On Glass & Mud: A Critique of (Bad) Corporate Design Fiction

Socially awkward futures videos

Asperger’s Design Fiction

I’m a fan of design-based futures work (a.k.a. “design fiction“). Videos, in particular, can be a very effective way of engaging people in complex, subtle and nuanced explorations of the future.

I always applaud companies that give it a shot, especially when it represents a big step away from “business as usual” for them. That is why it is too bad that a lot of corporate design fiction suffers from the commercial equivalent of Asperger’s Syndrome.

Take the enormously popular “A Day Made of Glass“.  This slick, high-gloss, promotional video from glass manufacturer Corning received over 17 million views on YouTube and garnered widespread media coverage.  So much so, in fact, that Corning made a second one, soon to be released at its own stylish launch party somewhere in New York (*See Update, below).  Marketing Daily called it, “the most watched corporate video of all time.”

Reactions to the video varied.  Most were positive; design and architecture students in particular (not to mention glass manufacturers and those in the CPG business) gushed over it. One typical comment was:

Love this! … It would be awesome to see this level of technological, lifestyle integration… the idealist in me gets really excited about it. :-)

But not everyone was so positive.  YouTube user (apocalex13) commented:

Remember those “house of the future” videos from the 60’s, 70’s, etc. and how stupid they look now either because the ideas were eclipsed by modern technology… or just because fashions simply changed?  I’m wondering what the reactions to this video 20-30 years down the line would be like…

Fortunately, we don’t have to wait 20 or 30 years to see their reactions.  Take the following comments from Corning’s official YouTube channel, for example:

If the future looks like this I’m going to kill myself… (laksmann)

I wonder how much Congolians are going to have to be killed for one house, with all the precious metals needed (eethry)

Am I the only one who doesn’t want to be connected to every single person every second of every day? (smitty5ca)

Well apparently the economy is good again in the near future looking forward to that! (judefox2010)

A Thin View of the Future…

Are these users (and this post) just being mean-spirited?  Short-sighted? Pessimistic?  “It is just a video, for crying out loud”, you say.

Therein lies the challenge of consumer-oriented design fiction (and futures work in general).  These kinds of videos take no consideration of the social, political and economic changes going on around us; changes so profound and fundamental that they make touch-screen glass look like a 2-bit side act to the real drama of the coming decade.  Widespread unemployment, a climate crisis, resource shortages, political re-allignment, labor unrest, and both more outrageous and more mundane scientific advances such as anti-biotic immunity, cheap cell phones and the end of privacy will have far more industry-shattering impact than anything so simple and narrow-minded as ubiquitous information displays.

On the other hand, the production value of the Corning video is extraordinary.  Like those Microsoft “Visions of the Future“, they are well-produced, accessible, and beautiful.  And they should be; Corning paid a small fortune to ad agency Doremus to make their video.

For perspective, Doremus is owned by The Omnicom Group, one of the world’s largest ad agencies.  Omnicom has nearly 70,000 employees worldwide and $12 billion in revenue.  Their behind the scenes blog post lists a huge team involved in its creation; a creative director, film maker, camera lead and executive producer (each with their own staff, I am sure), not to mention a full production house (Rough House) and a dedicated special effects agency (Westernized Productions).  The design, planning and execution of such a task must have taken months, so you can guess how much such high-end production would cost.

Compared to the big budget, big-bang output of teams like Doremus, most futurists don’t have a chance.  Who cares about those pesky details of what the future might really look like when you’ve got over 17 million page views!  “Stop whining,” I hear the ad agents among you saying. “Haven’t you read Zero History? Bigend wins in the end!”

…That No One Buys

Fortunately, it isn’t just us futures nerds and science-fiction authors that see right through the worst examples of shallow futurism.  It only takes a second to realize that most such efforts are just glossy advertisement, with about as much consideration for how things might really turn out as the average Budweiser commercial.  The parody of Microsoft’s Vision of the Future, below, is a perfect example of the kind of response any sane, reasonably intelligent person should have.

Sophisticated clients such as Corning and others who commission this work should take note: despite the widespread attention given to videos like this, consumers see right through the special effects and glitzy production to the substance beneath. If there is no real substance beneath, it will come back to haunt you.

When it comes to futures work, high-gloss production is no substitute for real ideas and considered implications.  Your message may be widely publicized and you might get tons of page views.  The more you spend, the more likely you will also be to receive awards from your industry buddies.  But you will look silly and naive to the savvy consumers you so desire to attract.  Opinion-shapers like these will not only ignore your message, but most likely ridicule you in public to their friends and colleagues.

By ignoring the careful and considered analysis of real futures practitioners – practitioners who provide industry-critical strategy advice every day to mainstream corporations and governments around the world – you make yourself look foolish and inauthentic to those who you are most desperate to impress.

In the end, Doremus’ behind the scenes blog post has over 20 pages of spam selling Viagra, sunglasses and university degrees.  This is the real future we are living into and this is the ultimate fate of Asperger’s Design Fiction.

Counterpoint: A Future Made of Mud

See the video above for a good counterpoint. This is actually a documentary exploring the tradition of mud architecture in Mali, called “The Future of Mud“.  It is “thick” in all the ways that the Corning video is “thin”.  It evokes personality, emotion, generational struggles, changing social conditions, economic progress and structural change.  It highlights individual people’s relationship and reaction to these changes.  How do they reconcile the tensions of tradition and comfort versus novelty and uncertainty? Do they embrace them?  Do they reject them?

Nothing in this video is clean, and not just because of the subject matter (mud).  Although not explicitly a “futurist” video, it speaks more profoundly and authentically to the kinds of change the vast majority of the world is experiencing now and will likely experience in the future.

We are unlikely to see this level of sophisticated thinking emerge from most design fiction, but it tackles exactly the kinds of issues that many will be struggling with in the future.  As Bruce Sterling said, “Corning doesn’t sell mud.”

That said, we still need more video in futures work and more futures work in product design.  So instead of discouraging the use of video to engage and communicate, designers and futurists working on these projects should consider the follow criteria for making high-quality futures videos that are also profound and thoughtfully reflective of future change.

  1. Don’t stare at your navel: Yes, you may be a glass company (or soda company or whatever), but that doesn’t mean the world revolves around glass.  Futures and scenario planning is about exploring how larger, external factors will impact your market segment over time.  Many changes internal to your market are likely to influence the future (technology, etc.), but the more important ones will likely have to do with forces outside of your control (the economy, attitudes towards consumption, political disposition, etc.).  Consider how a broader array of forces will impact who your customers are, what they care about and how this might affect your product.
  2. Don’t extrapolate to infinity: It is a natural human tendency to look at today’s trends and extrapolate them into the future forever.  Don’t.  Instead, look at the system of forces which drive or hinder change in your industry, then play those out in a systematic way.
  3. Don’t fetishize technology: In short, social change matters more than technological change.  See Andrew Curry’s excellent “The 1910 Time Traveller” for more detail.
  4. Don’t ignore what people care about: What is really important to the segment you are trying to reach?  Often, it is themselves and the people around them. If you sell a product targeted at young, technology savvy people, consider what makes them tick.  Do they care about IP?  Do they like to share or horde?  Are they private or public?  Consider how (and why) people will interact differently relative to these issues in the future.  Who will be in charge?  Where will they work?  How will they feel about each other?  The emotional, social aspects of the future are far more important to most people than the technological and material ones.  The more you connect with issues that people care about, but in a new or surprising way, the more people will care about your production and the more effective your videos will be.
  5. Don’t dumb it down: You don’t have to write a thesis on identity politics in the 21st century in order to do a good futures video.  But don’t ignore the things that are likely to effect your subject in the future, either.  Most people, especially those viewing your work on the web, will be relatively savvy and sophisticated viewers; doubly so if they actually care about the subject at hand.  The more layers and sophistication you can add, the more they’ll appreciate and enjoy the money you spent thinking about it.

In the end, it is all about layers and depth.  If you are going to spend a fortune on a design fiction video, at least listen to your futures consultants.  It is their job to consider these elements in the same way it is your job to consider the camera, lighting and pacing of a video.

The take-away message is not, “Don’t take a risk on design fiction”.  Quite the opposite.  The message is, “Take a risk on design fiction, but be sure to do it right so that you get the maximum impact and reward for your time.”  Hire (and listen to) what your futures consultants have to say. Working together, you will be able to make just as slick and high-gloss a production as before, except this time it will actually be rich and meaningful, as well.

