Future technology predictions by software designers like Microsoft don’t take approaching problems like resource management and the impacts of climate change seriously enough.
“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, or time. 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. Take Microsoft’s “Productivity Future Vision,” which is populated by people who display a flat, pleasantly robotic contentment with their surroundings. Now 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 the 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 its 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.
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 all but useless. Unless we engage our other senses, we will leave many—those visually or tactically 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.
Were Bradbury to weigh in, I imagine that he too would prefer a postscreen future to visions like Microsoft’s. 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. 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. Screen-based interaction will not be adequate to address them.
On the list of problems to solve, communication has sat at the top far too long, and consequently, our countless solutions are what fill screens today. After a decade of focusing primarily on 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.
Christopher Butler is the Vice President of Newfangled, a writer for Print Magazine and is the author of the forthcoming book, The Strategic Web Designer. Excerpted from Print Magazine (February 2012), a magazine about design that places contemporary visual culture in its social, political, and historical contexts.