Article Comments: “Design and the Future”

What is futurity to design? Maze’s chapter and contribution to the edited volume Designing Anthropological Futures, briefly addresses several issues and concepts by which design explicitly takes on the future; the way that design formulates what that future ought to look like, and how alternative ideals negotiate their existence within the sphere of the present. These ideas are addressed in the context of a project on the future of power called “Switch! Energy Futures”. In her work, Maze suggests that futurity can be a philosophical and political way of “seeing and acting” differently both within and through design.

Maze’s core argument is similar to that of Smith and Otto – that the possibilities of the future are demarcated by the politics of the present. Her approach to this argument is a bit different, as she argues that, upon her own reflection, the rhetorics of change, transformation, innovation, and newness pervade design at the expense of ideas like chance, indeterminacy, and the untimely. By implication, then, there are certain assumptions, ideas, and priorities (a political dimension) at stake in the future which would supposedly emerge through a design with this orientation. It’s important to note that Maze’s work is not a comprehensive study of what a certain group of people belief, rather what she believes based on her experience. While Maze claims that this effectively may “re-inscribe the politics of the present instead of the openness or alternative possibilities of the future” (para. 11), I think this way of thinking is problematic in a number of ways.

Maze points to three design paradigms: concept design, critical design, and persuasive design. In these kinds of projects, the future is explicitly at stake. Concept design, flourishes in trade shows and other exhibitionary spaces, creating prototype ideas through material combination (e.g. the future city, the ideal home, a concept car, etc.). As Maze puts it, “concept design induces desire and (re)produces cultural imaginaries for particular industrial futures (para. 13). Critical design produces artefacts which debate futures. These modes try and implement the post-modern form into design, in order to estrange us from the modern aesthetics and to provoke debate about normality and expectation, often opposing traditional design models. Persuasive design, as I have written about previously, is design for behavioural change. These are attempts to modify behaviour by inducing a kind of self-disciplining, and self-regulating user. Each of these types of projects, therefore attempts to affirm, debate, or reinforce the normative ideas and selves of the present to institute a kind of ideal future.

Maze’s “Switch! Energy Futures” project takes the shape of these future oriented forms of design; a project that explored and developed approaches to “changing perceptions, behaviours – and futures – of electricity consumption within six experimental projects” (para. 14). The project, which contained several aspects, generated a number of “superfictions” articulated through crafted artefacts and media which were then staged in an exhibition. Each of which, Maze argues, materialized tropes about sustainable development and scenarios of energy futures (e.g. the technological “silver bullet”, the eco-modernist, etc.). In one very interesting example, availability of power was reported as one might expect a weather broadcast. The purpose of which was to explore alternative ways of understanding energy production and consumption in a hypothetical scenario dominated by wind-derived power. Each of the projects’ components were aimed at opening up discussions about the future, inviting participants to interpret and make sense of the unsettling but familiar scenes like this one.

In her article, Maze reflects on this conceptual design work to rethink the way futurity is conceptualized. Essentially asking, how should we think about the future?

  1. The future as outside: Maze argues that there is an ontological structure for time that posits the future as some place or time apart or outside of our own that make possible the dominant conceptions of history and modernity. It is a place that supposedly affords perspective, and a possibility of looking at ourselves from a distance. She also argues that this is a perspective specific to Western societies, driven by a technocratic, predictive-empirical and deterministic variety of future studies.
  2. The future as agency: the unavailability of the future to knowledge is what propels us forward. This perspective sees the future as full of surprises, unknowns, newness and active – it has a kind of agency (arguably in the loosest sense of the term – we can probably thank Latour for that). Maze seems to prefer this kind of conceptualization, claiming that it is one which has a decolonizing power: “the future does not only surrender to our sciences, control, and occupations. To the extent that the future holds surprises, unknowables and, importantly, others or ‘future people’ who will have the capacity to change us, to reframe our present and rewrite history”.

And that’s it, just those two. Which is possibly the most problematic aspect of her whole piece. Maze crudely (in my opinion) fabricates a dichotomy reminiscent of the same logic used by anthropologists in the turn of the “noble savage”. Technocratic western attempts at predicting the future are condemnations of that same future to the qualities (and inequalities) of the present. Conversely, constructing the future as something outside our our ability to measure or expect outcomes from is a liberation of ourselves from a kind of Derridean logocentrism of time.

Her reflections upon her experience, as such, are perhaps more valuable as ethnographic insight in their own right – Maze has actively ordered the ways by which the future can be thought of in a way which privileges its unpredictability and unknowableness as characteristics which liberate us from the structures of power which dominate and order the present. She does so, seemingly, without addressing how one escapes outrightly a structure of power, instead of simply replacing it with another one.

 


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