A few of weeks ago I was blogging about open sourcing, collaboration and how all these tectonic shifts change industries, professions and more. Then, there was a recent blog on the future of work and how even white collar jobs, the ones that everyone thought were bullet-proof, are targets for dissolution by artificial intelligence (AI). Could designers be targets as well? That was the subject of the first post I mentioned.
So a couple of things crossed my glance that could have a bearing on the design, manufacturing, collaboration, and what we think of as the traditional maker-economy. What bearing will it have? Who knows? I think we should keep an eye on them.
1. Not long ago, WIRED had an article and video on how a “regular guy” without any special “making” skills was able to fabricate, in his home, a fully functioning and untraceable AR15 automatic rifle. Of course, doing so is illegal, so after testing his weapon on the firing range he turned over the parts to the local police. It was all in the name of journalism. Check it out.
2. I read an article in Harvard Business Review about the very interesting trend in business toward Network Orchestrators. According to HBR, “These companies create a network of peers in which the participants interact and share in the value creation. They may sell products or services, build relationships, share advice, give reviews, collaborate, co-create and more. Examples include eBay, Red Hat, and Visa, Uber, Tripadvisor, and Alibaba.”
What do these things have in common? They are potential game-changers. Heck, they’ve already changed the game. The bigger question for us is what game will they change next. Both models challenge traditional “expertise”. The expert, the specialist, the factory, the tradesman (and in some cases the authorities) are getting edged out. It has applications to just about everything including medicine and the work that we believed could only be done by the specialist. So what should we do about it? I don’t have the answer, but I can tell you this: We should be thinking about it.
There seems to be a lot of talk these days about what our working future may look like. A few weeks ago I wrote about some of Faith Popcorn’s predictions. Quoting from the Popcorn slide deck,
“Work, as we know it, is dying. Careers and offices: Over. The robots are marching in, taking more and more skilled jobs. To keep humans from becoming totally obsolete, the government must intervene, incentivizing companies to keep people on the payroll. Otherwise, robots would job-eliminate them. For the class of highly-trained elite works, however, things have never been better. Maneuvering from project to project, these free-agents thrive. Employers, eager to secure their human talent, lavish them with luxurious benefits and unprecedented flexibility. The gap between the Have’s and Have-Nots has never been wider.”
Now, I consider Popcorn to be a marketing futurist, she’s in the business to help brands. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I agree with almost all of her predictions. But she’s not the only one talking about the future of work. In a recent New York Times Sunday Book Review (forwarded to me by a colleague) Rise Of The Robots | Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, Martin Ford pretty much agrees. According to the review, “Tasks that would seem to require a distinctively human capacity for nuance are increasingly assigned to algorithms, like the ones currently being introduced to grade essays on college exams.” Increasingly devices, like 3D printers or drones can do work that used to require a full-blown manufacturing plant or what was heretofore simply impossible. Ford’s book goes on to chronicle dozens of instances like this. The reviewer, Barbara Ehrenreich, states, “In ‘Rise of the Robots,’ Ford argues that a society based on luxury consumption by a tiny elite is not economically viable. More to the point, it is not biologically viable. Humans, unlike robots, need food, health care and the sense of usefulness often supplied by jobs or other forms of work.”
In another article in Fast Company, Gwen Moran surveys a couple of PhD’s, one from MIT and another who’s executive director of the Society of Human Resource Management. The latter, Mark Schmit agrees that there will be a disparity in the work force. “this winner/loser scenario predicts a widening wealth gap, Schmit says. Workers will need to engage in lifelong education to remain on top of how job and career trends are shifting to remain viable in an ever-changing workplace, he says.” On the other end of the spectrum some see the future as more promising. The aforementioned MIT prof, Erik Brynjolfsson, “…thinks that technology has the potential for “shared prosperity,” giving us richer lives with more leisure time and freedom to do the types of work we like to do. But that’s going to require collaboration and a unified effort among developers, workers, governments, and other stakeholders…Machines could carry out tasks while programmed intelligence could act as our “digital agents” in the creation and sharing of products and knowledge.”
