We don’t have a good speculative design for planetary-change. The operating model of the business-design pipeline is exploiting the planet at one end and users at the other. The idea that these might in fact be the same thing would mean admitting that an operational focus on individual users and discrete time windows was ineffective design. And large sprawling change over massive time windows and shifting human/non-human interactions does not conform to the way in which revenue is reported. Again, this isn’t the fault of speculative design; designers need to eat. But, under these conditions we can’t to look at it as a catch-all solution for planetary collapse.
Posts tagged futures
While it’s certainly true that dystopian science fiction has become popular in the last few decades, it doesn’t follow that no one has been putting forward more optimistic pictures of tomorrow. Just because Stephenson and others embraced the dark images of cyberpunk, environmental doom, and whatnot doesn’t mean everyone did. From the 1980s to the early 2010s, the late author Iain Banks (who I have nominated for canonization) spun fantastic visions of a post-scarcity society he dubbed The Culture, which was full of artificially-intelligent robots and ships, giant space colonies, individuals who lived almost forever and regularly swapped genders, and seemingly endless, endless wonder. Similarly, Star Trek went off television from 2005 to 2017, but its vision of post-scarcity goodwill and polite liberalism — what a friend described as the Enlightenment-on-speed — continued all the while on the big screen.
Over the past few years, an international team of climate scientists, economists and energy systems modellers have built a range of new “pathways” that examine how global society, demographics and economics might change over the next century. They are collectively known as the “Shared Socioeconomic Pathways” (SSPs). These SSPs are now being used as important inputs for the latest climate models, feeding into the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) sixth assessment report due to be published in 2020-21. They are also being used to explore how societal choices will affect greenhouse gas emissions and, therefore, how the climate goals of the Paris Agreement could be met. The new SSPs offer five pathways that the world could take. Compared to previous scenarios, these offer a broader view of a “business as usual” world without future climate policy, with global warming in 2100 ranging from a low of 3.1C to a high of 5.1C above pre-industrial levels.
“The Future was better protected than the Past”
Experience is interconnected and entangled. Unpredictable. It can never be fully explained. There is always something that slips beyond words. A description or a model of an interconnected world does not encompass all the complex processes of making connections.
While the sense of the moment may be one of accelerated change, there is simultaneously drag, weight and the inevitable delays of change that takes too long. Injustices perpetuated. We find ourselves in situations without an escape velocity.
Is the uncertainty we’re experiencing just a series of erratic oscillations or are we in the free fall toward something more massive? Things are collapsing, and sometimes the best thing to do is let them. Accept the gritty reality of it all.
This doesn’t mean giving up. Quite the opposite.
“We’re still trying to figure out what time is,” Gleick said. Time travel stories apparently help us. The inventor of the time machine in Wells’s book explains archly that time is merely a fourth dimension. Ten years later in 1905 Albert Einstein made that statement real. In 1941 Jorge Luis Borges wrote the celebrated short story, “The Garden of Forking Paths.” In 1955 physicist Hugh Everett introduced the quantum-based idea of forking universes, which itself has become a staple of science fiction.
“Time,” Richard Feynman once joked, “is what happens when nothing else happens.” Gleick suggests, “Things change, and time is how we keep track.” Virginia Woolf wrote, “What more terrifying revelation can there be than that it is the present moment? That we survive the shock at all is only possible because the past shelters us on one side, the future on another.”
“Enjoy the present. Don’t waste your brain cells agonizing about lost opportunities or worrying about what the future will bring. As I was working on the book I suddenly realized that that’s terrible advice. A potted plant lives in the now. The idea of the ‘long now’ embraces the past and the future and asks us to think about the whole stretch of time. That’s what I think time travel is good for. That’s what makes us human — the ability to live in the past and live in the future at the same time.”
Over at Superflux, our work investigating potential and plausible futures, involves extensively scanning for trends and signals from which we trace and extrapolate into the future. Both qualitative and quantitative data play an important role. In doing such work, we have observed how data is often used as evidence, and seen as definitive. Historical and contemporary datasets are often used as evidence for a mandate for future change, especially in some of the work we have undertaken with governments and policy makers. But lately we have been thinking if this drive for data as evidence has led to the unshakeable belief that data is evidence.
“the future is mostly in the past”
–Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Antifragile.
nik gaffney (via http://flic.kr/p/UicDjL )
“Beaches today are where we turn our backs not just on the world at large but also on our inland selves. They are a sanctuary, groomed to remove all distractions, sometimes including the other creatures that once made them their home. Beaches are thought of as a place where time stands still, devoid of a troubling past but also of an ever pressing future.”
–John R. Gillis, Life and Death of the Beach, New York Times (June 30, 2012)
““found design fiction” is stuff already lying around (“the future is already here, it is just unevenly distributed” ==> some future stuff is lying around).”
