Fiction serves a critical function, which is to reflect the experiences of living in a world as if we were a part of that world. Fiction models life like a kind of simulation of possibilities, compelling us to consider, reflect, surmise, and inhabit. We immerse ourselves, to varying degrees depending on our affinity and interest in the fiction, in these fictional worlds and those worlds submerge themselves, sometimes quite completely, in our consciousness.
Fiction effervesces gamely, shaping our imagination, consciousness, our habits, our aspirations, the things we wear, the words we speak, the tears we shed and laughs we laugh, and the various and sometimes deadly kinetic actions we perform, supposedly at the sharp end of our free will. All this fiction fashioned from words on a page, flickering images on a screen, an image with a bit of text on a billboard, a tweet. It bubbles its way into ourselves, into our outlook. It shapes and informs our sense of possibility.
In my opinion, there are few other satisfying explanations for what happens to us when we are exposed to an effective bit of fiction — whether visual, literary, artistic. Or some good, old-fashioned bit of coercive click-bait marketing.
We see ourselves reflected in, sometimes desirous of or cautioned by these fictional worlds, whether those worlds were crafted by Tolkien, Spielberg, or some anonymous creative team at Wieden+Kennedy. And each of these kinds of worlds have profound implications for how we become ourselves, how we know ourselves, and, for our purposes here, how we imagine what could be.
I say this to make a point about what I’ll call ‘Marketing Fiction’, which is the oftentimes ne’er-do-well second cousin to Design Fiction.
At the Mercedes-Benz keynote blast at the last absurd-yet-normal Consumer Electronics Show in 2020, Mercedes-Benz presented a stunningly obtuse bit of Marketing Fiction — a car inspired by the fictional world Pandora, from James Cameron’s film “Avatar”. As fate would have it, a few weeks later Mercedes-Benz would announce to the financial markets a brutal financial loss.
I struggle to even begin to explain the concept behind this concept car. It would be generous to say that it appears to be a first year Transportation Design student’s self-indulgent end of term project. Form seems to be the starting point, followed by a bunch of ill-conceived and hurried explanations for the car even existing, let along materialized at great expense. It has a ‘vegan interior’, it is all about ‘sustainable luxury’ and biomorphics, and, as if we’ve all been aspiring to become a four-wheeled creature, ‘you become one with the car’. These explanations are all awkwardly laminated onto the concept in an attempt to salvage some measure of purpose and dignity so as to justify calling it an ‘eco-friendly’ concept car.
It would be easy to go after the car as Cameron’s libido on four wheels. I should say, I mostly enjoy being entertained by the guy’s early films. The fiction of a film provides a reflection of our social selves and a point of entry to immerse and shape ourselves through a good bit of drama. “Terminator” (the first one..never the sequels) continues to provide a fun, entertaining cautionary point of reference as we enter a world overflowing with AI-infused ‘droids and drones. Roombas and Alexa start off as cute, but then..you know..Skynet.
Cameron’s “Avatar” was the kind of entertainment that makes me feel quite queasy-uneasy so I would expect to feel similarly when a car is built based on it. The allegory was cringe-worthy, essentializing indigenous people (off-world/other-worldly species, sure — but it’s an allegory) in a familiar and age-old colonialist trope.
You know the way this plays out. Expeditionary invaders, secured in a military perimeter, occupy the planet for extractive and exploitive reasons. And then of course the ‘noble savages’, well — they know better as to how to live in the world than the invaders do because they exist in essential harmony — they are Pandora. Suppression of the locals resistance is facilitated by literally occupying the body of the indigenous beings. Etcetera. I’ll stop there.
So, naturally the next logical move is to use this film — a story about indigenous rights and the virtues of a harmonious co-habitation in the world — as a basis for envisioning the future of luxury automobiles because, like..sustainability and stuff. And then call it an instance of ‘sustainable luxury’ so you can still charge a bundle so that those who buy it will feel like they’re doing their part for ‘sustainability’. And why not spend that bundle elsewhere if you really care about sustaining something, rather than a car? And, hold on - what exactly are we sustaining, anyway? Luxury? Pandora? Status?
