We are becoming a vertical—and digital—species. Billions of us live in highrises, and three billion of us are connected to the Internet.
From intimate whispers on Skype to explosive political uses of WhatsApp in vertical neighborhoods under siege, Universe Within: Digital Lives in the Global Highrise takes us inside the hearts, minds and computers of vertical citizens in Guangzhou, China, the suburbs of Mumbai, New York’s public housing projects, and beyond. As cities reach for the sky, the highrise building becomes a metaphor for the urban planet. Trapped in our apartments, how do we seek connection with our loved ones via the World Wide Web? How has the Internet rewired our brains, our relationships and our understanding of geography? Has the web lived up to its promise of delivering us a better world? Poignant, urgent and revealing, the stories in Universe Within are character driven, highly visual, and told from a first-person point of view.
This unique collaboration between documentary makers, highrise residents, academics, creative technologists, and theatre artists challenges conventional documentary storytelling through its blending of fictional elements and innovative use of technology. The experience mimics personal and intimate “documentary conversations” between the viewer and host avatars, who are scripted and filmed in haunting 3D point cloud data.
Each host asks viewers provocative questions about the role of ethics, emotions and empathy in our digital, vertical worlds. Their answers take them to stories around the globe: to the West Bank, where Safa, a mother living in a highrise in Ramallah, has only Skype, phone and e-mail to stay connected with her family in Gaza, from whom she has been separated throughout most of her life by checkpoints and walls, though they only live a few miles away; to South Korea, where the teenaged boys who make up “Incredible Miracle,” a team of world champion competitive video game players, live, work and train together in a highrise compound in central Seoul; to Mumbai, where 18-year-old Deepti puts herself at risk to record audio at meetings with corrupt government officials, in the hopes of saving her suburban-Mumbai apartment building from illegal demolition; and to Toronto, where two young refugees from Iraq living in a suburban highrise community join a “Girls Learning Code” program to learn how to build video games, something their parents couldn’t have imagined for them only a few months ago.
As we journey around the world, the host avatar wants to know more. Have the stories we’ve seen changed the way we feel about our own use of technology? Just how close are we to the people and places we care most about? Is the Internet really fulfilling its promise of democratization—and how is it entrenching the inequalities of our material world? Our responses determine which stories we get to see and which ones we don’t. The result is a unique and personalized experience that challenges our comfort in using digital technology to meaningfully engage with others—including those constructed solely of pixels.
As in a real-life conversation, not everything is revealed right from the beginning. The way in which the experience unfolds mirrors the way a conversation unfolds: you can’t know the full extent of what someone might share with you. The complete Universe Within experience consists of 70 minutes’ worth of stories, but it’s broken into 15-minute-long units of storytelling, each one a unique conversation. At the end of each experience, we are prompted to start over and begin another conversation, where we hear and see different stories. If we choose the same host, the conversation evolves; more aspects of the host avatar’s own story are revealed.
The stories are accessible on all devices, but an enhanced version of Universe Within is available in WebGL for a spectacular in-browser 3D desktop experience.
Universe Within: Digital Lives in the Global Highrise is the final chapter of the National Film Board’s epic HIGHRISE project, an award-winning, multi-year, many-media collaborative documentary developed and directed by filmmaker Katerina Cizek (Filmmaker-in-Residence, Seeing Is Believing: Handicams, Human Rights and the News) and produced by Gerry Flahive (I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors, The End of Time and Surviving Progress). The HIGHRISE project has spawned more than 20 pieces of mixed media, interactive documentaries, mobile productions, live presentations, installations and films. HIGHRISE has been touted by Wired, the world’s leading technology publication, as having “re-invented the documentary format,” while the CBC called it one of the six all-time best reasons to love the NFB, on the occasion of the organization’s 75th anniversary.
The HIGHRISE project also includes the Emmy Award-winning Highrise: Out My Window (2010), one of the world’s first 360-degree interactive documentaries; Highrise: One Millionth Tower (2011), an interactive documentary which pairs the residents of a highrise complex with architects, documentarians and animators to re-envision their vertical neighbourhood; and A Short History of the Highrise (2013), an interactive documentary that explores our 2,500-year global history of vertical living and the issue of social equality in our ever urbanized world. A Short History of the Highrise won an Emmy Award, a Peabody Award, and a World Press Photo Prize, among others.