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UPDATE: This just in; reader Jim Spohrer sent word that the official Corning “Day Made of Glass, Version 2” is out.  It is more of the same.  Check out the glass wall in the Redwoods at 4:18, or have a look at the saccharine “Behind the Scenes” video starring Keanu Reeves’ and Russell Brand’s love child.  I shudder to think…

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UPDATE 2:  See my follow-up post “Good Examples of Design Fiction”, based on the comments and discussion below.

17 Comments

  1. Wendy Schultz
    Posted February 2, 2012 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    Differentiating between thin vs thick (silicon / glass vs… handwoven wool and linen? carved wood? rammed earth?) descriptions of futures concisely captures a key division between good and bad. But color me somewhat frustrated that once again – as with your recent interview with Alexander Phillips – one would never know from these remarks that an academic field of futures studies exists. A field that provides the theoretical, conceptual and methodological explorations supporting some of the best ‘thick futures’ work by the people you mentioned in the interview. Yet reading the interview one would suppose that futures work had sprung full-blown from the collective corporate unconscious, routed through Collyns and van der Heijden (and, presumably, de Geus, Ogilvy, etc.) and been recently rendered thick and delicious via cross-fertilization with design thinking.

    I think I find the lack of mention of the academic work in futures weird because it is this very corporate / business / strategic planning futures perspective, that seems to treat much futures process as stray tools to be applied almost randomly (rather than with an integrated understanding of how the methods interlink and their foundations in cultural studies, social and psychological theory and, as you say, the ethnography of power), that most often creates the ‘thin futures’ we see in media as commercial images of the (a single) future.

    It’s not a tool set; it’s a worldview of paradigms about change and responsibility.

    Clearly, I am becoming the grumpy old lady of futures studies.

  2. Noah Raford
    Posted February 2, 2012 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

    Wendy, this is a great point. You are right; we should do more to draw references to the longer, richer tradition of futures work.

    But the challenge is deeper than the bibliography, I think. It is cultural. The Dators, Slaughters, and Inayatullahs of the world represent a critique that, unfortunately, has been losing ground over time relative to many of its less generous cousins. Materialism and the moral philosophy of capitalism has wrought so thorough a victory that almost anything contrary is effectively dismissed as ignorant of “the way things really are”.

    This has a challenging effect on the practice of futures work which goes beyond the cognitive aversion to change that I referenced in my last interview. As you know, most practicing futurists have a hard enough time winning work on the “thin” grounds of strategy development and long-term change, not to mention the “thick” grounds of cultural commentary and political criticism. That is why the selection pressure has been heavily tilted towards an operational interpretation of “futures as technique”, as opposed to “futures as position”, in my opinion.

    The home run would be to demonstrate how a better understanding of critical futures work (and theories of social change, visions of the future, long wave cycles, etc.) produces better outcomes, on the client’s own terms. Or more profoundly, how it helps to change the terms of the client’s terms, if you will. But since so few people are likely to invite anyone in to change the terms of their value structure, it becomes a more ninja-like operation; practicing thick futures in the confines of a thin mandate.

    There are probably some overweight ninja jokes to be had in here somewhere, but I think you get my point. This is at least how I’ve been able to reconcile my desire to produce more profound and challenging work within the material confines of most, fairly limited and focused, client briefs.

    I am sure this is something we all struggle with, as designers, advisors and futurists the world over. How have others tackled this thorny issue of power, utility and freedom in their own work?

  3. Wendy Schultz
    Posted February 2, 2012 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    I agree with your diagnosis of the embedded cultures / values that often constrain, or at least highly pressure, corporate futures work towards the thin rather than the thick. But I disagree with your dismissal of the bibliography. It’s not all the fault of the client; if the consultant doesn’t know any better, they are hardly in a position to be a thick-futures ninja. Did reading Polak contribute to ‘thickening’ your practice, or didn’t it? If it did, then in fact the bibliography matters.

    All the people you mention are cornerstones of the global academic futures community, in that they contribute heavily to ‘thick futures’ theory and practice. I’m sure they do feel the cultural constraints and pressures you mention when engaging as consultants with more traditional mindsets. Dator operates almost entirely within academia; Slaughter also; Inayatullah to a lesser extent, but even his work outside of academia is heavily freighted toward government agencies, social communities, and NGOs, all places where critique of embedded systems can often find at least some singers in the same ideological choir. But I’m not actually worried about how these leading lights handle pressure on their robust theoretical and methodological constructs.

    My point is that there is a very large community of ‘scenario planning’ practice out there that doesn’t feel the pressure towards ‘thin futures’ as a constraint, because they don’t have a deep enough theoretical and conceptual grounding to perceive what they are doing as thin. Their ideologies and worldviews match that of their clients, so taking the current global economic structures as a given and focussing on technological innovation within the context of ‘taken-for-granted’ market growth paradigms, boomer consumer psychology, and environmental externalism, is not perceived as a constraint.

    Maybe I’m saying that I don’t think you can generate thick futures out of thin reading: the bibliography matters very deeply, on the consultant’s side.

  4. Noah Raford
    Posted February 2, 2012 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    Reading Polak definitely contributed to my practice, as did the others mentioned. And I think you hit the nail on the head:

    There is a very large community of ‘scenario planning’ practice out there that doesn’t feel the pressure towards ‘thin futures’ as a constraint… Their ideologies and worldviews match that of their clients, so taking the current global economic structures as a given and focusing on technological innovation within the context of ‘taken-for-granted’ market growth paradigms, boomer consumer psychology, and environmental externalism, is not perceived as a constraint.

    Solution, if any (especially considering that many, including those you mention, don’t consider this to be an issue)?

  5. Posted February 3, 2012 at 1:34 am | Permalink

    Nice post. The whole future vs. mud thing reminds me of the artist Neil Beloufa’s work:

    “his video work Kempinski (2007) shows a remarkably dystopian scene, located somewhere between ethnographic documentation and Science Fiction. A group of people outside Bamako in Mali, in a neon-lit, nocturnal setting, narrate in the present tense about their distant future, where domesticated animals and humans live in family-like communities, where machines and tools behave like humans, where telepathy is possible between the genders and where it is possible to move in space without a loss of time. The narratives create surreal images of a life where no distinctions are made between humans, animals and things. […] Far from all clichés and stereotypical parameters of the world order, the work displays the relativity of western-centred perceptions, and also of reality itself.”

    [http://www.kunsthausglarus.ch/en/frontend/exhibition_detail/456]

    The video is super weird, check it out if you got a chance. Doesn’t seem to be on the Web…

    Regards,
    tamberg

  6. Noah Raford
    Posted February 3, 2012 at 7:42 am | Permalink

    Sounds great, will try to track it down and check it out.

  7. Andrew Curry
    Posted February 4, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    Until I read through right to the end I’d expected the notion of ‘mud’ to be a metaphor for much futures practice, work which is often messy and approximate, involving misunderstandings, disruption, the sometimes slow evolution of new understandings through conversations which can be difficult.

    And, so as not to be misunderstood: all of these attributes are good things. I can’t remember who said it (the English Lord Birkenhead, perhaps) but there’s a line about how it is hard to reach genuinely new insights – but that the value of those new insights is proportionate to the effort involved. (My memory of the original quote is that it was crisper, but you get the point).

    For me this also connects to some of the ‘lost’ futurists from the peace movements of 50s and 60s, who seem to have been obliterated from much of the history of futures, people such as Elise Boulding and Robert Jungk, who used visioning to imagine how the world might be without nuclear weapons, and – in Jungk’s case – how communities could try to take control of their own future.

    A world away from the slick corporate world of Corning’s minority report.

  8. Noah Raford
    Posted February 4, 2012 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Andrew,

    That reminds me of Lord Hennessey’s speech at Chatham House on “The Horizon-Scanner’s Craft“. He suggested that our work is like “feeling for the thin wisps of tomorrow”. I don’t think it is coincidence that he links horizon scanning and futures activity to anthropological inquiry in that speech, and to Mary Douglas in particular (a very “thick” practitioner and theorist).

    Instead of just reading the wisps, however, I think the “peace futurists” were actively trying to weave these them together into some different, more desirable outcome, i.e., a transformed world. You could argue that this is also what Corning et al. try to do as well with their futures work. But compared to averting nuclear destruction, selling glass products seems somewhat less important.

