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Contemplating the future.

Contemplating the future.

How often do we contemplate the future? In this sense, I'm not referring to our shopping list, or our student loans, getting promoted at work, starting a family, finding a soulmate, or preparing for retirement. I exclude these types of future-oriented concerns because most of us feel that we have some modicum of control over their outcomes. We can see a path by which our individual agency can make an impact. So, when I ask the question about contemplating the future I have in mind the things that are progressing in labs and research institutions all over the world, things like autonomous vehicles, robotics, bioengineering, the Internet of Things, human augmentation, and artificial intelligence. I don't believe we think much about these futures, but in many ways, they are potentially the most transformative and could affect our lives as much as the futures with which we do contend. As a professor of design, my objective is to prepare students to be conscientious problem solvers and creators of the physical and informational environments that surround us. This week my students in Collaborative Studio 4650 provided a real word guerrilla future for the Humane Technologies: Livable Futures Pop-Up Collaboration at The Ohio State University. The design fiction was replete with diegetic prototypes and a video enactment. I will unpack some terms. The term guerrilla future stems from what Stewart Candy (2010) calls guerrilla interventions. 

augmented reality glasses


“Its aim as a practice is to introduce… possibilities to publics that otherwise may not be exposed to them, or that, while perhaps aware of the possibilities in question, are unable or unwilling to give them proper consideration. It is about enabling people to become aware of and to examine their assumptions about futures -- possible, probable or preferable -- by rendering one or more potentials concrete in the present, whether or not they have asked for it.” [Emphasis added].

Our goal was to present a believable future—in 2024—when ubiquitous augmented reality (AR) glasses are the part of our mundane everyday.  We made the presentation in Sullivant Hall's Barnett Theater, and each member of the team had a set of mock AR glasses. The audience consisted of about 50 students from ranging from the humanities to business. 

In contrast to the gallery show, academic or corporate workshop, which attracts voluntary participants, guerrilla futures are uninvited. The objective is to bring awareness of future thinking to a wider audience and perhaps to engage them social debate. The second term to unpack is design fiction which is a research methodology for designers whereby we create believable artifacts from the future as well as other media to craft fictional futures. If these props are experiential, it is possible that the audience could become cooperative participants and agents in the intervention.

the artificial intelligence


The presentation lasted about 30 minutes after which we pulled out rolls of white paper and markers and divided up into groups for a more detailed deconstruction of what transpired. The discussions were lively and thought-provoking. Though it is too early to have completed an exhaustive analysis of the event, it seems universal that we can recognize how technology is apt to modify our behavior. It is also interesting to see that most of us have no clue how to resist these changes. Julian Oliver wrote in his (2011) The Critical Engineering Manifesto

“5. The Critical Engineer recognises that each work of engineering engineers its user, proportional to that user's dependency upon it.”

The idea of being engineered by our technology was evident throughout the AugHumana presentation video, and in discussions, we quickly identified the ways in which our current technological devices engineer us. At the same time, we expressed to varying degrees, our powerlessness to change or effect that phenomenon. Indeed, we have come to accept these small, incremental, seemingly mundane, changes to our behavior as innocent or adaptive in a positive way. En masse, they are neither. Kurzweil stated that, 

‘We are not going to reach the Singularity in some single great leap forward, but rather through a great many small steps, each seemingly benign and modest in scope.’

History has shown that these steps are incrementally embraced by society and often give way to systems with a life of their own. An idea raised in one discussion group we labeled as effective dissent, but it seems almost obvious that unless we anticipate these imminent behavioral changes, by the time we notice them it is already too late, either because the technology is already ubiquitous or our habits and procedures solidly support that behavior.

the design team

There are ties here to material culture and the philosophy of technology that merits more research, but the propensity for technology to affect behavior in an inhumane way is powerful. 

This is necessary research for designers as well as the rest of us. The things that are going on in laboratories somewhere will, in gradual steps affect us. In this context, designers must be cognizant of these more elusive futures. They may wish to leverage them, but they must also be wary of them. Why wary? Because we make things. Design affects culture and culture, in turn, affects what we design. It has always been this way. It is always the designer's responsibility to be certain that there are no errors in the software or the material, to ask “what could go wrong?” But how often do we ask, what are the ramifications of our design, should it go right? What are the entailments to scalability and ubiquity and the systems, often complex and gnarled, that result from successful designs?  Because successful creation has the tendency to become ubiquitous, to influence behavior and to transform society, it becomes a design responsibility, but also one that pertains to virtually every other discipline. We need to pay attention.

Hopefully, design fiction and guerrilla futures can become a more widespread methodology to provoke discussion and debate and make us more active participants in what our future should be. Special thanks to the Humane Technologies Collaboration for allowing us to create this future provocation.

E. Scott Denison | Assistant Professor | Department of Design | The Ohio State University