Tag Archives: futurist

The human-machine hybrid culture and design fiction

As I have said numerous times in previous posts, my graphic novel takes place in the year 2159, a full 100 years after Ray Kurzweil’s predicted Singularity; the point at which we will either merge with machines/technology or they/it will surpass us. As people begin to noodle this concept, whether they buy in or not, it seems they are suddenly starting to think seriously about the future of technology and whether this future should perhaps be designed or just evolve at its own sort of chaotic pace. Already I have read a half dozen “futurists” predicting indefinite lifespans and even immortality. Once we replace or “regrow” our bad architecture or infrastructure, and once we switch-off the bad, disease causing genes we will be free to contribute endlessly and productively to society — or will we?

A lot of people are thinking about this it would seem and it’s becoming much discussed on the talk show circuit. Meanwhile, if the live-forever-singularity is on schedule millions of baby boomers will be lamenting that they are the last generation that will have to die. Sigh. Some futurists are wondering what it all means. What will guide us into doing the right things in this future? Where will we  find meaning in all this? Some are calling for a “grand mythological narrative” to tie it all together.  In an article from Forbes Online, Alex Knapp interviewed Jason Silva, a producer who is working on a documentary entitled, Turning Into Gods.  Silva says, “In a secular world, we need to find better ways to Get Off On Awe. In other words, our thirst for transcendence hasn’t disappeared, it just needs better entry points. In my mind, its at the intersection of art and science where we find WONDER. Wonder is the precursor to awe, it elicits the possibilities of consciousness expansion. The more we see the more we become. This is Werner Herzog’s “Ecstatic Truth”… Its what we live for.”

In another blog, by way of the aforementioned Forbes post, Knapp cites a post on a futurist portal, SpaceCollective.org, Daniel Rourke, says, ““One of the main problems facing the scientific community of today is that the general populous finds no ‘meaning’ in its enterprise.”

What I find fascinating is that the original master narrative, God, is ipso facto out of the discussion. Scientists, secularists, and even atheists are admitting that we thirst for transcendence but God can’t possibly be it. In fact, it would appear that they would rather invent their own “mythology” which is what many atheists and secular thinkers have called Christianity.

This poses a conundrum of sorts. With the onset  of meaninglessness, the post-modernist thinker finds that existence without transcendence or moral direction to help guide them into the hybrid, man-machine, trans-human future is uncomfortable. So uncomfortable that they need to construct a mythology. But to do that, they will have to sneak in the Judeo-Christian tenets of good and evil. And here’s the problem: In the pure post-modern sense, there really isn’t any objective source for what good is. If there is a moral law, there must be a moral law giver. But that would be God and you can’t go there, right?

Who will we use to replace God? A few “good” men? Reason?

Let’s hope we can do better than reason. Reason brought us “survival of the fittest” and (as predicted by none other than Friedrich Nietzsche after pronouncing that God was dead), the bloodiest century in the history of mankind (the 20th century, that is).

In Jason Silva’s movie trailer, he quotes Edward O. Wilson, ” Home sapiens, the first truly free species, is about to decommission natural selection, the force that made us…  Soon we must look deep within ourselves and decide what we wish to become.”

That’s all well and good, but if you happen to believe or even entertain the notion that God, just possibly, might be the force that made us, then He might just find that statement bloody arrogant. What if He will have none of it?

This is all juicy stuff and 148 years from now these questions will still be there which makes for good drama in the graphic novel. As author and designer, I’ll be doing a lot of speculation on the human/machine hybrid, culture, and design fiction, but something that hasn’t changed for a few thousand years is human nature.

I wonder: If the same human nature that discovers the marvel of nuclear energy and, in turn, makes an atomic bomb, what do you suppose awaits us with technologies we haven’t even imagined? Will a new mythology save us?

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A graphic novel about culture, design and transhumanism in the future

And you thought this blog was about writing a graphic novel.

Anyway, I’ve just returned from holiday, I have been virtually free from the computer for nearly a week. I finished two books, started a third, and did a lot of mental tweaking to my story.

Without tipping my hand (too far) to the plot of my graphic novel (since it is not 100% solidified), I can say that it has always dealt with ramifications and implications of a somewhat transhumanist future, a world where scientism rules the day. As the prologue to my screenplay states, “Scientific advances have enabled the manufacture of life-like robots. Known as synthetics, these robots are found in all walks of life and can be virtually indistinguishable from humans.” Some of my key characters fit this description and even my humans are considerably augmented, enhanced and amplified.

While my story includes a fair amount of mystery and action, I never intended the read to be one dimensional. I hope to thread some thought-provoking themes and opposing ideas into the mix. This is especially relevant in lieu of the fact that my paper, the whole design fiction aspect of this project, is an examination of the design culture relationship. What we design will affect our culture and vice versa. What happens when we are able to design and create near-humans? What will we teach them? How will we use them? What capabilities should they have or not have? What will separate our future, synthetically augmented human sons and daughters from their purely synthetic counterparts? What role will ethics play in this future drama? After all, there is no science to ethics.