    Ironically, preventing nuclear destruction was the main driver behind a lot of scenario development in the 1950’s and 1960’s (Kahn, etc.). That moral (or at least ethical, if not critical) edge seems to have been worn down over time.

    To your main point though, I think the metaphor of “mud” for futures work is a great one… and definitely deserves a separate essay or post!

  9. Mick Costigan
    Posted February 5, 2012 at 3:38 am | Permalink

    Noah, thanks for raising these points.

    I must say I think you may be getting a little bit high-horsish with Corning. They sell glass and so they made a video about glass. It got 17mm hits and established them with many people as visionary, regarding the future of glass. Commercially that’s quite a result. No point blaming them for a whole bunch of deeper problems in the futures field.

    That said, I am enjoying the back and forth that has emerged around thick and thin futures. There is a really long conversation to be had about that but I thought I would throw in a few observations from the consulting ground level. Rather than emphasize divisions among different approaches in the futures thinking and consulting world, I would prefer to focus on the overall challenge, in a similar way to what Andrew Curry has written. Here are some random thoughts I put down recently on the topic.

    The world is complex and its future is uncertain.
    Human brains are limited in their ability to comprehend complexity and uncertainty.
    So, as individuals, we adapt by using heuristics and thinking through narratives or stories, though we often tell ourselves otherwise.
    We now get more data than before, but we will never overcome the story-thinking, pattern-seeking instinct.

    Most organizations, particularly large ones, are set up in ways that militate against deep engagement with uncertainty. Indeed, confident prediction, regardless of subsequent accuracy, is often far more important for the achievement of short-term individual and organizational goals than we would like to admit. (See Danzig’s report for CNAS about DoD as an example). Right now, the lives of individuals in most of the organizations that buy futures consulting are pretty tough. More work, tighter deadlines, less staff, higher expectations.

    Though we may be conscious of the frailties of our individual and organizational capacities for futures thinking, we cannot, as individuals or as organizations, be paralyzed by inertia. The clock ticks on.
    We must find a way reach the level of conviction that allows us our organizations to make good decisions and take action well. Together.

    Conscious that we will err in these decisions, we need to plan to find a way to get feedback, to plan to be ok with having erred, and to plan to adjust. Regularly. Together.

    And then we have to follow through on these plans. All of this is very hard. As Beckett said: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”

    As futures consultants, we help organizations to try to meet these challenges, often in contexts where the prior experience is of failure and the pressures on individuals are immense. And though we want to change the world, occasionally that means that all we can aspire to is to help people fail better.

    As a profession, we often emphasize different problems or challenges. Some of us emphasize the challenges in facing these problems together, others focus on the depth of causal layers, others the new possibilities to apply more data to problems, others the ability to develop more timely feedback. And so on.

    This diversity is healthy. None of us has the answer, as our limited success attests. We have much to learn from each other. The academic and the consulting sides need to be in dialogue. Neither side should get ahead of itself. We all always need to remain paranoid about whether we are emphasizing the highest value leverage points or problems.

    On top of all this, we the futures thinkers, as individuals and organizations are subject to the exact same dysfunctions and challenges referred to above. This should also not be forgotten

  10. Noah Raford
    Posted February 5, 2012 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    Mick,

    Thanks for sharing this, I completely agree. To your points, it is being slightly unfair to pick on Corning for this. They’re laughing all the way to the bank, and so should they. It isn’t their job to solve the world’s problems and, in the confines of their own risk/reward structure, it may be unfair to even ask them to think about the larger social and environmental problems which they so smoothly gloss over (no pun intended).

    However, I don’t think that this issue is limited to the challenges of futures work. The same question could be asked of any profession. Where is the line between just doing your job, as narrowly defined by present conditions and pressures, and doing your job with respect to the larger issues beyond your pay grade and job description? What if those larger issues affect your children, your family or your sense of right and wrong?

    This begets a much longer, deeper discussion of individual and corporate responsibility in the context of serious social and economic dysfunction. Wendy, Andrew, yourself and many others all point to the need for this conversation. I am sure that Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo would have something to say about this.