So, while flatpack futures attempt to deliver a whole world, system or universe embedded in one short vignette, lossy futures — be they artifacts, simple scenarios, wireframes of speculation, rich prompts, brief vignettes or some other material object — give us the scaffolding and ask or allow us to determine the details ourselves. In doing so, they transmit the critical data, the minimum viable future, and give us the opportunity to fill in the gaps we think are important to understanding, or have a dialogue around what these gaps may mean. The irony here is that flatpack futures are often high fidelity productions, complex, if flawed, narratives. They are beautiful renderings, but submerge engineering, social, business model, ethical or spiritual problems in favor of presenting a glossy face. Lossy futures are lo-fi, and intentionally omit detail as a feature, not a bug.
If the creative process were to be seen as a syncopated beat in alternating Dionysian and Apollonian modes, we’d definitely reached a Bacchic ad libitum on Wednesday night. Fuelled in part by the cumulative effects of nearly three days’ commensality and countless glasses of wine, participants were in a riotous mood. Distinctions between work and play grew fine indeed. The mounting insanity, the atrocious DJ’ing, cabin fever induced by the overcast weather — I had to escape. I fled the loft to walk in the twilight and talk to yaks and, returning to an eerily silent downstairs by the fire, became absorbed in black elephant selfies. By the end of this evening (and I don’t exactly know when it ended) we had 34,111 words. Tomorrow, it seemed, the sober process of redaction would have to start all over again.
This future fundamentally requires us to reimagine and reinvent the strategic corporate function, it’s capability, behaviors, protocols & strategies.
“We must prepare for unforeseen situations beyond the scope of expectation and imagination.”
We at Changeist, along with a few associates, set up the Thingclash project about 18 months ago now, with the intention of starting a conversation around human values in the Internet of Things (IoT), and to provide tools to help make that conversation easier, more expansive, and more inclusive. We’d like to think we helped drive some of the public critical discussion around the IoT that is now happening more in the mainstream than it was two years ago. With a toolkit finally in place, we have run workshops at various scales, and focused on various specialist topics, over the past year or more. Now, to mark the return of Thingscon NL in Amsterdam, where we ran our first public workshop, we’re compiling the array of cards and exercises together to release as a single Creative Commons-licensed set of materials, available for download.
Never mind the economics of suborbital flight. One day you too may be flown over as a party favour for some super-elite. Take your in-flight relaxants, and hope you don’t bruise up too badly on your way through an atmosphere that anthropogenic climate change has made too turbulent for the cheap intercontinental flights people used to enjoy. You just wait.
As interpreted, ‘Real’ Reality is something that sits outside of ‘Official Reality’. Official or ‘Red Reality’ is the reality of mainstream culture which is the preferred reality of ‘Power’ (substitute Power for Ruling Archon as is your prerogative). It is through the construction of this Official Reality that allows ‘Power’ to govern. Within the Red sphere of Reality ‘Power’ can be said to play by its own rules. The diagram also suggests that there is an expanded ‘Reality’ within which you can play by different rules. It is at the the boundary between the official sphere of reality and the outside that ‘Power’ gets to choose which rules and which cards are in and out of play.
First communication became digitized and free to everyone. Then, when clean energy became free, things started to move quickly. Transportation dropped dramatically in price. It made no sense for us to own cars anymore, because we could call a driverless vehicle or a flying car for longer journeys within minutes. We started transporting ourselves in a much more organized and coordinated way when public transport became easier, quicker and more convenient than the car. Now I can hardly believe that we accepted congestion and traffic jams, not to mention the air pollution from combustion engines. What were we thinking?
First they took over communication. I don’t believe what I hear anymore. I only trust what I see out there in the streets. Then, when they took over the energy grid and fuel supply, things started to move quickly. Transportation became increasingly restricted. It made no sense for us to use cars anymore, since their control systems wouldn’t let us go anywhere inside the city anyway. And the militias control the countryside, so with a bit of skin pigmentation, there’s no telling whether you’ll end up as labor or food. I wonder what those flying cars look like from the inside. The only things that fly around here are the autonomous police drones. Forget about using public transportation. Unless you want to get tased. Or shot. Their facial recognition software is not good at distinguishing dark faces, so they may well confuse you with a known threat. Now, I can hardly believe that we were once allowed to move freely about the city, not to mention not being watched by persistent, omnipresent security systems. Sometimes I use the sewers when I need to go to somewhere far. They haven’t rigged them up with cameras yet, I think. I guess the smell is deterrence enough for most people. It’s hard to wash off that journey.
The “adjacent possible” is the most salient, most shared and perhaps most important of a cacophony of colorful metaphors about biology, information, and networks offered us by Stuart Kauffman in his seminal “At Home in the Universe”. Kauffman is an American theoretical biologist whose work on the mathematics of boolean networks and the biology of genomic regulatory networks in practice has defined our understanding of both the possible origins of life and of the contemporary dynamics of complex adaptive systems, such as the biosphere and the econosphere at scale. So what is the adjacent possible?
