On Speculative Design | Benjamin H. Bratton
Keywords: benjamin h bratton, postcontemporary, speculative design, time complex
An alternative to mainstream Design
On Speculative Design
Benjamin Bratton on Speculative Design, an alternative to mainstream Design that complicates the speculative models that underscore our global economy. He suggests design solutions based on longer and shorter timescales than regular product lifecycles, and geared toward “users” who may or may not be human. This text is based on a transcription of Bratton’s remarks at the launch of the Speculative Design undergraduate major at the University of California, San Diego, February 10, 2016.
Speculative Design (SD) understands itself as progressive alternative perspective to mainstream Design culture (and as an alternative to other alternatives as well).1 It knows that “Design” is not some magic way of thinking (involving stick-up notes, sharpies and colored beanbags) that just makes things better by “building trust,” “understanding the customer” or “getting a seat at the table” or similar. Design is also the means by which pathological relationships to material culture are made more efficient and more delightful, and we are worse for it. Some may even conclude that the job of Design in the 21st century is to undo (much of) the Design of 20th. It may also be to re-claim and re-launch other frustrated Modern impulses that were dry-docked by century’s end, not only designing things —widgets, withdrawn objects, manifest subjectivities, formal forms, etc.— but also designing the relations between them: systems, supply-chains, encounters, obligations, accounting protocols, and so on.
As an alternative perspective, speculation is not ephemeral or disengaged. The prevalence of models for risk patterns, ideal options, and plotted-outcomes underscores that speculation itself is not a supplemental or marginal process. It is less “airy-fairy” than it is nuts and bolts: whether for commodities and equities futures, automated A/B testing, enterprise reinsurance or weather forecasting, the global economy functions by speculative models of the near or long-term future.2 But if so does this disqualify the speculative from the figuring of fundamental alternatives? It does not. Instead of concluding that the future (and futurism per se) is lost it we should commandeer modeling infrastructures for better and more vibrant purposes. For this, speculative models are rotated from one purpose to another: less to predict what is most likely to happen (deriving value from advance simulation of given outcomes) than to search the space of actual possibility (even and especially beyond what any of us would conceive otherwise.)3 That is, predictive models are adaptive because they need to be descriptive, but for speculation, models are prescriptive because they need to become normative. Between them we track different uses for contingency, imminence, simulation, navigation, resistance, governmentality, universality, neutrality, etc.4 That is where Design becomes designation.5
For obvious reasons it is commonly presumed that there must be an overlap between SD and the more general pursuit of Design Futures, or prototypes from the worlds of tomorrow. Sometimes there are clear alignments, especially for SD projects that address “the future” explicitly as critical subject matter. As I put it elsewhere, in our culture speaking about “the future” is a way of saying things about the present—critical, utopian, projective, pragmatic and/or simply unspeakable things—but too often it is an alibi for saying nothing at all.6 “The future” is that place where skateboards hover and ambient fields of graphical user-interfaces are slightly more elysian; it is a rhetorical sink where half-baked marketing plans usurp the place where actual ideas are supposed to go.
Given this, we may expect a more intellectually and politically rigorous SD to resist—or even eliminate—futurity as a key concept or site condition. Some might insist that it focus instead on the most immediate at-hand frames of spatial and temporal reference, and to deal with coming conditions largely through the hard or soft survivalist aesthetics that ensue. “There is no time, and there is only this place” may be the rationale for this emergency interventionism. Others lament that facts on the ground are out-of-sync with fragmented social history. They hint that until recent times sociological “cognitive maps,” on the one hand, and systemic historical unfolding, on the other, may have been in conflict but at least their common ground felt solid. For this perspective, the answer to the malaise of network culture is to re-glue the scale and tempo of global forces back to the dialectic parameters of social and psychological history.
