Our current beliefs establish the limits and boundaries of our reality.
We are storytellers by nature. Since the beginning of civilization we have used stories, myths and legends to make sense of the world around us. Since the dawn of man, we have created stories to understand our place in the world and to help us find certainty in a highly uncertain and often ruthless world. Today we know these stories as myths.
But stories are more than that. They are live linguistic devices used to influence the construction of our near futures. They are narratives that help us communicate and perpetuate ideologies that in themselves are determining the direction we take for the future. They are our user interfaces with the world.
…these stories[…] form a chromosome of the future which will divide and grow in the reader’s mind, dreams of the day after tomorrow waiting to enfold us as we move like sleepwalkers towards them.
We have always been fascinated with the future. We have sought the gift of foreseeing through any means imaginable: magic, tarot, hallucinogenic drugs, ritual, scientific experiments, and through probably (if you are a conspiracy theorist) a whole set of bizarre and top secret government black ops.
The story goes like this: Cassandra was a princess of Troy, the beautiful daughter of Priam, King of Troy and his wife Hecuba. She received the gift of prophesy when she was a child visiting the temple of Apollo. As she grew up, she continued to visit the temple, and the god Apollo fell in love with her. She rejected him as a lover and as a result he cursed her prophetic powers by having nobody believe them. So the story continues with Cassandra warning the Trojans about the dangers hidden inside the Trojan horse but, as her curse weighs in, she is seen as an insane woman.
Aside from the character’s tragic story, the myth itself tells us a lot about how we view the desire to predict the future. Firstly as a power held only by the ‘gods’ and secondly as a curse if we are to attempt to harness it.
After ages of trying to predict the future by some magical, alchemical way, some today feel that, as Alan Kay, genius inventor and polymath would say: “The only way to predict the future is to invent it“.
But I think we need to go beyond that and look at the stories, narratives, urban legends, modern myths, etc, and determine what kind of future they are constructing. The technologies we are inventing today are the direct result of the stories we were told yesterday. Stories about who we are supposed to be, what is important for humanity and where we should put our hopes and dreams as a species.
Contemporary narratives are the stories that guide our behavior and make up the canons by which we live our lives, they make up the collective imagination of humanity. They are not only important because of their connection with our past and our world’s transit through the ages of history, but because stories are the perfect way for us to express our deepest desires and fears and reflect the specific concerns of the age.
A PreCog Dream?
We are living today the dreams of yesterday
As designers, we have always been concerned with the future. Some of us design technological products that embody utopian visions for our future, projecting sustainable cities, pervasive AI that makes hard physical work redundant, smart technologies that track our every move and feedback insights for behavior change, frictionless transport systems, robot companions, driver-less cars, weekend trips to the moon, mind-controlling our screen browsers, and drone food delivery.
Others are more concerned with questioning the underlying assumptions and extrapolating them to offer a drastically different vision for our future. For example, Atelier Van Lieshout‘s project, Slave City- Cradle to Cradle is a city where people are measured according to productivity and efficiency. Old, sick or unproductive people are recycled, and the smart ones are used in organ donation programs. This project comments on a scenario where we have become commodities ourselves, and our role in society is measured, like machines, in terms of our productivity, mimicking the behavior of a modern corporation.
Another example of meta-narratives operating in the material world is the work of modernist architect Le Corbusier and the influence Rationalism had in his work. Rationalism is a theoretical framework that proposes reason as the fundamental basis for our actions and thoughts. Rationalist principles permeated late modern architecture which endorsed ideas of purity, simplicity, symmetry, honesty of materials, etc. Principles stemming directly from an ideology of reason, logic and empirical observation.
Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye. 1931 (Photo taken from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Villa_Savoye)
Today, we can see the ideologies being injected into popular culture and determine the possible direction the future will take. The new wave of space/ alien movies, combined with natural disaster ones, speaks of an effort to instill in us a desire to leave the earth and explore the confines of the universe. A clear example of this comes in the movie Interstellar, where the earth has become barren and dry and the only option for humanity to survive is to find a new home in a distant planet.