If we believe that, indeed, “software is eating the world,” that we are living in a moment of extraordinary technological change, that we must – according to Gartner or the Horizon Report – be ever-vigilant about emerging technologies, that these technologies are contributing to uncertainty, to disruption, then it seems likely that we will demand a change in turn to our educational institutions (to lots of institutions, but let’s just focus on education). This is why this sort of forecasting is so important for us to scrutinize – to do so quantitatively and qualitatively, to look at methods and at theory, to ask who’s telling the story and who’s spreading the story, to listen for counter-narratives.
“There often are competing claims as to who invented a technology and when, for example, and there are early prototypes that may or may not “count.” James Clerk Maxwell did publish A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism in 1873. Alexander Graham Bell made his famous telephone call to his assistant in 1876. Guglielmo Marconi did file his patent for radio in 1897. John Logie Baird demonstrated a working television system in 1926. The MITS Altair 8800, an early personal computer that came as a kit you had to assemble, was released in 1975. But Martin Cooper, a Motorola exec, made the first mobile telephone call in 1973, not 1983. And the Internet? The first ARPANET link was established between UCLA and the Stanford Research Institute in 1969. The Internet was not invented in 1991. […] Economic historians who are interested in these sorts of comparisons of technologies and their effects typically set the threshold at 50% – that is, how long does it take after a technology is commercialized (not simply “invented”) for half the population to adopt it. This way, you’re not only looking at the economic behaviors of the wealthy, the early-adopters, the city-dwellers, and so on (but to be clear, you are still looking at a particular demographic – the privileged half.)”
–The Best Way to Predict the Future is to Issue a Press Release. Audrey Watters.
“We should be cautious about putting too much faith or fear into elected officials […] At the end of the day, this is just a president. [….] If we want to have a better world we can’t hope for an Obama, and we should not fear a Donald Trump, rather we should build it ourselves.”
Un des rôles les plus intéressants du design fiction, du design spéculatif et de tous leurs corrélats, est d’aider à combler une faille significative dans la communication des futurs. Historiquement, à la place des scénarios concrets, on faisait un ensemble de recherches documentaires sur les tendances à venir, on rentrait dans une salle de conférence, on montrait sa présentation, on faisait un rapport et on le remettait aux personnes en charge de prendre les décisions. Pas besoin pour cela de les emmener dans le même monde ou le même état d’esprit que vous, afin de leur donner à voir ces futurs. Donc vous ne créez pas de connexion, d’empathie avec eux. Comme le disaient Bruce Sterling ou Julian Bleecker il y a sept ans : “le design fiction en tant qu’outil de communication permet de créer des interactions et d’engager des discussions sur le futur qui n’existaient pas auparavant. Il aide à rendre ces futurs assez réels pour tout un chacun, de manière à pouvoir engager avec eux une véritable conversation.”
This question has been on my mind for over a year now. In a time that seems to become more dystopian each day, it might be rather normal to yearn for new positive visions. I’m also not very fond of the utopian visions of Silicon Valley’s libertarians (Musk, Brin & Page, Zuckerberg, Kurzweil, etc.). Furthermore, ten years of Merkel here in Germany might play a role. So I’ve been investigating the topic of utopia, read books (fiction and non-fiction), essays, articles, etc. It has been quite easy because of the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia, last year. But I’m still finding it hard to answer the question if utopias are what we need right now, and if yes, what kind of utopias. Because the track record of past utopias is not exactly stellar.
Here we describe the complex relationship between reality and fiction, how this is managed in the design fiction process and how, in a successful project, fiction influences future reality.
1. Establishing the coordinates of reality: understanding the non-storyworld
A thorough awareness of these coordinates is an essential starting point for any work of design fiction. The origin is provided by the core theme of the project - in our case energy infrastructure. Factors informing the coordinates are therefore political, economic, ecological, material, behavioural, historical, and social.
In developed countries the dominant approach to energy is based on a national grid system, a model typically implemented in the early 20th century. Such systems were designed for a one-way flow of electricity - from remote state or corporate-owned centralised generating stations to individual consumers via transmission and distribution lines.
In the 21st century a growing demand for energy, combined with environmental concerns and climate action, has led to major shifts in policy. Two examples are the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Recovery Act) and the European Commission’s Smart Grids Task Force. Such acts essentially call for classic grid topologies to evolve towards more distributed systems, exploiting bidirectional energy flows facilitated by, for example, wind turbines, solar PVs, and hydroelectric, and also two-way flows of information aimed at optimising supply and demand and making the system more transparent, safe, and efficient.
While such changes are in essence positive, substantive change is limited by constraint no. 2: legacies of the past. The key issues are:
- The radial model of central generation (through burning fossil fuels or nuclear fission) and distribution via a grid system have led to a well-established system of governance and ownership of energy infrastructure (both state and private)
- These owners are reluctant to cede control
- Alternative means of generating energy such as renewables could provide sufficient means but currently rely on connection to the grid (on terms dictated by its owner)
- The ubiquity of the grid system has resulted in an ‘always there’ approach to energy consumption meaning that it is easily taken for granted by consumers
- The ubiquity of the grid system means that all electrical products are adapted to it (with a few unique exceptions such as the wind-up radio)
- Solutions tend towards the generic one-size-fits-all, ignoring the potential of bespoke possibilities based on unique landscapes or contexts
Once the problematic has been well defined it becomes possible to begin developing the storyworld by carefully manipulating the constraining coordinates.
