The Forward/Story Incident

Meeting my transmedia tribe in the landscape of Jurassic Park.


“The late twentieth century has witnessed a scientific gold rush of astonishing proportions: the headlong and furious haste to commercialize group creativity. This enterprise has proceeded so rapidly — with so little outside commentary — that its dimensions and implications are hardly understood at all.
In this commercial climate, it is probably inevitable that a retreat as ambitious as Forward/Story 2015, would arise. It is equally unsurprising that the marvels it created should go unreported. After all, FS2015's research was conducted in secret; the actual incident occurred in the most remote region of Central America; and fewer than thirty people were there to witness it. Of those, at least a handful survived.”

— Adapted from Michael Crichton’s 1991 novel, Jurassic Park

“Grant felt a chill and thought, “he’s hunting us.”

It goes without saying that I’m a Jurassic Park nut. On this most hallowed of eves for those of the saurian persuasion (Colin Trevorrow’s film Jurassic World, the franchise’s first sequel in nearly 15 years, opens tomorrow), I thought I’d reflect on the storyworld that has played a more significant role than any other in shaping my interests and career, while also splicing that reflection into another about an amazing event that unfolded in northwest Costa Rica nearly one month ago…

On June 10th in 1993, I was 11 years old. I had wrapped up soccer practice early, and convinced my father to drive us to the Scarborough Town Centre mall for a preview screening of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. Over the movie’s two latenight hours, an audience of early fans learned from my shrieks of joy just how much genetic overlap there was between prepubescent Canadian boy and lab-engineered Velociraptor (though let’s not get sloppy, those of us in the know have always seen them as Deinonychus, or Utahraptor).

This monkey has probably seen Jurassic Park. This is also pretty much what looked like with my Dad when I saw Jurassic Park.

The film was a masterpiece, using every archetypal trick in the science fiction and action-adventure toolkit to bring a long-lost past screaming into the present, in a way that asked some pretty important questions about our future and the implications of our next big technological paradigm. I’ve explored my feelings about the film in greater resolution in my TEDx talk about Bringing the Future to Life:

Spielberg’s Jurassic Park was also a marvel in terms of the ways in broke new ground in form. It boasted the incredible work of animatronic artists and visual effects professionals that clearly spared no expense. The high water mark which the film’s effects and experience design established is still held 22 years later. The Brachiosaurs’ trumpeting calls and the Tyrannosaur’s bellows reverberated through the cinema across multiple channels, as well — the film was the first to be distributed using the DTS digital audio standard. It was also a dystopia about the downfall of what could conceivably be the world’s most valuable entertainment brand — a theme park populated with extinct species. Many of Spielberg’s films had featured storylines ripe for adaptation into t-shirts and action figures, but none had worn it on their sleeves (and slow pans through the in-narrative gift shop) quite as explicitly. Jurassic Park is about humankind leaping without enough of a look, but it’s also about how you sell the leap — how you “patent it, package it, and, slap it on lunch boxes”… not to put too fine a point on it.

But for all its technical wizardry, sci-fi storytelling, and a director playing to his strengths while trying new things, the movie will always shine dimly for me in contrast to the power of the original novel. Crichton’s Jurassic Park is an incredibly exhilirating read that unpacks ideas that have, to set things neatly in context, become embedded deep in my DNA as an artist, futurist, and innovation consultant: #Deextinction #Synbio #ChaosTheory #ComplexSystems They’re all woven together in my work, and they’re all woven together in the novel, proselytized (in between visceral [literally] setpieces) by Drs. Ian Malcolm, Alan Grant, Ellie Sattler, and Henry Wu. (Maybe Nedry even has a doctorate.)

The part of the novel and film that unfolds in mankind’s most hubristic accomplishment, a dinosaur zoo attraction called JURASSIC PARK, takes up most of the story and most of the memories. But some of my favourite parts weren’t actually in the park, they were in the setup. In the first 40 pages and final 10. The book’s Introduction presents runaway advances in genetic engineering that we’re still trying to wrap our heads around today. We are also introduced to “The InGen Incident”, things begin to get interesting in the Prologue: Bite of the Raptor.

This segment, the first tenth of the book concerns two of the novel’s saurian species — Procompsognathus, and Velociraptor — though neither of them makes much more than a fleeting appearance. The “compies” are introduced as an unidentified species of lizard that has taken to darting out from the jungle and nibbling on the faces of local children. The “raptors” slice, dice, and salivate their way through a construction worker evacuated to a rural medical clinic by helicopter, but aren’t actually seen charging and leaping until almost 100 pages in. They’re just murmured rumours, here. Evil forces on the islands.

It’s a gripping 40 pages — the clackety-clack part of the rollercoaster ride where you’re at peak dread, sweaty hands and all, even though nothing particularly untoward has happened yet. And it’s all set on an idyllic stretch where the jungle meets the sea, on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, between Puntarenas and Santa Cruz.

When I first read the book, I often dreamed of visiting this place:

A really simplified map of a lot of mangrove forests, bumpy roads, frothy wounds, and what might not actually be basilisk lizards.

