The NESS Project and the Birth of Truck Babies

Originally published: Atmosphere | Autosphere | Biosphere
by Hiroo Yamagata ( 2001 )

Historically, the Japanese unemployment rate was virtually zero, but in the late 1990s, it soared, and as of January 2000 it was hovering around 4.7%. The figure's scary; it's the highest level of unemployment that Japan has experienced in half a century, and it doesn't seem to be a temporary thing. There are a lot of jobless people out there. With rampant restructuring going on everywhere, people getting fired every day, there's no job security, which means social instability, which means... Believe me, I know a lot about these things. I can give you a full lecture on unemployment. I can explain to you every implication of this figure for the Japanese economy. So when I say this figure is scary, I have every theory that there is to back me up. It is scary, and it's a theoretical fact. 'Mr. Yamagata, will you come to my desk for a while?' My boss called me up on the phone. What? All my projects were running smoothly, several minor glitches but none that my boss had to step in for. I guess he wants to assign me to one of those end-of-the-fiscal-year last minute projects that are thought up just to use up any budget surpluses. But, sorry boss, I'm already fully booked, and I have to visit Patricia in Australia for her opening. I walked up to his desk which is halfway across the floor, where he seemed to be leafing through some pictures. He didn't look up when I got there, just continued looking at the pictures in his hand. 'Sir? Before you say anything, I can't do any new projects, and you know that. And I will take that vacation next month.' 'Ah, Mr. Yamagata. What, new projects? What made you think of that? As the manager here, I have full knowledge of your work allocation, you know. Besides, we encourage employees to take vacations, in order to increase their vigour! So how are your projects? The Mongolia Post project? The Mallaca project? Oh, and the NESS project? And the ITS?' Something wasn't right. He had something on me. 'They're doing fine, boss. What is it?'

'Well, I just received these, and I thought you might be interested...' He tossed a bunch of pictures on the desk. At first, I couldn't make them out, but the shapes gradually started to come into focus. Oh yeah, Patricia's Car Nuggets. What the hell was my boss doing with these. And what are these? Truck Babies? I never saw these before... Then, it struck me. Shit Patricia. So you had to do this, didn't you? You just had to stab me in the back like this. I'm doomed. 'Very interesting material, especially considering its striking resemblance to the NESS prototypes, as you can clearly observe. Now, can you explain these for me? You're e-mail records here show that you have made a number of contacts with this... Miss Piccinini. How in the world did she get hold of this?' Suddenly, the 4.7% figure was no longer theoretically scary. Now it had become menacing. Physically.

Of course, it wasn't my fault at all. This wasn't supposed to happen. Patricia (nor anyone outside, for that matter) was never supposed to see that thing at this point. But before I go into that, I guess I have to explain about the NESS project.

The NESS Project. Not too many people know about this. It's the latest of the Japanese MITI (Ministry of International Trade and Industry)'s cross-industry frontier projects. The success of the VLSI project in the early 1980s really got to a MITI official's head and they started dreaming that they could somehow dictate the direction of future technology. So they launched project after project, focusing on what they thought would be the next big thing in high technology. The Sigma Project (aimed at better computer operating systems) and the Fifth Generation Computer Project, the Reality Project. But unfortunately (or maybe it was inevitably, depending on your position) all flopped... I mean, every one of them was rather limited in its success, and many people involved felt they had lost a considerable amount of face. So, when the last in line was launched, they decided to keep it secret for a while. That was the NESS Project, which began in the mid 1990s. This was understandable. The goal of the NESS Project was rather vague. Officially, it stood for 'Natural Evolution of Simulacra Systems' Project, but actually, it was a project that tried to create authenticity, or 'ness'; as in humanness, horseness, carness. You look at a car, and you don't have to see the details to figure out that it's a car. You sense its carness. But how do you create that sense? This was important. People don't buy stuff these days to actually use it. Some people buy US$50,000 watches. Their use value is virtually the same as a US$5 souvenier watch. The remaining US$49,995 value resides in the 'ness' of the watch. So how do you make that 'ness'? In Japan, where much of the manufacturing market has become saturated, this was the only way to sell things. And once you get to the heart of this 'ness', it's potential would be endless. Applications in the financial markets were another area. The market does not move around what actually is, but around what could be and would be, and their likeliness. If you could engineer likeliness, you can fuck with people's expectations. If you can do that, you can get away with anything, and you rule the market.

The project initially started with model makers and comic writers. The project soon grew out of that phase. It was discovered that authenticity was a function of comp-lexity, which is best achieved through a biological process. And, since one of the major contributors to this project was an auto manufacturer, the pilot project targeted 'truckness'. We took a small internal combustion engine vehicle (which was important because you had to have a proper interior to achieve the proper 'ness'), and covered it with a polymer sheet impregnated by this bio-engineered 'seed'. We called this the bio-ness layer and it grew, gradually covering the whole vehicle, giving off the truckness, and we were half way there... But then came the 'escape', and it was then that Patricia happened to get a sneak preview during her stay in Japan.

So there I was, in front of my boss, with 4.7% flashing in my head. 'How in the world does she know about this? I also have reports that say that you were showing her around the vicinity, so I assume that you are responsible for this. How did it happen? You realize that I will have to report this to the Ministry, don't you?' I had to say something. I had to talk my way out of this... 'Ah, sir, it wasn't me that let her see it, this was during the escape. No one could have possibly predicted that!'

