Talking to the Future Humans - The Future of Pointless Things

While we're in the present, dribbling over our shiny new iWhatevers, Julian Bleecker is in the near future--a place where concepts are materialized into conversation pieces.

Talking to the Future Humans is a column in which we speak to the people who have shaped and continue to shape the future, or at least ideas surrounding the future. It is the mindchild of Kevin Holmes, Managing Editor for The Creators Project.

Julian Bleecker

While we're in the present, dribbling over our shiny new iWhatevers and being amazed that an espresso maker can shit out coffee just from seeing a picture of a bean, Julian Bleecker and his fellow technologists are busy fucking around in the near future. He’s co-founder of the Near Future Laboratory. What’s that? Well, it’s a place where provocative concepts and ideas are materialized into non-profit conversation pieces.

From briefly looking over some of their creations, you might think they’re just trying to wind people up. But by making these prototypes they hope to get people thinking about the processes and strategies behind those commercial products that Santa spills down your chimney every Christmas Eve. Sure, their prototypes might not produce a steaming cup of black gold at the push of a button, but they’ll let you drift aimlessly around a city by following a set of instructions on a deck of cards (Drift Deck). Or deliver an instant message to you really, really slowly (Slow Messenger).

Having an intense curiosity for all things future and useless, I decided to investigate.

VICE: You guys at the Near Future Laboratory act as design provocateurs—why do people need prodding?
Julian Bleecker: Provocations are good for the soul. They force one to look at the world a bit differently. We’re largely conservative beings – change is hard to imagine and even harder to suffer through. It disrupts our routines. Provocations are like lenses that turn the world upside down, if only for a moment, in order to see what could be, or how things could be different.

Are the rest of us lazy?
I wouldn’t say that. We’re motivated in the Laboratory to consider that things have not always been as they are. Things will change. Then the question is normative: How do you bring about change that makes the world a more habitable, life-affirming place? Even if it's only in a little teeny-tiny corner of the world.

Do you ever get designers who get angry at what you’re doing?
Nope. That doesn’t seem to happen. But maybe no one has said it to us directly. I think people may not understand the whims and motivations of the Laboratory and that may baffle folks that we do things that have unusual measures of success—like does it get people talking? Does it start conversations? Does it poke and prod and move things in different, unexpected ways?

Who would you say are the gatekeepers of innovation, if innovation has gatekeepers?
I’d say that storytellers are the gatekeepers of innovation, even if I’m not entirely sure what innovation is. If you can tell a big enough story with a compelling plot line you can entice people with what could be and you may even entice them enough to get them to get excited and make things and self-assuredly valuate themselves as worthy of billions of dollars.

Tell me a story.
Cloud computing has a story. It’s not an especially great one, but it got out there enough that people got hopped up and started making everything cloud-enabled. It’s a shoddy story full of holes and an incredibly high chance of becoming an epic, systemic fail, but people got excited because a story was told that normally reasonable people believed.

So the story lied to us.
If cloud computing or augmented reality are examples of what you mean by innovation, I’d take innovation in whoopee cushions over that stuff any old day.

You’ve written/ talked about how fiction can be the momentum behind what eventually becomes reality. Between fiction and fact, who wins at reality?
Really, what’s the difference between fact and fiction? If an engineer or programmer writes a specification for something yet to be constructed or coded – is that fact or fiction? If a science writer for The Guardian tells a story about something that some guy is hoping to achieve in a well-funded corporate lab – is that science fiction or science fact?

I don’t want to be pedantic about it, but the influence is arbitrarily predetermined by saying there is some clear distinction between fact and fiction. It’s like apologising for a great sci-fi film because it’s not real. You just don’t do that. You accept things as they are and you let them shape and influence and inform how and what you think about. That’s it. It’s that simple. We shouldn’t pretend to know fact from fiction – embrace them both as ways of trying to explain the world we are in and the world we want in the future.

