visualization of the resulting world and proceeding to the next poll. The result is a collective worldbuilding experience for the audience of the 2020 edition of NODE festival — an online pandemic special merging in-situ production and online experience — and taking the shape of short interludes between events at the festival.
Back to the fiction. Introduced by the make-believe scientists during an interview with the festival moderators, the system is designed in such a way that a thousand years of evolution are simulated over two days, focusing on a slice of earth representative of the planet’s complex ecosystems. The world simulator allegedly “visualizes natural resources management and ecological impact as part of a complex and dynamic ecosystem moderated by individual ideologies. It takes any kind of input — technical, social, political or even cultural — and compares it to a database of real-world events to determine their impact on resources management at both global and hyperlocal scales. It then simulates a new setup, which in turn determines a range of options for the next iterations. The questions might sound odd to the festival’s audience, but they will make perfect sense in the simulated world-in-progress.”
The simulation resulting from this collective experiment took the shape of a constant renegotiation of moral choices and external contingencies, forcing the audience to navigate short and long-term projections, define priorities, and make sacrifices as it is faced with choices on resource management, disaster mitigation, but also political and ethical conundrums.
Our earth simulator would be visually updated according to the results of the polls: a 3D animated slice of earth shows what the land might look like, while a range of parameters including population, air quality, temperature, life expectancy, energy availability, etc. keeps on updating, with new parameters added whenever a shift in worldview is reached. A brief fictional story is added before each new poll to give cultural and political context to the simulation, alternating between speeches, diary excerpts, cooking recipes, or even song lyrics. The soundtrack is updated to complete the mood.
In absence of an actual planetary emulator, the elements really guiding the flow of the experiment are a set of four complex flowcharts — a game master's scenario of sorts — each organizing possible choices and their consequences into a tree structure. The first focuses on innovation and production, the second on economy and society, the third on energy production and resources management, and the last one on crisis management. A political compass completed the setup, allowing us to keep track of the progressiveness and authoritarianism levels of the civilization populating SKULD. These elements were revealed in a final interview with the festival moderator, together with a recap of all polls and a short video edit showing the evolution of the simulated world over two days. We then drank bubbles and sang ‘over the rainbow’, for some reason.