Worrying about the future? Good, then prototype a better one

If the best way of predicting the future is by building it, then the best way of knowing what to build at all, is by prototyping futures for debate. From Imre Bárd, founder of experimental design collective Hack the Senses.

Thinking about the ways in which advances in science and technology can transform the human condition, philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote in 1958 that we may be "unable to understand, that is, to think and speak about the things which nevertheless we are able to do.” This thought has always struck me as unusually profound and unsettling.

Our technological abilities may outstrip our capacity for grasping the meaning and the consequences of them.

Arendt’s reflections were prompted mainly by nascent space travel, humanity attempting to leave the cradle of the Earth for the first time, and by the successful harnessing of atomic power, which had unleashed previously unimaginable destructive force. She wrote with remarkable foresight about concerns related to automation, the prospect of genetic engineering and the enhancement of human abilities as well. Arendt recognised that these advances posed fundamental questions about the aims of science and technology.

In other words, they present tough moral and political questions about how we should use these developments, which cannot be resolved by science alone. They require broader and deeper reflection. However, in the 1950s science and technology existed mostly in the context of the Cold War, where there was little room to question the aims and outcomes of research. In the meantime, that overarching narrative had come to pass and not even the prospect of climate catastrophes has been able to mobilise the same amount of commitment to science and technology. (This is why some believe that despite the appearance of exponential progress today, we are still just making incremental improvements on the innovations of that period.)

Nevertheless, in recent decades, we have also come to think – rightly, I believe – that a more democratic, inclusive and participatory approach to the governance of science and technology is desirable. An approach that seeks to facilitate dialogue about the goals that science and technology ought to pursue and the futures we should seek to bring about. Optimists, like myself see this commitment to public engagement as our mutual search for reflexivity and for a language to think about what we can and should do.

It is an invitation to explore, question and challenge the values and aims of innovation.

As philosopher-sociologist (and regular Brain Bar headliner) Steve Fuller argued, in the 21st century the traditional left/right distinction in politics is going to be supplanted by an up/down dimension that is essentially concerned with the future of humanity and the degree to which we are willing to embrace the transformational potential of science and technology. Hence, matters of their governance will become increasingly important and salient.

There is clearly a lot of high profile action going on nowadays in this area. For example, the BEINGS Summit, convened in 2015 in Atlanta brought together thought leaders to reach a consensus on the direction of biotechnology for the 21st century; the European Commission recently funded a 4-year project with partners in Africa, Asia, Europe and the US to develop legal and ethical frameworks for human enhancement technologies, genomics, AI and robotics; and the UK government set up an All-Party Parliamentary Group to explore the impact and implications of artificial intelligence. Although none of these efforts will settle all the relevant questions for good, they form parts of an evolving dialogue.

There is, nevertheless, a well-known difficulty involved with trying to steer the development of any technology, the so-called Collingridge dilemma. Basically, it says that when technologies are in early stages of development, their trajectory is easier to influence but we lack the knowledge of its likely social, political and other impacts, which would inform our decisions.

Conversely, once technologies are mature, widely used and their consequences more apparent, we are no longer able to easily influence their course.

This trade-off between knowledge of consequences and the power to influence them is of key importance when we try to think about the technological futures we’d wish to see come about. So, how could we make different futures present and tangible to explore their desirability?

The recent surge of near-future science fiction series like Black Mirror, Humans, and Westworld shows that there is a deep and growing fascination for questions about the relationship between technology, human nature and society. As Amy Chambers argued, what makes these shows particularly disturbing is that they feel terrifyingly real. It is as if the scenarios depicted in these stories could easily become our own reality, which prompts us to reflect on the present and the kinds of futures we might be moving towards.

But what if we could touch and feel and interact with different futures? This is what the combination of experiential foresight and design fiction tries to accomplish. The results are immersive, provocative, and tangible representations of possible development paths allowing us to critically relate to the visions that they manifest. It is as if we had a device, process or environment from the future dropped into our present.

Embodying speculations in everyday artefacts can enable us to question and discuss different ideals and ways of relating to each other and the world that the objects express.

In its most effective manifestations, such design fictions allow for the usual utopian/dystopian narratives around technology to be transcended in favour of futures that are more open and complex.

This kind of approach has been adopted at a large scale by Dubai’s Museum of the Future, where visitors can step into various mock-ups of possible future developments. For example, they created a vision of the future of healthcare represented by a connected, high-tech bathroom that monitored every aspect of its user’s biological functioning. Beyond fascination, visitors naturally raised questions about the ownership of the collected data and the consequences of increasingly powerful forms of surveillance.

There are several exciting projects, such as MIT Media Lab’s Open Source Estrogen, which raises questions about do-it-yourself science and gender biopolitcs, or Lancaster University’s euthanasia wearable, which effectively opens up debate around the societal, ethical and legal aspects of technology-enabled assisted dying. Such design-based, experiential methods offer a uniquely powerful way of fostering reflection and creating space for societal deliberation.

So, if the best way of predicting the future is by building it, then the best way of knowing what to build at all, is by prototyping futures for debate.

(On the cover: Golden Globe Award winner Canadian actor and musician Ryan Gosling in Bladerunner 2049)

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