Working Notes of a Practising Neo-Generalist (#10) — On good places, yet nowhere to be found

‘In Search of Utopia’ — An exhibition at M-Museum in Leuven, Belgium, inspired by Thomas More’s book Utopia, an iconic work that was first published 500 years ago in Leuven by the printer Dirk Martens.

“If anyone can refute me — show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective — I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.” — Marcus Aurelius in Meditations, Book 6:21 (translated by Gregory Hays, The Modern Library, New York)

On good places, yet nowhere to be found

In Thinking ahead, the British philosopher Nigel Warburton writes, “Søren Kierkegaard famously pointed out that the only way we can understand life is backwards — we are compelled to live moving forwards, but attempt understanding by looking at what has happened.”

“In my lifetime so much that has happened wasn’t foreseen,” says Warburton. Only recently, the idea that people would be carrying a small computer in their back pockets, or that cars would be driving autonomously, would have struck most people as far-fetched.

“Today, many people are confidently predicting that robots and computers will soon be doing most jobs. Some are worried that artificial intelligences will take over the world, and won’t have much patience with the comparatively limited intellectual capacities of human beings. Yet, who knows what will really happen? Clever people make huge mistakes in their predictions. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who had trained as an aeronautical engineer, and was cleverer than most, declared that no one would ever reach the Moon only a few decades before someone actually did.”

But despite our inability to predict the future, we shouldn’t stop thinking about it, Warburton argues. Not only do we need to contemplate what might happen, what is likely to happen, or, even, what might happen if things go horribly wrong, we should also spend time daydreaming about a utopian future — an ideal to aim at. As long as we understand that “there’s always the chance that a flapping butterfly wing somewhere might just tip us over into conditions that move us a step towards that future.”

It’s precisely this understanding that seems to be lacking from what is often called ‘future design.’

According to Kyle Chayka, imagining the future is big business. In an article for The Verge, titled The Future Agency, he writes about Tellart, an American technology-focused design agency that has been around since 2000 and now has several outposts, including one in Dubai. Its job is “to create believable, immersive visions of the future based on the needs of its clients.”

Tellart is at the forefront of an industry that doesn’t really have a name, says Chayka. It is sometimes labeled ‘design fiction,’ which Alexander Porter, the co-founder of Scatter, defines as “prototypes that allow you to suspend your disbelief about the ways the world is changing around you.” According to Chayka, “It’s science fiction made real in the form of interactive exhibitions, product demonstrations, and behind-the-scenes consulting work.” It tends to pop up at any event Davos-ish enough to include the word ‘influencers.’

Museum of the Future in Dubai. (Photograph: Tellart)

When Chayka met Tellart co-founder Matt Cottam, Cottam cited the author and New School sociology instructor Barbara Adams, who believed ‘every act of future making is an act of future taking. Creating a high fidelity image of the future may broaden people’s imagination for what’s possible, Cottam added, but it can also seriuoesly narrow their perception of what’s possible or what their options are.

“What sets Tellart apart from bigger, more traditional creative agencies is that it functions more like a Renaissance artist studio or starchitecture firm — a collective of individual artists and engineers cooperating to create a body of work under a single label,” Chayka writes. “Each Tellart project comes with a holistic narrative […] and the story is a vital part of getting participants to believe in the vision.” However, it doesn’t include dystopian situations where technology is buggy and glitchy. Cottam believes, “The everyday malfunction makes the future seem realistic — just as haphazard as the present — but the proposition isn’t particularly meaningful.”

But Samantha Culp, the co-founder of Paloma Powers, a small agency that works with visual artists, often incorporating technology, reminds us that the international artists and technologists creating our popular ideas of the future do so in contexts shaped by the pursuit of profit or power. Afterall, if you can render the future in advance, after all, maybe you can also control it.

Museum of the Future in Dubai. (Photograph: Tellart)

“This year, Tellart’s Museum of the Future took on the pressing issue of the environment, casting it in the techno-utopian light that future fiction is known for. ‘The goal was to reimagine climate change and look at it as one of the biggest and most exciting opportunities of our generation,’ [Tellart co-founder Nick] Scappaticci told me,” Chayka writes.

“The idealized narrative that Tellart created is meant to comfort one of the wealthiest and yet most ecologically imperiled regions in the world. In this future, the money from oil has solved all the problems that oil dependency creates — thanks to technology, the desert becomes a permanent oasis. Tellart’s work reassures its viewers that the environment is an issue that will simply be fixed one day, through no effort on their part, save perhaps cultivating a taste for bugs. Yet there is no guarantee this future will come to pass, and no vision for it spreading to less prosperous parts of the world.”

Chayka concludes by saying that “Tellart’s boutique futurism is ultimately an optimistic one, motivated by a belief that, with funding from its clients, we can tweak the incipient future simply by envisioning it.”

