How can we be other than what we are?

Posted on Oct 1, 2010 in Research Methodologies

My plans to participate in the β€œSpeculation, Design, Public and Participatory Technoscience: Possibilities and Critical Perspectivesβ€œ (pdf) track at EASST 2010 were foiled, so I was happy to read Nicolas Nova’s post on Designing alternative presents and speculative futures in which he talks about a design matrix presented by James Auger:

β€œAt the origin we have the here and now; everyday life and the real products that are available on the high street. The lineage of these products can be traced back in time to where the technology became available to iterate them beyond their current form. The technology element on the left hand side represents research and development work, the higher the line the more emergent the technology and the longer and less predictable the route to everyday life (domestication). As we move to the right of the diagram and into futures we see that speculative design futures exist as a projection of the lineage; they are developed using a methodology that consciously focuses on contemporary public understanding and desires to make these speculations both tangible and desirable. Alternative presents step out of the lineage at some poignant time in the past to re-imagine our technological present. These designs challenge and question the existing systems and objects that arise from current modes of manufacture.” (emphasis mine)

Auger’s use of the phrase “alternative presents” resonates deeply with me for two reasons. First, I come from a discipline that showed me so many different ways of doing and being in the world that I never doubt that we can be other than what we are. (In an inspiring lecture, Anthropology and the Passion of the Political, anthropologist Ghassan Hage asks how the discipline can help us do just that.) Second, my research deals with emerging technologies precisely because I’m interested in identifying those “poignant times” when change can happen, and my interest in speculative design is driven by my belief that imagined futures can be used today to build different tomorrows.

What’s given me new food for thought is Auger’s claim that the word “speculative” is problematic because it suggests that the designed artefact doesn’t exist, and if it doesn’t exist then people won’t take it seriously. Given my commitment to applied sociology and anthropology, it’s very important that my design work also encourages and supports direct action. In fact, I’ve asked many designers how they know their speculative/fictional/critical designs are successful, and I’ve never actually received a satisfactory response. One of the things I plan to do with the Counting Sheep project is find ways to systematically evaluate the impact of our future scenarios, and I imagine it will be the most difficult part of the whole project. But I do believe that good future scenarios are like good science fiction: they help us understand the present and orient us in new directions for the future. And that means that the words–as well as the objects and images–we use to tell our stories are crucial to their success. So now I think I’m going to spend a little time with the OED