I’ve been re-accessing Stuart Candy’s PhD dissertation The Futures of Everyday Life, recently and he surfaces a great quote from science fiction writer Warren Ellis which itself was surfaced through Bruce Sterling’s State of the World Addressat SXSW in 2006. It is,
“[T]here’s a middle distance between the complete collapse of infrastructure and some weird geek dream of electronically knowing where all your stuff is. Between apocalyptic politics and Nerd-vana, is the human dimension. How this stuff is taken on board, by smart people, at street level. … That’s where the story lies… in this spread of possible futures, and the people, on the ground, facing them. The story has to be about people trying to steer, or condemn other people, toward one future or another, using everything in their power. That’s a big story. “1
This is relevant for design, too, the topic of last week’s blog. It all ties into the future of the future, the stuff I research and blog about. It’s about speculation and design fiction and other things on the fringes of our thinking. The problem is that I don’t think that enough people are thinking about it. I think it is still too fringe. What do people do after they read Mark Ford? Does it change anything? In a moment of original thinking I penned the following thought, and as is usually the case subsequently heard it stated in other words by other researchers:
If we could visit the future ”in person,” how would it affect us upon our return? How vigorously would we engage our redefined present?
It is why we need more design fiction and the kind that shakes us up in the process.
“Personally I think that contemporary reality is sufficiently science fiction for me. Some critics are already maintaining that science fiction is a sort of historical category and it is not possible any more…I have to figure out what it means to try to write about the future at a time when we are all living in the shadow of at least half a dozen wildly science fiction scenarios.”1
I am not of this opinion. I think it is still possible to write compelling near, distant and far future fiction. The frustrating part is often the off-the-cuff critiques, and quick dismissals that any trope such as robotics, or immortality immediately render the work a rehash. I’ve heard this many times. So, it was an conscious decision when writing the original script to make this a distant future fiction.
I follow Robert Heinlein’s definition of science fiction:
“Realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the scientific method.”
With that it is incumbent upon the author to hold those realistic speculations in one hand and with the other, threads of the present that could stretch far into the future.
One of my primary thematic motivations is speculating on human and transhuman futures. To me, based on present day facts, seminal aspects of transhumanism are already in place. We already have cochlear implants, artificial hearts, robotic limbs, transmitting health monitors, and other technological improvements built into our bodies. Without some sort of wild card devastation (which could derail any speculative future) here is no reason to consider a decline in the sophistication and amplification of health-assisting technologies. As with most technologies that, over time, etch themselves into our culture, these will become progressively more accepted as logical improvements to our natural bodies. Based on the current rate of technological advancement and the propensity for technology to grow exponentially, it is not unreasonable to consider a neart future—say 10 to 15 years—where our natural human bodies are significantly enhanced by multiple technologies from retinal implants, to augmented reality, in the form of organs, genetic adjustments, replacements, and interventions designed to keep us younger, sharper, and better in some demonstrable way.
This 10 to 15 year future could easily be the premise of a “near future” design fiction (and perhaps my next book will take that track), but I wanted to follow the threads deeper for two primary reasons. First, is the pragmatic reason that it takes a long time to write and produce a graphic novel of this complexity and I did not want to embark upon a race with technology to complete my story before the speculative future was either no longer speculative or was simply wrong. The second reason, is that small changes, to me, are not disruptive enough to provoke discussion and debate. An incremental change, one that seems like the logical next step, runs the danger of appearing too rational and “on course” to disrupt our present day thought processes (i.e., Her). If we only observe incremental trajectories, we cease to contemplate the long term.
The argument against long-term, future speculation is that it ceases to be plausible because, by then, “anything can happen”. But this is merely a truism. The fact is, anything usually does not happen. There is an enormous amount of logical speculation that can be derived from what usually does happen given the human condition. If you combine the human factor with plausible advancements in technology—given reasonable trajectories of scientific focus—then we are, in fact, dealing with realistic speculative futures.
This brings me to the narrative itself. If you want to take the next few steps, and look beyond incremental change, to the logical next steps of viable AI, and synthetic humans, fully realistic and indiscernible virtual reality, functioning telepathy, ubiquitous surveillance and indefinite life-pans, then to exert a firm grasp on the science and the current gaps that exist, the only responsible thing to do is move your story into the distant future. To accomplish this you don’t need a 300 year Star Trek future but rather two or three generations from where we are now. This places us in a distant future of approximately 150 years. In my estimation, you just can’t plausibly get there any sooner.