Reading The Future Agency left me in limbo. I can’t deny that Tellart spends more than enough time daydreaming about a future in which we have come together, solved our problems, and are more in harmony with the world, as Scappaticci told Chayka. But I can’t help feeling that, at the end of the day, it’s just fiction, unless others decide to act upon this techno-utopian vision by doing all the hard work of actually facing the challenges and solving the problems that stand between where we find ourselves today and ‘Utopia.’

“We are the industrial designers of the 21st century,” Scappaticci told Chayka. I am tempted to say, “I hope not.” I would like to reserve that honour for the people who actually confront our many complex challenges head on, and try to solve our problems.

Another issue I have with Tellart’s utopian approach, is mentioned by Matt Cottam himself, when he quoted Barbara Adams, saying “every act of future making is an act of future taking.” During her talk at The Conference, futures consultant Angela Oguntala gave a good example of what is often called the ‘preferred future’ — the future we want to happen, as opposed to probable or possible futures.

“Pop culture has told us over and over again that talking into your watch is something you should want,” Oguntala told her audience. “It’s futuristic, it’s sexy; so we have constantly tried to produce it, and reproduce it, as if using your watch as a telephone is some major milestone in human advancement, or some great unfulfilled need that is finally being met. […] The thing about visions of tomorrow is that, if we believe this is the thing that is going to happen in the future, than this is how we will behave in the present. These are the decisions and actions that we will make today, in order to make that future come to live. And that is exact why visions are powerful. Because the creep in, we collect them, and then they inspire us and give us something to work towards.”

So far so good.

“But in the same ways that our visions can inspire us, they can also start to severely limit us. Because if we hear the same narratives all the time, and we see the same visuals all the time, then that becomes our scope of possibility. Then that becomes our benchmark for what we believe is good, and what’s not. And ultimately what that means is that you’re left with a narrower set of choices and imaginations about what the future could, or should be like.”

Oguntala’s answer is to start building a collective mindset that is open and flexible to explore the many alternative futures and different realties that are out there. These are extremely important because, as we all know, there is not such thing as the future, or a single utopia. “There is no such thing that sits around here on a timeline and then shows up one day. Instead, there are many possible futures, and each one has some likelihood of coming to live. Our collective job is to imagine those alternative futures for us to pick apart and inspect, for us to get a good understanding of the kind of outcomes that we want. And the kind of outcomes that we don’t want.”

“Google is doing the driverless thing. Tesla is doing the driverless thing. Apple is doing the driverless thing. This is going to be the world. So a question for a tech company is, do you want to be part of the future or do you want to resist the future?” — Travis Kalanick, CEO and co-founder of Uber, in an interview with Stephen Colbert, The Late Show

Jared Robert Keller, a guest researcher at Nesta, has examined how these futuristic narratives were deployed in the past. This, he says in an article for TheLong+Short, Futures not of our making, can offer insight into how they are currently being used today — and what to do about it.

“The fact that industry bosses from Henry Ford to [Uber‘s] Travis Kalanick have been deploying similar rhetoric for more than a century speaks to the success of these narratives, and to the extent to which these same industry bosses have largely been able to avoid engaging in meaningful discussions about the impact of automative technologies. Indeed, their success makes it difficult to even imagine any alternatives. Such framing, according to the philosopher Elizabeth Groszn, annihilates any future uncontained in the past and present,” Keller writes.

Keller believes it’s time to challenge dominant discourses and articulate our alternative visions of the future. This will require taking steps to encourage an informed dialogue between tech companies, governments, non-profits, and the public.

Tellart would, no doubt, say that this is precisely what they are trying to do, ‘encouraging an informed dialogue.’ But what to them may seem as just one of many possible utopia’s — a, rather than the vision for the future — will, at the end of the day, narrow the imagination of their clients. After all, most of us aren’t able to juggle multiple views. Dreaming is fine, and there’s nothing wrong with being optimistic about our future. If we weren’t, we could just as easily give up and move to Mars with SpaceX (if you’re ‘lucky’ to be part of the 0.014035087719298244 per cent, that is). But optimism shouldn’t stop us from imagining what might happen if things go wrong. And even so, there are always, what Donald Rumsfeld, in a state of profound wisdom, called ‘unknown unknowns’ — the “things we don’t know we don’t know.”

Let’s not forget that Thomas More, back in 1516, when he coined the word ‘utopia,’ not only referred to the Greek eu-topos, or ‘good place,’ but also to ou-topos, meaning ‘no place’ or ‘nowhere.’ Tallert’s and many other utopia’s could be precisely that: good places, yet nowhere to be found.


“The future is a place where we store all of our baggage — our anxieties, our frustrations, our hopes, our excitements and fears.” — Angela Oguntala
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