I argue that these are both insufficient responses, and that a detected derangement of familiar spatial and temporal scales is not only not pathological, but may be a precondition for any properly calibrated Design imaginary. Design, as we know, can adhere to small, medium, large or extra-large spatial scales (a single object, a large architecture, an urbanism or a transcontinental system). It can also be trained on very short- or very long-term durations (now, later, much later, afterwards) suited to instantaneous user response, the next launch cycle, the lifecycle of a city, or a geologic trace). We may presume that large scales and long durations are natural matches, but there is no reason to hold fast to this. Very small-scale spatial projects with very long duration ramifications are as likely as very large-scale spatial projects with instantaneous durations, and so we can imagine a combinatory matrix of spatial and temporal scales for design analysis and intervention. It is not here and now versus there and then.
In such a matrix, each temporal scale has its own version of “the future” and some are more interesting to SD than others. There is a social future, with an attendant duration measured in fashion cycles or communal memory of place; a technical future, with its cycles of product SKU turnover and mechanic evolution; a historical future, with trans-generational undulations of friend and enemy, capture and memorialization; and a geologic future, with ripples and rhythms that span far longer than the genomic coherency of any apex species.7 Any affective sense of order by which each of these futural forms may be felt to be in special harmony (geologic future in sync with social future, historical future in sync with technological future, etc.) is surely not an organic state but a broken sophistic illusion. In other words, it takes a special kind of anthropocentric naiveté to fully entertain the idea that making all design “human scale” would be a long-term solution to anything but the most pedestrian problems.8 The futures that are probably most worth designing are those that exceed human phenomenology’s intuitive scales of anatomically-embedded spatial navigation and the temporalities of organism life span. It is important to mobilize SD on behalf of conditions that are not-yet-existing here and now, and for that we must further shed local social history’s mooring privilege. That shift does not take leave of the concrete materiality of Design, quite the contrary. It is only possible by returning our attention to one point of origin for Design: the actual matter of contemporary materialism.
The contemporary project of Design (inclusive of SD) is situated by new materials and material forms. The emergence of “modern” Design is concurrent with the emergence of the materials, processes and technologies of mass production and distribution: plastics, metals, molding, modeling, printing, stamping, shipping, replicating, stacking, etc. For the Design of what Reyner Banham called “the first machine age,” industrial materials allowed for the inexpensive distribution of standardized designs to a mass society: new matter provided for a new materialism. Chemistry as much as economics (probably not so divisible at the end of the day) would drive the anthropology of this era’s tangible culture. The periodic table of the elements, innovated by Mendeleev and others, would provide an alphabet for the composition of substance and conjugation of form. In turn, as techniques became schools of thought and designed forms became fixed at certain levels of implementation (type and image, shelter, apparatus, transportation, etc.), modern Design (and Design education) would coalesce around corresponding expertise in graphic design, industrial design, interaction design, architectural design and so on.9
Today we confront another gamut of materials that is potentially just as transformative. From biotechnology to the internet of things to artificial intelligence and robotics to networked additive manufacturing and replication, this material palette provides for the recomposition of the world at scales previously unthinkable, turning living tissue into a plastic medium and imbuing inorganic machines and landscapes with new sorts of practical intelligence. The social and ecologic project for SD is not only to master an articulation of these new registers of matter, but also conceive a (real) new Materialism10 that would ratify the organization of society in the image of their still largely-unmapped potentials.
For Design practice, these material systems are of interest to the extent that they allow for the remaking of that world at a more granular level, and for Design theory to the extent that they disenchant and demystify something about our world and our species within that world. As each of these also now occupies some spot on the curve of various hype cycles, from wondertech to everyday appliance, the incantation of their names supposedly signifies futuristic thinking — even when it actually does not. The flowering of their potential for Promethean demystification and refashioning is not automatic; it must be designated. Still, it should go without saying that technological populism and biochemical futurism are not essentially anti-progressive (and for future Wes Andersons, these emerging technologies will also provide for/thematize a pastoral gizmo authentique yet-to-come).
The longer-term development of SD and related initiatives (not just at UC San Diego where I teach, but anywhere) should formulate its professional, theoretical and pedagogic expertise with this contemporary material palette by putting it in contact with other critical experiments and active geopolitical and geoeconomic contexts. At the same time, the translation of new materials into a new program for social and ecological organization may also direct the sometimes overly self-referential Arts and Humanities toward new outward-facing feats of abstraction, imagination and rationalization.
