The Future Silicon Valley’s Billionaires Don’t Want You To See

JCB_20082014_195202_7606-Edit

I want to share with you the latest book project from the Near Future Laboratory. It’s called TBD Catalog — the Design Fiction product catalog for the normal ordinary everyday near future.

You can get your own copy of TBD Catalog here in our own shop. We’re also a publisher now, in the modern sense.

TBD Catalog contains 166 products, 62 classifieds and advertisements to tell little stories about the world we are likely to inhabit if the exuberant venture capitalist handlers and computer programming day laborers of Silicon Valley have their way.

It’s a future quite different from the perfect, seamless, integrated, one-touch, Cloud-based advertising fakery used to make your pupils dilate with “wantfulness” — a want for cute connected family robots, software and plastic dongles ‘made with love’ and self-driving cars with impish earnest eager bumper faces and $9 drip coffee made with algorithmic precision and ordered ahead from an App.

The future represented in TBD Catalog starts with Silicon Valley’s breathless visions — and plops it down on the counter of your corner bodega. This is the future that comes in party colors. It’s the 3/$1.00 and buy one get one free future. Got your iPhone stolen? In the TBD future, if you’ve got ‘Find My Phone’ enabled, just use your Call For Backup App — we’ll send some licensed and disciplined toughs fresh back from Spec-Ops to knock on doors, fold their arms and growl imposingly if necessary.


 

Design Fiction

With TBD Catalog our technique for employing Design Fiction was to follow today’s major “tech” trends and see where their hyperbole might likely wind up in some likely normal ordinary everyday near future — 3D Printers; Internet of Things; the Algorithmic Life; The Cloud; Machine Intelligence; New Funding Models; Mass Customization; Etcetera.

The TBD Catalog future is the near future ordinary. The constant low power and exploding battery future. The bad firmware bricked $800 device future. The lousy customer service phone menu UX and busted algorithms that send a hundred emails to the same customer and shift-reload doesn’t clear the error future. The bad monopoly network service conglomerate run like an accounting firm future.

That world. The one when ‘now’ becomes ‘then’ — after all the glitzy wearables/internet-of-things/self-driving car Kickstarter advertising TechCrunch blogger promises dull to their likely normal.

We did TBD Catalog because no one else has done so much to tell a story about the likely future beyond excruciating, mind-numbing white papers, link-bait blog posts and breathless “insights” from strategy agency reports that read as though they’re in league with the pundits who all basically work for the startups anyway. We wanted a perspective that was engaging, entertaining and probable while also insightful, generative and provocative.

Take a look around amongst the strata of futurists, insights reports, strategy assessments, TED Talks and the like. There is little to go on to ruminate about these trends beyond the vague “imagine a world..” fantasy scenarios and dreamy video pitches with earnest mandolin soundtracks. There are scant stories about a world when these trend-things are fully-vested within our lives in a way that doesn’t seem like the boom-cycle perfect world advertisement where we 3D print fresh licensed Opiline knife sets. The stories we get are either perfect utopia futures or the robot-zombie apocalyptic busted future with fascist jetpack cops chasing down malcontents.

TBD Catalog cuts through the middle to tell stories from a world where Nobel Prize winning technology is sitting on the counter of your corner liquor store in 23 different colors, all with a keychain and instructions on how to entertain your cat. This “ordinary” story is the one we’re working towards. These are the stories that are in short supply. Stories about our world when the extraordinary idea makes its inevitable journey to become the ordinary commodity thing that occasionally needs repair or a software patch for a security flaw.

TBD Catalog creates these sorts of stories by hinting at the implications of today’s ‘disruptions’ — by representing the kinds of products and services we might imagine in the near future and implying little corners of that near future world and the social lives around it. In TBD Catalog each product, service, classified advertisement and customer review is a bit of Design Fiction — a mix of trending topic plus designed object plus a small evocative story-description. Each Design Fiction is a little story about life in our likely near future world.

What are some of the stories in TBD Catalog?

TBD Catalog tells a story about a world in which every household has as many 3D printers as they now have electric toothbrushes, and a lease-licensed 3D printer material waste disposal unit.


 

Design Fiction

 

 


 

Algoriture Design Fiction


TBD Catalog reveals a world with bland “Algoriture” algorithmic literature optimized for trends, tastes and expectations and written by Amazon’s data analytic-fed intelligent bots rather than normal, human authors.

What about a world in which algorithms are so trusted, we allow them to find a playmate for our children, or the perfect “soul mate” for ourselves when we turn 18.

Internet of Things Design Fiction


 

MeWee Monitor hints at what an Internet of Things world might look like if everything — the glass you drink with, the bar stool you sit on, and the bathroom door you lock behind you and the chamber pot you sit upon  — is connected to everything else, and lets the world know what it’s doing.

TBD Catalog intimates a world in which the well-heeled summon — as they do Uber cars today — on-demand force-presence security operators to help them recover their lost or stolen iPhone or escort them around at Burning Man.

