Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Systems of belief

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For many viewers, including me, I suspect that Google’s short film “The Selfish Ledger,” which I discussed here yesterday, was their introduction to the notion of speculative design. It’s a concept that evidently emerged through the work of the designers Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby of the Royal College of Art, who coined the term back in the nineties. In their recent book Speculative Everything, which I read over the weekend, they define the field as a form of criticism using design methods and techniques:

All good design is critical. Designers start by identifying shortcomings in the thing they are redesigning and offer a better version. Critical design applies this to larger more complex issues. Critical design is critical thought translated into materiality. It is about thinking through design rather than through words and using the language and structure of design to engage people.

Elsewhere, they characterize it as “design as a catalyst for social dreaming,” or what amounts to a form of science fiction using the tools of modern art, often in the form of museum installations or exhibits. As I studied the examples in their book, which is beautifully illustrated, I was left with a sensation much like the one that I felt after attending a symposium on futurology last month, which is that of a parallel development of speculative thought that has evolved independently of the tradition that I know best, with its own rules, conventions, and vocabulary.

In fact, I find speculative design—or at least the little of it I’ve seen—rather more interesting than academic futurology, which often suffers from its reliance on the same handful of concepts and catchphrases. Design, by definition, forces its practitioners to come to terms with tangible objects and materials, and the resulting ideas are often richer and more surprising because of their engagement with physical constraints. The closest equivalent might be the creation of sets and props for such movies as Minority Report, which might be the single most influential piece of futurology of the last two decades, although Dunne and Raby are careful to draw a distinction between the two fields. In Speculative Everything, they write:

One way of considering the fictional objects of speculative design is as props for nonexistent films. On encountering the object, the viewer imagines his or her own version of the film world the object belongs to. Film prop design, therefore, might seem like good source of inspiration for these objects, but as Piers D. Britton points out in “Design for Screen SF,” film props have to be legible and support plot development; they have to be readable, which undermines their potential to surprise and challenge. They are instrumental in moving the plot along.

In speculative design, by contrast, whether it’s a sculpture, a diorama, or a short film like “The Selfish Ledger,” the user’s momentary disorientation is the entire point. Many of these works are deliberately unheimlich, or uncanny, and much of their value lies in the mental exertion required to figure out what they’re trying to say, which would be discouraged in most conventional narratives.

As I browsed through Speculative Everything, which I read just after watching “The Selfish Ledger,” my eye was caught by a film installation, Belief Systems, by the German artist Bernd Hopfengaertner, which can be viewed in its entirety here. In their description, Dunne and Raby write:

Hopfengaertner asks what would happen if one of the tech industry’s many dreams comes true, if all the research being done by separate companies into making humans machine readable were to combine and move from laboratory to everyday life: combined algorithms and camera systems that can read emotions from faces, gait, and demeanor; neurotechnologies that cannot exactly read minds but can make a good guess at what people are thinking; profiling software that tracks and traces our every click and purchase; and so on. He developed six scenarios that explored different aspects of this rather grim world. In one, a person wants to buy a teapot. She walks up to a machine, pays, then hundreds of images of teapots flash before her on a screen suddenly stopping on one, the one the machine decides the shopper wants from reading micro expressions on her face. In another, a person is trying to identify muscle groups in her face so she can learn to control them and not give her feelings away, voluntarily becoming inhuman in order to protect her humanity.

The film is nearly a decade old, but its concerns seem even more relevant now. In the teapot segment, the vending machine is meant to “surprise” the user by giving her a product that she never really knew she wanted—which is the dream of consumer data aggregation. In another sequence, billboards are altered in real time in response to viewers’ facial expressions, which merely translates the default assumptions of online advertising into the world around us.

Belief Systems can be seen as a secret precursor to “The Selfish Ledger,” but there are also crucial differences. For one thing, there isn’t much doubt about Hopfengaertner’s point of view. (As Dunne and Raby note: “For some this is the ultimate user-centered dream, but for many Hopfengaertner’s project is a cautionary tale fast-forwarding to a time when currently diverse technologies are combined to ease our every interaction with technology.”) Google’s short film is more ambiguous, perhaps intentionally, but also because of its source. Speculative fiction sponsored by corporations will always have a different feel from the kind made by artists, partially because a corporate thought experiment has a way of turning imperceptibly into an action plan, but also because of the pressures operating on designers at such companies. Dunne and Raby speak shrewdly of design’s “inherent optimism,” which can turn into a trap in itself:

It is becoming clear that many of the challenges we face today are unfixable and that the only way to overcome them is by changing our values, beliefs, attitudes, and behavior. Although essential most of the time, design’s inbuilt optimism can greatly complicate things, first, as a form of denial that the problems we face are more serious than they appear, and second, by channeling energy and resources into fiddling with the world out there rather than the ideas and attitudes inside our heads that shape the world out there.

An artist working independently has the luxury of functioning as a skeptic or a critic, while the equivalent at Google, however nobly intentioned, can hardly help turning all dilemmas into problems that the Google design team is uniquely qualified to solve—which is a slippery belief system in itself. I’ll offer a few final thoughts on the subject tomorrow.

Written by nevalalee

June 5, 2018 at 8:28 am

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