Play Lab | Exercise 5: Reflect, Critique, Document

One of my frictions with speculative design is that it often produces a piece for the audience that offers one, cohesive, emotional response. In this way our futures either force us to imagine a utopia or dystopia (although, the range of goodness or evilness respectively in these futures can vary). These views illicit a set of mental questions to wrestle with that operate somewhere along the lines of ‘would I be happy in this future or not?’ in order to make some contemporary commentary about the direction we are headed.

While that seems like the most logical thing for speculative designers to do, I am more interested in the products of speculative design which explore a utopia and a dystopia living side-by-side. While this approach is harder to digest, I think it offers a more realistic approach in the way that it echoes more of the conflicting and less definitive reactions we have towards problems today. Taking the contemporary example of the iPhone, the second approach not only asks ‘would you want to live in a world with this technology?’, but instead asks you to draw a moral line in the sand by adding, ‘would you want to live in a world with this technology, if this world also had 1/6 people living in poverty?’. By drawing a scenario with both good and bad, the question becomes a lot more complex, and I believe the answer shows a greater reflection of not only what we want for the future, but at what price we are willing to pay for it (or prevent it).

When it comes to gene therapy and genetic engineering, I feel as though the field is too often presented as a dystopia, or in some other third-party category that is neither good nor bad, but usually just very strange. And while I will easily admit I have a biased view of the field because of my work in it, I do feel like I have some responsibility as a designer to lift some of the shadow cast on this particular area of science. (My idea of this ‘shadow’ is made up of the way I see genetic engineering portrayed in the media, legislation, advertisements such as ‘GMO free’, and the overall negative and usually unfounded opinions that people share with me.) While this sense of obligation motivated me to chose this topic for our final, I quickly realized that I couldn’t (in good faith) just counter the dystopian perspective by creating a genetic engineering utopia.

I say that because I think presenting a singular positive view would have been just as disingenuous and ill-founded as presenting an entirely negative view. Not only would it not have represented the benefits and risks of the field in a realistic way, it would also not have done an authentic job representing the sort of challenging choices we will have to make with this technology. Like all fields, there is good and bad. But to me, the real challenge happened when exploring the ways these positive and negative views are different, interconnected, and how they split in the first place.

To me, my project used the subject of gene therapy and genetic engineering to talk about a much bigger thing — this idea of a tipping point, or the when, what, and whys behind how an idea detrimentally splits between its utopia and dystopia, and how both of these worlds may coexist within a singular future. In my particular scenario, I found that it was the technological needs which fueled the utopian side and the consumer wants that fueled the dystopian side; while I can’t say for sure that this is a concrete pattern, it does raise an interesting provocation about how our needs and wants may differently influence the futures we imagine, or provide some insight on what causes this split on a more universal level. Maybe presenting this split is one of the critical roles of the designer. Maybe the designer’s job is to not shape a future society, but also help the society become aware of how it’s getting there in the first place. I believe the role of the designer is beyond presenting a narrative with a singular view, or presenting a narrative with a positive view and negative side-effects. Maybe the role of the designer is about presenting two equally probable and opposite coexisting views. This, I believe, pushes us beyond just an awareness that the future will contain side-effects to mitigate, or choices we have to make, but it actually asks us more about how our values shift and split the inevitable technological trajectories. In this view, we are responsible. It becomes less true that things evolve linearly and instead emphasizes that the cycle of things is constantly responding to and reflecting the cultural values it lives within.