by Christopher Butler on in design

My original title: “A Post-Screen Future.” No matter. The illustration by Zut Alors! is as if someone opened the hidden door behind the file cabinet and crawled down that strange tunnel into my brain and saw what I saw and took a snapshot. I guess that’s exactly the point—shallow futures are kind of Malkovich Malkovich, if you know what I mean. (If not, here.)

Anyway. The February, 2012 issue of PRINT is out and it’s all about power. My column is about the power of a postscreen world, and the weakness of it if we can’t get past screens.

Eventually, you’ll be able to read it over at Printmag.com, too. But without further adieu, let’s open the door and crawl in…

“People ask me to predict the future, when all I want to do is prevent it. Better yet, build it. Predicting the future is much too easy, anyway. You look at the people around you, the street you stand on, the visible air you breathe, and predict more of the same. To hell with more. I want better.”

— Ray Bradbury, Beyond 1984: The People Machines

So where are the designers who dream as Bradbury does? We seem to be content to let corporations do the dreaming for us. On the internet, we can be routinely entertained by their visions—videos depicting possible futures that are far more controlled, sterile, and expensive than is likely. Their future is impossibly abundant, with no shortage of resources, space, and time. (And of course, it’s built on technologies developed, at great cost, in corporate research labs.) Is it not possible to envision a future of less? Less, after all, could be a good thing—a comfortable minimalism that comes from cutting away life’s excesses—or a not so good thing. Less could also be catastrophic and interrupt our plans. But since designing the future should be equal parts hope and caution, is it responsible to plan for one tomorrow when we have good reasons to expect another?

There has been no shortage of discussion of these videos in recent months. Microsoft’s “Productivity Future Vision” was called “creepy” by the technologist Nicholas Carr—presumably because they’re populated by people who display a flat, pleasantly robotic contentment with their surroundings. But for designers, an angst-less future can’t be a believable one. We’ve read our Huxley—we’re waiting for the sinister undertones to make themselves known, and without any on the surface, we have no problem imagining them ourselves. It’s an uncanny-valley effect, writ large.

Mood aside, what of “productivity?” Microsoft is not the first to suggest that we’ll continue to spend most of our time placidly moving information around on screens. In their world, every surface—mirrors, kitchen tables, refrigerators, car windows, and of course, desks—will be transformed into touch screens, weaving a seamless thread of productivity from morning to evening into our previously unmaximized lives. Needless to say, this is a touchy subject.

Speaking of touch, Bret Victor, a former Apple designer, complained in his own response to the Microsoft video that the kinds of gestures most interaction design demands are essentially inhuman—rejecting the four fundamental human grips named by John Napier in his book Hands. Perhaps so. But as long as screens are central to our interaction with the world, we’ll likely need to add a few to our repertoire. Undoubtedly, page turning was a tricky leap for our scroll-wielding forebearers. Though I agree with Victor’s critique, my primary concern is not how little Microsoft’s vision corresponds with the scope of human touch but how it limits the use of our other senses. Touching a glass screen is hardly a rich tactile experience, but that is almost beside the point. What we are doing when we interact with touch screens is primarily a visual experience. Yes, we’re touching everything—but without seeing the information we “touch,” our fingers are virtually useless. Unless we engage our other senses, we will leave many—those visually or tactilely impaired—behind and become “people of the screen,” as Kevin Kelly recently described it at the Books in Browsers Conference. We must resist the cultural entropy that associates interaction solely with screens. Apple gets this. In lieu of releasing its own futurism video, it instead deployed Siri, which, in emphasizing auditory interactions, gives me hope for a postscreen future.

Were Bradbury to weigh in, I imagine that he too would prefer a postscreen future to visions like Microsoft’s. Uninspiring and out of touch, they exploit the popular sci-fi vernacular (a shinier, happier Minority Report) yet don’t seem to understand what science fiction is all about. Most of them work better as demos of what motion graphics have been up to since the Ikea-catalog scene in Fight Club than as proofs of the technology to come. Meanwhile, rather than continuing to settle into some sort of technosuburbia, as Microsoft seems to expect, the population of the world is largely going urban: crowded, massive ad-hoc cities, growing to accommodate an exploding population. Growing too quickly to be managed by today’s municipal systems, megalopolises like Jakarta and Mexico City are places where wealth and poverty are mashed up in a culture that from the outside can look chaotic. Meanwhile, the flow of water and electricity is so sporadic as to appear the result of a fickle magic rather than the groan of unsustainable sprawl. This is a tricky terrain of sensory diversity long explored in science fiction, yet screen-based interaction will not be adequate to address it. Designers with open minds are needed.

On the list of problems to solve, communication has sat at the top for far too long, and consequently, our countless solutions are what fill screens today. After a decade of focusing primarily upon the social applications of interactive technology, we need to turn our attention to other matters and use our many communication tools to address the interaction problems of 21st-century urbanity: resource management, transportation, energy, and infrastructure. It would be a shame to be remembered as the generation that tweeted while the world crumbled around us.

As for predicting the future, there is one question worth asking today: Do we, individuals and corporations alike, have the courage to imagine a future we don’t like, one that doesn’t assume the continuing triumph of today’s technological paradigms? This isn’t a needlessly pessimistic exercise. Sometimes we first need to identify what we do not want in order to articulate what we do. Then we can get to work and build it—not more of the same, but better. If it is a future worth building, it will not be done overnight.

  • http://www.design-as.com Aaron Schneider

    Chris, my friend,

    I’m seriously questioning your commitment to Sparkle Motion.

