Representations of the Future with Graphs

Graphs of the Future

I collected some graphs that attempt to represent how the future comes to be while I was preparing for a talk at the University of Michigan’s “Future of Technology” conference, from which I’ve just returned. The graphs are simple ways to represent the path from now into the future and what makes “then” the future and different from “now.” I drew what I had in mind as you see above while I was teasing out something interesting to say for the talk. All along the way I was hoping to be able to show some film clips that I’ve been gathering — film clips of speculative futures and science-based fictions. The talk — it was only 15 minutes exactly — was called 9 Ways of Seeing the Future.

Here they are.

Idea, Prototype, Product

One. The future starts with an idea, and you try it out and test it, and then when it works that means you’ve accomplished something new and then you’re in the future. James Dyson is the exemplar of this kind of future-making because he prototypes his stuff insanely. ((How else do you make vacuum cleaners that suck so much?))

Up and to the Right

Two. The future starts at the origin and then goes up, and to the right, which is better/brighter/smaller/bigger/longer/faster than the origin, so it’s in the future.

Exponentially Better

Three.I got the scale on the left wrong, but this is the Moore’s Law future which goes up and to the right like Two, but it does so exponentially faster, so you get an intensely better future when compared to the normal up-and-to-the-right future.

Gartner Hype Curve

Four. The Gartner Hype Curve, where whatever the future is, it is sure to be oversold and overpromised, leading to the *trough of disillusionment and despair, after which the future sort of becomes more reasonable than the hype and slowly productizes itself. ((I’m still waiting for the Jet Pack future.))

Future Is Distributed

Five. The future that distributes over space and time — William Gibson’s *sandwich spread truism that says the future is here already, but it’s just not evenly distributed. Presumably it starts in places like Silicon Valley, although he might argue that it also starts in the back alley bar in Mogadishu or some other shit hole, seeing as how things are going these days.

Auger Possible Product Futures

Six. James Auger‘s drawing of the product future where there are many possible *technologies that will anchor themselves into a future present, as well as alternative futures that may lie off-axis somewhere. I’m still trying to figure this one out. Maybe I’ll get the chance at the Design Fiction conference.


Seven. From A Survey of Human-Computer Interaction Design in Science Fiction Movies which describes the future as a collaboration/circulation of ideas between engineers/scientists and film makers. It’s a curious, provocative paper, thin on synthesis (it’s a survey, after all). I like the diagram most of all. Even in its simplicity it provides a nice appetizer for capturing some of the rich stew of David A. Kirby’s diegetic prototypes.

Eight. Colin Milburn’s Modifiable Futures: Science Fiction at the Bench is perhaps graphed dynamically in which he describes the future as particular kinds of “mods” or modifications to things that exist in the here and now. You know you’re in the future when the normal, plain thing has become kitted-out and enhanced, perhaps on the street. (link to video)

And so then I noticed that these are representations of the future that are rather flat instrumental and parametricized visions of the future and the route to it. And I’m wondering — rather than parametric and numerical and quantified representations of the futures — don’t use graphs — what about stories that avoid the problematic time-goes-from-left-to-right, or that there is only one coordinate for a specific future. An easier way of acknowledging multiple simultaneous futures, and multiple possible futures and that the future is a lived, embodied situation rather than the result of miniaturization or optimization. The future is for us and we live in experiences and stories — not in aspirations for technologies themselves.

Seeing as representations prescribe what we consider possible and even reasonable, having a richer, thicker, more lived representation to help imagine other sorts of futures — and not just bigger/brighter/smaller/lighter ones with new products that we buy to replace the old, perfectly good ones we bought six months ago — we might look toward stories about the future that you can’t graph on a piece of paper.

This is where the Ninth representation comes in — science fiction film. This of course does not exclude other strong representations of the future like science fiction writing, science and technology journalism, and all other kinds of literature I’m sure you’re thinking about. Just happens that right now I’m excited by science fiction film (err..have been for quite some time) and I’m focusing on that.

So, to close out my 15 minute talk and my 1000 word blog post, I shared a short excerpt from Volume 7 of a collection of annotated DVDs the Laboratory’s Media Theory department is creating based on representations of the near future in science fiction film. In this one I look at some of the signs and signals about The Future that are represented in some favorite films.

