The Test Tube is an online media project that was developed by the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) in 2010. It features Canadian climate change activist David Suzuki in an interactive lecture on exponential growth. Suzuki, who has been working on climate change studies since 1971, uses the metaphor of bacteria in a test tube to explain the implications of exponential growth to human life.
SBS Broadcaster bought the rights to The Test Tube, having had great success with previous NFB project Highrise.
The Test Tube is also available at Suzuki’s personal website, NFB, Doco Lab and on the planetgreen.com and Treehugger.com websites where it was first launched on Earth Day, April 22.
All 7 billion of us are connected by a basic mathematical reality.
This is the premise of The Test Tube, an interactive project that explains how the “reality” exponential growth will affect future human life.
Just like the speed of light or gravity, exponential growth is an intrinsic and immutable factor that must be understood if its effects are to be mitigated.
The Test Tube aims to do this by inviting the user to listen and participate in an interactive presentation by Canadian scientist David Suzuki.
Human life, Suzuki begins, is like bacteria in a test tube where humans are the bacteria and the planet is the test tube. If we place one bacterial cell in the test tube at zero minutes by one minute the cell will have divided and there would be two. If the growth cycle of the bacteria is sixty minutes, when Suzuki asks, is the test tube only half full? Surprisingly, it is not until the 59th minute.
The Test Tube underlines the profound implications this “reality” has for human life as we pass the 59th minute. It is not only a question of overpopulation. It is a question of how we value time. It is a question of challenging our growth-obsessed society.
Loc Dao, creative technologist on The Test Tube concludes, “The project is a modern parable about our insatiable appetites, the fallacy of growth, and the things we can’t change.”
In its initial stage, The Test Tube was largely aimed at David Suzuki supporters and fans. Suzuki has a huge following in Canada. He’s a radio celebrity, active spokesperson and was ranked fifth by CBC viewers in a poll to name the “Greatest Canadian.” The Test Tube in this context is an extension rather than an innovation upon the scientist’s work in other traditional media such as print. The intended audience is not defined by their interest in new digital formats but by their interest in Suzuki.
But if we were to consider why SBS Broadcaster was interested in purchasing the license for The Test Tube, it would obviously not be to take advantage of a Suzuki fan base. What The Test Tube offers to an Australian market is the chance to reach a new generation of young, web savvy users who look for engaging and interactive ways to receive information. The social media elements of the project are similarly geared towards a younger market. Although, the content is sophisticated it is presented in short bit-size pieces and is accompanied by visually stimulating graphics and design.
The Test Tube is a web-based production that relies directly upon user input and interaction. It was followed up by the film documentary Force of Nature: The David Suzuki Movie, which was released December 2 in 2010. The documentary continues to be promoted via The Test Tube website.
The online video project will also be part of the live film screening 3 Stories of Time and Place in Amsterdam.
This year, The Test Tube became available as an app for iPhones and iPads.
The project extends Sazuki’s test tube metaphor by “placing” the users inside a virtual test tube.
As the bacteria in this test tube, they are asked the following question:
The user must interact with the project and answer the question if they are to proceed to the following part.
Their answer is crucial to how The Test Tube develops. As they watch video footage of Suzuki explaining the exponential growth problem, graphics of bacteria cells appear in the background. These can be enlarged to reveal live tweets related to the key word from the initial answer. If for example, you wrote “sleep,” tweets such as “I’m in a relationship with sleep and I get some every time” are streamed in the background.
Although you begin as a singular bacterial cell, these tweet cells duplicate as the video progresses much as the bacteria in Sazuki’s metaphor do. Importantly too, the integration of a live twitter data feed ensures each experience is unique.
Do explains, “The experience is never the same because the data from Twitter is constantly evolving and growing like the bacteria.”
The data from the answers contributed by the users are collated into a section called Most Common Minutes. Here, users can see what have been the most popular answers. This is a key aspect of the project’s attempt to make us more engaged with our world. If we are indeed at the point of collapse, what does it say about how we value of time, if our top desires are: sleep, read, watch, eat, nothing?
After the video presentation finishes, the user is invited to share The Test Tube experience on Twitter and Facebook. They can also look in closer detail at the responses other users made.
Although the documentary sticks to a linear format, consisting primarily of the 3-minute video, the user can also has the option of investigating more about The Test Tube, the movie and find out what are the Most Common Minutes.
Interface design and navigation
The Test Tube is a visually engaging and highly designed project. It features a modern, innovative soundtrack and interactive graphics. All graphics are informed by the Test Tube concept with bacteria as the obvious inspiration for the typography. These graphics interrupt Suzuki’s presentation to underline the key ideas. There is also the opportunity to zoom in and out on Suzuki, an option I found to be honest a little useless.
Navigation of the site is fairly straightforward. Given its linear format (two clicks and you have entered the video), it is difficult to get lost. A navigational bar at the bottom allows you to go back and forth in the video. Moving between the home page and the video is more challenging. Users must reload the video every time they leave the page. The link is also difficult to find, situated in the bottom corner.
The Test Tube is unique in that it relies directly on social media to inform the development of its content. Drawing on live tweets generated by user input, the project cleverly integrates various platforms and audiences. The analogous use of bacteria with tweets is also pertinent as social media becomes every day more saturated. It is perhaps the best modern day example of exponential growth with retweeting, new followers and mentions, expanding our connections while also bringing us closer.
In addition to Facebook and Twitter, the user also has the option of sharing The Test Tube via Stumble Upon, Delicious and Digg.
The Test Tube is a visually stimulating and innovative project. I enjoyed the interactive elements and did not find that they hindered the accessibility of The Test Tube. I liked that I could compare my responses with others and it was interesting to scroll through the Most Common Minutes, although I am not sure for how long they will continue to administer user responses.
My key criticism of the project is that there seemed to be too much design and too little content. Given the high level of production, I was expecting there to be more comprehensive information available on the site. Although the video was informative, the ideas it raises could have been explained further in more sections. The section About The Test Tube is basically just a repetition of content given in the video.
Another issue I had with the project was the randomness of the tweets. Once it was explained and I had researched the idea behind the bacterial cell tweets, I appreciated the concept but when I first entered I was a little confused. I wasn’t sure if the tweets were coming from followers of The Test Tube or were people who had given the same answer initially. This moment of confusion disconnected me with the video as I clicked on the random bacteria to understand what the point was. Perhaps an earlier explanation would have made me curious rather than perplexed.
Here are some more links relating to The Test Tube and such: