Speculative Producing – Building Artifacts as Practical Futurism


I just listened to Eurydice Aroney’s radio piece, “The Dribble Down Effect” – (listen at http://www.thirdcoastfestival.com – Re:Sound #44)

The story is a “mockumentary” done in the style of a radio documentary you might hear as a 30-minute special on NPR. While parts were definitely funny, it didn’t seem to be presented as a slapstick humorous production (a la Chris Guest’s movies).

Instead, this was speculative fiction reported on in a very serious manner, peppered with the sound collages you come to expect from well-engineered radio stories. This particular story was about childcare in the near future. Robots watch kids (cheaper than university-educated babysitters), children have implants that provide biodata like “I’m hungry,” and society faces all sorts of questions about class differences, feminism, and the ever-present abundance of overbearing parents.

In fact, this was truly science fiction in 2002, as technology presented in the show was not widely available. Disturbingly (?), in 2008, just about every innovation mentioned in the program has been demonstrated by governments, universities, companies, or even the diy-garage inventor. It’s easy to see that given a little more tinkering time, everything in the piece could arrive in the next few years.

That got me thinking about what it means to be plunging the fringes as an amateur futurist. I have friends who are educated and trained futurists (Garry, for example). They have a toolbox of systems analysis that can find patterns in our world that would indicate trends in the observable future (i.e. they think 10-20 years ahead and not 1000 years. “In our lifetime”). When Garry talks about energy, I trust him because he spends his days researching and prospecting the domain while applying his pattern-matching experience.

This activity happens all the time in thinktanks. They get paid to speculate and present the future so organizations can create strategies that might improve their success (whatever that might mean)

However, I also like the idea of domain experts (ex. architects, fashion designers, software engineers) involving themselves in near future speculation by creating representative artifacts of the future.

I’m interested in what the amateur futurist, who is not necessarily involved in thinking about trends directly, would create given an appropriate creative prompt. For example, industrial design firms often go through this exercise (“What does the vacuum cleaner look like in 2020”). Their designs might not actually function, but they will build representative mockups and create websites and commercials as if they really did exist.

Nikhil Mitter describes speculative design as

an emerging practice based research methodology that promotes designed objects as tools for critical reflection.

He goes on to say of “research objects” (i.e. the artifacts of exploration)

A presentation of form as research has the advantage of implementing all the resources afforded to material objects such as imagery, sound, tactility, presence, feedback, interaction, duration, and behavior.

I believe that this begins to approach the notion of directed tinkering as an enabler of critical thinking. You are not just hacking to hack, but you are hacking to understand a problem.

At the same time, I think most shadetree-engineers who are playing around with microcontrollers and robots would probably not think about their work this way (frankly, they wouldn’t use the word “work” to describe their benchtop experiments).

I wonder: is it possible or worthwhile to set up channels for problem solving in the form of creative prompts for hackers?