Why did we do a product catalog from a likely future? The Near Future Laboratory is of the opinion that whatever “comes next” should be prototyped not just in hardware and software (which we do, and enjoy) but through compelling, engaging, tangible moments that play out near future scenarios. Not only the spot-on-perfect advertiser-scripted scenarios, but the more likely and realistic moments as well. This sort of prototyping has imminent value as a means of shaping an idea, reflecting on contingencies, making things better and feel more full-vested in the world.

Design Fiction is a form of prototyping an idea. It’s a way of  reflection that can take an idea, trend or concept and intimate it in a more material form that can generate conversations that then reshape the idea into something better. Design Fictions have a remarkable ability to make that materialized concept come to life in a much more embodied way than specifications, one-pager or items in a PowerPoint bullet list. TBD Catalog’s Design Fictions take the promise of extraordinary and weird Silicon Valley aspirations and turn them into the normal and ordinary props that come to life as part of our everyday lives.

Design Fictions have exceptional value from a pragmatic perspective. They are more than entertainment. Design Fiction can operate as a viable approach to design itself — a form of exercising hunches without committing to full-blown execution. Design Fiction can find the tangential implications and alternative possibilities of your instincts — and then show a path forward towards sketching, testing and materializing your ideas. As a catalog in which your idea might exist in the future. As a fictionalized quick start guide. As an instruction manual or bug report. As a blogger’s review or customer service script.

Design Fiction is a creative instrument. It is truly a form of prototyping. It is an approach to design and strategic foresight that is actually generative. Design Fictions provide the basis for viable ideas, even in the idiom of satire. In their second reads, they become more — each of the 166 products has a “..huh” moment. There are dozens and dozens of Kickstarters in here, surely. And a few things in TBD Catalog we here at the Near Future Laboratory have actually prototyped — for real. Even some we’re pursuing after having our own “..huh..that could work..” revelation.

 


 

Design Fiction

Let me be clear — we here are not opposed to the “next new thing.”  We are eager to entertain. But also — we focus on creating ‘next new things’ everyday. TBD Catalog is meant to remind us that every cool trend, every ‘wow’ gadget, and even some Nobel Prize-winning technologies become entertainment devices for our house cats or a faster way to stream crappy online ads. We need those kinds of likely near future representations — as alternative as they are to the glowing reports in your favorite trends blog — to focus ourselves on the challenges this world faces in light of rapidly changing behaviors, expectations, desires, rituals and algorithms.

Welcome to your near future normal ordinary everyday.

======
Buy TBD Catalog
Check out the work kit we used to create the products
Read more about Design Fiction

TBD Catalog

TBD

Things have been busy.
Over the last few months I’ve been working with my colleagues at the Near Future Laboratory to get a piece of work to completion. Regular readers might remember that a while ago we ran a workshop at the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit with a group of writers, designers, thinkers, makers and artists, to discuss the future. Not a ‘wouldn’t it be cool if’ future, but more a ‘how might this play out’ discussion. From this productive and enjoyable session we began producing a dietetic prototype, a catalog from the near future. It’s a lovely thing of which we’re very proud, and it resonates well with my writing on The Future Mundane. It’s a piece of design from a future which I can believe in, not a polarizing utopian or dystopian one, but a future which is a little broken, where today’s technologies becomes dispersed, arriving at their logical, mundane resting places. Julian has explained this in much greater depth in his beautiful essay on the launch website (which I encourage you to read).

sample1 sample2 sample4

So this is in some ways a call to purchase, an ad if you will, but I’m also keen to share this methodology. Portrayals of the future do not need to be glossy renders, vision videos or concept models, they can be clunky pieces of ephemera, awkward artifacts or items beyond the fringes of aspiration. Design Fictions such as these can help us tell a better story, and that’s good for everyone.

Order your copy here:  TBD catalog.


The street is the best museum

Geneva, June 2014

Geneva, June 2014

Probably of the best graffiti I ran across in the last few months. That (and the composition) could be a nice book title.

Street IP address

Geneva, June 2014

Geneva, June 2014

An IP (Internet Protocol) address written on the wall of this building in Geneva, Switzerland. A new kind of graffiti ? An awkward reminder ? A weird joke ? A curious ritual anyway.

Update: my friend Hannes Gassert, on FB, commented on this by saying something that makes it's even more intriguing:

That's not an address, that's a subnetwork definition ("mask"), the /24 indicating a network with 255 possible participants. Usually that's used with 192.168.1.0, so this is one off, for some reason. This notation was introduced with a network architecture that is called classless, so this might very well the most nerdy propaganda for small, classless societies ever encountered. Or, as the name of that notation is CIDR and it's a bit off, someone just might have had a bit too much cider.

Lucky charm assemblage

Lausanne, Switzerland

Lausanne, Switzerland

A fascinating assemblage – a five Swiss francs coin duct taped to a calculator – spotted at a bubble tea place in Lausanne few weeks ago. When asked about the meaning of this, the waiter told me that "the owner is from Taiwan and she's quite superstitious"... which is a good explanation for this coin-based lucky charm that I found interesting.