Why do I blog this? The main point of the talk was, for me, to think through another reason why I see design fiction as a useful idiom for doing design. What I concluded is that choosing how we imagine and represent the future is crucial — and not peripheral — to our ability to solve problems. Graphs are good, but I wanted to establish that there are other ways of productively and fruitfully representing what can be in order to materialize ones ideas. So — science fiction as much more than a distraction from the hassles of figuring out where your idea is on the productization scale, or determining when transistor counts will go up to the next order of magnitude and then never really wondering why that might be useful in a save-the-planet sort of way.

We seem to be pattern recognizers and so the templates and processes and frameworks in which our imaginations live determine to a large extent the possible things we can think of and the measures by which we judge them. ((Which, parenthetically, may be that the best thing one can learn to do is learn see the world through different lenses and from different perspectives — but maybe even more importantly is to know how and when to establish those different perspectives and then help others see — and then think — differently.))

Thanks to everyone at the Taubman College of Architecture and University of Michigan for the invitation and for enduring my hand drawn slides in a sea of luscious, expertly and painstakingly rendered 3D models of parametric architectures.
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Design Fiction Chronicles: Cylon Hybrids "Tweet" Prophecy or Prattle

BSG Twitter Hybrid from Julian Bleecker on Vimeo.

I’ll say it although you probably know the back story here. In the re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica, “Hybrids” are the result of the early experiments to evolve the fully mechanical cylons into the more organic editions we saw in the most recent “re-imagining” of BSG. They are the ones that effectively control the giant Cylon basestars, it would seem.

Okay, besides this bit of science-fiction it occurred to me while reading/hearing the passage of “Tweets” (gah..) that the terseness of the typical Twitter message (140 characters, I believe it is) can give the messages in themselves a prophetic quality. As if there is more to be considered in the messages and one is forced, then, to consider what else there may be. Granted, this maybe the rare example, or perhaps it is also some characteristic of the receiver/listener of the messages. Nonetheless, I was immediately drawn to this correlation to the prophecy/prattle debate in the Battlestar Galactica show.

Here, a small selection of the Hybrid’s Tweets (we’ll forgive them for going beyond 140 characters..):

* Two protons expelled at each coupling site creates the mode of force, the embryo becomes a fish that we don’t enter until a plate, we’re here to experience evolve the little toe, atrophy, don’t ask me how I’ll be dead in a thousand light years, thank you, thank you. Genesis turns to its source, reduction occurs stepwise though the essence is all one. End of line. FTL system check, diagnostic functions within parameters repeats the harlequin the agony exquisite, the colors run the path of ashes, neuronal network run fifty-two percent of heat exchanger cross-collateralized with hyper-dimensional matrix, upper senses, repair ordered relay to zero zero zero zero.

* Mists of dreams drip along the nascent echo and love no more. End of line.

* The five lights of the apocalypse rising struggling towards the light, the sins revealed only to those who enter the temple only to the chosen one. The chosen one. The chosen one. The chosen one. The chosen one.

In the show there is a question as to whether what the Hybrids are saying has deep meaning, or is some reflection of things to happen — like prophecy — or if they are merely speaking random phrases for some reason — perhaps the “noise” in their systems that, rather than a shower of static is articulated as phrases from databases of information deep within their “system.”

This occurred to me with this particular project that was just dropped on the desk here. Visible Twitter reveals streams of “Tweets” (gah..again…) on one’s screen in a vaguely hypnotic pattern of words and phrases that appear and disappear according to certain transitory effects. This, together with other forms of data visualization, are meant to convey “meta” aspects of the thing in question. To reveal patterns that would only be cluttered by other forms of representation — say, just a list of Tweets (gah…) scrolling by, or seen on a web page, etc. The “raw” form as it may be understood can be massaged in various ways to obtain new levels of representation and, perhaps, insight and reflection. Like, the medieval style of rendering where one can see both the top of a table because the etcher/artist has decided to mix points-of-view, both straight on and from above.

Why do I blog this? Notes on the network effects phenomenon that arise in curious ways when the linkages between so many things/people/events/histories/present-events can be brought in front of you. Like this dispatch that can from someone I follow last night who wondered, about three minutes after an earthquake last night, why “#earthquake” did not elevate more quickly to a “trending topic” within the Twitter universe.

Are there correlations and meanings to be found simply reading and hearing the chatter on all of these channel? And, if so — who are they for?

What are the new kind of literacy to following so much stuff — feeds, streams, dispatches of all kinds?

What sorts of bitter, cranky nostalgia will arise when today’s parents, for example, lament the days when you only got email? Or complain about how it was easy back when you could just subscribe to a few New York Times RSS feeds and be done with it? What will the near future bring in terms of mechanisms for discovery and participation in the world? Will there be screens?
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