Future Daydream

This is my fourth Interaction column for Print Magazine. My original title: “A Post-Screen Future.” No matter. The illustration by Zut Alors! is as if someone opened the hidden door behind the file cabinet and crawled down that strange tunnel into my brain and saw what I saw and took a snapshot. I guess that’s exactly the point—shallow futures are kind of Malkovich Malkovich, if you know what I mean.

“People ask me to predict the future, when all I want to do is prevent it. Better yet, build it. Predicting the future is much too easy, anyway. You look at the people around you, the street you stand on, the visible air you breathe, and predict more of the same. To hell with more. I want better.”
— Ray Bradbury, Beyond 1984: The People Machines

So where are the designers who dream as Bradbury does? We seem to be content to let corporations do the dreaming for us. On the internet, we can be routinely entertained by their visions—videos depicting possible futures that are far more controlled, sterile, and expensive than is likely. Their future is impossibly abundant, with no shortage of resources, space, and time. (And of course, it’s built on technologies developed, at great cost, in corporate research labs.) Is it not possible to envision a future of less? Less, after all, could be a good thing—a comfortable minimalism that comes from cutting away life’s excesses—or a not so good thing. Less could also be catastrophic and interrupt our plans. But since designing the future should be equal parts hope and caution, is it responsible to plan for one tomorrow when we have good reasons to expect another?

There has been no shortage of discussion of these videos in recent months. Microsoft’s “Productivity Future Vision” was called “creepy” by the technologist Nicholas Carr—presumably because they’re populated by people who display a flat, pleasantly robotic contentment with their surroundings. But for designers, an angst-less future can’t be a believable one. We’ve read our Huxley—we’re waiting for the sinister undertones to make themselves known, and without any on the surface, we have no problem imagining them ourselves. It’s an uncanny-valley effect, writ large.

Mood aside, what of “productivity?” Microsoft is not the first to suggest that we’ll continue to spend most of our time placidly moving information around on screens. In their world, every surface—mirrors, kitchen tables, refrigerators, car windows, and of course, desks—will be transformed into touch screens, weaving a seamless thread of productivity from morning to evening into our previously unmaximized lives. Needless to say, this is a touchy subject.

Speaking of touch, Bret Victor, a former Apple designer, complained in his own response to the Microsoft video that the kinds of gestures most interaction design demands are essentially inhuman—rejecting the four fundamental human grips named by John Napier in his book Hands. Perhaps so. But as long as screens are central to our interaction with the world, we’ll likely need to add a few to our repertoire. Undoubtedly, page turning was a tricky leap for our scroll-wielding forebearers. Though I agree with Victor’s critique, my primary concern is not how little Microsoft’s vision corresponds with the scope of human touch but how it limits the use of our other senses. Touching a glass screen is hardly a rich tactile experience, but that is almost beside the point. What we are doing when we interact with touch screens is primarily a visual experience. Yes, we’re touching everything—but without seeing the information we “touch,” our fingers are virtually useless. Unless we engage our other senses, we will leave many—those visually or tactilely impaired—behind and become “people of the screen,” as Kevin Kelly recently described it at the Books in Browsers Conference. We must resist the cultural entropy that associates interaction solely with screens. Apple gets this. In lieu of releasing its own futurism video, it instead deployed Siri, which, in emphasizing auditory interactions, gives me hope for a postscreen future.

Were Bradbury to weigh in, I imagine that he too would prefer a postscreen future to visions like Microsoft’s. Uninspiring and out of touch, they exploit the popular sci-fi vernacular (a shinier, happier Minority Report) yet don’t seem to understand what science fiction is all about. Most of them work better as demos of what motion graphics have been up to since the Ikea-catalog scene in Fight Club than as proofs of the technology to come. Meanwhile, rather than continuing to settle into some sort of technosuburbia, as Microsoft seems to expect, the population of the world is largely going urban: crowded, massive ad-hoc cities, growing to accommodate an exploding population. Growing too quickly to be managed by today’s municipal systems, megalopolises like Jakarta and Mexico City are places where wealth and poverty are mashed up in a culture that from the outside can look chaotic. Meanwhile, the flow of water and electricity is so sporadic as to appear the result of a fickle magic rather than the groan of unsustainable sprawl. This is a tricky terrain of sensory diversity long explored in science fiction, yet screen-based interaction will not be adequate to address it. Designers with open minds are needed.

On the list of problems to solve, communication has sat at the top for far too long, and consequently, our countless solutions are what fill screens today. After a decade of focusing primarily upon the social applications of interactive technology, we need to turn our attention to other matters and use our many communication tools to address the interaction problems of 21st-century urbanity: resource management, transportation, energy, and infrastructure. It would be a shame to be remembered as the generation that tweeted while the world crumbled around us.

As for predicting the future, there is one question worth asking today: Do we, individuals and corporations alike, have the courage to imagine a future we don’t like, one that doesn’t assume the continuing triumph of today’s technological paradigms? This isn’t a needlessly pessimistic exercise. Sometimes we first need to identify what we do not want in order to articulate what we do. Then we can get to work and build it—not more of the same, but better. If it is a future worth building, it will not be done overnight.

Written by Christopher Butler on January 10, 2012,   In Essays

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