2. Creating a fictional storyworld with a new set of constraints
As we consider this point it becomes apparent that this is perhaps where speculative design and design fiction differ. A kind of chicken-and-egg conundrum: strategically, what comes first - world or object?
Speculative design starts with and centres on the object. It extrapolates existing product lineages guided by the promise of an emerging technology and contemporary trends. Auger-Loizeau’s Audio Tooth Implant (2001) is a classic example. The storyworld is then built around the artefact to examine its potential implications, or it is left up to the viewer to imagine the future society in which the hypothetical artefact exists.
Design fiction starts with the storyworld. The artefacts follow, designed for that world like props in a film. The main reason for developing a storyworld - in the design fiction approach - is to provide a new context or set of circumstances to design for. These are carefully crafted to counter or address the key issues identified in Stage 1.
Fiction writers have given us countless carefully described storyworlds through the ages. Scholars have written at length on the details of their construction. But there are specific (and very recent) approaches to developing a design fiction storyworld that are worth noting. In his study of alternative monetary systems, for example, Austin Houldsworth has developed a methodology he calls ‘ counter-fictional design’. Houldsworth’s approach borrows existing storyworlds - storyworlds drawn from literary history - and asks how money would function in these alternative societies. A monetary system designed for B. F. Skinner’s utopian novel Walden Two, for example, describes a payment system that challenges the established monetary function of ‘a store of value’.
This approach works well when a novel can be found that aligns with the particular theme in question. For example, George Orwell’s 1984 would be a good match for redesigning things based on alternative constructs of privacy. The problem is that the storyworld of many sci-fi and fantasy novels resides too far along the fictional end of the fact-fiction scale, resulting in a design solution that, in Žižek’s terms, ‘shatters the coordinates of our reality’. With the loss of plausibility, the value (at least for design fiction purposes) is diminished.
An approach that more directly manipulates the coordinates of reality is counterfactual history - a method that begins by changing a specific historical event and extrapolates the consequences to build the storyworld on a parallel timeline. Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is one commonly cited example: it imagines an alternative history in which the Axis Powers have defeated the Allies in World War II and Germany and Japan have divided America - the story playing out in Japanese-occupied 1960s San Francisco.
A design fiction example of this approach is Sascha Pohflepp’s project, The Golden Institute, based on a different outcome to the 1980 US general election. A Carter victory would have enabled a continuation of energy-friendly initiatives undertaken during his previous term; these were promptly cancelled by Reagan when he took office. Pohflepp’s project described the research developed by the fictional institute, creating a poignant reminder of what might have been lost. The storyworld here simply provides a logic to furnish an alternative history in which large resources are funneled into renewable energy.
In the case of our project the motivations are somewhat similar - to develop a storyworld framework to inform the design of an alternative energy infrastructure. Likewise the project takes place in a real location: Madeira. Thus the storyworld is an alternative version of the island that retains some of its eccentric and original elements: the complex and rich history of the levada irrigation system, alternative modes transportation, and sometimes hubristic notions of transportation infrastructure and island planning.
What has changed, however, are the elements that led to the problems identified in Stage 1, the 20th century forces that shaped the island’s energy history. In our storyworld with its counterfactual history, the island of Madeira has:
- No radial model of central generation
- No central ownership and control
- No generic solutions
- No patenting and knowledge protection
- No consumption of fossil fuels
These fundamental differences allow for the imaginary reconstruction of society and human behaviour - from how energy is generated, to the rethinking of products that no longer have wall sockets ready to provide them with always-available power.
3. Designing in the fictional world: new constraints, new possibilities
When the fictional world has been constructed in sufficient detail, it can become a testing ground for new ideas and approaches.
We mentioned Mohammed J. Ali’s energy-focused project, A New Scottish Enlightenment, in an earlier post. Similar to The Golden Institute it describes an energy related counterfactual history, in this case an alternative outcome to the 1979 Scottish independence referendum leading to a split from the United Kingdom. New Scotland’s key policies include legislation aimed to deliver increasing resources and independence to its citizens. This simple counterfactual history provides a powerful framework through which to rethink energy. Redesigning Madeira is essentially a re-location of Mo’s project (we are working with him) but with the key goal of actually implementing the design solutions.
Charles Eames once described design as ‘a plan for arranging elements to accomplish a particular purpose’. Eames’s statement can be used to compare and contrast the function of normative design and approaches to technological application with the strategies/methods being developed for this project. As with energy, dominant approaches to the design of products and services were formulated last century, and likewise the systems and infrastructures in which designers operate exist along similar topologies with the elements being gathered and arranged at central locations and distributed radially around the globe. The role of the consumer is limited to simply interacting with the end product – for the time that it remains viable. Building on participatory design methods, combined with open-source knowledge practices, Redesigning Madeira will draw its elements from the local context: both natural elements in the landscape (as a source of energy) and cultural elements in the landscape (that can be potentially reused and recycled).