If we want to talk about these logical trajectories we have to place ourselves in a setting that permits them to exist. Then we can look back on how they came to be. To me, this is the crux of design fiction. You may not like it, but the idea is provocation and examination of the futures we incrementally build. If you may think it passé and stereotypical, then you might also find yourself quickly bored of stories that also include tropes such as life, death, love and redemption.
Ed. note: Due to problems with my ISP, The Lightstream Chronicles was posted late this morning. Perhaps the subject of a future blog rant, after hours of something loosely called “tech support”, I had to drive to the local Starbucks to upload the pages. Long live Starbucks!
If you zip back to my blog about page 53 you’ll see a somewhat lengthy but not all that coherent post on the interaction between humans and synthetics. That post centers more on how synths, once they became realistically human, were quickly exploited as slaves, both menial and sexual. Though not all of the future society in The Lightstream Chronicles was to blame as soon as there was a device that could do your bidding, there were those who abused the technology. Some will see this is pure dystopic fiction but it is difficult to argue that the past is littered with the precedent for technological misuse. And as we move toward a more ethically relativistic society, misuse will have a narrower and narrower definition. Therefore, even in a society that should be more enlightened, it is completely plausible that we could treat our synthetic co-workers with less respect than real humans. The irony in this future speculation is that the technological enhancement of humans and their symbiotic fusion with the technosphere, along with the ever more emotional and empathic capabilities of synthetics, the line between real humanity is almost nonexistent.
The Naked Future
Thinking about the future is more than a geeky, sci-fi pastime. I believe it is our responsibility to engage with the political, scientific, social and ethical decision-making happening around us. Because, whether we know it or not, those decisions will make a huge impact on the shape of the world we live in tomorrow. It’s just one of the reasons that I am a card-carrying member of The World Future Society. As a member, I regularly check in with wfs.org to see read the latest prognostications on the future. If you look closely at the predictions or forecasts of any futurist, it’s possible to see where they are coming from as well. In other words, everyone comes at his or her vision of the future with an opinion: Is this aspect of the future all positive or is there a cautionary tone?
This is, of course, at the core of my design fiction research at Ohio State. So, as I was meandering around the wfs.org site I stumbled upon an article by Patrick Tucker, an editor at The Futurist magazine, a publication of WFS. This happened on March 5th. Coincidentally, I saw that Patrick’s book, TheNaked Future: What Happens In A World That Anticipates Your Every Move? was about to be released on March 6th. Since this topic is dead center on my radar, I clicked over to iTunes to see if it was available as an iBook, and sure enough, it was. Nevertheless, I couldn’t wait so Googled up a YouTube video moderated by David Wood for the London Futurists and featuring the aforementioned Tucker along with futurists David Orban, Evan Selinger, Gray Scott, and Rachel Armstrong. It was a lively (though, at times, technically challenged) Skype meet-up that touched on some timely topics.
I hope to have a full review on Tucker’s book in a future blog but I think that the meet-up touched on some of the thought-provoking ideas that I’m sure are in-store for the reader. Naked is a perfect term for this idea of our lives being transparent and the book (though I am only partially through it) documents the shrinking evolution of big data from unwieldy complexity to smartphone accessibility — as a fearsome tool of the powerful over the weak to what is becoming an open resource. Therein is perhaps the most interesting part. We may as well accept that fact that this is a reality, and as Tucker explains (11) the big data era has already morphed into telemetry, “Telemetry is the collection and transfer of data in real time, as tough sensed.” The fact is we leave tracks. Extrapolating this is easy, walk the same path, explore some dark corner, innocently tweet and you are adding to your data. After a while, as much as you may wish to disbelieve, it is easy to predict where you will go next. As computing becomes more ubiquitous, all of our surfaces become live, as everything we touch leaves some sort of metadata fingerprint, eventually our lives will be, well, naked.
How will we deal with that? Some say to relax, that we’ll adapt to that change just like we have to every other change. I have some ideas on that, but I will save them for the next blog. Cheers.
Tucker, Patrick TheNaked Future: What Happens In A World That Anticipates Your Every Move? New York, Penquin, 2014.