Toward that we should not presume that the initial applications of any of these technologies are those that will define its ultimate range of functions, and indeed, as discussed below, it is the work of SD to probe the contours of that range:
—HAII (Human Artificial Intelligence Interaction design) may illuminate unexpected forms of empathy, intelligence and identity, and not just in the image of human vanity. How will we midwife robotics and synthetic embodiment as they speciate in parallel to and incorporated with existing animal bodies?
—Ubiquitous computation links algorithmic calculation from molecular to landscape scale and seeds communication to and from objects at, below or above a normal human scale of encounter. Urban and continental computational assemblages may flow into our lines of sight, sound and touch or we may be unable to perceive them without sensory augmentation. How do these maps become territories and vice versa?
—Synthetic biology, especially its DIY variants, suggests plots for organic building-blocks re-cast as general purpose programing tools, thus giving biotechnology its overdue garageband phase. Will biology become more computational before computation becomes more biological?
—Epidermal sensors and nanobioelectronics combine and weave natural sensation and machine sensing so thoroughly that we can’t tell which is which, and hinting at skin-based media and designable sensations: toward a molecular gastro-tactility.11 What sort of interface between inside and outside may we wish our skin to provide? What would we do with membranes that communicate, that know, that disclose us to the world in other ways?
—Machine vision is to artificial intelligence what cilia are to protozoa: a sensing and mapping apparatus for incipient machinic abstraction. As I’ve asked, is the real uncanny valley one in which we see ourselves through the eyes of an AI “other” that we may have programmed, but which does not share our aesthetics or motivated interpretations?12
—More at-hand (literally): with more humans having access to a cell phone than to toilets, how for the foreseeable future will the human hand evolve in relation to the modular affordances of that smart slab/ remote control/ homing device/ camera obscura/ cloud tether?
—High-resolution scanning and sensing allows us to perceive properties of physical matter at a scale and precision otherwise inconceivable, making some kinds of metaphysical arguments about objects and ontology instantly moot. How would a textile culture predicated on telescoping and microscoping physical aesthetics affect all of the above —from epidermal media, to synthetic biology, to robotics to what we used to call merely “industrial design”?
—Additive manufacturing, digital fabrication, 4D printing, etc. are then only the most apparent ways in which algorithms re-inaugurate the composability of matter for Design. As it scales to truly global networked fabrication, Design may engage a wholesale remapping of supply-chains, and with them the planetary-scale social relations of material culture more generally.
These make possible (and demand) reformulations of the media and institutions (and spatial and temporal conventions) of those very relations. The quality and scope of political sovereignty is put into play, newly drawn jurisdictional borders are activated, and the polyphony of gender and/or sexual biotechnologies give wider range to the “expression of emotion in man(sic) and animals.” The sluggish churn of autochthonous traditions may be forced to increase pace; modular platforms of everyday urbanism might more extensible (at least as rational as those of the International Space Station). We index the geologic cannibalism of life-as-we-know-it, from plankton blooms to peak oil, and leverage it toward post-Natural food infrastructures. Finally —hopefully— the cognitive crises of globalization(s) (fundamentalisms, nativisms, financial idealisms, etc.) may be folded back on themselves such that something more worthy of the name “civilization” might emerge. And so on.
All that is (deep breath… exhale) not the job of any one program or project or discipline or Design Theory, but together these examples align the contexts in which Design projects project themselves into the foreseeable future. They identify some of the basic media for Art and Design for the next decade, and in order to find out what they are good for, we need hundreds (thousands) of graduates discerning what the new materials can teach us.13
The problematics that they map are already present now, which should underscore why SD —versus a mode of Design that would optimize the status quo, or forms of Critical Design that talk themselves out of making enforceable normative claims—is the most feasible way out and way forward. Again, the ultimate and most lasting value of the new material palette is not (only) in the things we can make with it, but in how it allows/forces us to re-adjudicate fundamental questions about who we are, what we are, where we are, when we are: how we are.
The Project, The Model
The work of Design takes shape in the formulation of the project, a unique rhetorical platform, and through the model, which may describe, idealize or activate the claims of a project. What may give SD some special traction is how it constructs the deliberate (and deliberative) ambivalent provisionality between the model and the project. There are more than a few ways it can do this, and I outline some below.
A project is, as the word suggests, a projection of a potential intervention into a situation defined by a certain spatial and temporal range. The project draws on a model of the situation (such as an analytical simulation) and may also result in a model of proposed intervention (such as an architect’s model of the built form). Exactly how a model serves as a descriptive or prescriptive simulation may already determine how the project will frame the spatial or temporal terms of its intervention. That is, the project will argue that its breadth of intervention corresponds in some precise way to the breadth of that in which it intervenes. We may have descriptive models, such as diagrams that summarize complex events and relations into synthetic images, foregrounding the most relevant patterns, we hope. Or instead of those retroactive models, we may instead have realtime simulations of those events and processes that provide an indexical dashboard of their status. Or we may have instrumental diagrams that not only model those events and relations, but which when manipulated by a designer or user, also directly affect them. Graphical user interfaces are an example of this sort of model. Indeed, the history of Design is not only one in which new technologies allow for new forms to be made, but one in which new technologies allow for new kinds of models about what is to be made. These include “Big Data” and similar ways that we automate live models of patterns we could not otherwise deduce.
The modern era of Design innovated models not only for understanding systems but also for understanding the users of those systems. From the ancestral Vitruvian Man to Henry Dreyfuss’s “Joe and Josephine” millions of use-case personas have stood in for larger consumer publics in the specification of designed solutions to standardized psychological requirements. Beyond ergonomic requirements,Cognitive Science-influenced Design would also reconstruct the mental models with which users understand and interact with complex designed systems. One of the chief epistemological and methodological complexities of Design models is how easily one kind of model (descriptive, diagrammatic, diagnostic, normative) can be transposed into the purposes of another (projective, instrumental, managerial, aspirational). This is no less true for data-driven Economic models than it is for concept-driven Speculative models, though the latter may have a more resilient tolerance for the ambiguities that those shifts introduce.14
In relation to such models (and models of models), the agency of the project within SD (and especially within SD education) deserves careful attention, and so the remainder of my remarks will hopefully provide some useful points for further debate.
1. The Prototype and the Prefigurative
Bruce Sterling’s working definition of “Design Fiction” as “the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change” remains a serviceable one for SD, but is also (true to his point) an incomplete assignment. What comes after the suspension, and what homology is there between the prototype and the change? The less certain the link the better the insight, as it may turn out. The impetus to provoke disenchantment with the commonsensical is well-advised. But at the same time, we should be cautious that Design in this vein does not lapse into a merely “prefigurative” material politics, whereby its function becomes to offer up fetishistic ideal forms of some community-to-come, and for which the purification of means pre-occupies and delays the enforcement of its ends.15The relation that different SD practices may have to “the real,” and to enchantment or disenchantment as a strategy, can be quite varied but across that spectrum there is an allegiance to keeping the correspondence between the prototype and the outcome, the cause and effect, an open and winding path—not a straight line. Sometimes you build a kite and it evolves into 4Chan.16
2. Prometheus is Late for an Appointment with the Killer Apes
The material palette/ emerging technologies cited above are “emerging” faster than are our theoretical and conceptual frameworks can orient them and be oriented by them. While such anomie is probably par for all modernities, our problem is not just with things like nanotechnology and global migration flows. It is also with simple things like sugar, and how our hunter-gatherer propensity for glucose, sucrose and fructose and our sentimental neo-Creationist ideas about food, have built the chemical supply-chain of cuisine as a diabetes megastructure. A cup of demystification beats a pound of remediation.
Our current thinking is what makes these technologies possible and is what prevents them from fully reaching their capacities for meaningful innovation.17 Accordingly, maximizing institutional investment in engineering capacity while minimizing investment in the conceptual and critical capacity that would sustain implementation is an irrational policy. Universities take heed: the efficient, illuminated path is to balance means and vision. Sustained and diverse investment in conceptually-courageous, culturally-informed, norm-making Design, Art and Humanities is necessary to realize the social value of investments in emerging technology. That said, it is also true that sometimes romantic and reactionary posturing (and general technical ignorance) in some such discourses and departments (present company excluded of course!) makes a course correction more difficult than it should be.
