Hands On — Designer Futurescape

Hands On — Designer Futurescape

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The tectonic moment — for me, anyway — came when Anab Jain, a young interaction designer educated in India, Vienna, and London, stood up in front of seven hundred Web 2.0 zealots in Geneva and declared that she works in “design futurescaping.”

I know that sounds plenty weird, but since this is MAKE, I can assume that I’m addressing contemporary grown-ups here. If you’ve got the jazzy MAKE Digital Edition rather than the inky real-world paper mag, just click the ol’ pull-down menu, Google “Anab Jain,” and in five minutes you can discover that this inventive personage, who is about as global as a dandelion seed, really does work in “designer futurescapes.” I would challenge you to find any better description for what she’s up to. Really: I’ll wait.

Still with me? OK, now imagine you are at this same event in Geneva — the Lift conference, they call it — and a guy named Matt Webb grabs the stage and describes his design work, too. He says he uses design techniques to “walk the landscape of possibilities.” Webb deploys market research, economic analysis, prototyping, physical models, user observation, and historical parallels, but mostly — so he says — he uses stories: “The story is your laboratory, reading is your research, and writing is your experiment.”

I can’t tell you how disconcerting it was to be a career science fiction writer and hear that publicly declared by Webb. Mind you, he is clearly not a lunatic. The guy’s a robotics hacker and a cognitive psychologist, and he writes for O’Reilly Media publications, clear signs that he’s no crazier than anybody else in this magazine.

If you Google “Matt Webb” — of Schulze & Webb — you’ll discover that when he claims he’s a designer walking landscapes of possible worlds through his storytelling, he’s (a) not kidding and (b) not doing science fiction. This is what the guy does when he gets out of bed in the morning, as an industrial practice.

How did we stumble into the glimmering dawn of a “designer futurescape”? Maybe that’s got something to do with “virtuality.” People who do web design are used to products and services that are vaporous and speculative, stuff like Vinton Cerf’s Interplanetary Internet, which, by the way, ol’ Vint just booted up, so it’s real now. But I don’t believe that’s what has happened — because this is 2009, and virtuality is a corny early-90s paradigm.

We’re entering a new and different situation. Handheld internet machines are reshaping cities in the way that cars reshaped cities in the 20th century. When our cities — our real places, you know, glass, bricks, roads — become the products of “urban informatics,” why would any normal guy call that reality “virtual”?

Get in a car with a GPS unit and look at what that does to what we innocently called “time and space.” Maybe that sounds like a Google-map detour from my point here, but imagine Webb 20 years from now. Graying at the temples, our Matt explains to normal people that he “walks landscapes of possibility” for a living. Well, his listeners are “walking landscapes of possibility” to get down to the grocery to pick up a head of cabbage. Come 2025, 2035, and there’s nothing rhetorical or far-out about this. It’s become “real life”; it’s natural everyday behavior, like punching a button on a wall and seeing light pour out of the ceiling.

Now, I won’t claim that this is technologically inevitable, because that kind of linear technological determinism is a dead form of futurity. As Webb said — rather insightfully, I thought — society, human nature, and technical artifacts are a tightly linked trio, like pressure, temperature, and volume.

Turn up the heat with some techie gizmo, and society and individuals will kick back tout de suite. So we’ve got a networked, interactive, increasingly speculative futurity. It’s got user-centric Google maps rather than officially certified paper road maps. It’s not some Marxist road to utopia, it’s a navigable global sprawl.

You might argue — as a hardheaded skeptic — that design in America and Europe is being shoved into these frothy conceptual spaces because the Chinese dominate the real-world heavy industry. That’s the lesson I took from Lift speaker Jörg Jelden, a “trend analyst.” Yes, that’s his real-world day job.

The Chinese have become the workshop of the planet. They make heavy-industry factory products that are physical and “real” — you can drop ’em and break your foot. Very real, right?

But a hell of a lot of those Chinese products, something like a quarter or a third, are “not real” — because they’re fakes. Jelden claims, and I’m afraid I believe him, that some of these “fake products” are not even cheap mimics of better ones. No, today’s offshored fake products can be more innovative than real ones because pirates evade the limits of patents, copyrights, and government regulation.

Try shoving back that tide, RIAA and MPAA.

Worse yet, those fakes often emerge from the same factories that make the branded, certified real stuff. The really clever Chinese operators are salting their shipping containers with a profitable mix of “real” and “fake,” rather like adulterating the baby food with melamine.

Clearly this is sinister activity, and I don’t want to valorize it, but I hope it shows that this phenomenon is not just something that wacky designers are blue-skying about in Geneva. We’ve got a black-global criminal underclass of hard-bitten characters who methodically chew away at the “real.” And they’ve got more designer futurescape to wander around in because they don’t have to fret about intellectual property.

I could go on about this issue all day — I may have to go on about it for 10 or 20 years, because it’s really bugging me — but I want to end by imploring you to think about what this means for makers.

Is it really so important to make a real thing, to have an empirical referent, a “real” physical object that actually sits there, solid on the mantelpiece? Or is the true action in distributing the potential to make things through a webbed community of makers?

Not “virtual reality” — that’s so old-hat — but “reality as a web service.” A real landscape full of real stuff, that is mapped, infiltrated, subsumed, by a futurescape full of potential stuff.

Distributed, collaborative reality in permanent beta. That describes the futurescape, and it makes the former distinctions between designers, science fiction writers, trend analysts, and even manufacturers look quite archaic.

Maybe that sounds abstract, far-fetched and freaky, never so rock-solid and reassuring as physical real estate. But just try to price some “real estate” now. Where’s the beef there, where’s the reality? The Earth’s a big place — so find some GPS spot where today’s battered landscape escapes the shadow of the futurescape.

I don’t think we have any such place left now. What’s more, I don’t think we have any way to get back there. It’s futurescape right, left, and center, north, south, zoomable, and all around. We made the futurescape, and now we’ve gotta use it.

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Bruce Sterling

Bruce Sterling is a science fiction writer and part-time design professor.

View more articles by Bruce Sterling


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