The plan is informed by local knowledge and terrain. Our island’s unusual landscape (as we’ve noted previously) is ideal for experimentation. It holds the potential to inform and inspire the design of numerous bespoke energy generation and storage solutions, from highly radical macro speculations to more pragmatic, plausible human-scale solutions. The unique approach of jointly designing for the real world and its fictional counterpart means that prototyping is possible on different levels. Tangible concepts can be prototyped in the engineering sense, made to function better in specific real locations; while speculative concepts, as well as longer term social and ecological impacts (of functioning prototypes), can be tested in the storyworld.
The final stage will be to make more deliberate use of the diegetic prototypes, not only to suspend disbelief about change with the purpose of facilitating:
- A focus on local rather than central - materials, skills, landscapes, tools, etc.
- Energy considered ecologically rather than siloed
- Open-sourcing all knowledge
- Turning ‘devices’ into ‘things’
- No consumption of fossil fuels
- ‘Make it yourself’ mentality
Conclusions: beyond autonomy
In a famous lecture to Cornell University students in 1948, Nabokov declared: ‘Literature is invention. Fiction is fiction. To call a story a true story is an insult to both art and truth.’ But however untrue, fiction can still inspire real action in the world by giving the designer permission to bypass existing constraints and work with an entirely new, fictional set of constraints. On the more practical end of the scale, ideas conceived to meet these fictional constraints can provide alternatives to entrenched realities: new forms of energy generation and new models of consumption, for example.
Another passionate believer in the autonomy of art, Oscar Wilde, overturned conventional wisdom more than a century ago in his essay ‘The Decay of Lying’, when he declared: ‘Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.’ But again, this apparent proclamation in support of autonomy and l’art pour l’art has important real-world implications. Wilde argues in the same essay that the best art and literature teach life how to be: not through dull didacticism, but by imagining and giving shape to preferred futures. This is one essential function of design fiction: by allowing our imaginations to travel beyond pragmatic (e.g. industry) constraints, we open up the potential for radical new discoveries.
Important questions remain: Who is design fiction for? What is the ideal medium? Does it exist more as a framework to help the designer? Or is it a fully fledged genre, aimed at a public audience? How much is too much fiction?
Our overall approach, which blends speculative and practical design, aims to be agile and versatile. Although our current project is focused on the theme of energy and based on the characteristics of one particular island, it also stands as an example of a methodology - an approach that facilitates the imagining of alternatives and also the means to artificially test them in real life. The approach could equally be used to explore energy alternatives in other locations, or different themes such as transportation. The key goal, once again, is to close the loop - from fiction back to reality.
As Wilde states at the end of ‘The Decay of Lying’: ‘Come! We have talked long enough.’ Time for a swim.
Turbo Generator - Siemens Pressebild; Bullock Carro, Funchal, Madeira - Harry Pollard. Both images CC BY-SA 3.0.
Barreirinha swimming complex, Madeira - James Auger.
With the autumnal equinox upon us, Crap Futures is nearing its first anniversary. We began shooting ideas back and forth last September when James arrived in Madeira. Now, after a long, hot summer, it seems like a good moment to take stock and reflect on the past year whilst also making plans for what comes next.
In the post When the sun shines we gave an overview of our ongoing design project. This has been ticking along in the background since early 2016, with time spent articulating the research methodology, transforming the concept into funding proposals, and identifying and discussing with potential collaborators. Back in April we described the problem of using renewable energy sources on the island (and beyond), identifying some of the factors currently hindering their implementation - for example historical legacies. The project asks:
What might our energy infrastructure look like if it were not constrained by these outdated constructs?
A key motivation has always been to move beyond the discursive, the critical, the speculative and the fictional. As we wrote at the time: ‘With this project (unusually) we’re not interested in fiction.’ In retrospect this statement seems a bit rash. So before moving into the making phase, we thought it necessary to probe a little deeper into the relationship between fact and fiction. Or more precisely, What is the role of fiction when trying to make change - desperately needed change - in the real world?
To start with Bruce Sterling’s familiar definition:
‘ Design fiction is the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change.’
There are several keywords here that demand closer examination. First, fiction - in The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, Slavoj Žižek describes the viewer’s reading (of cinema) by stating that, ‘if something gets too traumatic, too violent, even too filled in with enjoyment, it shatters the coordinates of our reality - we have to fictionalise it’. This statement is helpful as it succinctly describes two states of being and the relationship between them: the nonfiction world, defined by the coordinates of reality, and its fictional counterpart (diegesis).
Second, diegetic - from diegesis: the world in which the story takes place and for which the prototypes are designed. Through the manipulation of a particular set of coordinates, a fictional or alternative world can be constructed.