The ‘Space Renaissance ‘ we are seeing with the Mars missions, Virgin Galactic, Space X and many other modern space age successes are the result of decades of stories like Interstellar, being created to inspire a whole generation of children to imagine reaching the stars. The more epic and vivid are the stories about our future, the more resources we can pull towards making them happen. So we can expect to see more technologies that relate to efficient use of natural resources, energy generation and propulsion, engineered super-materials, 3D printing soft materials and edibles, smarter Nanotechnology and high quality communications, just to name a few.
For a narrative to work and get picked up culturally, it needs to make sense with the current values of a society, it needs to strike a cord so to speak, and our desire to conquer space has been part of our cultural DNA since before the space age. The moment we set eyes on space with the first telescopes, the dream of space travel begun.
I think one of the most powerful ways stories can be made viral in a society is by using imagery. We have all heard the old adage: an image speaks a thousand words. Images can hold an incredibly complex set of social codes and can be very powerful tools for manipulation and consent manufacturing.
One great example of this is the map of the Kingdom of Prester John, which was created from a letter by a named Priest John to Emperor Manuel I Comnenus. In this letter, Priest John vividly described his christian kingdom in the far-off East. The letter started by saying:
“I am devout Christian and everywhere I defend and support with alms true Christians governed by the dominion of my Clemency…
Our sovereignty extends over the three Indias… In our domains live elephants, dromedaries, camels, hippopotami, crocodiles, metagallinari, cametennus, tinsirete, panthers, onagers, red and white lions, white bears and blackbirds, mute cicadas, gryphos, tigers, jackals, hyenas, wild oxen, centaurs, wild men, horned men, fauns, centaurs and women of the same species, pygmies, men with dog’s heads, giants forty cubits tall, monocles, cyclops, a bird called the phoenix, and almost every kind of animal that lives beneath the vault of the heavens…”
In terms of historical context, this was the time when the crusaders were trying to gain back lands that were under the control of the ‘infidel’, so it arrived at a perfect time to spark the imagination and empty the pockets of the European super powers. This letter, translated in several languages and distributed throughout Europe was the perfect tool to justify imperialism and could even be argued that it was directly related to the European fever to explore and conquer the new world.
If only it was real. The famous Presbyter Johannes or Priest John was a fictional character describing a fictional place so magically real that transformed the course of history.
The Sleeper Has Awakened
A beginning is a very delicate time… Princess Irulan, Dune. 1984
Products are just as powerful vessels for cultural memes. Every hairdryer, mobile phone, laptop, lamp or suitcase has in its DNA, the codes and values of the culture that created them.
Brands like Apple have built an almost religious fervor around their products, housing them in temple-like stores, where we go and find redemption among their gadgets, a safe place where we go and propitiate the new god of our times: technology. But technological worship is not only related to brand building, but also part of a larger machine which feeds both a scientific utopia and the capitalist market for new technological solutions and advances.
Similarly, popular culture and science fiction are both challenging and endorsing emergent technologies. Several cinema and literary classics have been toying with future scenarios where present technologies are being extrapolated to create hypotheses about how these will affect us, how technologies are shaping our humanity or what humanity really means; questions about human nature, the existence of our human soul, and the future of our natural habitat are all addressed in these stories.
A classic example of this comes from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, where technologies such as robotics, colonization of space, biotechnology and genetic engineering have shaped our future. A dystopian future scenario in 2019 where scientists have created a race of humanoids- replicants- to work in their off-world colonies doing dangerous and undesirable jobs. However, at some point replicants rebel against humans and are banned from returning to earth under the pain of death. Some, nonetheless, defy the law and return.
Blade Runner detective Deckard is entrusted with the task of terminating them one by one.
Blade Runner movie poster. 1982 (Image taken from http://bladerunner.wikia.com/wiki/Main_Pagehttps://goo.gl/PQHJdW)
This movie is an excellent example of popular media both evaluating and extrapolating a hypothesis of the future based on emergent technologies. It proposes the fictional scenario where robotics has become so evolved to mimic humans in almost every way, plus being equally or more intelligent and superior physically, so much so that a test, the Voigt Kamppf, has been developed to differentiate humans from replicants based on emotional responses to scenarios where empathetic values are measured.