3. Discovery over Optimization
As said, for Design practice emerging technologies are interesting to the extent that they allow for the remaking of the world at a more granular level, and, especially in a research university, emerging technologies are interesting to Design theory to the extent that they demystify and disclose something about our world and our species (and others) within it. That is, our contemplation and configuration of possible uses not only provides new means to do what we already understand must be done, but also may de-authorize our secular superstitions about who should do what with whom. That can mean different things to different people, and so much the better.
4. Stem Cell as Pharmakon
Any sufficiently powerful/ efficacious technology is simultaneously both good and bad (not or: and). So, pick your metaphor, Greek or germline. Emerging technologies are Pharmakoi: they are remedies and poisons. Any plan for them, or commentary on them, that evangelizes their positive or negative potential without articulating the inverse is incomplete and/or dishonest. Or if you like, emerging technologies are like stem cells; they could become this or they could become that, and which it will be is undecided but still decidable. Again, it is unwise to announce that their early manifestations (good or bad) represent their essential character and potential. We simply don’t know what they are good for yet, and so the search space of possibilities must be kept open for as long as possible (see above on balanced investment in means and conceptualization).
5. Art/ Design Can do Things that Science Can’t and/or is Not Allowed to Do
Even in the same research institution, sometimes the research that an Artist or Designer conducts may be essentially the same as what a Scientist may attempt, but one experiment can happen and the other cannot. The disciplinary permissions are different, and so the arbitrage of leeway is a space for ideation and discovery.18
Examples from the 1990’s heyday Bio-Art are plentiful, but also consider the 2002 re-staging of Milgram’s Obedience to Authority Experiment by Rod Dickinson in Glasgow’s CCA Gallery, and the likelihood that any Human Test Subjects research review committee would approve any new follow-on studies by the Psychology faculty. Recently, I heard Jacob Applebaum discussing the Autonomy Cube, a collaboration with Trevor Paglen, and its installation in various Art galleries and museums, where this Tor meta-object, anonymizing invisible data packets in our immediate midst, drew the scorn of local security officials. Outside the gallery, the device may have been confiscated or otherwise intercepted, but inside the gallery—where mimesis takes precedence— the sculpture is granted a kind of asylum and immunity from prosecution. Karolina Sobecka builds cloud-making and –tracking machines, collaborating informally and unofficially with climate researchers at Scripps Institute of Oceanography here at U.C. San Diego. There are now both hard and soft moratoria on experimental geoengineering research by scientists, but her projects are possible if conducted as “only” Art. SD is a zone where the tactical exceptions to norms can be granted and where, thereby, new norms are prototyped with some impunity.
6. The Best Worst/ Worst Best Thing You Can Think Of
For students, particularly younger and inexperienced students, the conventions of mainstream Design culture are sometimes an obstacle to the formulation of original research and a provocative project. Unworkable pitches for TechCrunch (“It’s Tinder meets AirBnB for Oculus Rift”) or an idealistic non-profit (“biofuel-powered hackathons for mindfulness”) are the default idioms.
I counsel students that their projects should seek to span two balances. For the first, we are uncertain whether the project is “real” (did it happen, is it really being proposed to happen, are these prototypes functional, are those images composites, etc.?) It may be clear to us, the viewers/respondents/users of the work, that this uncertainty is deliberate and that our interpretation depends on thinking it through. Ideally, if as we examine the work more carefully we are yet even less sure how “real” the work is (even unsure of the designer’s own intentions), then it is possible that instructive fault-lines between common sense and emergent reason can be discerned.19
The second balance to be pursued is not ontological, but ethical and programmatic. If we are taken aback by the strength of the design proposal, and are certain that should this project be realized it would have dramatic, significant effect, but are also uncertain whether doing so would be the best thing or the worst thing in the world (and more unsure the more we consider the project), then it is more likely that there are original and serious insights be gleaned from the research.