Here’s a simple one: How are digital technologies affecting our constructs of reality?
Technology is a reification of culture—it’s a materialization of our rituals, practices and aspirations. It’s not so much a tool or something purely instrumental as it is itself culture. We make it not to do things but as an expression of culture—it just happens to be expressed in things that take batteries or have a screen or require technical specifications, industry standards, FCC approvals and tooling to manufacture.

I see.
All those things I mention, by the way, are ways of obscuring the ways in which those “things” are really forms of culture. In fact, an industry standard is arbitration amongst a bunch of human engineers who agree by consensus and probably something close to parliamentary rules on how something should work. That’s culture. Technologies in this way construct reality just like any culture constructs reality. It’s the same thing to ask how an Irish Jig or breakfast cereal or any country’s Senate constructs reality.

Of course. I read about your project where you explore the idea of a pet being able to control, with limitations, a character in World of Warcraft. Would you like to see video games for pets in the future?  
I don’t know about video games for pets. What the Laboratory was interested in was to ask what other things could also be engaged amongst us on the internet? The idea of a dog playing World of Warcraft was just our way of asking that question at a time when WoW was a big phenomenon. At the time—that was probably four or five years ago—we wondered what the internet would be like if other, perhaps non-human actors, were able to assert themselves somehow on the network. Cars, pets, shoes, planets, whatever. What would they “say” or how would we interact with them.

A Venn Diagram composed by previous Future Humans interviewee Bruce Sterling that looks at the way products are devised

They might say “woof”.
But now I think that question has evolved as we take for granted that “things” can be plugged onto the network and share their data in sometimes useful ways. Beyond the mundane things like refrigerators and traffic flows, what are unexpected ways that “things” or “pets” can be among us in the networked age. What is a networked Jack Russell terrier or pet gold fish? Cause there definitely will be one.

Indeed, but with a networked Jack Russell you’d need to be careful where you put the cable. There is an element of the absurd or the ironic to some of the Near Future Lab’s design work, like Slow Messenger, which delivers instant messages really slowly. What’s the benefit of this approach to design?
Inversion is a way of doing design. Just turning things on their head to raise questions and start conversations. Rather than faster, faster, faster – make an assumption that fast does not mean better, just for a moment. Then what? You say that slower is the desirable goal. You can do that as a thought experiment but of course it’s better to make the thing and face all the challenges that would go along with slowing down technologies that resist going slow. If some people want less of bombardment of information and data, things change in their design.

The Near Future Laboratory's Slow Messenger

They get cheaper, potentially. They use less battery power because the chips run slower, and the display doesn’t need to be on as much and so on. You could have a connected device that lasts for months because you say, OK, slow delivery of some things is perfectly fine. You change things substantially because you ignored an assumption and inverted it and, along the way, learned and were maybe even convinced that the canonical assumption of “fast” is not always the best one.

If the near-future is a place where there are no constraints and imagination and speculation can run free like streakers across time, what’s the distant future?
It’s too far for me to imagine and maybe too late for the planet. We’re an impatient Laboratory. We like to materialize a hunch quickly and maybe iterate a bit. But first and foremost, we want to tell stories and provoke conversations. We make conversation pieces.

For you, is imagining the future a way of experiencing it?
Imagining but also materializing some nugget of that imagining in objects and little functional devices. Imagining is not enough. Imagining is like doing a really lovely 3D CAD rendering of some object. It doesn’t tell a story or dig deep into the questions about what the near future might hold. Like the Slow Messenger or many of the other things we’ve made, you have to get a bit messy and figure out how you might make the thing beyond specifying it. In that process of making the thing—and it could be a little film or a bit of code or hardware or all of those things—all these questions are forced upon you. Responding to those questions by iterate and refining, that’s the soul of design, or at least how we practice it at the Near Future Laboratory.

Fascinating stuff, thanks for talking to me Julian.

Previously–The Future of Food