Third, a more complex issue is raised by the use of design when combined with the term change. The recent emergence of counter or oppositional forms of design (such as design fiction etc.) suggests that there are problems or limitations with mainstream design; for example, design’s affiliation with the market and the prevailing demands of consumption and innovation. These are the (normative) designer’s coordinates of reality: in practice experienced as constraints that limit the potential of design to make substantive change (see Future nudge). Designing for a carefully crafted diegesis can provide new constraints, in turn facilitating new solutions.
Fact and fiction should not exist as a dichotomy but rather an elastic scope of possibility. Good design fictions do not shatter the coordinates of reality; they stretch and manipulate them in carefully crafted ways, hence the suspension of disbelief. But, and this is important, to what end? Sterling’s phrase ‘deliberate use’ suggests purpose … but what is the purpose?
In Building Imaginary Worlds, Mark J.P. Wolf examines why authors find it necessary to invent other worlds. He concludes that the answer lies in ‘ the changing of Primary World defaults, to amaze, entertain, satirize, propose possibilities, or to simply make an audience more aware of defaults they take for granted’.
In his introduction to Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury offers some additional motivations:
‘Sometimes writers write about a world that does not yet exist. We do it for a hundred reasons. (Because it’s good to look forward, not back. Because we need to illuminate a path we hope or we fear humanity will take. Because the world of the future seems more enticing or more interesting than the world of today. Because we need to warn you. To encourage. To examine. To imagine.)’
In the closing sentence of his book Technophobia! Daniel Dinello suggests that ‘At its best, science fiction projects a dark vision of the Technologist’s posthuman future that encourages us to create a better one.’
But does highlighting wrong paths lead us to preferable ones?
‘Do violent, dystopian visions ever lead to positive, substantive change?’
Design fiction futures, it is true, are often dystopian - this is one of several lines of critique aimed at design fiction projects. The upcoming Speculative Now! conference in Split, Croatia, for example, has chosen to focus debate on the role of speculative design in the ‘real world’. Similarly with our project we aim to advance the goals and practice of design fiction by defining positive paths. Our approach will bring fiction-based prototypes back into real life, seek to produce tangible societal outcomes, and work to turn (positive) aspects of fiction into fact. Design fiction can help us work toward ‘the future we actually want’, imposing our own agency in how the future happens.
In our next post we will examine three stages of design fiction, explaining how a carefully contrived diegesis can provide the ideal framework for redesigning the real world.
Christian Schussele - Men of Progress [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; SAFEGE test track at Châteauneuf-sur-Loire, France (used in filming of Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451), via Wikimedia Commons
“Science fiction isn’t prediction. It’s imagining storms from the prevailing conditions. We’re not a mirror to the future. We’re just your first, best weather station.”
As we progress to a point where fewer people are needed to pilot vehicles, and more roads become “robot readable,” we will inevitably see new uses being found for roads, and road infrastructure changing to optimize for machine, not human, legibility and use. Given the substantial role human roads play in shaping our social and commercial environments, like rivers and rails before them, streets, buildings, and towns and cities will gradually reshape to reflect machine uses.
People in the innovation-obsessed present tend to overstate the impact of technology not only in the future, but also the present. We tend to imagine we are living in a world that could scarcely have been imagined a few decades ago. It is not uncommon to read assertions like: “Someone would have been unable at the beginning of the 20th century to even dream of what transportation would look like a half a century later.” And yet zeppelins were flying in 1900; a year before, in New York City, the first pedestrian had already been killed by an automobile. Was the notion of air travel, or the thought that the car was going to change life on the street, really so beyond envisioning—or is it merely the chauvinism of the present, peering with faint condescension at our hopelessly primitive predecessors? The historian Lawrence Samuel has called social progress the “Achilles heel” of futurism. He argues that people forget the injunction of the historian and philosopher Arnold Toynbee: Ideas, not technology, have driven the biggest historical changes. When technology changes people, it is often not in the ways one might expect: Mobile technology, for example, did not augur the “death of distance,” but actually strengthened the power of urbanism. The washing machine freed women from labor, and, as the social psychologists Nina Hansen and Tom Postmes note, could have sparked a revolution in gender roles and relations. But, “instead of fueling feminism,” they write, “technology adoption (at least in the first instance) enabled the emergence of the new role of housewife: middle-class women did not take advantage of the freed-up time … to rebel against structures or even to capitalize on their independence.” Instead, the authors argue, the women simply assumed the jobs once held by their servants.
“Think of it like another framing of the Tofflers’ old “future shock” saw, perhaps. Future shock was the notion that the future would come on so fast that some people would not be able to adapt, and would live in a continual state of psychological trauma. I think the Tofflers were wrong, in that we’re a highly adaptive species who can handle any torrent of novelty, event and innovation, but the price to pay is that, shit, it gets tiring.”
Located on the futurist left end of the political spectrum, fully automated luxury communism (FALC) aims to embrace automation to its fullest extent. The term may seem oxymoronic, but that’s part of the point: anything labeled luxury communism is going to be hard to ignore. “There is a tendency in capitalism to automate labor, to turn things previously done by humans into automated functions,” says Aaron Bastani, co-founder of Novara Media. “In recognition of that, then the only utopian demand can be for the full automation of everything and common ownership of that which is automated.” Bastani and fellow luxury communists believe that this era of rapid change is an opportunity to realise a post-work society, where machines do the heavy lifting not for profit but for the people.