    On the other hand, I am appreciative of your emphasis on different approaches, for different styles, in different situations. Having worked (with you and others) as a practicing consultant for a many years, I am sympathetic to the pressures and incentives of clients in the corporate (and governmental) world. As I said in my post, Corning and firms like them should continue to throw themselves into futures thinking and design fiction; not just because it is good business for us but because they face the existential risk of being left behind if they don’t.

    Towards the deeper challenge you allude to, however, if you are going to take the time to go beyond your day-to-day responsibilities and explore how the world may change in the future, you shouldn’t go half way and only explore the parts which confirm your existing biases and existing business models. Selling glass is one thing, and explorer the future of the glass market and glass products is safely within this realm. But I doubt Corning even did this. Each of the ideas they discuss raises serious and significant economic, environmental and social questions. Who will pay for these? Where will these resources be procured, and at what price? What trends and counter-trends in regulation, consumer preference and market response might complicate this view?

    This brings me back to my original claim; that “thin” futures like Corning’s are the social and commercial equivalent to Asperger’s Syndrome. It isn’t just irresponsible to pretend that issues like climate change, resource challenges and economic volatility don’t exist. It is also bad business. While most of us aren’t in a position to “solve” these complex dilemmas, we should at least acknowledge that they exist and that all of us, one way or another, share responsibility for them.

    To your point (and to get off my high-horse), this is actually an opportunity to address some of the more exciting aspects of the changes going on. So bring on more videos from Corning and others; the time is ripe to address them well!

  11. Posted February 5, 2012 at 10:51 pm | Permalink

    Noah, I wonder if you could argue that Corning’s exercise here, and before, is more akin to a forecast designed to galvanize possibly disparate or non-existant views of its preferred future rather than a general prediction (or complex model) of a future that heavily favors Corning (or at least Windex :)).
    Which is to say that it is thin by design or intent, but stumbles into what the layman believes is thick. (See this post on Moore’s Law as a thin future mistaken for a thick one: http://www.changeist.com/changeism/2011/3/25/provoking-through-forecasts.html)

    I think what raises futures professionals’ hackles is this continuing issue of thin appearing thick to the audiences, clients and stakeholders we rely on as consumers of our work. It’s probably true to say that 80% of publicly viewed “future visions” come largely from marketing departments with a quick pop by R&D. As a result, it creates a larger budren on the front end to educate and engage.

    That said, these example are a fantastic tool for engaging in deeper discussions about the difference between thick and thin, the processes by which one develops the thick, and how to view both critically. I’ve found that collaboratively unpacking thin visions (or thick ones) is a very useful way of exploring the application and applicability of foresight through a kind of reverse engineering.

  12. Noah Raford
    Posted February 6, 2012 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    Scott,

    This is a great point. A lot of design futures are closer to Dator’s “preferred futures” than true scenarios. Like you say (and Wendy has argued many times), these are “visions”, as in desired outcomes, not analyses.

    To be fair, someone should create a taxonomy of these things. Most futurists are pretty clear what distinguishes a vision from a scenario, but most consumers / viewers are not. A good essay would be something like “A Field Guide to Future Visions: How to Read Design Futures and Not be a Turkey”. I am sure Taleb would be pleased. :-)

    Any takers?

  13. Wendy Schultz
    Posted February 6, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    Noah – Scott got in with a short version of the comment I’ve been drafting to contribute to the APF listserve’s debate on this, which I am rather lazily going to dump, in its entirety, in this comment field.

    Mick, great comment, loved the Beckettt quote, although this debate is not so much about uncertainty and quality of prediction, but rather the issue of cultural/psychological depth of field, I think.

    In any case, here’s what I cobbled together (apologies for molasses-like speed of contribution):

    It’s fun to critique, and even more fun to snark: that’s why the “Alternatives to the Singularity” parody this summer went viral. And the Corning video is certainly not a well-rounded image of a preferred future for all of humanity. It seems to ignore most of humanity – although note their almost obligatory inclusion of China. Economically, it looks like a very wealthy future, and anyone trained in critical thinking at all is going to wonder if this world made of glass is inhabited entirely by the 1%, and everybody else is out living hard on the streets. Energy? bandwidth infrastructure? funding for schools to install massive new bits of ICT media kit? production impact on environment?

