Design, Science Fiction and new technologies

Versión en español aqui

Future worlds, new technologies, new social dynamics and new ways of interacting with our environment. Both design and science fiction touch on these points, although both in their own way.

When design looks forward it usually shows us a bright and hopeful future where technology opens new doors for us, makes us happier and better; it makes everything easier and solves all of our problems. In this context new technologies are always the preface to an idyllic future. It’s not very often seeing designers treating new technologies in a way that’s not positive.

Lets contrast this with how a lot of science fiction writers have used new technologies as a narrative tool to comment on current social dynamics and how technology can enhance not only the good, but the dark side of humanity too. Technology is not only seen as a solution to a problem but also as part of a network of interrelationships that takes into account current power dynamics.

This is a concern that’s more than present nowadays in our society, as evidenced by the many media showing dystopian worlds and societies, lead by the excellent Black Mirror, a TV show that’s the best example of this type of fiction.

© David Dettmann/Netflix

As recent news has shown us, the potential pitfalls of technology misuse can’t be ignored.

Then I ask myself why do designers approach technology only from a positive viewpoint? I can think of several answers, none of them definitive of course.

If I’m being benign I could say that it has to do with the way many designers operate. By starting a project from an ‘ideal state’ (how things should be) designers look at how to achieve that goal from the current state. This is obviously a very optimistic approach and its peculiarity of starting from a goal or result has the downside of obfuscating possible deviations.

On the other hand, if I’m being cynical I could say that designers are completely absorbed and submissive to the commercial and marketing mechanics that they can’t help but try to sell everything they work on, completely abandoning any possibility of critical outlook. Then it’s only natural that everything is going to be romanticised and sold as the next great thing.

In the end, whatever the reason, we still see only aseptic renderings of happy consumers, in a dehumanized world where evertyhing works flawlessly and everyone is living a great life.

Let’s contrast Tarkovsky’s vision for Solaris with Microsoft’s Future Vision

To be fair many of the first concepts that usually appear do have social impact in mind. Showing how these new technologies can be of use in emergencies or in the health sector. Which is a great thing, because it shows that designers care, and I honestly think that we do. Or I can be cynical again and say that most people see these type of projects as a great way to draw attention to themselves. And of course most of the time the approach to the issue is absolutely reductionist, which in the end might look pretty but won’t actually have anything worthwhile to show or say.

I guess that what I’m actually trying to ask is why we, as designers, have so much trouble seeing new trends from a critical point of view instead of just jumping blindly on the hype train.

I think that I’m worried by the naivety shown by thinking that the only thing we need to make our lives better is augmented reality and touchscreens everywhere.

Maybe, we might not want to acknowledge that the world is extremely complex, that there are competing interests and power dynamics at work, and that might mean that an app or a product might not be the magical solution we would like it to be.

And I’m being generous, saying that we’re just a bit naive, but that attitude is certainly not only irresponsible but also self centred.

The role of the designer is growing, and thus also its responsibilities. By starting to involve us more and more in areas of social impact, it’s important that we, as professionals and agents of culture, understand how our work is affected and being affected by social dynamics.

Technological Dreams Series: №1, Robots by Dunne & Raby

I believe it’s time for us designers to start being more critical of our profession and start looking at not only the solutions that technology could provide but also the problems those solutions could create. With our capacity for foresight we can also denounce social issues and compel people to think about their relationship with technology, just like great science fiction writers like Bradbury, Huxley and Orwell have done, as well as inspire people through positive examples.

Designer with a passion for design and culture

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