In this scene nobody seems too talkative about the case at hand. Perhaps they are just trying to process everything that has just transpired — but it is late —and Detective Guren is still stewing over the comment from Col. Chen back on page 58.
On a side note, I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I redesigned the elevator that our characters are standing in front of. Finally, I opted for a sleek, silent and fast shuttle that could bound multiple stories in short order.
After completing multiple pages of prologue material — similar to the approach I took prior to Chapter 2 — I have begun work on Chapter 3. The rationale for the prologues is to present what I believe to be rich, and important, backstory. If you are a regular follower of the web comic/graphic novel, then the backstory and nuances of what is going on in society as well as history, help to immerse you a bit more in the characters and their lives. At times, it feels as though there is so much backstory that I wish I had written a conventional novel. But then I think we would have been hard pressed to consider this as a work of design fiction. It is, of course, the diegetic prototypes that are so woven into people’s lives that we can look at and contemplate their affect on the culture and the behaviors of the characters.
Chapter 2 will wrap up on page 84, in case you were wondering.
This week, the governor flashes a rosary and crucifix, and while our team may be trying to conceal their surprise, we can see that they are more than a bit shocked. If you haven’t read the backstory on the government’s stand on religion, you can find it here, early in chapter 1, and in the chapter 2 prologues. I’m going to let you sort that out for now.
Today I thought I would center the discussion on realism.
The future of The Lightstream Chronicles is built with “artifacts” that, by virtue of the narrative, become infused with meaning. At the same time, they are intended to provide a sense of realism and increase engagement, as well as foster discussion and debate. Because design permeates culture, and is an inextricable part of daily life. Design and technology quickly blend in, and the people living in, and with it, don’t particularly take notice of it.
There has been a document floating about that I came across while stalking the pages of Carnegie Mellon’s Design Fiction and Imaginary Futures blog, called the Critical Engineering Manifesto which appears to be co-written by a group from Berlin in 2011. The team, Julian Oliver, Gordan Savičić, and Danja Vasiliev, have put together a rather ominous truism of the power of engineering and design in our culture today and especially in the future.
If we assume that the critical engineer shares at least some definition, in principle, with critical design popularized by Dunne & Raby, then its purpose, is a critique on engineering and perhaps technology and their affect on culture. As Dunne & Raby help to define critical design, it “uses speculative design proposals to challenge narrow assumptions, preconceptions and givens about the role products play in everyday life.”
The Critical Engineering Working Group and their manifesto share a similar spirit. Number 5 of the 10-point manifesto reads:
“5. The Critical Engineer recognises that each work of engineering engineers its user, proportional to that user’s dependency upon it.”
As I have written many times our smart phone, is a prime example: a designed technology that brings with it new efficiencies, and at the same time, engenders new behaviors. It has undeniably engineered us as well.
Therein lies the role of the diegetic prototype for design fiction. iPads, smart phones, vibrating reminders, 160 character thoughts exchanged with total strangers are likely just the beginning. But, to fully absorb the impact of our creations that have begun to create on their own, we need to think. Somehow, our speculative design needs to break through and become real enough to provoke us to think about the future and become more engaged in it.
Realism, I believe plays a significant role in this breakthrough objective. Realism, however, can be achieved in many ways beyond the most obvious, material fabrication. Indeed, the realism that made 2001 A Space Odyssey, Minority Report, or even Her so memorable, was not real at all, it just seemed that way. Yes, these artifacts from the future — the devices and technologies made scientifically plausible and logically designed — were so believable that they blended in, but what made them seem most real was how commonplace they were to their users. It was the way the characters interacted and behaved with these devices.
The Lightstream Chronicles quite obviously stops short of material fabrication, and leans heavily on the realism that can be conveyed through CG. But though the digital forms of these artifacts have dimension and virtual physicality, the emphasis is on how they can go unnoticed. Just as with our present-day artifacts like smart phones and laptops, they blend into the scheme of everyday. They are ubiquitous in the culture, yet they serve to influence social interaction and individual behavior.
The use of diegetic prototypes can suspend disbelief about the future scenarios, and through an examination of culture and context, individuals can contemplate present-day decisions that will affect the future on an individual basis.
Indeed, I believe that realism is key. It is important to examine what makes it real to us and ask how real it needs to be to actually provoke us to think and encourage us to engage in our future.