And so it was with the kind of surprise email you might get in a Crichton novel (hats off to The Informant!) that earlier this year, I was invited to an exclusive weekend retreat by Lance Weiler and Christy Dena, two leaders in the world of transmedia storytelling and experience design… in Costa Rica.

(I won’t label them “Hammonds”, for fear that they’ll mistake my label for the book’s character, rather than the film’s, but their passion and creative energy could certainly deliver them to a philosophical precipice common to both characters, one day)

So Lance and Christy let me know that they were running a creative retreat called Forward Slash Story that was different from all the other events out there. F/S promised to help me learn more about my own potential, as well as exciting work going on at the densely interconnected fringes of technology, storytelling, and service design. New things were being created in the jungles of Central America.

They promised to demonstrate a new way of doing things, and a new path forward. There were a lot of bold unknowns and carefully redacted details in the pitch for the retreat, but I took the status of these two visionaries to heart, and repeated to myself: “Let’s face it, in your field you two are the top minds!”

And then we got around to discussing the specifics of the retreat’s location.

“Welcome… to (the opening part on the mainland with people getting attacked by lizards of) Jurassic Park!

As someone who grew up obsessed with a novel that situated high-tech dystopias and living dinosaurs on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, the satisfaction of an invitation to a secretive and exclusive retreat at an undisclosed location on the Northwest Pacific coast of Costa Rica is quite something. As a storyteller who sometimes gets into a lot of trouble blurring the boundaries between reality and fiction, this was almost too much to bear. I accepted Lance and Christy’s invitation immediately, packed my bags, and made my way to the proverbial jet standing by at Choteau (as they say on jurassicpark.reddit.com).

My experience of Forward Slash Story was framed by all kinds of fractal and fantastic factors. But one of them was lingering in what I allowed myself to see as the storyworld I’ve known since 1991.It was about the chance to live out moments and motions from a familiar myth. I’ve always thought that the stories we tell ourselves, both our own as well as those we love as fans, can frame our transformation as human beings better than anything else out there — better than any person, better than any trip, better than any drug. It’s the content of the storyworld, and your history with it. When you deeply connect with a story, and it embeds a piece of itself inside you, you can carry around a slow-release insight generator for years, or even decades.

The invigorating and alluring people, the deeply satisfying local cuisine at Harmony Hotel and Sunset Shack, and the spectacular sunsets — these were nice-to-haves. Really nice-to-haves. These were definitely what they’d have in the brochures for Jurassic Park.

Our “Visitors Center” at the Harmony Villa in Nosara. Sadly, no Mr. DNA yet — I’m going to work on that.

So while there were no dinosaurs on this dinosaur tour of Costa Rica (breathes fog on closed-circuit video camera lens, before wiping it away), I did get the chance to situate a moment of personal and creative transformation within a cinematic frame of reference — 1.85:1 just like Isla Nublar. And that’s very important to me.

Since we returned from F/S, many others (after having limbo-ed not unlike Jurassic Park’s protagonists at the conclusion of the book) have done an amazing job writing up the retreat. Service designer Fan Sissoko shared her high-points in a second-person narrative, Finnish innovation addict Simon Staffans was more into keywords with his reflection, Hollywood producer Steve La Rue chronicled the experiential high-points in his own way.

I stopped short of spending my trip figuring out who each F/S participant might have been in the alternate JP-branded version of the event where only a handful of us made it back to civilization, cloaked in NDAs and awestruck by what we’d seen… but rest assured, I’m planning a very strange corporate badging ceremony for the next time we all meet up in person.

Final night at F/S, leaving messages in a bottle for the sea… hopefully it’ll be washed out to “an island off the coast of Costa Rica”

I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of anything quite as meaningful to me in quite so particular a way as Forward Slash Story. It was an emotional theme park ride for me, like something you’d hear about on a movie poster’s pull quote reviews.

Like F/S, good theme park rides give you an unbelievable opportunity to dive headfirst into a crazy world, leaving you completely fulfilled (and exhausted) and with a status in that narrative (shared with your co-adventurers), which arrives all too blisteringly quickly. (There’s a Jurassic Park ride, a river adventure, and I hear it’s… just OK.)

F/S definitely fit that description; though it didn’t have marauding raptors, a car-crushing Tyrannosaurus rex, nor double agents in our midst stealing embryos and gene sequences (as far as I’m aware…). Although there were incredible days until sunset and nights until sunrise, it wasn’t an extreme survival experience.

But it did have one of Jurassic Park’s tropes, in spades. The whole event unfolded over a few precious days and nights in the company of a group of perfect strangers who didn’t quite understand the situation they’d been cast into, but who relentlessly pursued alternating states of chaos and equilibrium along the way, together.

We ended with a bottle full of sticky notes, as is our designerly way, surfed out into the ocean. I don’t think I remember that from the book, or the movie. We wrote on the notes what we were taking away from the retreat experience. What we learned we had to value, and appreciate.

Here’s mine:

PS — To my F/S tribe… I’m very much looking forward to seeing you all in whatever form our next iteration takes, perhaps an adventure to Isla Sorna.*

  • Translates to Sarcasm Island, no kidding