    This is so heady I might smash my head through my screen right now! And depressing. Allow me to get even more depressing, please. I think you need to move to the San Francisco area and be a part of the huge green movement that has been and will continue to take place for decades. Have you not stumbled upon any green activist designer web sites/forums, seen design competitions revolving around sustainability, seen any Nissan Leaf updates on Facebook, or heard of voice activated cars. What about self-parallel parking cars, or safe space-maintaining cars, or auto-breaking emergency cars. Computation is already all around us without screens. GPS activated marketing on mobile devices (whether it’s a chip, or a future bio-scan that triggers this… it doesn’t matter.)

    Whether the screen is a piece of glass or a hologram input device, the real question is: should our future be one of a computational-injected, energy-consuming, artificial environments-OR-a future that is sustainable, simpler, less artificially constructed environments.
    The truth is that computers use energy. The more computers we inject into our environments, the more energy is needed to run them. This leads to the sustainable future dilemma IF we’re still here to see this future and don’t die from fresh water shortages and global famines.

    A touchscreen is as much an input device as is a keyboard or a microphone.

    And last time I checked, there were a sh!t ton of people still dying of starvation. What does the holographic/bio-scanning future hold for bloated babies and their dying parents?

  • https://www.newfangled.com/chris_butler_blog Christopher Butler


    Cory Doctorow recently posted an adaptation of a talk he gave on the war on general-purpose computation in which he said something relevant to your point:

    “The world we live in today is made of computers. We don’t have cars anymore; we have computers we ride in. We don’t have airplanes anymore; we have flying Solaris boxes attached to bucketfuls of industrial control systems. A 3D printer is not a device, it’s a peripheral, and it only works connected to a computer. A radio is no longer a crystal: it’s a general-purpose computer, running software.”

    To his and your point, I’m not saying the world needs more computers. What I’m saying is that we should be focusing our computation on immediate, dire problems—many of which involve infrastructure that is struggling to support a growing, resource-hungry population—rather than continuing to advance the agenda of ubiquitous virtuality much further. Do we really need all those massive data centers that support our need for a continuous flow of digital stimulation, to store every single picture we can take before our smartphone battery needs resuscitation, to be the hub for every bit that flies across yet another social network? Probably not. And by the way, just because we’re not living amidst piles of rotten newspapers and magazines under which may or may not be more than one cat skeleton doesn’t mean we aren’t hoarders. Invisible as our horde may be, we have a problem. Meanwhile, bridges are collapsing, roads strain to support the clogged traffic that has escalated far beyond mid 20th century city planning, sewers and water purification can’t keep up, the electrical grid is a study in the law of diminishing returns, and on and on and on. Oh yeah, and people are starving and thirsty. These are the problems that merit every bit of ingenuity and resource as far as computing is concerned. Instead, we fuss over Google’s latest tweak to how search works. In short, our priorities are out of whack.

    Of course, I’m not a lone voice crying out in the wilderness. As you say, there are communities coalescing around these ideas, made of up a rich cross-section of our population, which, of course, includes designers. The culture is turning, slowly, in this direction, as environmentalism and advocacy—for a variety of causes—is generally in fashion. But will it stick? Or more importantly, will it stick long enough for the right progress to be made? I don’t know. My hope in writing this column is to do one very tiny bit of advocacy so that maybe someone might become inspired to think of design in slightly broader terms. To dream of perhaps contributing to work that might enrich the world for years to come, as many of the WPA projects did, not just on a screen somewhere until the next disruptive widget comes along for its time in the limelight.

    Anyway, though I didn’t intend for this to be a downer, I think you’re right to be slightly depressed. All those fancy computer-enhanced cars are interesting, but until we have driverless vehicles connected to an algorithmically monitored traffic system (a la Minority Report) computers aren’t likely to reduce the overall resource consumption and pollution of automobiles on our planet. Even that probably won’t do it and will likely introduce scary new problems we haven’t even thought about. I’m not a techno-utopian by any means. I’d love to see less chip-based technology. But to get there, I think we are going to need to see a prior increase in the ubiquity of computational systems amidst prior offline systems (transit, utilities, etc.) in order to properly analyze a situation that has become far too complex for us to work out in our heads or even on paper. It’s beyond us and we’re running out of time. In my last column I described a smart sanitation system that, by sensor-equipping garbage cans, might lead to more efficient routes and less waste all around. That’s just one, tiny example.

    I could go on, but I think we’re generally on the same page. Both of us love design and, as far as I can tell, love this world enough to feel the tug of responsibility that comes with living here and consuming as we do. In this piece, I was just interested in harnessing that feeling and holding it there for just a bit longer than normal, just long enough to consider the big problems in light of what most of us—myself included—spend most of our time doing: Staring at screens.

    Thanks for getting a convo going, bud.

    – CB

  • http://www.design-as.com Aaron Schneider

    I’m staring at my screen in agreement. Having just moved to a new house with smaller garbage cans, further divided recycling bins, and yard waste that supports food waste, I’m even more conscious of my family’s consumption. Thankfully my new place has fake grass yard, eco bulbs, motion sensored lights in key forgetful places… any improvements will definitely be green as possible. It starts at home, wherever you live, and extends outward. I agree every designer has a duty to extend their skills outward in some form of “donation” to the great good. I will be thinking how I can do this in the near future.

  • http://www.cartridgeshop.co.uk Kathy Blackmore

    Despite your seemingly pessimistic and negative undertones, I really liked your article. I think I would enjoy reading it in my own time, and so I am going to send it to my printer. I do not have that negative a view of the future. We cannot predict, but we each hold the ability to change it subtly. If we do not like what we think might happen, we can always try to change it, at least for ourselves.


By Christopher Butler

Chris Butler is the COO of Newfangled. He writes and speaks often on design and the web. You can follow him @chrbutler. More by Christopher Butler