Patricia wanted to take some pictures of highways in Tokyo. That's how it happened. OK. So I took her around, to fire escapes behind various buildings near my office. We were at our fifth location. Traffic was so-so that day, with the Metro Highway not completely clogged. Trucks, cars, some bikes, more cars, a huge empty truck... which was followed by them. I was almost shocked to death. Patricia must have been quite surprised, but screw her, I'll deal with her later, I had to make that phone call. I left her there, ran down to the bottom of the fire escape, and found a pay phone. 'Moshi moshi, Yoshi? It's me. I just saw...'

But before I could finish, Yoshi (one of the main team members) was screaming at the other end of the line. 'Mr. Yamagata! The Prototypes have escaped!'

'What are you talking about! Are you on drugs or what??! They don't have any fuel! They can't possibly move! And we didn't put any sensors on them! How can they leave?' 'I know! But there's no sign of a break-in or anything! I just checked the records, and it appears that the bio-ness layer grew some sensors and some kinetic device based on the engine! And we have no idea where they are...'

Actually, his words were a lot less coherent than that, but anyway. Now it was my turn to scream. 'I know where they are! I just saw them! They're on the Metro Highway, heading towards Hakozaki!' 'WHAAT!! OK, I'll send the hunt squad right away!' 'And don't forget to take care of the press!'

It was later discovered that they had somehow seen (or sensed, to be precise, as they have no eyes) a truck that brought a huge turbine to the lab that day, and they had followed it. The fact that the bio-ness layer was based on duck DNA may have had something to do with it. We're still looking into it.

When I got back, Patricia was in an understandably curious mode. And she did notice my reaction. 'No Hiroo. I did see those cute trucky things, and you did too. And you weren't simply surprised, you were alarmed and you went into action. You know something.' 'Oh, ummm... they were the prototype of a miniature truck, but they aren't released yet, it was supposed to be a secret project...' 'No! Those things weren't miniature trucks; they had the authentic essence of real trucks! They looked like... like half-way trucks! Wierdest thing I've ever seen...' 'Now Patricia, what the hell are you talking about!?! Essence of a truck?! What kind of a crazy idea is that? A small truck is a small truck. There's no such thing as a half-way truck. You can't separate the truckness from a truck and slap it on to something, can you??!' But of course you can. I knew that. And come to think of it, Patricia was an artist who actually worked in this field. In her Sheen work she focused on the essence of speed, in Car Nuggets she tried to capture ‘car-ness'... She knows it's do-able. Even then I didn't think that I had quite convinced her. Although she didn't say anything at the time, I now realize, having seen her Truck Babies, that she was really quite impressed. She saw them for only 10 seconds or so, but look at the accuracy of these images...

'A-a-and look at this! She just focused on the exterior! You know that the internal complexity oozes onto the exterior, and that is what makes the ‘ness' of something. That relationship between interior complexity and exterior detail is the biggest finding of this project. This... thing is just an empty thing. It shows nothing about the project or anything!' I said. This wasn't really true, and I knew it. The exterior is important for 'ness'. Seeing is believing. Visual cues play a large role. And another thing; Patricia wasn't an exterior-centric artist. She is quite conscious of the interior of her creations. Have you ever looked inside one of those Car Nuggets? However, I was certain that my boss knew nothing of this. He had never actually set foot in the lab nor read any of the real reports (and he sleeps through my PowerPoint summary presentations), and he certainly hadn't seen any of Patricia's other work. The look on his face showed that he was starting to get convinced. Good. One final push, and I might get off the hook... 'Besides, sir, just think of what you're saying! You're afraid of this?? Come on, she's an f-ing artist, for crying out loud! Everyone knows that artists are a bunch of unproductive shallow-brained useless social dropouts! Who takes them seriously?! I mean, do you? You want to show this to the Ministry? You think they actually care what some no-good artist, way down in Australia, made? We took care of all the major media, so there's nothing to back her up! You'll just make a fool of yourself!'

My boss gave me a long stare. I was worried. Did I push it too far? Was that a bit beyond the Japanese GAOP?(1) Then, he sighed.

'Well, maybe you're right...' And then he giggled. 'Yeah, you must be right. Just a piece of contemporary art. Nothing important like Van Gogh or Michelangelo. Maybe I was being too nervous. But I have to be cautious, just in case. And you should be cautious, too. There are others, who do not know you as well as I do, and they wouldn't understand, would they?'

I refused to comment on that, but my boss just went on. 'Oh, and may I ask you to cancel your vacation next month. There's a power plant in Cambodia that needs attention, I'm sure you'll be interested in it, nothing difficult. I don't know what you're plans are, but of course you can postpone them, can't you? After all, work always comes first, you know.' Usually, I would have said no. I really wanted to go to Australia for Patricia's opening. But at this point, it seemed very unwise to refuse, and it would be disastrous to mention Patricia or Australia. 'Uhuh, yes sir, I think I can manage that, no problem. Uh, gotta go now, I have a meeting... and oh, could I take these insignificant so-called art works? I'll throw them away for you on my way out.' 'Ah yes, I shouldn't keep you tied up. You may go now. And yes, please get rid of those. I don't want anyone else to see them and get weird ideas, you know...' And then, as I grabbed the pictures and was starting to turn around, he called from behind. 'Artist, huh? Yes, what was I thinking? No one in their right mind would take them seriously, would they? Hahahaha...' 'Hahahaha, no way, sir...' I was already halfway across the floor when I said that. Yeah, no way... But looking at the pictures in my hand, I wasn't so sure.

Oh, and the NESS project got one idea from Patricia's work. We've started trying to train the Prototypes using those 'Sisters'. We're getting quite good results too. We don't have any theory behind it yet... but hey, Patricia said so, and she seems to be on to something.

1. GAOP: Generally Accepted Office Protocol, as defined in ISO20900 series.