Why do I blog this? I like the low-tech character of this obviously, and lucky charms are generally low-tech, but the combination of plastic, duct-tape and metal is very interesting. I wonder about similar approach with smartphones, laptops and other digital artefacts. Are we going to see smart-watches turned into lucky charms with weird materials? Seing this, I'm pretty convinced that it's going to be the case.

“Eclats d’Amérique”: Chronicles of Google Streetview

hodasava1

Just finished reading "Eclats d'Amérique" by Olivier Hodasava. It's an intriguing compilation of chronicles about the US of A based on the author's drifting and musing on Google Streetview. Hodasava never actually visited North America. He wrote his text based on his perception of certain selected scenes he liked. It's only in French though,

hodasava2

The book is an extension of his long-time work written on his weblog called "Dreamlands": each post extrapolates on a Google Streetview scene. Characters receive names, intentions, history and tastes, places get projected meaning and situations are the objects of fascinating speculations.

hodasava3

Why do I blog this? I think I mentioned the "Google Demo Slam" a while back (two guys who used Google Streetview to race across America without ever leaving their home), which was quite a thing to watch. In the case of this book, the intention and the result is far more intriguing and poetic. Such a great example of how a tool can be re-appropriated to project meaning, and extend the notion of fiction.

I don't really know whether this would count as a "locative media" proper but it certainly a curious case of storytelling as described by Ben Russell in the headmap manifesto back in the days ("..spatial maps of films: where do the characters go? ..do they stay in a confined area or travel (linear or circular?)").

Project Habakkuk

"Project Habakkuk" belongs to this list of weird projects I have somewhere in an Evernote note. A British aircraft carrier supposed to be deployed against German U-boats in the mid-Atlantic, the plan was to make it out of pykrete, a mixture of wood pulp and ice. Beyond this stunning fact, the most intriguing thing here is how this project ended. As reported by the Wikipedia:

"According to some accounts, at the Quebec Conference of 1943 Lord Mountbatten brought a block of pykrete along to demonstrate its potential to the bevy of admirals and generals who had come along with Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Mountbatten entered the project meeting with two blocks and placed them on the ground. One was a normal ice block and the other was pykrete. He then drew his service pistol and shot at the first block. It shattered and splintered. Next, he fired at the pykrete to give an idea of the resistance of that kind of ice to projectiles. The bullet ricocheted off the block, grazing the trouser leg of Admiral Ernest King and ended up in the wall."

Why do I blog this? It's one of these projects that may or may not find its way into a talk about innovation, technologies and failures. Besides, V2 in Rotterdam has a research project about it.

“a Pop-Up Sensor Nail Salon”

"The Future of Wearable Services: A Proposal for a Pop-Up Sensor Nail Salon" is an intriguing design studio project conducted by Kristina Ortega at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, in the Media Design Practices program. It addresses the adoption of wearables, which shouldn't rely on a "one size fits all" approach as "context and specificity matter". Such starting point led the team to focus on nail art and how to embed sensors into layers of a gel manicure.

Useless Wearables (Photo: Kristina Ortega)

Useless Wearables (Photo: Kristina Ortega)

The website described the process they adopted:

For the first part of the lab we designed wearables with the idea that they would be "useless". This was our first version of our nail service, which we called "ritual nail". We experimented with form, 3D printing cats with LEDs embedded in them and embedding a nano pixel into the nail. [...] After our first round of making we decided to take a research trip to a nail art salon. While we were there we were fascinated by the process and negotiation that took place between the technician and the client. We really discovered the place of the service in the process. What would technicians look like in a electronically embedded salon service? The process of making prototypes, some with "sensor extensions" others made extremely brittle from the z corp 3D plaster printer. [...] We tested out five sensored options during a workshop/ user test [...] After user testing our early prototypes we decided that our project wasn't so much about the electronics embedded into nails, but more about the new services that will grow out of the need for wearables that can be specific and customizable. The new question is: who are the technicians in a new electronic fully customizable salon? We stopped looking for a solution and started looking for scenarios.

popup1

Why do I blog this? The topic (wearables) and the way it's addressed via nail art is interesting. I take the project as a relevant counterpart to lots of boring-and-utilitarian products or prototypes. Plus, the design process (with the useless-to-useful move) is curious, and somehow typical as an assignment.

 

 

queue norm

queue-mtl1 queue-mtl2

A fascinating line observed in Montreal, QC.

Why do I blog this? Simply because it highlights a cultural use of space that is different than other places.

“why we made this”

lululemon

Why do I blog this? I'm not necessarily a big brand advocate, nor a fan of Lulu Lemon. However, I'm fascinated by the way their products come with such USP-oriented "why we made this" tags. Obviously, the answers are sometimes so-so (#1 and #3 overlap here) but I would certainly find fascinating to see ANY product around us with similar labelling. It's perhaps an intriguing assignment to ask workshop participants.

Copyright © 2014 Near Future Laboratory