The 2014 FutureEverything festival looked at how we can collaborate on new tools, devices and systems to transform many spheres of life, from the arts to democracy.
People taking control of tools to shape the future has been a familiar trope within digital culture. Drawing on powerful currents in today’s design scene such as speculative design and design fiction, the festival debated our fascination with tools as the most natural path towards social change, and opened up new ways to question, imagine and make the strange, troubled thing called the future.
The festival brought together artists and designers who make art and change reality by collaborating on new protocols, languages, systems, strategies and even infrastructures. Art and design projects created new, less conventional readings of tools and technologies through the use of scenarios and fictional objects. The aesthetic and symbolic dimensions of groundbreaking fields, from New Materials to Synthetic Biology, was explored by figures working across the boundaries of art and science.
Tools for Unknown Futures
In 1968, Stewart Brand published the first number of his seminal “Whole Earth Catalog”, in many ways one of the foundational documents of digital culture, and a major influence in the ideological and political vision of what just a few years later would get to be called Silicon Valley. Infused with the system thinking approach favoured by Brand’s intellectual heroes such as Buckminster Fuller, the subtitle of the catalogue was “Access to Tools”. Brand had envisioned each edition of the publication not as a magazine or a collection of essays, but as a collection of items, objects and resources that would facilitate to implement radical change in multiple dimensions of living: from shelter to community, education or communications. The catalogue’s impact was wide and reached not only the “back to the land” movement, that wing of the counterculture that was in search of the building blocks that would allow them to build an alternative society. A full collection of the Whole Earth Catalogue was available, for instance, in the library at Xerox Parc, the referential research center for the Computer Industry.
The notion that conceiving, developing and implementing new tools is the most natural, effective path for change is still, 45 years after the publication of the first Whole Earth Catalog, a central notion in our technological culture. The logic still goes: if a potentially gamechanging technology is adopted by an enthusiastic community, disruptive change at multiple levels will ensue. We still have a tendency to fall into the deterministic trap of thinking that a new technological tool will be, on its own, powerful enough to implement a new future.
And still, the impact and centrality of digital tools in our society – understood of course in a wide sense, not only as actual devices but also as new protocols, languages, systems, strategies or even infrastructures – is undeniable. Humans are the only species that uses tools to make other tools. When people and tools are networked then the outcomes can be of a different order. New tools become symbols representing complex underlying systems – Google Glass, Drones – firing up the imagination of the media and citizens, the actual changes brought to personal relationships in the last five years through the rise of mobile computing and Social Media, and the ongoing implications of a world of omnipresent sensing devices capturing and processing data in ever increasing volumes.
In the aftermath of the Snowden scandal, as we learned that services and products that we use every day are facilitating unprecedented levels of surveillance or our personal lives, it becomes more urgent to understand what our common tools are actually doing, beyond our partial and limited visions of their operations, as well as revealing and contesting those others, unknown to us, who are also shaping our experience of the world.
In the last decade, creative communities took upon themselves the task of developing better tools that fitted their own purposes, not those that had been imagined by the software and hardware industries. Taking inspiration from the open source community, artists, creative technologists and hackers took on the responsibility of developing a new environment where developer-users could be in control of their tools. Starting in 2001 with Processing, the influential programming language for visual interaction developed by Casey Reas and Ben Fry, each new community could build on top of the previous one to extend the scope of what was possible. Processing was soon followed by the powerful OpenFrameworks environment, then the successful and influential open hardware microcontroller Arduino, that has made possible multiple other open creative tools in contexts ranging from environmental sensing to 3D printing or music controllers.
Taking control of tools has been a central factor in promoting a participatory, hands on approach to our relationship with technology. The Maker movement has reclaimed DIY as a form of cultural practice and ludic, fun hacking as an alternative to our passive role as consumers of locked down devices and wall-garden services. Making as a form of personal expression and problem solving has given rise to empires such as Make Magazine and the Maker Faire global franchise. Also to establish formats like the Hackathon or the Hack Day, and has become a common language in the increasing network of institutions that promote the Thinking by Doing ideology. Hacklabs, Fablabs, Living Labs, Biolabs….spaces where DIWO (Do it with others, the social, updated version of DIY) is King and prototyping has become not a stage in the development of a product but a strategy of intellectual inquiry that can be used by anyone.
Have we reached the point, though, where we have to contest many of the assumptions in making and prototyping culture? Is making really the best path for intellectual reflection or social improvement? Have we fallen into the solutionist fallacy of thinking that developing the right tool is the best way to solve any problem?
In the same way we’ve stopped assuming that “open” is an intrinsically positive quality, an increasing number of voices are requesting a more critical, nuanced evaluation of the merits of hacking and the hackathon ideology, as well as questioning when making is a truly political form or just a distraction void of any true social effect.
Today, we are not only shaping the future by producing and releasing “disruptive” technologies through devices and services. Tools are also being produced with the goal of interrogating the unpredictable social impact of transforming technologies, in the shape of rhetorical and symbolic objects, narrative scenarios and storytelling. Critical Design, the influential movement started by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby and spread from the Designing Interactions department at RCA, was a pioneering strategy that produced props and nonfunctional devices with the goal of creating a debate that the corporate narratives of technology usually avoid.
Today, the tool as a conversation piece is one of the most relevant forms of production of discourse around futures. Design Fiction has become an increasingly relevant strategy, as designers become less interested in implementing factual solutions and prefer to deploy scenarios and fictional items to create narratives that open up new, less conventional readings of how our life will be under a specific technological regime.
Today, Science Fiction writers work together with engineers and architects to shape the social scenario along with the technological solution, and visionary entrepreneurs announce possible alternative forms of transportation or energy before they have even been prototyped, to gauge the response and interest they receive.
Groundbreaking fields, from New Materials to Synthetic Biology are the starting point today of a whole form of cultural production in which designers, artists and thinkers explore the aesthetic and symbolic dimensions that these technologies will ultimately produce. Tools, devices and systems operate at the level of the material and the factual, but they have also an effect on the imagination and the public conversation around how our life could be in alternative, possible futures.