Universe Within and all of the HIGHRISE projects are accessible via the NFB’s website, at nfb.ca/highrise.
Never in history have we humans been so networked and migratory, yet so segregated within our own cities and apartment buildings. Through our communications devices, we feel closer to people halfway around the world than to the person only a few feet away, on the other side of our apartment wall. We feel secure in our digital universes, but we are not.
How do our invisible networked lives map onto the vertical infrastructure of our cities?
Universe Within is the result of unique collaborations between documentary makers, academics, technologists, and highrise residents themselves to answer these questions in an original online storyworld.
The idea for this project began while I was working on one of the first HIGHRISE documentaries, One Millionth Tower highrise.nfb.ca/onemillionthtower, at two highrise buildings in suburban Toronto.
We were spending a lot of time at the buildings — we saw so many residents coming in and out, and yet we knew so few of them. And the mood at the building was so disenfranchised. Residents hurried to their own apartments, rarely speaking with each other, much less with outsiders.
We wondered about the digital lives and connectivity of the residents, so we decided to survey the building in a systematic way. Together with the academic team, we designed a participatory methodology, and we recruited a team of 14 residents to conduct a peer-to-peer survey of their neighbours, door-to-door throughout the building. Collectively, the researchers spoke 14 of the languages represented in the building, helping us to reach many residents who would not — or could not — speak with us.
It was a great process to be a part of, seeing how a resident-conducted survey could help neighbours get to know each other and begin working together to make their home a better place.
The data gathered was fascinating. Ninety-three percent of those interviewed had not been born in Canada. More than 50 percent of the population was under the age of 20. Eighty percent of the households surveyed were connected to the Internet, despite the financial burden of doing so. Astonishing results.
It was also great to see how the data itself could empower the residents. Many surveys take months — even years — to process data and share results. But we made it a priority to share the data with the residents within a few weeks, and they immediately used it to successfully advocate for a much-needed new playground for their children.
That early fruitful research formed the basis for a much broader academic and documentary collaboration called Digital Citizenship in the Global Suburbs, which later became Universe Within. Drs. Deborah Cowen and Emily Paradis of the University of Toronto secured an academic research grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) to develop our partnership. We became an interdisciplinary team of academic researchers, graduate students and documentarians.
We began searching for stories around the world. We slowly but surely found amazing ones in Africa, South America, Asia, Europe and North America. Meanwhile, the academic team chose three major sites — Toronto, Mumbai and Singapore — for in-depth research. Their own work in this project will result in an experimental, avant-garde academic publication to be released in 2016.
I spent many hours speaking about the ideas behind Universe Within with faculty and students at MIT’s Open Documentary Lab, where I’ve been a visiting artist over the course of the making of this documentary.
The research, ideas, critical analysis and knowledge generated through years of conversation with the academic teams are infused in every pixel of this documentary.
Also early on, senior producer Gerry Flahive and I approached Secret Location, an award-winning digital agency in Toronto. Our collaboration informed the production itself — the digital team did not come in as designers and developers at the end of the process, but at a key point in its birth. From the writing to the filming of the hosts to the art direction and development of the site itself, the collaboration with Secret Location has been profound.
The academic partnerships made this documentary nuanced, complex and critical. The collaboration with Secret Location has made this documentary simple and elegant.
And the collaborations we’ve had with highrise residents over the last years of HIGHRISE have been the most important of all. We thank them for sharing their homes, their first-person stories and perspectives in every aspect of HIGHRISE, all with the aim of improving how we build the cities and highrises of the future.
Universe Within is the last iteration of HIGHRISE, a multi-year, many-media documentary experiment, and it’s an exciting and troubling place to leave off. For our species, both the digital and vertical are becoming inescapable. We race toward more digital integration with Artificial Intelligence, virtual reality, surveillance, big data and robots, along with often rampant vertical development of our cities that shuffles and displaces millions of people. Whom do these processes exclude? Who wins? Who loses? And how might we harness these new technologies to improve our collective future? It’s up to us; it’s up to you.
