As I see it, there are two unspoken principles undergirding work to create better, more habitable near future worlds.
Somehow, at some point, we instilled into culture the splitting of time. By ’splitting time’ I mean that the future was cleaved from a notion of the present moment and then conceived of as another time. (It would be worthwhile and I’d be curious to understand the stories and musings on when, why, and how this happened, but I’ll leave that for another Ph.D. or a long weekend or something.)
It was recognized that humans have the ability to not only perceive that there is another time, the future, but it seems we can inhabit it in a curious way which we call “imagining.” And more than that, we are able to represent that imagination in a bunch of ways — by creating visual depictions of various sorts (drawings on rock walls, applying inky material to fiberous materials like paper and canvas, fashioning representations of possibility through various forms of prototyping possibilities — code sketches, architectural maquettes, electronics breadboarding and macroboards, building construction plans, design briefs, two page pitch decks for billion dollar businesses, etc. (Note that I deliberately left ‘storytelling’ off of that litany. For the purposes of this point I’d like to be more precise than ‘storytelling’, which I consider a broad and possibly incompletely understood container of more specific ways of expressing the imagination — of getting an idea out of ones head and into conversation with others. Also as I’ve said before, I think storytelling is significant but oversold — do we say over-indexed nowadays? — at least in the arena of design when applied to vision or futurist type work.)
With these two principles in mind you can make worlds.
The imagination seems to me to be a bit like a muscle. It gets built up through exercise, like crossfit training for the imagination muscle group or something. I wonder how much our imagination goes all flabby when we start becoming rote learners, or when we’re told to stick to a certain set of assumptions about how the world is meant to work. Or we’re encouraged to avoid particular ways of being or seeing in the world for the sake of entering into lauded forms of occupying space — billionaire makes more sense in one particular sense-making ideological apparatus over subway busker, for example.
When under-exercised, anemic and flabby, the imagination will fail us. It simply can’t see outside of the present state of affairs. Imagination becomes something like deciding which parking spot your car may fit in such that getting the door open without clipping the car next to you wouldn’t be a factor. Our inability to imagine other ways of being in the world beyond parking puzzles — I’m talking about the world in which acquisition at the cost of extractive and exploitive systems is normal — is an epic failure of the imagination.
A failure of the imagination is not only an inability to consider a possibility, but it is also an inability to socialize that possibility. (Dissiminate it in such a way that others can ‘see’ what you mean.) Surely someone somewhere imagined 9/11, a global pandemic, the intractable entanglements of a war in Afghanistan. The socio-political challenges to enroll the entirety of humanity to address the existential threat of climate change isn’t for an inability to imagine ecological collapse — heck, Hollywood has shared that vision with hundreds of millions of popcorn-popping movie goers. Someone undoubtedly imagined the deliterious consequences of social media, but the frothy rave was thumping way too loud for anyone to hear them squeak ‘fire!’
The failure of the imagination is a failure to inhabit a possibility and a failure to translate that possibility into some material form, and represent it in such a way that it draws attention to a sufficient degree that catastrophe is avoided or mitigated or even averted. This is where I feel earnestly that Design Fiction has a role to play.
A couple of notes from the back office:
We’re putting the finishing touches on the Design Fiction Product Design Work Kit. It was all set to go right at the beginning of 2020 but then, you know — things went haywire. I hope to have pre-orders soon. If you’d be interested, keep your eyes peeled here in the coming weeks.
Want more Design Fiction? We’ve started a Near Future Laboratory Design Fiction Discord nozzle here. What does that mean? Honestly — I scarcely know but I’d be curious to see what happens over there that helps inspire and evolve and develop Design Fiction.