Blade Runner initially prescribes to the ideas that what makes us human is our capacity for empathy and emotional dimensions, but it seems, as the movie progresses, that replicants have developed a sense of existence, building emotional relationships and most importantly, a sense of mortality. This has always been a human trademark, even being depicted at the mythic moment of the expulsion of Paradise when we ate from the tree of knowledge. So by the realisation of mortality, these replicants are placed at the same moral level of humans, as the offspring of humanity trying to better itself.
Moreover, it reminds us of the myth of Prometheus, who steals fire from the gods and gives it to humanity; the gods as a result sentenced him to eternal punishment. As we can see, these concerns have been with us for a long time, in fact, one could argue that they are anxieties inherent to the human condition.
It comes, then, as no surprise that the designers of Blade Runner’s Tyrell Corp chose to portray its headquarters as a Mesoamerican temple, further reflecting the modern relationship between technology and religion.
Blade Runner’s Tyrell Corp Headquarters (https://goo.gl/iU5Ezh)
Are these robotic, humanoids the future of our species, the next step in evolution? Perhaps. And what the makers of the movie seem to allude to is that maybe we are on that path already without realizing it; a statement with which many leading scientists and futurists would thoroughly agree.
These conceptions of the human flesh and its weaknesses as something that has to be overcome and fixed, has its roots in the platonic belief of the body as a cage for the soul, as the imperfect and decaying flesh which must be overpowered, and the real vulnerability of our bodies has only reinforced this. Narratives in popular culture, like Blade Runner have proposed versions of a world where technologies have become intertwined with our bodies, where cyborgs live amongst us.
And we are yet to see what the new version of Blade Runner (2049) gives us in terms of a future extrapolated from contemporary technological concerns, but it will surely continue on the tradition of dystopia.
These narratives have been preparing the territory for the technologies that are seen to be the next step in evolution for the human race, the post-human. Conversely, new technologies are likely to change the manner in which we construct new narratives, and it is likely these will come packaged in the old format of myth.
In my opinion, through history, stories have been built to consciously guide the actions of the masses and allow for policies and ideologies to become ubiquitous. The role of design in the manufacturing of the future is immense and as designers, the values and priorities we choose to establish within our work will determine the direction of our future.
The empires of the future are the empires of the mind
Sir Winston Churchill
As much as I love technology and what it has allowed us to do, as a designer, I feel its my responsibility to use my work to better the world. It’s not only about creating cool gadgets and using new innovative technologies, but to see the big picture and make sure we are moving forward as humanity, as one, not leaving anyone behind.
That’s why my work in the last few years has focused on designing for humanity, for the disadvantaged and the ones technology hasn’t reached much. I want to align my work with contemporary narratives of unity, cooperation, community and designing for all, respecting nature and the other living inhabitants of our planet.
For designers, the practice of future gazing not only can helps us design for the future, but it also raises our awareness about the implications of modern ideologies on the future itself. That’s why it’s so important to understand the invisible forces that pull and push us in an endless ideological battle which will decide the fate of human kind.
A contemporary story that deals with precisely this war of ideologies is James Cameron’s Avatar, where modern mythologies about living in harmony with nature, about an intelligent and powerful mother earth, about cooperation, ecology and sustainability are being pushed into the collective unconscious. A contrast between the ideal world of Pandora and the capitalist invaders is meant to shed light on the two forces currently battling for dominance in the world.
James Cameron’s Avatar. 2009 (photo taken from goo.gl/CofbHk)
I love this quote from Sci-fi writer Cory Doctorow from The Tomorrow Project Anthology, ‘Change the story people have imagined the future will be. Change that and you change the future. […] just change the story we tell ourselves about the future and you change the future itself.’
It is imperative that we awaken and see where we are being steered and question whether this is where we want to go as humanity. Design has a massively important role in this process. Designers, engineers, scientists, artists and architects build new versions of our world; we materialize the beliefs that guide the gaze of humanity into the future. We must question what kind of future these beliefs are constructing through us, through our work.
Technology has never moved so fast, transforming how we relate to each other, how we live, how we relate to nature and other living beings, how we love and how we dream. If we want to design a fair, abundant and sustainable future, we must start with our work today.
Diana Simpson Hernandez
Founder of Designers for Humanity