— Katerina Cizek
Universe Within: Digital Lives in the Global Highrise is the final iteration of the National Film Board’s HIGHRISE project, a two-time Emmy-winning, multi-year, many-media collaborative documentary experiment about the human experience of global vertical living. The HIGHRISE project also includes the interactive documentaries A Short History of the Highrise, Out My Window and One Millionth Tower, as well as other related projects, including mixed media, mobile productions, live presentations and art installations.
HIGHRISE director Katerina Cizek is a multi-award-winning documentary maker. Her work has documented the Digital Revolution, and has itself become part of the movement. For five years, she was the National Film Board of Canada’s Filmmaker-in-Residence at an inner-city hospital in Toronto.
Q. How does Universe Within fit into the overall HIGHRISE project?
Universe Within reveals the hidden digital lives of highrise residents around the world. Ever since my work with Tower Renewal, a program to improve Toronto’s concrete apartment towers and the neighbourhoods that surround them, I have been really interested in the people who live in highrises because they are so transitory, and because connecting with one’s neighbours in a highrise can be very difficult. I was also interested in their digital lives because our digital connections are so crucial to how we govern our lives—how we love, how we hate, how we find work, and so on.
The result of Universe Within shows how the digital maps onto the vertical. Trapped in our apartments, how do we feel about and engage with our loved ones over the World Wide Web? How has it rewired our brains and our relationships?
Q. Universe Within is an interactive documentary that engages the user in a conversation. Users choose a computer-generated host avatar who guides them through a series of mini-stories based on their answers to certain questions. Why did you choose this approach?
With Universe Within I wanted to hint at the idea of a conversation because the documentary form is so much about sharing stories. I am really interested in the shared storytelling aspect of interviews. I might have a conversation with you, and it’s all about my experiences and my life, but I might share very different things with you than I share with the next person I speak to. I wanted to replicate that in Universe Within—what do you get to see and what don’t you?
I also really wanted to use a more linear structure for Universe Within than we did with some of the other interactive documentaries in the HIGHRISE project. I wanted to take people through the beginning, middle and end of the story. The entire experience is 70 minutes long, but it’s broken into 12- to 15-minute-long units of storytelling. At the end of each experience users have the option to go back and see something completely different.
Q: During the conversation it sometimes feels like the host avatar is talking directly to you. Was this intentional?
Yes, there’s this intentionally ambivalent nature to it. My aim was to make people think more closely about how we share our stories with one another, and how constructed these stories are. During user testing of the Universe Within site, some people said they had never seen anything like it—to have something address you so directly. One tester even thought that it was maybe a Skype call with somebody real out there.
Q. At the heart of the Universe Within experience are 24 short documentaries on the digital lives of highrise residents around the world. What was the research process like?
It was really arduous. These are not easy stories to find. People’s digital lives are private and invisible. You may be sitting in your apartment and three feet away on the other side of the wall someone else is on their computer, but you have no idea what they’re doing.
It took two years and an amazing research team to find these stories. We used some of the same approaches as we had in Out My Window, in which we worked with local photographers, journalists and residents around the world to document stories within their own environments. The stories may be short, but the process to get them was very long. For example, in the story “West Bank” our subject had only seen her parents, who live just an hour away, a handful of times in the last 20 years because Israel limits the movements of Palestinians. When we first met her, she was pregnant with her third child. Fortunately, we had the luxury of time to wait for her to give birth to be able to film her introducing the baby to her grandparents for the very first time over Skype.
Q. It’s a highly emotional moment. But at the same time there’s also this void of humanity in their online interaction. After filming so many stories, would you say digital technologies constrain or enable connection?
Technology is complex. On the one hand, it allows us to connect with people in an intimate and immediate way that is incredibly exciting and full of potential. But there is also the psychological impact of having strong feelings to a screen instead of to a person. It’s these impacts that we have yet to learn and understand.
Then there are the political implications of connecting into this network, which is a system of surveillance and control that we’ve all now become starkly aware of since Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations and WikiLeaks. We’ve all felt very utopic about the Internet and about the possibility of what these technologies might do for us, but we’re also coming to realize that what it could be is not really what it is. We need to be more conscious of how we move forward with these technologies—not just with digital technologies but also with the vertical technologies we now use to build our cities.