    Each of you could no doubt contribute a wide variety of critiques.

    But after watching it today, and the ‘unpacking’ video that goes with it and explains it, I realized that I had fallen into a trap against which I myself often inveigh, of comparing apples and oranges, and discussing this Corning vision for their glass product in the same conversation, as if it were the same category of futures image, as the Sony / Forum for the Future “Futurescapes” scenarios ( http://www.sony.co.uk/discussions/community/en/community/futurescapes ).

    It *isn’t* a scenario – it has no responsibility to present upsides and downsides, a world that contains both terrors and beauties. Which, Rohit, is one answer to your question – are there government-generated images of the future that portray less than perfect futures? Yes, there are government scenario sets that include negative outcomes, even collapse futures. Are there government *visions* that portray less than perfect futures? As a vision should depict some group’s value-based expression of a preferred future, by definition it should be a primarily positive image – relative to the values of the group that articulated it.

    Scenarios are not visions. Whether or not something is a ‘vision’ – a preferred future – is subjectively relative. What is a vision to me – or to Corning – may simply be another image of the future to you – and one which you may loathe. Visions are about creating a target picture of a preferred future that instantiates a group’s values – and then asking critical questions about how to achieve it within that value set (which would include, if Corning were a responsible corporation, the examples of critical questions listed above). BUT the image of the preferred future comes first, as a ‘big hairy audacious goal’, in answer to a specific question. Granted, they could have prepared the ground for a more well-rounded vision with a preliminary exploration and refinement of their corporate values – but of course, maybe they did and what you see reflects a conscious value choice.

    Visions have a focus. In the case of Corning, that focus was not a better future for all humanity, or even a preferred future for Corning itself – “A Future Made of Glass (parts I and II) was a preferred future for *glass*. It was also clearly designed to attract fellow-travellers, as all visions are – not customers as much as other businesses that will design future products using glass. In the “unpacking” video, the narrator tells us so explicitly. It has certainly achieved the first part of that goal, in attracting so much interest.

    Maybe, Maree, one of those fellow travellers is already working on the next generation of micro-Roomba, which swarm, stick to slick vertical surfaces, and clean windows and wall-sized display screens. Maybe some of the fellow travellers will be government agencies and foundations supporting renovations of educational infrastructure in disenfranchised communities. Maybe Corning needs to connect with the San Diego Zoo’s biomimicry center and find out what biological paradigms might exist for low-impact production of high-function glass or glass-like products.

    The point of visions – images of preferred futures, NOT scenarios – is to generate dialogue about what we want, and how we might achieve desired change ethically and in harmony with our values; more directly, a vision’s purpose is to generate debate about values and ethics and both the goals and means that those values and ethics imply. If it’s a vision of a preferred future, and not a forecast, it’s okay that it be singular and not plural (as forecasts and scenarios should be, exploring as they do ranges of possibility and probability).

    IF what offended was the perceived thinness of the underlying value set – *and if Corning *wants* to change that* – then futures has a perspective, critical questions, and methods that can help ‘thicken’ their corporate vision and story-telling. If what offended was that this wasn’t a ‘day in the life’ showing the nitty and gritty of tribulations and inequities below the median income, we’re out of luck: it was a commercial product designed to showcase an aspirational lifestyle for a very particular market segment. So is your problem with the video – which seems to have hit its target quite well – or with that particular aspirational lifestyle, its ethical vacuity, and the world capitalist system?

    Or do you just have problems with the psychology of it all, implying as it does that most humans would happily live in a slick, polished, cold, machine-crafted world, rather than something cozier, artisanal, earth-toned, quiet? What I enjoy about vivid images of the future – bad or good – is how well they can polarize and create contrasts in often abstract ideals. They can function very much like opthalmologists’ exams, switching back and forth between two images to achieve understanding of where the flaws in your current vision arise: is this better? or this? now is this better? or this?

    Clearly for many of you, this image of precisely machined hard surfaces was not an example of clear vision.

    It’s interesting to imagine how we as professionals might have clarified the vision. If you’d had a crack at the conversation from which this vision emerged, how would you have enhanced / extended / deepened it?

