Imaginable alternatives

Tobias Revell takes the mic at AmateurCities to give a designer’s take on critical futures and the SmartCity!* shibboleth:

“Too often we are confronted with visions and stories of the future that say: ‘In the future everyone will live this way or that way. In the future everyone will have these things. In the future everyone will want that thing.’ This can often lead to acceptance of the idea that the future has been predetermined by powers greater than us. We need to imagine instead, what futures might bring. There are dozens of other small, niggling but significant alternatives that can challenge the theoretical basis for how the future might open up to a plethora of possible imaginable alternatives. Take for instance; domestic solar power, crypto currencies, end-to-end encryption or personal manufacturing. They are but a few that have the potential to either become incredibly empowering or to be sucked into our current continuous monument.”

In that essay linked above, Tobias is wrestling with a problem that I’ve been facing in two different settings, namely science fiction criticism and futures studies. I’m working on one paper for Futures and another for Foundation which are (at the nuts’n’bolts level) an attempt to explain and analyse the structural rhetorics of narrative as used to portray the future; what it’s really about is the telos of telling stories about the future — the purposes for which we create narratives of futurity, and the purposes for which those narratives end up being used. That distinction is important: the whole point of the argument is that even the most thoughtfully structured narrative will be read, by some audiences, in a manner orthogonal or outright opposed to that intended by its creator.

What interests me most about speculative design and critical futures are what happens when they are misparsed, or shorn of their original context. Dunne & Raby make the point that speculative designs usually require some sort of framing (e.g. by exhibition notes or labels) in order not to be “misread” as either a real product proposal or a purely artistic piece. I can remember plenty of times I cheerily blogged at Futurismic about some design-lab smartphone prototype as if it were a viable product, if not an actual production model, and I was far from alone in doing so; once those images were cut free from their original press releases or webpages, they became free-floating signifiers, which we would gamely situate into our (admittedly already hyperreal) cultural context. And therein lies the problem, in that it is human instinct to incorporate new narrative elements into  our own ontological metanarratives: to make new things fit into the world as we already understand it. In times of great change and upheaval such as these, this is a constant process of upgrade and change, like a *nix server automatically applying patches without ever needing to do a physical reboot.

That ontological integration effect is the thing that effective science fiction operates upon, I think — and, by extension, the thing that critical futures and speculative design operate upon; this is maybe what Suvin was on about with his “cognitive estrangement” riff – the jarring (thrilling? horrifying?) realisation that there is an ontological discontinuity between the world of the reader and the world of the reading. (Please note that Other Less Exclusive or Monolithic Theories of SF are Available; Suvin’s thing is just one piece of the puzzle.) Once the discontinuity is realised, it becomes a feature of the world of the reading, and thereby performs a sort of commentary or gloss on the reader’s world by proxy; this commentary is what we’re gesturing at when we try to describe what a science fiction novel or movie is “about”, at a level beyond a simple recounting of the main plot points.

This is also the mechanism by which the “flatpack futures” of glossy tech ads — and, in fact, almost all ads — work; in this case, the discontinuity created is the absence of the featured product or device in the viewer’s reality, a vacuum which is filled by a desire which assumes that possession of the diegetic prototype depicted in the foreground (e.g. a macbook as thin as a fag-paper) will necessarily reproduce the implicit background features of the world of the text (a spacious, airy and seemingly pristine open-plan Californian home in summer, populated by healthy happy white people with time to consume conspicuously) in the world of the viewer. Advertising is notoriously ineffective in terms of shifting specific products, but far less thought is expended on the cumulative psychosocial effects of swimming in an amnion of unattainable futures, as we all do; perhaps the contemporary struggle to even imagine utopia, as identified by Fredrick Jameson, is correlated with the sheer ubiquity of the utopian narratives of futurity with which we are bombarded perpetually, whether as ads, political manifestos, economic forecasts or whatever else.

So you see the problem, I hope: designers, critical designers, fiction writers, movie makers, copywriters and ad-makers, urbanists, architects and economists, futurists and critical futurists and manner of related professions all use exactly the same set of tools, but for very different ends. What I’m interested in is how the specific deployments of those tools, and the precise strokes or techniques with which they are applied, create desire and/or apprehension in the reader, regardless of intention. Answering this question will not only make it easier to choose the right tools to increase the likelihood of the desired reading, but also to identify exploitative narrative strategies; it’s the first analytical step toward an ethics of futurism, if you like.

[ * Readers in the academy will be aware that “Smart” (whether referring to cities, or seemingly anything else) is approaching the status of Infuriatingly Ubiquitous Funding-Call Buzzword, to the point that even the people promoting the funding streams in question end up making self-deprecating jokes about its inclusion. As frustrating as this is in the short term, it suggests that its lifespan may nearing an end; however, it further suggests that Smart has every potential of becoming the new Sustainable — a knee-jerk password, a hollowed sign with everything (and hence nothing) to signify. Selah. ]



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