Q. What message do you hope users will take from their Universe Within experience?
I hope people will think about the ethics and implications of new technologies. It’s not just a meditation on the subject at hand but also on the technologies we use to tell and hear stories. It’s about whether you feel differently about your own use of the computer—not just from the stories you’ve heard but also in the form of the documentary you experience itself.
The interactive experience also starts to become a comment about artificial intelligence and the personalization of technology. What the big technology companies are trying to do online now is to deliver to you what you want before you even know you want it.
Q. Can you tell us a bit more about the academic partnerships behind Universe Within?
It originated from our earlier collaborative research with highrise residents while creating One Millionth Tower. We began collaborating with a team of academics, Drs. Deborah Cowen and Emily Paradis of the University of Toronto, to design a participatory methodology so that highrise residents would conduct a peer-to-peer survey of their neighbours in order to learn more about their digital lives and connectivity. This formed the basis for a much broader academic and documentary collaboration called Digital Citizenship in the Global Suburbs, which later became Universe Within. The academic team secured a research grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) to develop an interdisciplinary team of academic researchers, graduate students and documentarians.
We then began searching for stories and found amazing ones in Africa, South America, Asia, Europe and North America. From these, the academic team chose three major sites, Toronto, Mumbai and Singapore, for in-depth research. Their own work in this project will result in an experimental, avant-garde academic publication to be released in 2016.
Q: The entire HIGHRISE project is a collaborative documentary experiment that turns traditional documentary subjects into collaborators. What has this experience been like?
HIGHRISE allowed us to experiment with new forms and methodologies for working together with people—from highrise residents to academics to professionals like architects and housing activists, in order to make media with people rather than about them. The result has been very successful. There have been over 20 different components in the HIGHRISE project to date.
HIGHRISE has also been an incredible opportunity to use the highrise building as a metaphor for the urban planet to discuss some of the most important issues of our time.
Q. Secret Location is the digital agency behind the Universe Within site. What role did they play in creating such a unique interactive experience?
The Secret Location team played a pivotal role right from the beginning—from the writing and filming of the hosts to the art direction and development of the site itself. Despite being a nuanced and complex documentary due to the project’s academic partnerships, the Secret Location team helped us to create a simple and elegant structure.
Q. When you first proposed HIGHRISE, did you foresee it becoming the multi-year, multi-award-winning project it is today?
One of the things we learned from Filmmaker-in-Residence was the gift of time and the gift to trust the process, so we certainly hoped that it could be this. And the NFB gave us this liberty in a way that nobody else in the world could. That said, we also collaborated with many organizations to make the various HIGHRISE components happen. It wouldn’t have been possible without the intense relationships we’ve had with everyone from local residents and community groups to charitable organizations such as United Way to the City of Toronto, the Mozilla Foundation, Wired.com, The New York Times, MIT, the University of Toronto, and so on. This array of partners allowed us to work together in synergy to look at the current issues of urbanization and how we might not just document it, but create media that could help change people’s lives and landscapes.
Q. Where did your interest in the highrise building originate?
It sprung from my earlier NFB Filmmaker-in-Residence project at an inner city hospital in Toronto. During this time I realized that cities are not what they seem. Toronto is touted as this incredibly diverse place with people from all over the world; more than 50 percent of Torontonians aren’t born here. And on the subway or streetcar, that’s what it feels like. But once you start looking closer you realize just how segregated the city is. I became interested in learning more, but the tools I had to understand the contemporary city seemed outdated. So I started talking with academics such as Graeme Stewart, who started the Tower Renewal program in Toronto. From this I learned that Toronto has more highrise buildings than any other North American city outside Manhattan; we just don’t realize it because they are so spread out. That’s when I started to become really interested in vertical living, in how it’s a symbol of an urbanizing planet.
Q. After spending several years exploring the phenomenon of vertical living, would you say you are pro- or anti-highrise?
I’m neither one nor the other; they’re just a fact of life. Our cities need to become dense to accommodate the daily influx of new people. In many respects, going vertical is very efficient. When done well, it can be an accessible and just way of growing our cities. But that doesn’t mean that’s how it will happen. It’s not about being pro- or anti- the technology or infrastructure, but rather trying to find the collective language to understand what belonging means in today’s digital, urban landscape.
The HIGHRISE project can be found on the NFB’s website at nfb.ca/highrise.