Your Mail-Order Future

A catalog of possibly real products

Last week the BBC reported on a new tattooing technology for fruit. In lieu of the tiny stickers that display brand names and bar codes, apples and oranges at UK supermarkets may soon be marked with that same information using a laser etching process that removes trace amounts of pigment from the skin of the fruit — a reverse tattoo, you could say, taking color away rather than embedding it.

In response to this news, Harvard metaLAB fellow (and re:form friend) Tim Maly tweeted:

“hello does your hyper-consumerist dystopia sci fi feature ads laser tattooed onto fruit? because it should now”

What is it about the wiggly border between the real and the imagined that so captures our attention? The BBC story was true, but it almost as easily could have been published in The Onion, because as those master satirists know so well, the funniest stories are the ones that serve up a grain of truth. (This has been verified by scientists and Homer Simpson.)

I found myself having the same amused-confused reaction when I first encountered TBD Catalog. Had I stumbled upon it in the wild rather than receiving it for review, I might not have known immediately whether the items pictured inside were truly on offer. A cursory flip through its pages reveals Skymall-esque product listings, but on closer inspection, it becomes clear that these things cannot possibly exist. At least not yet.

TBD Catalog is in fact a work of design fiction edited by Julian Bleecker of Near Future Laboratory, and created in collaboration with 18 other writers, scientists, artists and designers during one intensive weekend in Detroit. (For geeks of this particular ilk, you’ll know that each member of this 19-person team is someone with whom you’d want to spend a weekend generating far-out ideas.) The pages contain hundreds of products and dozens of classifieds and advertisements that together form a picture of our possible near-future, commenting on the problems of our current tech-loaded lives by presenting problem-solving consumer goods.

Take RestLenses Crowd Protector, the eyewear accessory that attaches to your standard glasses and “enables you to shrink people around you with a lovely tilt-shift effect.” Like putting an Instagram filter on your eyeballs, the lens blurs people and traffic, creating a more relaxing visual experience even in the midst of a mob.

Or the Home Data Mangler, which “uses the latest component debilitating and data eradicating technology to effectively ‘shred’ any remnant and latent data on your storage devices.”

There’s also VacationBot(TM), a subscription-based app that ensures your social streams reflect your life in the most favorable light. “VacationBot(TM) coordinates with your travel and activity profiles to ensure compatibility between your plans and experiences.” Unpredictability be damned!

The details in this catalog are extensive. There are prices on each product, of course, but also little icons to signal certain features and certifications. You can select items that are rapidly produced, composed of locally-sourced parts, fingerprint-proof. You can see how close to fully funded they are in their Kickstarter campaigns, and choose where in the world you’d like them manufactured (which changes the price).

So why do this? If you think it’s just for speculative humor, you’d be wrong. Design fiction, according to Bleecker, is an essential practice — it’s prototyping for ideas. “In my mind this fits alongside the canonical tools that a designer might expect to employ,” he told me, “Design research: check. Anthropology and ethnography: check. Draw a straight line: check. You should know how to do design fiction, you should be able to take an idea and know how to look at it from the side, take a glancing blow at it to test its integrity.”

Some of the products in TBD Catalog suggest the grim eventuality in which algorithms and automation reduce our cultural interests down to their narrowest range. Algoriture Pubishing Fiction produces one-of-a-kind custom print books generated from previous books you’ve read and liked (imagine your Amazon order history and customer reviews fed into a “matrix fiction” factory). On the other hand, a product like MyCrobe predicts that we’ll soon evolve beyond our obsession with antibacterial environments and embrace the benefits of healthy bacteria.

Bleecker’s hope with the project, he says, is that he’ll keep amassing suggestions for new products and eventually be able to create something like The Economist’s Year in Review, only it’ll instead be the possible-near-future-in-review. “A catalog doesn’t assume too much other than here are some things that exist in the world,” he says, “It’s an experiment in futurology.”

Given our current rate of technological change, don’t be surprised if you see the BBC reporting soon on the IRL advent of some of these as-yet fictional goods.

You can follow Sarah Rich on Twitter at @sarahrich. Subscribe to re:form’s RSS feed, sign up to receive our stories by email, and follow the main page here.