Meanwhile, all of these questions seem to be surfacing around me in our current cultural environment as we see a flurry of discussion about Kurzweil’s optimistic singularity and Vernor Vinge’s less than optimistic predictions of that same technology gone astray. In fact, Kurzweil has even enlisted Michio Kaku, Deepak Chopra and a host of other “thinkers” and, of course the mandatory celebrities (no doubt for their scientific insight) for a live discussion on the topic that will be coming to a theater near you.

I guess this means my novel is timely.

I’ve also done some additional thinking on stylistic texture and setting, especially in light of the fact that recent press releases have put the locale for the upcoming screen adaptation of Akira in “New Manhattan”. Hmmm.

More on that later.

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Predicting the design future.

Are futurists really breathing rarified air? Let me explain. I believe it’s possible to be so in tune with the forces of society and technology that you can be “near-future” accurate but, let’s face it, it’s still guessing. I’m not a futurist and I’m not looking to disparage anyone who is. As a profession I’m certain that legitimate futurists are a bit like designers. We immerse ourselves in the landscape of the problem. If we’re designing a better mousetrap we are learning everything we can about every mousetrap ever built, everything we can learn about mice and the technologies and processes that may affect that objective. That’s the design problem, our challenge. In my eye, if you’re a really good designer, you’re also going to ask, “What if?” and that would include the question, “Why do you have mice?” and “What if you didn’t have to trap mice to begin with?” When you start down this road, you’re bypassing the deterministic mindset of most business, government, etc. that assumes a specific future and a limited vision of what could be. So I’m sure that good futurists, are thinking the same way. “What if?”

Looking at a recent blog from author and futurist Jack Uldrich quoting from a new book by Dan Gardner, Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Are Next to Worthless, And You Can Do Better , Gardner says, “the experts who were more accurate than others tended to be much less confident that they were right.” I haven’t read the book yet but, I’m guessing that the best futurists are going to have a healthy appreciation for the unexpected, the ambush that changes everything and that means that they are never going to be “sure.”

This is sound logic for why one of the designer’s many hats needs to be that of futurist. It also supports the notion of design fiction as fertile ground for exploration, either as curriculum or practice. As with designers, the best futurists and other consultants are probably those who leave you with more than a new design, prediction, or plan; they leave you with a better way to think as you move forward. That’s a lasting contribution.

Next post: The style dilemma.

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Future design 2.

Thought I would venture into some futuristic rambling on the world of 2159 — with less philosophizing this time. I see one of the most dramatic changes for design will be that there were be less hardware to design. Think about all the hardware we use today that we will likely have no use for in a hundred plus years. Things like cell phones and laptops will be unnecessary since you will be able to either receive data directly to the brain or simply tap into the data stream at will. It’s likely that we will also have the technology to augment the human body to “see” information directly on the retina, convert electrical impulses from our brains into words or text and transmit them without ever opening our mouths. Science is already musing on this calling it techlepathy. So things like phones, keyboards, mice and remote controls will probably fall by the wayside long before the setting of my story.

For my characters, I’m banking on technology to have cracked the body’s electrical data code so that transferring information can be done through a simple fingertip device to a tablet or card that will display it.

Speaking of displays, if we have the ability to see information and entertainment on our retinas, will we still want to see it “out there” in front of us? If we can think our phone calls, will we still want to speak? I’m guessing yes on both counts, since even with today’s technology some things we still like to keep analog. We still like to see friends face to face, listen to live music and turn the pages of a book. I think there will always be a place for the analog world.

This would go for furniture as well, the chair has been around for centuries and designers have a fascination with reinventing it. I predict this will not go away either.

All speculation, of course, but it becomes increasingly evident that just about everything we do today we will be doing differently far into the future and that includes sleeping, eating, entertaining and repairing ourselves. This is something that I’m working on staying cognizant of as my characters go about their business.

Most design fiction discussions lean toward near-future scenarios, but pursuing a farther future more aggressively challenges the design-culture interface dynamic.. You can help but wonder how the culture will change with the advent of these augmented realities and head tripping technologies.

 

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Designing the future.

“Futurism was an artistic and social movement that originated in Italy in the early 20th century.” [1] But that’s not the kind of futurism I’m talking about. “Futurists… or futurologists are scientists and social scientists whose speciality is to attempt to systematically predict the future, whether that of human society in particular or of life on earth in general.” [2]  Though many futurist predictions have come to pass, it seems to me pretty iffy business and at the rate that things change the singularity may be not be such a wacky idea after all. There is a Wiki definition for the singularity, too. A comfortable definition could be the point at which technology becomes so advanced; predicting what will come next is impossible.

Of course, I am not a scientist or sociologist by training but I am a designer, and in many ways, designers are expected to call upon science and social science whenever they are designing. We are designing for people and society, after all. As a designer, if you’re not thinking that way, well, you should be.