Ambiguity, abstraction and ambivalence are signals of successful Design Research, and the best SD projects position us between pro and con interpretations: is this ethical and/or unethical, is this remedy and/or poison? If we already know that such thing would be one or the other, then the project may not suggest an interesting direction for ongoing experimentation. We know the outcome in advance. This is not to say that Design practice as a whole should not solve clear problems in clever ways (we are thankful for usable tools and interfaces that match doxic mental models and for the effects of scale that they provide), but the SD research program has a specific interest and allegiance to ambiguity not just as a means but as an end in and of itself.
7. 10,000 Year Site Conditions
Among my favorite well-known SD briefs was one written by the United States Department of Energy’s Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management’s Yucca Mountain Project (YMP). Proposals were solicited for a signage system that would warn-off curious future excavations from accidentally unearthing radioactive nuclear waste to be buried there in the desert. “Engineers, archaeologists, anthropologists, and linguists [were convened] to design effective warning structures capable of lasting 10,000 years … Using archeological sites as ‘historical analogues.’”20
The brief is interesting for how it simultaneously demands both open speculation as to who/what would be reading the proposed semiotics and for how strongly the answers must be tethered to the very real dangers. The temporal scale of the proposed intervention (over 130 average human generations) is what demands super-speculative hyper-utilitarianism. It invites proposals that are genuinely uncanny because they are absolutely functional.
I believe that we would be better served by similar briefs for other design problems. If we were to use 10,000 years to situate the successful design of other important domains (multigenerational housing, sovereign geographies, gender hacks, human-artificial intelligence interaction, transnational urbanism, egalitarian synthetic biology, or interspecies communication, etc.), I am confident that the design solutions (for us to grow into over time) would be both more imaginative and more functional than those prepared for yearly, decadal or average human organism lifespan durations.
Furthermore, considering our interest in developing pedagogies that impart a more accurate understanding of where and when we actually are—based, one hopes, on geological time and astrophysical place—then a pedagogy of “long circuits” would not just be one in which the speed of information technology is slowed to the pace of phenomenal contemplation (per Bernard Stiegler) but rather one in which technical contemplation-composition is extended to the actual duration of its chemical and ecological reverberations.21
To conclude: What is called “human-centered design” (sometimes interchangeable with “User-Centered Design”) is not only not the solution, it is quite often the problem. Insofar they both de-center and de-privilege the human within their scenarios, there are points of alignment between the impulses of SD (as I’ve described it) and some of the formulas of Speculative Realism (but not others).22 The interest, to be clear, is not to eliminate (or to claim to eliminate) human sentience, sapience and affect from these rich dramas, but to conceptualize the world and to compose with it according to models that locate human specificity in a more deliberately dispassionate position. The designable transformation of our position then becomes that much more accessible.23 That is, one lesson we should take from the Anthropocenic predicament is that Anthropocentrism —that the world is notionally here for us— finds justification in forms of Humanism for which the human experience of human experience (of the world or of just itself) offers more profound truths than a materialism for which we are but one (albeit lovely) genre of sentient matter.
Recently, I spoke with a colleague in the Art world involved in an ongoing project on theorizing the Anthropocene and was a bit alarmed by how much the inverse conclusion was taken for granted. In short, he repeated to me the thesis, as if obvious, that the root cause of this ethical-ecological malaise is opaque, mystical planetary hyperobjects and withdrawn, conspiratorial hyperprocesses, and therefore the work of political Art and Design is to re-render these sprawling systems at a phenomenologically-intuitive human scale.24 The purpose of doing so, he said, is not only so that people can understand them in regular terms but so that their abominably inhuman scope can be reformed: we can “heal” the Anthropocenic predicament by de-scaling its unnatural complexities back to a graspable, proximate organic norm. This approach is symmetrically opposite of what is to be done. With briefs like the Yucca Mountain signage in mind, we can say if SD can help to outline uncannily practical paths out of the Anthropocene, it is absolutely not because vast, impersonal temporal and spatial scales of global systems are brought to heel and drawn down to intuitive neurological and emotional comfort-zones. To think and design in other ways and at other scales is not only theoretically more defensible; it is now a practical necessity. The weaving of long circuits should head in the opposite direction: Design scaled to the scope of the real, not reality downsampled toward the digestible.