I believe that it is correct to view luxury communism from a utopian perspective, not in the sense of something that is impossible but in the sense of something that attempts to open up the sense of future possibilities as opposed to a mere repetition of present conditions. Partially this is to act as a critique of the present, partially to act as a spur towards an open future. Indeed, the use of the term ‘communism’ implies a radical alternative future vision, one that is subversive of the present and, yes, even utopian. It is here that I think that fully automated luxury communism, by putting too much faith in capitalist technology overcoming scarcity and the need for labour, fails to imagine a more general transformation of social relations. To avoid this tendency, and to encourage thinking about the overcoming of the paradoxes and miseries of capitalism, we need to seriously engage in utopian experimentation in future possibilities.
As someone who cares deeply about social change and personal transformation, that was exciting to me. Larps were said to let players experience particular emotions, to step into each other’s perspective, possibly even explore artistic and political visions for new forms of society.
All that was ‘normal’ has now evaporated; we have entered postnormal times, the in between period where old orthodoxies are dying, new ones have not yet emerged, and nothing really makes sense. To have any notion of a viable future, we must grasp the significance of this period of transition which is characterized by three c’s: complexity, chaos and contradictions. These forces propel and sustain postnormal times leading to uncertainty and different types of ignorance that make decision-making problematic and increase risks to individuals, society and the planet. Postnormal times demands, this paper argues, that we abandon the ideas of ‘control and management’, and rethink the cherished notions of progress, modernization and efficiency. The way forward must be based on virtues of humility, modesty and accountability, the indispensible requirement of living with uncertainty, complexity and ignorance. We will have to imagine ourselves out of postnormal times and into a new age of normalcy—with an ethical compass and a broad spectrum of imaginations from the rich diversity of human cultures.
The home of the future has a long history. In 1893, at the World’s Fair in Chicago, domestic science and home economics were presented on the global stage for the first time as academic disciplines, topics to be systematically considered and innovated upon. In 1933, the Chicago World’s Fair was themed “Century of Progress.” It had a whole exhibition called Homes of Tomorrow, advertised by a flyer touting “the home of the new era … a steel house you would want to live in,” one that’s “fireproof and sanitary.” The home itself was now fair game for innovation, and companies like Monsanto and General Motors started to get on board.
So the fact is that our experience of the world will increasingly come to reflect our experience of our computers and of the internet itself (not surprisingly, as it’ll be infused with both). Just as any user feels their computer to be a fairly unpredictable device full of programs they’ve never installed doing unknown things to which they’ve never agreed to benefit companies they’ve never heard of, inefficiently at best and actively malignant at worst (but how would you now?), cars, street lights, and even buildings will behave in the same vaguely suspicious way. Is your self-driving car deliberately slowing down to give priority to the higher-priced models? Is your green A/C really less efficient with a thermostat from a different company, or it’s just not trying as hard? And your tv is supposed to only use its camera to follow your gestural commands, but it’s a bit suspicious how it always offers Disney downloads when your children are sitting in front of it.
The futch ignores complexity. The futch denies how the internet amplifies existing hierarchies and upholds structural inequality. The futch is every broken promise of every new app or internet service. There’s always demand for more legible future. Futch-peddling is about as noble a profession as astrologer, and one with about as little accountability.
Prediction is an industry, and its product is a persuasive set of hopes and fears that we’re trained or convinced to agree upon. It’s a confidence trick. And its product comes so thick and fast that, like a plothole in an action movie, we’re carried on past the obvious failures and the things that didn’t even make sense if we had more than five seconds to think about them.
America’s problem is not that it needs more jetpacks. Jetpacks are not innovation. Jetpacks are a fetish object for retrofuturist otaku who jerked off to Judy Jetson, or maybe Jennifer Connelly’s character in The Rocketeer. “We were promised jetpacks!” they whine. Yeah, dude, but what you got was Agent Orange. Imagine a Segway that could kill you and set your house on fire. That’s what a jetpack is. Jetpacks solve exactly one problem: rapid transit. And you know what would help with that? Better transit. Better telepresence. Better work-life balance. Are jetpacks an innovative solution to the problem of transit? Nope. But they sure look great with your midlife crisis. But railing against jetpacks isn’t an answer to the question. Why so negative?
Postnormal times or “PNT”, a concept developed by Ziauddin Sardar, is a description of the turbulent and changing times we are living in. Sardar defines PNT as “in an in-between period where old orthodoxies are dying, new ones have yet to be born, and very few things seem to make sense.” This period is characterized by three C’s: chaos, complexity and contradictions, which come together to produce uncertainty and different varieties of ignorance.