So, like it or not, designers called upon to be some kind of a futurist. In my current pursuit of a dramatic design fiction, I have to ask myself, “What will design be like in 2159?” It’s more than a century away. Who can know? The answer is: part science, part design, and part fiction.

As I have argued, design and culture are inextricably linked, synergistically influencing one another. They will be producing and affecting one another whatever utopian or dystopian future you can imagine. Hence, some of my future design will be the result of speculation on a particular scientific thread, that if it remains connected, might produce something that functions or looks a certain way, and some of it will inevitably be done for sheer effect or mood (at the end of the day, this is dramatic story). Some of it will be garish or ugly; conditions that will probably not go away no matter how advanced we become.

Ah, but therein lies the drama. Good and evil are more than tenuous threads that you pull gently into a possible future — they are (in the British sense) bloody cables. Take it to the bank. There will be stunning achievements and dismal failures. While we will make beautiful things, solve epic problems and ease great suffering, not everything will be bright and shiny, sleek and effortless. We will also invent unimaginable horrors, new ways to sin and profane our creations.Regardless of how far our technology advances, the human condition remains more or less steadfast through the centuries.

As a Christian, I believe that we are created in the imago dei: the Image of God, that design, is a kind of divine inheritance from the Master Creator to the design pupil. But we live in changing times. The master narrative that I live by is very much under fire right now. Who knows? In 50 years, it may be outlawed. How will that affect design? One of the questions you stumble over when designers ask, “What if?”

I guess the designer has to be part philosopher, too. I’ll hit on the more nuts and bolts side of future design in another post.

[1], [2] Wikipedia

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Working on Hong Kong 2159.

Although I have not revealed the storyline for my graphic novel, I am prepared to reveal a little about the setting. As you guessed from the title it is set beyond the near future — 148 years to be exact. The city is Hong Kong. Without going into too much backstory, this is where the global government is located. Countries, as we know them, are gone. New Asia is the broader amalgamation of  the Asia of today, Europe and the former United States. The city has evolved through building continually upward. The “road car” is gone, replaced with the air version. With the advent of air taxis and all manner of flying craft, the top of the city is the new facade. Instead of entering at the bottom of a building and riding up and then to rooftops that are essentially abandoned places, the world becomes reversed. The show is at the top and so is the money and prestige. The layers as it were start at 150 stories and work their way down. Under 25 you find yourself in a city of disrepair and darkness. The bottom city is a place of crime and poverty, even in 2159. And while mankind has made quantum leaps in technology, crime has managed to keep pace in new and creative ways. Much of it legalized. But that’s going too far for today’s blog.

At any rate, the top world is where you will find all the advertising, the glamour, the enticements. Every rooftop now has a docking zone or an airlock (it gets windy up there) for patrons to offload and play. Lots to think about.  More to come in the August synopsis.

 

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What happens when designers ask, “What if?”

Background

If you follow this blog then you know that, last year I decided to leave my corporate job and a 30 year career as a professional design practitioner and go back to school. There were a lot of motivating factors, but most exciting was the idea of pursuing what happens when design is integrated on the “epic” level. By that I mean, when design is firing on all cylinders, not just great communications or great product design, but holistically woven into every aspect of a company. Whether, in reality, they fit this description, Apple is the company that comes to mind.

As I settled into academia, I began to hone in on a thesis that would embrace the notion of epic design. Pull this thread with me…

 

Design and culture

It doesn’t  take a great deal of thought to acknowledge that culture produces design and, in turn, design influences culture. Invention, information, entertainment, transportation, medicine, you name it, they’re all floating in a soup that produces a culture of expectation and more invention. The cycle repeats.

 

Design and narrative

Reach into the soup and pull out one of those ingredients and you will also find a story attached to it. Where did it come from? Why did it take this form? How did it come to be? What were the conflicts? Who was involved? When did it happen? All of these combine into some kind of story narrative. Ultimately, everyone and everything has an origination story. At the very least there is a master narrative that gives context to us and all the things that surround us.

 

Prototyping

How might a designer explore this design-culture relationship in an unfettered exercise of creativity? How often does the designer sit down and ask, “what if?”

What can we learn from examining the design-culture relationship in the purity of the hypothetical. I decided that the answer was fiction: to create a story in the future where everything has changed except for the human condition, and to produce this work in a visual prototype — a graphic novel.

 

The discussion

That’s the premise. I have a particular interest in what designers think, but also anyone  anyone who creates future narratives, graphic novels, comics, movies, art, but also anyone who thinks about what could or should happen next? How does a movie director or screenwriter come at it? A novelist? A futurist? A photographer? A production designer? A game designer? How would you approach it in any profession? What do you think of this exercise? Are you already doing it? Take a few minutes and think about it. How can creativity contribute to future scenarios and what do we take away?

 

I invite you to join the discussion. Some suggestions: Leave a simple comment, a paragraph, a paper, a link to further study or related topics. Leave your comments below and let’s see where this leads.

 

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