Only a Marketing Department with too much time and too much budget could thread this improbable needle.
A month after envisioning the Mercedes-Benz future, the company’s future turned grim — mounting financial losses, dividends slashed, pressures on the overall outlook for the future of transportation, global pandemic, and all sorts of other business-y challenges.
The CEO’s response was that he was ‘not satisfied’ with this performance, but they were going to cut costs in order to fix the problem, a strategy straight out of a tiresome, well-worn playbook. Clearly the idea of doing a concept car came straight out of that same well-worn playbook, as neither stratagem seems to be up to date with the contingencies of the world at the moment. Perhaps it is time for a new playbook. Or maybe even to play the game differently? Or even play a different game?
What role does the Marketing Fiction play in shaping our consciousness about the future?
Well, the good news is that Marketing Fictions exist solely to create mounds of click-bait. So — have fun with that dumpster fire. (Have you seen where these things lead to? Barely legible websites, pop-up ads, remnant advertorial pages.)
The bad news is that Marketing Fictions are enormous investments in preposterous spectacles designed solely to create mounds of click-bait.
That’s sad. Because the time, energy, human imagination and ingenuity, not to mention corporate treasure all used to get a few hundred words out in mostly parroting industry trades feels irresponsible given the real-world challenges we (and certainly Mercedes-Benz) face.
So what’s to be done?
The alternative is that some real-world challenges could actually be addressed directly by organizations with the potential to effect meaningful, measurable change, such as a Mercedes-Benz, which is a big machine with resources, talent, ingenuity, engineers, factories, etc. Wasting those resources on a ridiculously self-indulgent thing that sits on a stage seems almost felonious. And even if the goal is to create a ‘north star’ that inspires, surely Mercedes-Benz could do a better Design Fiction that signaled and showed a path towards a more habitable, probable future rather than this fantasy four-wheel fiction, and also wasn’t preposterous. (I mean..it wouldn’t even serve a practical purpose as a production prop in a forthcoming Avatar film like an equally silly but at least purposeful James Bond car would.
It should be evident by now that we need less click-bait and more consciousness-shaping fictions that diligently, earnestly, thoughtfully represent considered ways out of the intractable problems we face. We need better, probable fictions that image and imagine more habitable future worlds, and that draw a direct line to meaningful action, rather than knee-jerk clicks.
This is the objective of Design Fiction, which is quite distinct from Marketing Fiction. Design Fiction is righteous and values-driven. It considers its implications earnestly and urgently. It imbues itself with meaning and purpose derived from the goal of imagining and envisioning more habitable futures.
This isn’t to say that Design Fiction is “against” business, or anti-Capitalism. That’s silly. That’d be a bit like being against breakfast or anti-water. Business and Capitalism are one kind of Operating Systems by which futures are created. It’s just that we’re running, like..a buggy DOS that keeps crashing and the damn disk drive is making a crunching noise.
We need imaginings from more futuristic and future-friendly Operating Systems, more futuristic business models, more futuristic ways of organizing our imaginations, will, and talents. (Parenthetically, Patagonia, comes to mind as an example of a more futuristic OS.) But, these future OS’s will not come from the kinds of Marketing Departments that drunkenly put together a Cameron Concept Car, nor will they be inspired by these kinds of Marketing Fictions.
We need to learn again how to imagine with value so we can create better kinds of fictions. It’s critical that we do.
In Episode 002 of the Near Future Laboratory Podcast, Scott Smith and I talk a bit more about the “why” of Design Fiction. Subscribe and get each farm-fresh episode!
Also, please do consider supporting this newsletter, which you can do by becoming a member through the Near Future Laboratory Patreon page. Your membership lets us know you care about the value of this work and the time and effort that goes into it. To put this in practical terms, your support is the equivalent of a small cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee per issue. I do in fact enjoy Dunkin’ Donuts coffee from time to time…as a sip of nostalgia from back in the day when I’d swing by the one in Union Square during dot com one dot oh.