Jellyfish are not just expected to be mere beneficiaries of global warming; they are actually emissaries of global weirding, which is a term coined by Hunter Lovins and popularized by Thomas L. Friedman. I prefer ‘global weirding’ to ‘global warming’ as the former is a prognosis while the latter is a diagnosis. Rather than simply stating what is happening, which is precisely what ‘global warming’ denotes, ‘global weirding’ suggests that the very life systems we have come to rely upon, such as the water cycle or oceanic temperature ranges, are experiencing massive changes–the results of which are going to weird, literally perhaps, our world. As jellyfish have been implicated in a variety of potential disasters, including clogging the intake pipes of a number of nuclear power plants around the world, they are the perfect symbol for postnormal times.
“After extensive training, we wanted to find out if the talent in trading might be rooted genetically and crossed the top traders with each other. After only 20 days, we had 28 new rats (15 males and 13 females) , and we soon started to train again (even reducing the training time). The results were astounding: the second generation of top traders had a much better performance than their parents, but undoubtably, further research will be necessary to confirm this finding of ours.”
I think it’s important to look at the present moment with clear eyes and understand the wonder of a contemporary context where we can see the glass lakes of Titan and satellites orbiting the sun can report to our phones. Or even that several thousand years of developing communication technology means that I can type this right now and you’ll see it in seconds. We tend not to see it. We’re conditioned to see the present moment as “normal,” with all the banality that implies. This is not a banal moment. It’s the sort of intense, chaotic moment, full of strange things, that we previously only found in science fiction. “Right now” feels like all of science fiction happening at once, and needs to be considered in that context – that we’re living in that promised world of miracles and wonder, and that we’ve been trained by the culture not to see it.
For the appetizer, the long table of guests shared bowls of seasonal salad from Graze the Roof, a vegetable garden located on the roof of Glide Memorial Church. The main course was a frittata with onions (served in a compostable box) from Sprig, a new dining-on-demand service founded by Nate Keller, Google’s former executive chef. Dessert consisted of lemon curd mousse with strawberries and mint, prepared with Nomiku, which bills itself as the first immersion circulator made for home cooks. These dishes have little in common, except for one thing: They all provide hints of our collective food future, as imagined by the Institute for the Future, which collaborated with Nomiku and Suppershare to put on the dinner.
The Global Food Outlook Program’s research and forecasts explore the tensions and possibilities of food futures, from people’s everyday food habits and choices, to the dynamics of global food markets, to the complex environmental issues that sustain food production. For seven years, we’ve worked with organizations and the public to bring systematic futures thinking to food system efforts around the world. Our long-term view encompasses multiple scales, levels of uncertainty, and radically different possible futures. We develop foresight to help others develop insight and take action toward impactful, transformative, resilient change.
“There’s no shortage of guidelines these days on how to ‘prepare for the future.’ […] foresight engines are pulling in thousands of citizens to re-imagine the future of governance, cities, and peacebuilding. They’re generating over 1,800 paths out of poverty and through the Good Judgment Project, 3,000 regular citizens are making forecasts on a range of issues – from political developments in North Korea to Venezuelan gas subsidies.”
Rhinehart removed the Soylent. In the formula that he and his teammates have settled on, the major food groups are all accounted for: the lipids come from canola oil; the carbohydrates from maltodextrin and oat flour; and the protein from rice. To that, they’ve added fish oil (for omega-3s; vegans can substitute flaxseed oil), and doses of various vitamins and minerals: magnesium, calcium, electrolytes. Rhinehart is reluctant to associate Soylent with any flavor, so for now it just contains a small amount of sucralose, to mask the taste of the vitamins. That seems to fit his belief that Soylent should be a utility. “I think the best technology is the one that disappears,” he said. “Water doesn’t have a lot of taste or flavor, and it’s the world’s most popular beverage.” He hoisted the pitcher of yellowish-beige liquid. “Everything your body needs,” he said. “Do you want to try some?”
The Four Narratives around Unknown-Unknowns
For artists, writers, designers and theorists and thinkers, however, infrastructure fiction is best described as a call for you to radically change the way you understand the role of technology in your lives, to look afresh at the relationships between the things you do and the systems that make it possible to do them. I’m not asking you to “think outside the box”, here. On the contrary, I want you to think exactly about the box. Infrastructure fiction isn’t about transcending constraints, it is about coming to terms with our constraints as a civilisation, about understanding their nature, and internalising the systemic limits that come from living in a sealed ecosystem with finite resources.
Speculative design generates proposals that, rather than problem solving for our current state, which is much of the focus of traditional design, look to digest the large, complex and ambiguous issues related to our futures. It uses rigorous research to first understand and then rewire different information, experts and emerging technologies to turn these complexities into understandable narratives that allow a kind of design for debate. The outcomes intentionally trigger a user to go beyond traditional need, solution, and consumption, and to question, consider, and speculate. In this way changes and findings that would normally seem irrelevant or overwhelming are teased out into scenarios, objects and services. This is achieved by breaking down unfathomable issues and making them more emotionally approachable. The results are ‘cultural prototypes’ in a way.