    One tool that springs to my mind is Kaipo and Michele’s Verge/Ethnographic Futures Framework – which I really consider a Swiss Army knife for thickening/muddying thin futures work – and the vision-related questions it offers:

    DEFINE: What new concepts, ideas, and paradigms should emerge to help us make sense of the world?
    RELATE: How should we live together on planet Earth?
    CONNECT: What arts and technologies should we use to connect people, places, and things?
    CREATE: As human beings what should we be inspired to create?
    CONSUME: How should we use the earth’s resources?
    DESTROY: How should we negotiate and remove what no longer should exist?

    Finally, if we wanted to engage this vision in debate, what counter-experience or counter-design could we offer? See “Yes!” for “5 Acts of Creative Disruption” as example ideas:

    http://www.yesmagazine.org/people-power/5-acts-of-creative-disruption?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+yes%2Fmost-recent-articles+%28Most+Recent+Articles+and+Blogs+-+YES%21+magazine%29&utm_content=Google+Reader

    What would your compelling vision for the best possible future for glass be? How would it differ from this one? How much more would you need to know about glass, to address how it might contribute to a better long-range future for humanity and the planet? Excuse me, that’s old phrasing that places people outside living systems, instead of acknowledging we are a component of them. ….. “…contribute to a better long-range future for the Terran biosphere?”

    And is that the core question we should be asking every corporation about every product and service? “Excuse me, gentlebeings and fellow sophonts, what’s your long-range vision – exactly how do you see your product/service as contributing to a better long-range future for the Terran biosphere?”

  14. Jamie Saunders
    Posted February 6, 2012 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    Though I’d also put a marker down for ‘citizen-centred’ / human-scale and (g)local ‘futures and foresight’. From Slaughter’s views on ‘social foresight’ in which people, groups and places are better able, capable and practised in forethought, not least to spread our collective bets against turbulence, disruptive threats and ‘socio-ecological change’ but also to consider future generations and their inheritance more fully. Links across to the ‘beyond-greening’ sustainability work and to using our imaginations to be co-evolving better than we’ve ever done before perhaps ?

  15. Mick Costigan
    Posted February 6, 2012 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

    [Semi-sidebar to Scott’s blogpost on Moore’s law.]
    There’s an older BBC World Service programme, also on Moore’s Law but from the veteran Peter Day, that gets into the focusing role that Moore’s Law played and still plays in the semiconductor industry in quite a profound way. Worth a listen if you are interested, it totally reframed my understanding of it:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/news/inbusiness/inbusiness_20070906.shtml

  16. Posted February 9, 2012 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for posting that Mick. Definitely interesting way to view something we tend to take for granted.

  17. Posted September 17, 2012 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    Those videos are probably the result of a collective process of multiple teams adding their own layers of fantasy to the corporate “Innovation Myth”. These videos express a naive but honest “wish to be useful in the future”. But unfortunately the final result is often proportional to the real potential to innovate of the organization.

    Because you can’t fake culture.

    Humans love customization and personalization. No family would like to immerse themselves into such a wayfinding holographic environment. Which family would like to decorate their house with train station iconography? Such visual themes fail to understand the most fundamental rule of user experience: context. I think you do not deploy an email reader onto someone’s mobile phone in the same way you do it on their bathroom mirror or bedroom. Those videos completely fail at understanding the notion of intimacy and privacy that such contexts would require.

    The future will never look like corporate image bank, or sterile space station hotel rooms. That’s the problem with fiction today. I think the movie Inception makes this very clear. Imagine if Blade Runner would take a third of the movie to explain how Replicant technology works. Or if Strange Days would take a lot of time to justify the technological system powering the film. The poetry of human experience is lost in a techno vision of storytelling.

    I would love to see a video featuring a middle class Brazilian girl, with divorced parents and the semi-nomad lifestyle that comes with. How do big service providers, manufactures or media enter her trajectory? How do they help her tell her story, discover the world or even feel safe?

9 Trackbacks

  1. […] On those slickly designed corporate “visions of the future” videos — why they capture our imagination with glitzy production, why they get so much traction, and what they’re missing (e.g., depth; informed projections of the future). 0 Comments | Tags: weekly echo […]

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    […] visions of the future 7 seconds ago The Future We Deserve: After reading a blog post by Noah Raford I was awakened to the fact that visions of the future are typically commissioned by the wealthy […]

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